Mali: The winners, losers and survivors of ECOWAS air blockade

By Nelly Fualdes
Posted on Thursday, 24 March 2022 10:16

At Bamako airport on 5 March 2021. © Annie Risemberg/ AFP

Exit Dakar, Abidjan and Monrovia. Since early January, when ECOWAS sanctions against Mali began, Bamako airport has only been served by a handful of airlines. 

Ever since ECOWAS’ extraordinary summit of 9 January in Accra, when the regional economic and political union decided to impose additional sanctions on Mali, there have only been seven direct international flights to and from Bamako airport: Nouakchott, Paris, Casablanca, Istanbul, Tunis, Addis Ababa and Conakry.

And yet the Paris-Bamako route served by Air France has been restored. France – which had initially followed ECOWAS’ lead – finally reversed its decision, allowing its planes to return to Mali again starting 16 February.  “Currently, Air France offers a daily flight to Bamako,” the company said.

“The situation in Mali is different from the prevailing one between Europe and Russia because we are not in the context of war,” says Richard Maslen, chief analyst at the Centre for Aviation. “But it is reminiscent of the embargo that hit Qatar from June 2017 to January 2021, at the impetus of Saudi Arabia. However, the economic impact will be less severe, since Bamako is not an air hub the way Doha is.”

The sanctions are not without consequences, however – first and foremost for Mali. In 2019, Bamako International Airport was used by more than 836,000 travellers, of which more than 91% were on international routes, according to data from Air Transport Data (ATD) communicated by France Aviation Civile Services (Fracs).

Sudden halt

Beyond Mali’s borders, Air Côte d’Ivoire has been particularly affected. “Mali represented 19% of our total passenger volume before the sanctions,” a company representative told Jeune Afrique.

The stoppage is all the more brutal because, all companies combined, the Abidjan-Bamako route – without reaching the 101,000 annual passengers of the pre-Covid period – had recovered in 2021, with a little more than 81,000 passengers, compared to 35,590 in 2020, according to ATD data.

For its part, between four and seven per cent of traffic at Senegal’s Blaise-Diagne International Airport in December 2021 was to and from Bamako, its ninth-largest destination in terms of passenger volume, according to our information.

Asky and Guinea still present

Asky Airlines, which drew the wrath of Côte d’Ivoire’s National Civil Aviation Authority for having maintained its Abidjan-Bamako link via Conakry, ended up cancelling this flight. However, it still links the Malian capital to its hub in Lomé via Conakry – and thus to its entire network within ECOWAS.

“We suspended the Abidjan-Conakry-Bamako service because Côte d’Ivoire did not want us to bring passengers from Abidjan to Bamako and vice versa, a decision we respect. But we continue to work with Mali on a normal basis,” says Nowel Ngala, Asky’s commercial director.

Guinea, itself suspended from ECOWAS since September 2021, was “not involved” in the decision to sanction Mali. As a result, the National Rally and Development Committee (CNRD) has decided not to apply said sanctions.

Other foreign airlines still present in Bamako (Mauritania Airlines, Air France, Royal Air Maroc, Turkish Airlines, Tunisair and Ethiopian Airlines) have been asked to cancel stopovers and direct connections between Bamako and the other ECOWAS capitals.

Deprived of Bamako, where it used to lay over before landing in Liberia, Air France has thus seen a drop in its revenues on the Paris-Monrovia circuit. The company confirmed its decision to suspend this route from the end of April 2022.

Sanctions and counter-sanctions

Abderrahmane Berthé, secretary-general of the Association of African Airlines, told us that the air embargo on Mali “goes against the Chicago Convention”, which governs international civil aviation.

“It is a unilateral measure, which hinders the sustainable economic development of international air transport and has a negative impact on the companies that serve Mali”, said the secretary-general, himself Malian, calling his point of view “purely technical” and “without any political character”.

For Arlette Tanga, founder of the African Air and Space Law Association, Mali would be justified in referring the matter to the council of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO, a UN Agency) just “as Qatar did at the time of its [own] boycott”.

The lawyer recalled that Doha had won its case, “even if it was a question of procedure”. “The ICAO council can also refer cases to itself, and the convention governing it even obliges it to do so,” she says. “But the organisation is very prudent in terms of political decisions.”

ECOWAS countries would then risk being warned to respect the convention, and could even incur a suspension of their ICAO voting rights.

A springboard for Sky Mali?

The Bamako-Conakry route is not only served by Asky, but also by the private Malian company Sky Mali, launched in 2020. Initially focused on domestic routes, with its 188-capacity Boeing 737-400 the company has been operating up to three flights a week to Guinea since 22 January.

“This blockade could represent an opportunity for this young company, which should be preparing itself to react when the border reopens,” says Richard Maslen.

This view seems to be shared by Sky Mali, whose communications department quotes on its social networks the maxim of the founder of Scouting, Englishman Robert Baden-Powell: “Standing still is useless. You have to choose between moving forward or moving backwards… So let’s go forward with a smile on our faces.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options