Dozens of trucks are backed up along the last stretch of road leading from Ivory Coast into Mali, blocked for almost two weeks by regional sanctions against the junta in Bamako, which is in no apparent hurry to return the poor Sahel country to civilian rule.
At the Tengrela border post, the sign “Republic of Mali, Bamako 337 km” (more than 200 miles) taunts the drivers, almost all of them transporting clinker, a heavy, stony material vital to the manufacture of cement.
Leaving from Abidjan or San Pedro, the two major Ivorian ports where the lorries were loaded, they were headed for Mali’s capital when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) slapped a trade embargo on Mali after the military junta decided to cancel elections and aim to stay in power for five more years.
“We’ve been here for 12 days, stuck here. We’re not doing anything, we’re just waiting to see if the sanctions are lifted or not,” says Racine Tall, a 30-year-old trucker.
By an initial official count, the idling trucks numbered 210, but drivers say the total has ballooned.
Glued to their smartphones
Through scorching days and cool nights, life has been reduced to an interminable wait, with a few phone calls to families and many cups of tea.
The men spend the days glued to their smartphones, checking media reports and social networks for good news that will enable them to get back on the road.
To a man, the main desire is to return home.
“We don’t have much to eat, there are mosquitoes and many men have had malaria,” says Djibril Samake.
“We don’t eat well, we don’t have drinking water and many have fallen ill. We are taking care of ourselves as best we can, but no doctor has come to see us,” confirms fellow trucker Adama Traore.
Unable to afford pharmacy prices, the truckers say they buy medicines from street vendors, with no safeguards and pills often past their expiry date.
Food is brought by cooks from Tengrela, the last Ivorian town 10 kilometres (six miles) away.
“It’s prepared in town and brought here on a motorcycle, so we pay twice the price,” Traore laments.
For the time being at least, the drivers are still receiving their wages.
Customs officers sometimes allow a driver to take a motorbike taxi to the nearest Malian village to withdraw funds through a telephone transfer.
‘Africans, neighbours, friends’
Despite a trade embargo on all but essential goods, many truckers voice support for the strongman of the Malian junta, Colonel Assimi Goita, who became interim president after a coup in May 2021.
“Long live Assimi Goita” reads a banner on one truck’s windshield.
“I hope there will be negotiations at ECOWAS to find a solution, that they can review the sanctions, because we are all Africans, neighbours, friends,” says Racine Tall.
Some of the drivers lost hope of a swift solution and decided to abandon their vehicles to go home to their families.
Traore says he understands, noting: “Communications are difficult, the network is not stable to call relatives.”
For his part, Tall says: “It’s for sure that my children miss me.”
While the border is also closed to passengers — since March 2020 and the start of the coronavirus pandemic — it remains easy to circumvent.
Many motorcycles could be seen avoiding the border post by leaving the road a few hundred metres before, going through the bush to enter Mali.
At noon on Sunday, a truck full of bananas rolled up to the border post and was allowed to continue its journey to the Malian capital unhindered, since foodstuffs are excluded from the embargo.
But Tall and other truckers are preparing to wait for many more weeks.