By Paul Ejime
The Mali junta would seem to have won Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe to its side, thereby threatening the ECOWAS solidarity, and further compounding the regional bloc’s faltering attempts to ensure early return to constitutional order in three of its military-governed member states.
Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop and his Togolese counterpart, Robert Dussey, announced in Lomé last week, after two days of talks that President Faure Gnassingbe has agreed “to facilitate dialogue with international and regional institutions in order to sort out the Malian crisis.”
Col. Assimi Goita and his army colleagues staged a coup that toppled Mali’s elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020. Goita masterminded a second putsch in May 2021 against the interim government in which he was a vice president, and has reneged on his pledge to organise elections last February for hand over to civilians.
In response to the junta’s decision to delay the political transition by three years, ECOWAS on 9th January 2022, imposed sweeping sanctions against Mali.
While some analysts consider the punishing sanctions as high handed, with a West African Economic and Monetary Union, UEMOA court dismissing some of the measures as illegal, the Mali junta has persisted in its uncompromising stance.
Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the ECOWAS officially designated Mediator on the Mali crisis has untaken more than half a dozen mediation missions to Bamako with little progress.
Goita shunned an invitation to attend an ECOWAS summit in March and his government has instead, announced a 24-month revised transition timetable.
The military juntas in Guinea and Burkina Faso have not only followed Mali’s example in toppling elected governments, but are also similarly delaying political transitions in both countries. The Guinea junta has announced a 36-month timetable, while their counterparts in Burkina Faso have unveiled a 39-month programme.
ECOWAS has suspended the three countries from its fold, but the juntas in Guinea and Burkina Faso have refused to apply the regional sanctions against Mali.
Togo’s alignment with the Bamako junta, which could be interpreted as breaking the ECOWAS ranks, is not surprising. Lomé has maintained a flexible position toward the Malian military in power, by refusing to impose heavy sanctions.
It is also instructive to note that Faure Gnassingbé assumed power in controversial circumstances, described as a military coup by critics following the sudden death of his authoritarian father President Gnassingbé Eyadéma in February 2005. After weeks of domestic protests and international condemnation, he stepped down and a presidential election was held in April, in which he claimed victory. The opposition rejected results of that poll, resulting in more violent street protests, but the young Eyadéma has since won re-elections and consolidated his hold on power.
He reportedly visited Bamako secretly in January for talks with the Mali junta officials.
Malian Foreign Minister Diop said after the Lomé meeting last week, that his country urged President Gnassingbe to use his “good offices missions to mobilize again,” actors such as ECOWAS, “whose essential aim remains the organization of free, transparent and credible elections and the return to constitutional order.”
His Togolese opposite number Dussey, tweeted that Togolese government “is ready to accompany Mali at the political and security levels with a view to restoring constitutional order, peace, stability and the integrity of its territory. For Togo, only a permanent and constructive dialogue with the Malian transitional authorities will create the conditions for a rapid return to constitutional order and an effective fight against terrorism,” he added.
Togo has been part of a dialogue group facilitating international negotiations on Mali since February, but the manner of Lomé’s acceptance to interface between Mali and the international and regional institutions without apparent reference to ECOWAS or its designated mediator, suggests a lack or disintegration of coordination.
This could reinforce the position of critics who accuse the regional organisation of inconsistency and lacking in effective strategy and leadership in dealing with the military juntas in three of its member states. Or could this be part of a secret move by ECOWAS, France, the former colonial in Mali and the Bamako junta, “to patch up differences?”
The Goita regime has not covered itself in glory on the transition programme.
His colleagues in Guinea and Burkina Faso are not doing any better, but have attracted less severe sanctions from ECOWAS.
French President Emmanuel Macron claimed in a recent statement that he was instrumental to the imposition of stifling sanctions on Mali following his discussions with ECOWAS leaders.
The ECOWAS leadership has not disputed that claim, which only reinforces the unravelling diplomatic relations between Bamako and Paris.
France has never hidden its opposition to the defence cooperation agreement between Mali and Russia’s Private Wagner group, now supporting the Malian military in dealing with insecurity in the country. This was after France and the U.S. had announced their decision to end military support and cooperation with Mali.
Consequently, the French Barkhane forces, stationed in Mali have been moved to neighbouring Niger, while the Goita-led junta has expelled the French ambassador from Mali and also severed Mali’s 2014 defence accord with France, accusing French troops of “flagrant violations of its national sovereignty.”
With growing anti-French sentiments in Mali and some other Francophone African countries, recently re-elected president Macron has his job cut out for him on the inevitable recalibration of the France-Africa relations, to address the corrosive mutual mistrust.
Meanwhile, apart from their severe impacts on the Mali economy, the ECOWAS sanctions are also adversely affecting neighbouring states, such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire.
Instead of seeking to manipulate or out-maneuverer ECOWAS, the Malian junta must demonstrate sincerity, good faith and responsiveness to positive interventions and genuine commitment to the restoration of constitutional order within a reasonable timeline in the country.
ECOWAS, for its part, should not allow its member States or external forces to divide its ranks. It must demonstrate clear vision, independent minded leadership, cohesion and sincerity in negotiations, consistency in decisions and actions towards finding lasting solutions to military incursions in politics and regression of democracy in the region.
With regional integration as its overarching mandate, ECOWAS has an abiding duty to redouble collective and unified efforts for sustainable peace, security, political stability and democratic consolidation, or lose its relevance.
*Paul Ejime is a Global Affairs Analyst and an Independent Consultant on Corporate Strategic Communication, Media, Peace & Security, and Elections