Malians took to the streets in thousands on Friday, AFP correspondents saw, after the military junta called for protests against severe sanctions imposed by the West African bloc ECOWAS due to delayed elections.
In the capital Bamako, thousands of people dressed in the national colors of red, yellow and green gathered in a central square for a demonstration organized by the military government.
A large crowd also gathered in the northern city of Timbuktu, AFP correspondents reported. Social media also showed mass demonstrations in the cities of Kadiolo and Bougouni in the south.
Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed to sanction Mali last week, impose a trade embargo and close borders, in a decision later backed by France, the United States and the European Union.
The move followed a proposal by Mali’s junta to remain in power for up to five years before the election – despite international demands to respect a promise to hold the vote in February.
The junta considered the sanctions “extreme” and “inhumane” and called for demonstrations.
Colonel Assimi Goita, who first seized power in a coup in August 2020, has also called on Malays to “defend our homeland”.
On Friday, his office said the interim government had developed a “response plan” to the potentially devastating sanctions, without specifying details.
It added that the government remained open to dialogue with regional institutions and did not intend to engage in “arm wrestling”.
In addition to closing borders and imposing a trade embargo, ECOWAS leaders also stopped financial aid to Mali and froze the country’s assets at the Central Bank of West African states.
The sanctions threaten to damage an already vulnerable economy in landlocked Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries.
A brutal jihadist uprising has also raged in Mali since 2012, with parts of the large country’s territory beyond government control.
Mali is already beginning to feel the effects of the sanctions. Several airlines, including Air France, have canceled flights to Bamako.
The country is also at risk of cash shortages. Kako Nubukpo, a commissioner at the West African Economic and Monetary Union, said it was “cut off from the rest of the world”.
France, Mali’s former colonial masters and the United States have both expressed support for ECOWAS sanctions.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrel said on Thursday that Brussels will follow ECOWAS in taking action against Mali due to delayed elections.
On the same day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it was “absolutely essential that the Malian government presents an acceptable election schedule”.
Despite international pressure, many in Mali have rallied behind the military junta, with nationalist messages flooding social media.
Mali’s relations with its neighbors and partners have steadily deteriorated since a coup led by Goita in August 2020 against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Under threat of sanctions following that onslaught, Goita had promised to hold presidential and parliamentary elections and to restore civilian rule by February 2022.
But he carried out a de facto second coup in May 2021, forcing away a temporary civilian government and disrupting the timetable for restoring democracy.
Goita also proclaimed himself interim president.
His government has claimed that the rampant insecurity in Mali is preventing it from organizing safe elections at the end of February.