Conflict Alerts # 579, 12 January 2023
In the news
On 6 January, Mali’s president Assimi Goïta pardoned 49 Ivorian soldiers who had been arrested in July 2022 for allegedly being mercenaries. The military government’s spokesperson said Goïta’s pardon “demonstrates once again his commitment to peace, dialogue, pan-Africanism and the preservation of fraternal and secular relations with regional countries, in particular those between Mali and Ivory Coast.” The Mali government also thanked Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe for “for his tireless efforts and constant commitment to dialogue and peace in the region”; the government criticised the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) chairman Umaro Sissoco Embalo for his “aggressive position” on the issue.
On 7 January, President Alassane Ouattara received the 46 soldiers at the airport in Abidjan. Ouattara said: “Now that this crisis is behind us, we can resume normal relations with the brother country of Mali.”
Issues at large
First, the 2022 crisis over Mali’s arrest of Ivorian soldiers. In July 2022, Mali detained 49 soldiers, including three women, on accusations of arriving in Bamako, from Ivory Coast, without permission and being mercenaries. Ivory Coast disputed Mali’s claim and said the soldiers were backing up a UN peacekeeping mission and that Bamako was aware of the same. However, the UN, too, observed “procedural dysfunctions” in the notification sent to Mali and held that “certain measures have not been followed.” In September 2022, Mali released the three women on humanitarian grounds. Meanwhile, the ECOWAS threatened Mali with sanctions if the military government failed to come up with a plan by 1 January to release the soldiers. In December, days before pardoning the soldiers, the Appeals Court of Bamako sentenced the 46 soldiers to 20 years in prison for reportedly undermining state security.
Second, the larger differences between Bamako and Abidjan. Mali maintains that Ivory Coast has been providing asylum to Malian political leaders that Bamako wants, including former president Ibrahim Keita’s son and other former ministers. When Ivory Coast was negotiating for the soldiers’ release, Goïta hinted at asking for the return of these leaders “as opposed to a one-way solution that consists of acceding to the Ivorian demands without any compensation for Mali.” These contentions are part of the larger strained relations between the two countries since August 2020 when Mali witnessed a military coup that overthrew Ibrahim Keita. Ivory Coast has been critical of the coup and the political developments in Mali over the last two years.
Third, Mali’s deteriorating regional and international relations. While Togo has been mediating between Mali and other countries, Mali’s relationship with its neighbours and the regional body ECOWAS has been rough since 2020. Besides Ivory Coast, France, Germany, and the UK, announced their withdrawal from the UN mission in Mali recently. Further, Mali and France terminated their relations after the latter, which was leading the counter-terrorism operations since 2013, claimed working with Bamako had become unfavourable. In July, Mali also expelled the UN mission spokesperson and suspended new rotations of the peacekeepers.
First, Mali’s pardon to the soldier is a welcome move, however, it is unlikely to rekindle friendly relations with Ivory Coast or the rest of West Africa. With several countries announcing their withdrawal from the peacekeeping mission, Mali will be the hotspot for rising insecurity. Therefore, a lack of regional cooperation will only fuel the situation.
Second, Bamako has been defensive and unwilling to compromise on its decisions. This has resulted in Mali’s isolation within West Africa and also from the rest of the world, except from a few powers like Russia.