BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Malians lined up outside gas stations holding jerrycans, water bottles and plastic jugs, as the landlocked West African nation braced itself Tuesday for sanctions imposed overnight as a consequence of a coup last month.
In an effort to force out the soldiers that seized control of the country on March 21, Mali's neighbors decided at an emergency summit Monday to impose an embargo, shutting their borders and freezing its account at the regional central bank. The nation roughly twice the size of France imports all its fuel, which is trucked in overland from neighboring Ivory Coast and Senegal, both located on Africa's Atlantic Coast.
The country's electricity grid is also expected to falter in coming weeks. April is one of the hottest months of the year in the country located on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, and the nation's hydropower system is unable to carry the load because of low water levels. Fuel is used in the hot months to run diesel generators.
Mali's president was sent into hiding when a group of disgruntled soldiers started a mutiny at a military base located around 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the presidential palace. From the base, they decided to march on the palace. In a matter of hours, they succeeded in reversing more than two decades of democracy.
The Economic Community of West African States, representing 15 nations in the region, has been uncharacteristically harsh in their condemnation of the coup. They gave the putschists a 72-hour deadline to restore civilian rule, which expired Monday. When the junta failed to do so, they announced that sanctions would go into effect immediately.
Bathily Seye, the owner of a local chain of gas stations called Afrique Oil, said that if no new shipments are allowed in, his 15 pumps will run dry in days.
"We don't have our own gas. It's all imported," he said. "There is absolutely nothing here. We don't have any refining capacity. ... I don't have the stock. In two days, my pumps will run out of gas."
At a Shell pump in downtown Bamako, the line of cars was so long Tuesday that the vehicles were idling on the highway leading to the station. At the front of the queue, farm employee Baba Kounta had climbed into the back of his minibus, where he was filling 12 20-liter jerrycans. He said he needs the gas to power the generators that run the irrigation system at the orange farm outside Bamako where he works.
"We don't have a choice. We're obliged to make provisions," said Kounta, as he watched the gauge on the pump race past 73,700 francs (around $147). "In the hot season, the generator eats 40 liters (more than 10 gallons) per day."
Waiting his turn behind the minibus was 50-year-old computer tech Nouhoum Kamate, who was sitting in the suffocating heat of his unventilated old-model Mercedes. A government employee, he had come to the gas station with his March paycheck. It's unclear if the junta will be able to pay civil servants in April because the country's bank account is now frozen.
"I got my salary this past month, but next month? I don't think we will get to that point," said Kamate. "I think we will find a solution. They can't do this embargo forever."
The soldiers who grabbed power said they did so because of the former president's mishandling of an insurgency in the north by Tuareg rebels. Since the coup, however, the rebels have effectively seized control of the entire northern half of the nation, taking the three major towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu over the weekend.
A former minister, Mohamed Ag Erlaf, identified himself as the chief negotiator for Mali's junta and said the main rebel group that seized the north is willing to hold talks on the future of the country. Reached by telephone, Erlaf said Tuesday that the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad is open to discussions.
However, an NMLA spokesman in Paris told France 24 TV late Monday that the rebels have had no direct contact with the junta which toppled Mali's government. Moussa Ag Attaher said they do not recognize coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo.
He said: "Neither the international community nor the population of Mali recognize him. If we are to negotiate, it needs to be with someone that is recognized."
Associated Press Writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report from Niamey, Niger.