The West African state of Mali has become the subject of new sanctions, imposed by neighboring countries in a bid to accelerate its delayed election timetable and return Mali to constitutional order.
The 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed to sustain its ongoing sanctions regime and imposed new measures, after judging Mali’s transitional authorities’ proposed timeline for presidential elections — the end of 2025 — to be unacceptable.
A special representative for the group told the UN Security Council that measures will be reviewed and gradually lifted as an acceptable timetable for elections is finalized and implemented.
Sanctions restrictions now include:
- Suspension of all commercial and financial transactions between ECOWAS member states and Mali
- The freezing of state assets in ECOWAS central and commercial banks
- Suspension of financial assistance and transactions with all financial institutions, including the ECOWAS Bank for Investment and Development (EBID)
- Closure of land and air borders between ECOWAS countries and Mali
- Recall of ECOWAS ambassadors
A communique from ECOWAS highlighted sanctions exemptions including food products; pharmaceuticals; medical supplies and equipment, including materials for the control of Covid-19; petroleum products and electricity.
ECOWAS has called on the African Union, the United Nations and other partners to support the enforcement of these sanctions, inviting neighboring countries which are not members of ECOWAS, particularly Algeria and Mauritania, to also support their implementation.
Aljazeera reports that in response to the new sanctions, regional monetary union UEMOA has told all financial institutions under its authority to suspend relations with Mali immediately, severing access to regional financial markets.
Local airlines, including Ivory Coast’s national carrier Air Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso’s Air Burkina, have also suspended flights to the Malian capital Bamako, and Air France has halted flights to Mali “because of security risks”.
Mali’s transitional government says it: “deplores the inhuman nature of these measures which affect populations already severely affected by the security crisis and the health crisis”.
In response, Mali has announced a recall of its ambassadors and closure of borders with ECOWAS member states, raising fears of further “tit for tat” measures to come.
European Response to Sanctions
The ECOWAS measures follow increased tension over the restoration of constitutional rule in Mali after two coups and a military takeover.
In August 2020 army officers led by Colonel Assimi Goita ousted elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Goita promised to restore civilian rule in February 2022 after holding presidential and legislative elections. But his second coup in May 2021 forced out an interim civilian government and disrupted the timetable for reform.
France’s close ties with its former colony have already been impacted by the new measures. In an interview with FRANCE 24, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said Mali has publicly asked France for a review of its bilateral defense pact, originally signed in 2013.
The pact gives French forces the legal right to facilitate interventions on Malian soil. It was last reviewed in 2020 with the launch of the Takuba Task Force, composed mostly of special forces units from several European Union (EU) nations.
It is estimated that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has around 13,000 troops in the north and center of the country. Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State are reported to carry out regular attacks. In 2021, MINUSMA experienced its highest number of casualties since 2013, following attacks targeting convoys, camps and temporary operating bases – 28 peacekeepers died.
Peacekeeping flights have also been “temporarily suspended” in light of the new sanctions.
Wagner Group Involvement in Mali
A French UN representative told the Security Council that Mali’s transitional authority was using public funds to pay foreign mercenaries, such as the Russian-backed Wagner Group, which was recently sanctioned by the EU for human rights abuses. In welcoming the new measures, the US State Department also noted concern over the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries.
“The presence of mercenaries from the Wagner Group is now confirmed by several sources. We understand that, so far, several hundreds of mercenaries are deployed in Bamako and in the center of the country,” an EU spokesperson told media outlet EUobserver.
It reports that EU countries are preparing to blacklist Malian individuals and entities linked to the junta, along with wider sanctions to “align” with ECOWAS.
What Does This Mean for Compliance Teams?
Along with a heightened awareness of new risks created by these sanctions and the countries involved, firms should be aware that countries like Algeria and Mauritania, which are not members of ECOWAS, may choose to support the implementation of these new measures. Enhanced due diligence around transactions and customer screening for customers in countries bordering Mali or in countries with substantial trade relations with Mali may be required.
ECOWAS is also working to align its sanctions measures with those applied by the EU and US government, meaning that additional measures from other international bodies and regulators could come soon. The suspension of Air France flights on security grounds also highlights the increased terrorist financing risks in Mali, which firms should be mindful of.
In addition, Mali is one of Africa’s biggest gold producers, and while it appears these sanctions will not affect the country’s gold sector, compliance teams should be monitoring carefully for any transactions involving this already high risk commodity.
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Originally published January 20, 2022, updated May 6, 2022
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