Mali’s junta has postponed a constitutional referendum that was central to the coup leaders’ justification for remaining in power until 2024.
The military interim government said a revised constitution that significantly reduced parliamentary powers would be put to a referendum vote on March 19. Col. Assimi Goïta, Mali’s military leader and interim president, orchestrated a coup in August 2020 and staged another one nine months later in May 2021.
The regional economic bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), lifted a trade embargo imposed in January 2022 against Mali after Goïta abandoned proposals to remain in power for five years and committed to a March 2024 handover following democratic elections.
Yet the draft constitution delivered to Goïta last month states that the president would appoint ministers and have the right to sack them. Under it, the president could not “under any circumstances” run for more than two terms but would have absolute power under “exceptional measures” in the event of a “serious and immediate” threat to the country. Analysts worried such a statute could be used as a way to seize power, much like Tunisian President Kais Saied used a similar law to grab power last July.
Political observers suspect Goïta and other coup leaders are positioning themselves as potential presidential candidates. Goïta signed an electoral law last June to allow him and other military members of the transitional government to run in elections. Analysts say the decision to postpone the referendum was no surprise since almost no arrangements had been made for the vote.
The latest development suggests that despite proclamations on restoring democratic rule, Mali’s military is seeking to remain in power or at least buy time to overcome political and public opposition to the revised constitution, which would hand absolute power to Goïta. The draft also reaffirms Mali as a secular society, which Islamic leaders in the Muslim-majority country have vowed to vote against.
Mali’s relationship with Western and African partners through the United Nations peacekeeping mission has sharply deteriorated following the two coups. Instead, the junta has relied on the support of Russian private paramilitary organization Wagner Group. With Russian backing, the Malian army has mounted large-scale operations. Human rights groups have pointed to serious incidents of summary executions and other mass atrocities in those campaigns.
Mali also had a coup in 2012 that led to Islamist insurgents exploiting the unrest and seizing key northern cities. French troops initially helped beat back jihadis and regain territory, but attacks spread across the Sahel into a so-called forever war as armed groups capitalized on local grievances and political instability.
Today, insecurity and living standards have gotten worse. Nearly half of Malians live in poverty, and armed groups can easily recruit disgruntled young men without access to education or employment. Elections in Mali, if and when they occur, could risk being a box-ticking exercise like those put in place by so many authoritarian states across Africa, where the facade of democratic rule is delivered through voting exercises.