On January 14, tens of thousands of people gathered in Bamako and other cities around Mali to protest against severe sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Waving Malian flags, the demonstrators were responding to a call from the government to ‘defend’ their country amid rising tensions with former colonial power France.
Following military coups in August 2020 and May 2021, ECOWAS leaders remain unsatisfied with supposed delays in restoring civilian rule. As such, leaders of ECOWAS states have decided to close their borders with Mali and suspend all trade and financial transactions (except for basic necessities). Also on the list of coercive measures is the freezing of Mali’s assets in all commercial banks in the sub-region, as well as at the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). The BCEAO is the central bank of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) which gathers eight countries, including Mali, and which uses the currency CFA franc.
In concrete terms, this means that Mali is cut off from its domestic financial system, heightening an already serious security crisis initiated by the return of Tuareg fighters who fled Libya after Franco-British intervention in 2011. These unprecedented sanctions ‘could have a devastating impact on the country, where one in three people are already dependent on humanitarian aid’, a group of NGOs alerted. The embargo has also had catastrophic effects for Senegal, whose economy relies heavily on exports to neighbouring Mali.
Following a national conference, military leaders, led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, proposed extending the country’s transition period by five years, saying it needed time to implement the necessary political and institutional reforms and to reclaim the territories controlled by Islamist groups. Elections had initially been scheduled for February 2022.
In response to sanctions, demonstrators chanted slogans against the leaders of other ECOWAS countries, whom they accused of being out of touch with the people. They also strongly criticised France. ‘We don’t want France, nor ECOWAS,’ proclaimed a huge sign in the middle of the Bamako demonstration. Many Malians, including Prime Minister Choguel Maïga, suspect that France is behind the sanctions and accuse the French government of hiding behind ECOWAS to settle its accounts with the Malian authorities. On 31 January, after French officials made what were perceived to be derogatory comments about transitional authorities, the French ambassador was given 72 hours to leave the country. This expulsion caps off months of extremely tense relations between the two countries.
On one side, Malians note that the thousands of French troops who have flooded the country to ‘fight terrorism’ have not actually improved security. On the contrary, violence against civilians is increasing. Malians find it hard to believe that France, which regularly makes decisions that directly affect them without consultation, is only present on the territory because of security concerns.
In reality, France is defending its own geopolitical interests, which it demonstrated in recent months when it unilaterally relocated troops elsewhere in the Sahel to reduce its presence in the north of the country. The French military has a history of alliances with separatist armed groups and even allowed some of them to take control of the town of Kidal in 2013, while prohibiting the Malian army and the Malian state from regaining control of it for several years, without explanation.
Meanwhile France is frustrated that it does not have control over the transitional authorities and is vocalising this criticism. The former colonial power has been clear about not wanting Mali to diversify its international partners, including building closer relations with Russia which it has been doing for several months. The Malian authorities recently signed a military cooperation agreement which meant Russian soldiers were deployed to the North of the country, where French soldiers once stood.
This would not be the first time that France is using African regional institutions to push through its policies. In 2010-11, it instrumentalised the institutions of the CFA franc, including the BCEAO (which is placed under the supervision of the French Ministry of Finance), to organise the financial asphyxiation of the Ivory Coast during the post-election crisis between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. Then French president Nicolas Sarkozy was supporting Ouattara, who was seen as a much more reliable partner for France. To force Gbagbo, the elected president, out of office, France and the BCEAO blocked the Ivorian government’s access to its BCEAO accounts, as well as the country’s financial transactions with the outside world.
These operations showed that the CFA system is a repressive tool used by France to direct the political trajectory of the CFA countries according to its interests. It should be noted that the CFA franc, which is used by the WAEMU countries and six Central African countries, allows France to buy African raw materials in its own currency, thus avoiding the need to use its foreign exchange reserves. It gives French companies access to important products and stable markets. By contrast, the CFA franc, which is pegged to the euro, brings many disadvantages for countries using it and constitutes a major hindrance for their development.
This destructive dynamic has been in place since the 1960s when many of France’s former colonies obtained their independence. At that time, France forced them to sign ‘cooperation agreements’, which obliged them to continue to use the CFA franc and, for some of them, to host French military bases. Thus France succeeded in maintaining its colonial monetary empire, unlike the other former colonial powers.
Today, this anachronistic policy is no longer tolerated, as shown by the Malian demonstrations as well as the increasing number of denunciations by intellectuals, political leaders and social movements in French-speaking African countries over recent years. Activists in Senegal have formed the Front for a Popular and Pan-African Anti-Imperialist Revolution, and launched the France Get Out! campaign to demand the withdrawal of France from the management of the CFA franc and the abolition of its legal and administrative control over the currency. Rather than committing to the demands of the people, the French officials prefer to accuse the dissenting voice- which include the Malian authorities- of falling into ‘populism’ and surfing on the wave of ‘anti-French sentiment’.
Perhaps we have reached a turning point in Africa’s relations with France, especially in light of growing competition with China or Russia. In any case, the sanctions against Mali are so disproportionate that they have had the opposite effect of what was intended: they have intensified criticism of France’s presence in Mali and legitimised the Malian authorities.
Fanny Pigeaud is an independent journalist and co-author of Africa’s last colonial currency, the CFA Franc story
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