West African leaders on Sunday backed tough new sanctions against Mali, including border closures and a trade embargo, saying the military regime’s delays in returning to civilian rule were “totally unacceptable.”

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States have also agreed to cut financial aid and freeze Mali’s assets at the Central Bank of West African States, according to a statement. final.

And the bloc will recall the ambassadors of its member states to Mali, the leaders decided at an extraordinary meeting behind closed doors in Ghana.

The proposal by Malian military leaders to hold elections in December 2026 “simply means that an illegitimate transitional military government will take the Malian people hostage over the next five years,” ECOWAS said.

The meeting follows months of growing tension over the timetable for restoring civilian rule in Mali after two coups and a military takeover.

In August 2020, army officers led by Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita amid street protests against his unpopular regime.

Under threat of sanctions, Goita pledged to restore civilian rule in February 2022 after presidential and legislative elections were held.

But he staged a second coup in May 2021, forcing an interim civilian government, disrupting the reform agenda and drawing widespread diplomatic condemnation.

ECOWAS insisted that Mali hold elections in February.

But the junta then said it would set an election date only after a national conference was held, arguing that a peaceful vote was more important than speed.

– ‘It’s a joke ‘
On December 30, after the reform conference in Mali ended, the government suggested a transition period of six months to five years, starting January 1 of this year.

But ECOWAS mediator Goodluck Jonathan called on the regime to revise the plan during a visit last week, Mali’s foreign minister said.

On Saturday, the junta submitted a new timetable proposal, Malian state television reported.

This decision was aimed “at maintaining dialogue and good cooperation with ECOWAS,” Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said, without giving details.

“Mali’s counter-proposal is for a four-year transition,” said a senior official from Ghana, who holds the presidency of ECOWAS. “It’s a joke.”

The 15-nation bloc pushed the former French colony to honor its pledge to hold elections early this year.

Pressure from the bloc to ensure a return to civilian rule has put its credibility on the line as it seeks to defend fundamental principles of governance and contain regional instability.

– ‘Concern ‘throughout the region
Sections of Mali are escaping state control, as the government struggles to quell a jihadist insurgency that has raged since 2012.

At a summit on December 12, ECOWAS leaders reiterated their demands that elections be held by February 27 as originally scheduled.

They maintained sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans in the ECOWAS region against around 150 junta figures and their families, and threatened further “economic and financial” measures.

“The extension of the transition period to five years raises concerns throughout the West African region,” said the current president of the eight-member union, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, president of Burkina Faso, during this meeting. previous meeting.

Sanctions have proven to be effective in the past. ECOWAS responded to Goita’s first coup in 2020 by closing Mali’s borders, imposing trade restrictions and suspending the vast nation of 19 million people from its decision-making bodies.

The Malian army set up a civilian-led government in response and pledged to hold elections, leading to the lifting of previous economic sanctions, although Mali remains suspended from the bloc’s main organs.

ECOWAS did not impose sanctions immediately after the second putsch, but opted in November for targeted measures against individual members of the junta due to perceived delays in preparations for the elections.

Analysts say regional leaders must take into account the risks of pitting Malians against ECOWAS.