Demonstrations called by the ruling military in Mali against stringent regional sanctions were expected to kick off on Friday amid growing international pressure over delayed elections.
Leaders from the West African ECOWAS bloc agreed to sanction Mali last week, imposing a trade embargo and shutting borders, in a decision later backed by France, the United States and the European Union.
The move followed a proposal by Mali’s junta to stay in power for up to five years before staging elections — despite international demands that it respects a promise to hold the vote in February.
The junta cast the sanctions as “extreme” and “inhumane” and called for demonstrations.
Strongman Colonel Assimi Goita, who first took power in a coup in August 2020, has also urged Malians to “defend our homeland”.
In the capital Bamako, a rally was due to begin at around midday, followed by a prayer and a series of speeches. Mali’s interim prime minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga was expected to speak at 1700 GMT.
As well as closing borders and imposing a trade embargo, leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also halted financial aid to Mali and froze the country’s assets at the Central Bank of West African States.
The sanctions threaten to damage an already vulnerable economy in landlocked Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries.
A brutal jihadist insurgency has also raged in Mali since 2012, with swathes of the vast country’s territory lying outside of government control.
Mali is already beginning to feel the effects of the sanctions. Several airlines, including Air France, have suspended flights to Bamako.
The country is also at risk of cash shortages. Kako Nubukpo, a commissioner at the West African Economic and Monetary Union, said that it is “cut off from the rest of the world”.
France, Mali’s former colonial master, and the United States have both stated their support for the ECOWAS sanctions.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrel said on Thursday that Brussels will follow ECOWAS in taking action against Mali over delayed elections.
The same day, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it is “absolutely essential that the government of Mali present an acceptable election timetable”.
Despite the pressure, many in Mali have rallied behind the military junta, with nationalist messages flooding social media.
Mali’s relations with its neighbors and partners have steadily deteriorated since a coup led by Goita in August 2020 against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Under threat of sanctions following that putsch, Goita had promised to hold presidential and legislative elections, and to restore civilian rule by February 2022.
But he staged a de facto second coup in May 2021, forcing out an interim civilian government and disrupting the timetable to restore democracy.
Goita also declared himself interim president.
His government has argued that rampant insecurity in Mali prevents it from organizing safe elections by the end of February.