On January 6, Mali’s transitional President Assimi Goita pardoned forty-nine soldiers from Cote d’Ivoire. The soldiers, part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission called MINUSMA, had been arrested in July, after seemingly paranoid (or perhaps opportunistic) Malian authorities dubbed them mercenaries. The pardon ends this particular episode, but lasting damage has been done to MINUSMA and to Mali’s relations with its civilian-led neighbors – all outcomes that Goita and his insular junta appear to welcome, given their domestic political posturing as defenders of Malian sovereignty.
The junta has either welcomed or acceded to the collapse of various international security architectures in Mali, including the withdrawal of France’s Operation Barkhane and the suspension of the European Union Training Mission in Mali. In keeping with this wider trend, the arrest of the Ivoirian soldiers became one accelerant of MINUSMA’s ongoing disintegration – in the months after the arrest, Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, the United Kingdom, and Germany all announced suspensions or early withdrawals of their contingents. Mali’s detention of the Ivoirian soldiers, in other words, was one among various incidents that reinforced the image of the transitional authorities as capricious and difficult.
Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) negotiated over the soldiers’ fate during the latter half of 2022, but on December 30, a Malian court sentenced forty-six soldiers to twenty years in prison (three female soldiers had been freed in September). ECOWAS had threatened to sanction Mali once more if the other soldiers were not released, but a January 1 deadline passed without action. The visit of Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé to Bamako on January 4 finally broke the deadlock.
With the soldiers back home, there is no clear winner except perhaps for Gnassingbé, who remains one of the Malian junta’s few real friends in West Africa. Gnassingbé has been acting as a mediator between ECOWAS and the Malian authorities (whose conflicts go well beyond the issue of the soldiers), and has forged a closer relationship with the latter than has ECOWAS’ official mediator for Mali, former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. Gnassingbé and his longtime foreign minister, Robert Dussey, have taken a very soft approach with the Malian junta. Gnassingbé and Dussey have even been accused of undermining ECOWAS’ sanctions against Mali by engaging the junta in early 2022, and Gnassingbé was a key advocate for the lifting of sanctions in July 2022. Gnassingbé is, for context, no stickler for democratic norms in West Africa, having taken power in a messy, disputed process following his father’s death in 2005. Gnassingbe’s soft approach to Mali has put him at odds with peers such as Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum, as well as with Cote d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara, although few West African leaders can claim a blemish-free record on democracy.
Ivoirian authorities are publicly conciliatory, seeming to want just to move on. Meanwhile, the Malian authorities appear not to have achieved one of their key goals – using the soldiers as “hostages” to trade in exchange for exiled Malian politicians such as former Prime Minister Boubou Cissé or Karim Keïta, son of overthrown (and now late) President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. At the rhetorical level, the Malian authorities took the release of the soldiers as an opportunity to once again lash out at ECOWAS, condemning the past sanctions as “illegal, illegitimate, and inhuman” and averring that Mali “no longer figures on the list of countries that can be intimidated.” The standoff thus ended in a stalemate; as with the struggle between ECOWAS and the junta over an electoral timetable, the junta did eventually give ground, but only after taking pains to show that it defied ECOWAS’ authority.
The Malian authorities have entered 2023 without achieving major leverage through their arrest of the soldiers, but without facing real punishment either. Supposedly, 2023 is a time for the junta and its civilian partners to prepare for the transition in 2024. But the junta’s obstinacy over the detained soldiers is just one indication that more struggles may loom between ECOWAS and Mali as the transition’s expiration date draws near.