Russia and China blocked the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday from supporting new sanctions on Mali for its military leaders’ decision to delay next month’s elections until 2026, a blow to the restoration of democracy in the troubled West African nation.
Kenya’s U.N. ambassador, Martin Kimani, said after closed-door discussions on the proposed French-drafted statement endorsing the sanctions imposed by the West African regional group ECOWAS he was "disappointed” that the council couldn’t agree on what he called a "relatively mild” press statement.
Kimani said the Security Council’s failure to support ECOWAS’ actions spurred its three African members – Kenya, Ghana and Gabon – to speak to reporters to fully back the regional bloc's position, "including the imposition of sanctions on the military authorities in Mali to ensure an expedited transition to constitutional rule.”
Mali has struggled to contain an extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in Mali’s northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies. Insecurity has worsened with attacks on civilians and U.N. peacekeepers.
In August 2020, Malian President Boubacar Ibrahim Keita was overthrown in a coup that included Col. Assimi Goita. Last June, Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government after carrying out his second coup in nine months. The junta initially had agreed to hold a new election in late February but the military leadership now says the presidential ballot will not take place until 2026 because of deepening insecurity across the country, giving Goita four more years in power.
ECOWAS leaders responded Sunday, calling Goita's delayed timetable "totally unacceptable” and saying it "simply means that an illegitimate military transition government will take the Malian people hostage during the next five years.”
They imposed new sanctions, suspending most commerce and financial aid to Mali, closing land and air borders with other members of ECOWAS and activating the bloc’s standby force, saying it "will have to be ready for any eventuality.”
The United States, United Kingdom, France and other Security Council members joined the Africans in supporting ECOWAS’ actions.
British deputy ambassador James Kariuki called Mali’s decision to delay elections "deeply disappointing,” saying "it brings into question the transitional authorities’ commitment to democracy and the rule of law, despite assurances given to members of this council during our visit to Bamako last October.”
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Mali’s transitional government of a "blatant lack of political will ... to make progress toward organizing elections” and said a five-year transition "extends the pain of the people.”
The three countries also strongly criticized the presence of the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, in Mali.
French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere reiterated his country’s condemnation of the deployment of mercenaries from the Wagner Group "who are known to threaten civilians, loot resources, violate international law and the sovereignty of states.” He expressed regret that Mali’s transitional authorities "are using already limited public funds to pay foreign mercenaries instead of supporting the national forces and public services for the benefit of the Malian people.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that the company has a "legitimate” right to be in the West African nation because it was invited by the transitional government, and he has insisted that the Russian government is not involved.
Mali’s U.N. ambassador, Issa Konfourou, told the Security Council there are no mercenaries on Malian soil. He said Russian trainers are in Mali to advise and train its military on the use of military equipment acquired by the government from Russia.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said: "Hysteria around the Russian company is yet another manifestation of double standards, for it is clear that the market for such services is monopolized by Western countries.”
Konfourou said the government was "”shocked” by ECOWAS' economic and financial sanctions and "emphatically condemned these illegal and illegitimate” measures. He said Goita asked ECOWAS "to reconsider its interpretation of the situation in Mali,” remains open to dialogue with the regional bloc, and "reiterated a willingness to spare no effort to ensure the prompt restoration of constitutional order in safe and secure Mali.”
Diplomats said Russia considered the proposed council statement unbalanced, and Nebenzia was sympathetic to the government.
"We understand and are cognizant of the difficulties encountered by the Malian authorities in preparing for general elections,” the Russian ambassador said. "We concur with the fact that absent restoration of government control in many parts, regions of the country, it will be difficult to view the vote as legitimate.”