Will revamped constitution herald stability in war-torn Mali?

A recent referendum has brought about major changes to Mali’s constitution and laid the foundations for elections next year. Despite challenges posed by separatist groups and Islamist insurgency, there is hope that the referendum is a step in the right direction

June 27, 2023 by Pavan Kulkarni
Mali constitutional referendum
A woman casts her ballot during the constitutional referendum in Mali on June 18. Photo: Habib Kouyate/Xinhua

Mali’s electoral authorities said on Friday, June 23, that the amendments to the 1992 constitution were approved by 97% of the 8.4 million voters who took part in a referendum on June 18. The UN-backed vote was conducted by the country’s Transitional Military Council (TMC). 

Touted as the herald of the fourth republic in Mali, the amended constitution will provide the framework for the Presidential elections scheduled for February 2024, which will end the transitional period and mark a return to civilian rule. The amendments envisage substantial changes to state institutions, including the presidency and parliament. Voter turnout stood at 39.4%, higher than many recent elections.      

The result of the referendum is seen as a demonstration of the popularity of Col. Assimi Goita who deposed the former elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, in a coup in August 2020. The coup took place amid widespread demonstrations calling for the departure of French forces from Mali. 

The French forces were deployed in 2013 to fight insurgencies that spread across the Sahel as a fallout of the war against Libya, in which France itself was a major participant. However, they failed to stop the terrorist groups that have since taken over increasing areas of Malian territory. 

After removing Keita, who was largely perceived by protesters as corrupt and subservient to the former colonial power, Goita went on to position himself as the interim president of the military junta with another coup in 2021. 

His popularity was consolidated when he asked France to withdraw its troops in 2022 – a move that was celebrated by a mass demonstration in the capital, Bamako. 

Read |Withdrawal of French troops from Mali is a historic, anti-imperialist victory

The previous constitution had not specified whether the state was federal or unitary. The new constitution ends this ambiguity by describing Mali as a unitary republic. To accommodate regional and local representation in the unitary system, it introduces a Senate, in addition to the existing National Assembly.  

The constitutional amendments demote French, recognized as the national language in the 1992 constitution, to a “working language,” currently in use for government communication. “The State may,” however, “adopt any other language as a working language,” the amended constitution states, adding that the “national languages are the official languages of Mali.”

In an apparent attempt to prevent the possibility of a French citizen ascending to the head of state, which has recently caused a scandal in Madagascar, the new constitution prohibits dual nationality for the President.

 Access to food and water has been recognized as a right in the new constitution, drafted after what the government described as a “vast national consultation, called the National Refoundation Meetings” in December 2021. 

Increasing presidential power while empowering parliament with impeachment authority

Amid speculation that Goita himself, or one of his loyalists, may contest for the presidency, with a high chance of winning the election given his current popularity, several critical commentators have argued that the new constitution undermines the parliament. Multiple reports stressed that the amended constitution allows the president to dissolve the national assembly.

It is of note, however, that the 1992 constitution also granted the president the authority to dissolve the National Assembly, with caveats similar to those in the amended constitution. However, while the former required the president to consult the prime minister and the president of the National Assembly before dissolution, the latter requires him to consult the elected presidents of both chambers of the parliament and the president of the constitutional court. The prime minister, who is the head of the government, need not be consulted as per the amendments. 

The president, who appointed the prime minister, and in consultation with the latter, the other members of the government, had the authority to terminate their functions, even under the previous constitution. However, the amendments allow the president to remove the prime minister even without the latter’s resignation letter. Further, while the government was primarily responsible to the parliament previously, the amendments make it responsible to the president. 

While thus strengthening the presidential power, the amendments also empower the parliament to impeach the president for high treason for violating the presidential oath. The 1992 Constitution made no such provision. 

Financial accountability and secularism 

In line with the requirements of the regional West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), it introduces the Court of Auditors, before which all legislators, ministers, and the president must declare their assets annually. The previous constitution imposed no requirement for asset declaration on any holders of state power.

The new constitution’s reiteration of the republic’s secular character in the Muslim-majority country was opposed bya grouping of 20 Islamist organizations. However, the estimated 3,000 Islamists who had mobilized in Bamako on June 16 to protest against the draft constitution ahead of the referendum were overwhelmingly outnumbered by around 50,000 supporters who demonstrated for a ‘yes’ vote.  

Opposition to the new constitution also came from the traditional political parties. Sidi Toure, spokesperson for the opposition Party for National Rebirth (PARENA), was reported to have said that the draft constitution concentrates “too much power in the hands of the future president” and “will squash all the other institutions.” 

Higher voter turnout than recent elections

The voter turnout was cited by the United Front against the Referendum as an indication of its rejection. The United Front is a coalition of political parties that called on citizens to either boycott the referendum or vote ‘No.’ 

However, the turnout was higher than the final round of the presidential election of 2018 (34.5%), in which Keita, the former president, was elected. The parliamentary elections that were held in 2020 just before Keita was deposed saw a turnout of 23.22% amid security concerns.   

Ever since the introduction of multi-party democracy in Mali after the ouster of the military dictatorship by popular protests in 1992, voter turnout has remained low except during the presidential election in mid-2013, which saw a turnout of 48.9%. Keita won his first term in this election. 

However, with the escalation of the war with the separatist insurgent groups and Islamist extremists, voter turnout in the subsequent parliamentary election dropped to around 38%. The turnout continued to decline in subsequent years as armed groups intensified their attacks and authorities found it difficult to secure conflict-hit areas. 

Much of the country’s northern part is controlled by separatist rebel groups and Islamist terrorist organizations, including those with Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliations. Voting for the referendum did not take place in the northeast in Kidal, one of Mali’s eight regions. 

In the town of Tondidarou in Timbuktu, Mali’s largest region stretching from the north to the center, “electoral agents were kidnapped, beaten and tied up by unknown assailants… Their motorcycles and phones were taken,” the Malian Election Observation Mission reported. At a rural commune in the Segou Region of central Mali, the presidents of two polling stations were abducted. Ballot boxes were seized in several areas.

Armed groups also oppose referendum

The Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security and Development (CSP-PSD), a coalition of northern armed separatist groups that had signed the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation with the Malian government in Algiers in 2015, opposed the referendum. 

The draft put to referendum “constitutes an obstacle for good governance and a democratic decline in view of the absence of a national consensus,” the coalition said, adding that the amended constitution “does not support the main provisions” of the Algiers agreement. 

UN Special Representative El-Ghassim Wane maintained, however, that “nothing in the draft constitution runs counter to the implementation of the agreement, including the legislative and regulatory provisions relating to the institutional framework and to territorial reorganization.” 

Concerned about the disagreements developing between the government and the Algiers agreement signatories over the referendum, he told the UN Security Council in January: “The ongoing transition offers a unique opportunity to advance the agreement: an opportunity that cannot and should not be squandered.” 

Despite its support for the referendum, relations between the Malian government and the UN have been souring. There have been repeated protests in the country demanding the withdrawal of the 15,000 peacekeeping troops deployed under the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). 

Tensions mount between Malian government and the UN

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) alleged in May that “there are strong indications that more than 500 people were killed—the vast majority summarily executed—by Malian troops and foreign military personnel during a five-day military operation in the village of Moura in the Mopti region of central Mali in March 2022.”

It added that “witnesses reported seeing “armed white men” who spoke an unknown language operating alongside the Malian forces and at times appearing to supervise operations,” in what is reportedly a thinly veiled reference to the Russian Wagner Private Military Company. 

Its chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was exiled to Belarus on June 25 following his rebellion against the Russian government amid the ongoing war in Ukraine. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly confirmed on June 26 that Wagner members will continue to work in Mali as “instructors.”  

Denouncing the UNHRC’s report, Abdoulaye Maiga, spokesperson of Mali’s government, called it a “biased report that is based on a fictitious narrative.” He added that “no civilian[s] from Moura lost their life during the military operation. Among the dead, there were only terrorist fighters and all those arrested were handed over to the gendarmerie.” 

Ahead of the conference on June 16, Mali’s foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, asked the UN to withdraw its peacekeeping force. “Unfortunately”, he complained, “MINUSMA seems to have become a part of the problem in fueling inter-community tensions.” A demonstration reiterating the call for MINUSMA’s withdrawal was held once again on June 23.

Against all odds

Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, told the UN Security Council that “one of the key tasks for the government of Mali is fighting terrorism,” and the peacekeepers, who do not have such a mandate, are unable to assist. 

The Council must decide whether or not to renew MINUSMA’s mandate, which is to expire by June 30. A renewal against the wishes of Mali’s government seems unlikely. However, CSP-PSD has warned that “the withdrawal of the MINUSMA will be a fatal blow deliberately struck against the Peace Agreement.” 

This risk of an unraveling of the peace agreement with separatists looms over the government, which is opposed by most political parties and is already at war with terrorist groups to wrest back control of about two-thirds of the national territory. Mali has also accused France of airdropping weapons to terrorist groups after its troops were ordered out.

Despite all these odds stacked against a secure and peaceful future for Mali, a popular confidence that the referendum is a step in the right direction is palpable, especially in Bamako, say media reports.

An earlier version of the article contained certain inaccuracies in the details of previous elections. The errors are regretted.