ECOWAS and Mali: Numbers Matter, But Also Pride

On June 4, heads of state from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) convened for an extraordinary summit to consider options for handling the recalcitrant military juntas in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, all of which refuse to obey ECOWAS’ dictates on timetables for returning to civilian rule. Tensions are most severe between ECOWAS and the Malian junta, the first of the three military regimes to come to power (Mali, August 2020; Guinea, September 2021; Burkina Faso, January 2022). The negotiations between ECOWAS and Mali hit a low point in December 2021/January 2022, when the junta finally and blatantly scrapped the initial 18-month transition timetable (which would have ended in February 2022) and floated alternative timelines ranging up to five additional years. ECOWAS imposed severe sanctions in response. ECOWAS’ summit on June 4 of this year yielded no major result except a decision to maintain the sanctions and defer further decisions until ECOWAS’ next ordinary summit on July 3.

On June 6, the Malian junta issued a decree announcing a two-year extension of the transition, dating from March 26, 2022:

The announcement appears to have been unilateral, and ECOWAS rejected the new timeline proposal:

What does ECOWAS want? Two basic things, I think: a relatively short timeline, and to save some face. So while ECOWAS might consider a two-year timeline, reportedly the optics of Mali’s junta simply decreeing that timeline rubbed ECOWAS the wrong way. Two years is also, at least by my vague sense, the upper bound of what ECOWAS could accept, and they might not even be able to stomach two years on top of an already-lapsed eighteen months. Twelve months, fourteen months, sixteen months…all of those lengths seem to be acceptable in ECOWAS’ eyes. The numbers are really not that different at this point, then, but to seal a deal it seems ECOWAS and the junta would have to find a way to keep pride on both sides. And to be fair, I don’t think that’s just ego on ECOWAS’ side – they are also obviously very concerned about what messages the Guinean and Burkinabè juntas will take from this whole saga between ECOWAS and Mali.

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