ECOWAS has lifted economic and financial sanctions against Mali’s military government after it vowed to hold elections in February 2024. The move was welcomed by many Malians who have been struggling under the restrictions and the global rise in fuel and food costs.

On Sunday, 3 July, regional bloc ECOWAS announced the immediate lifting of economic and financial sanctions against Mali following a summit in Accra, Ghana. The sanctions, imposed in January after military leaders delayed elections until 2026, were lifted after leaders announced a new election timetable in June with elections in 2024.

The economic sanctions prohibited the trade of goods and closed borders between Mali and its neighbours, with exceptions for food, fuel and medicine. Though fuel was not subject to sanctions, gasoline prices have risen in Mali recently as they have worldwide.

With the lifting of sanctions, ECOWAS member states’ ambassadors will be able to return to Bamako. During the summit, ECOWAS leaders also agreed to a 24-month transition to civilian rule in neighbouring Burkina Faso, which has also been under military rule since January. Burkina Faso and Mali have both seen increasing Islamist violence under military rule.

ECOWAS’ self-professed gesture of good faith is an act that it may come to regret. What was intended when it instituted the sanctions on Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali was a squeeze on the ruling juntas to force them to call for new elections and hand over governance to democratically elected civilians. Two years later, in Mali, we see a military regime that has confidently called the bluff of its international partners both in Africa and the West, egged on in part by a Russia that is looking to play spoiler in this current global geopolitical environment.

ECOWAS appears to have played all its cards and has in principle, all but thrown in the towel. This is a seminal lesson in geopolitics. Bamako, Conakry, Ouagadougou (and further afield, Minsk, Moscow and Pyongyang) are reminding the world that the threat and application of sanctions alone are insufficient in deterring bad behaviour if erring states do not have anything to lose.

This makes deepening economic integration even more important. ECOWAS states trade more with the geopolitical East and West than among themselves and so the incentive to squeeze a state back to democracy is limited at best. Only two of Mali’s main trading partners, Cote D’Ivoire and Senegal are West African and both were unwilling participants in the original sanctions regime.

As sanctions are lifted, the regional body must find ways to go beyond gestures and sustain the pressure on the junta to follow through with its transition promises. A critical part of that will involve preventing the current junta from transmuting into a civilian administration, as well as ensuring that elections are participatory and credible, allowing Malians to freely elect a new government for themselves. Alas, it might be too much to ask from an organisation of ECOWAS’s relative unsophistication.