News | Participation / Civil Rights - War / Peace - West Africa Mali’s Bumpy Road back to Democracy

A comment on the current situation



Dimitri Balima,

A young man wears a T-shirt and cap bearing the logo of the referendum on Mali's new draft constitution, held on 18 June 2023. Foto: IMAGO / LePictorium

This article from late June 2023 comments on the situation in Mali after the constitutional referendum on 18 June. It was not until 21 July that the Malian Constitutional Court confirmed the referendum: the constitution was adopted with just under 97 percent in favour, with a voter turnout of only about 38 percent. Shortly before the announcement, an alliance of parties, civil society, and individuals had once again questioned the legitimacy of the referendum and demanded the resignation of the members of the independent electoral commission.

The Arab Spring, and particularly the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, had a profound effect on socio-political life in Mali. Hundreds of Tuareg fighters who were embroiled in the war against Colonel Gaddafi were forced to return home to Mali in 2011. In the following months, two thirds of Mali suffered to the combined force of these independence fighters and Algerian jihadists based in the region.

Dimitri Balima is an assistant lecturer at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

The last ten years have been the most troubled in Mali’s history. The lack of security in the north has gradually spread throughout the country, destabilizing the political system, and threatening the already fragile fabric of society. It is against this backdrop that the socio-economic condition of the population has significantly deteriorated.

A Difficult War on Terrorism

The 2012 security crisis seriously tested an army that was underprepared, under-equipped for dealing with terrorism, and rife with corruption at every rank. This forced Mali to depend on international security forces and UN Peacekeepers to defend its territorial integrity. Nonetheless, recurring attacks by terrorist groups, conflicts between different communities, drugs and arms trafficking, kidnappings, and organized crime are still prevalent.

This precarious and difficult climate served as the pretext for three coups d’état in less than ten years, orchestrated by Amani Toumani Touré, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, and Mba Ndaw respectively. The two most recent coups were staged by the current head of state Assimi Goïta, in the space of less than a year. Goïta decided to revise a series of existing military agreements linking Mali to France and other international powers.

Operation Serval in 2013, and the intervention in the North of Mali, was thought to be an effective way to eradicate terrorism. Instead, jihadist groups spread as far as central Mali, and are now striking beyond Mali’s borders, notably in Burkina Faso and Niger.

In February 2022, military groups called for the withdrawal of French troops from Mali because French military ineffectiveness had exacerbated existing tensions. This decision followed repeated disputes between the Malian government and French authorities, who criticized the former for working with the Wagner group. More than ten years after the beginning of the war on terror, Mali remains at an impasse, with numerous militias and vigilante groups continuing to emerge and be accused of committing atrocities. In some areas, these tensions have morphed into community conflicts, further complicating problems in Mali.

Mali Demands the “Immediate” Departure of UN Forces

Almost a year and a half after dismissing French troops, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdoulaye Diop declared the government’s intention to end the UN presence in Mali. This pertains to all 15,000 people currently deployed there.

The rift between the Malian government and the United Nations over the MINUSMA mission in Mali is the result of a crisis of confidence fuelled by decisions made on both sides. On the one hand, the Malian government has been accused of working with the Russian paramilitary Wagner group, and on the other hand, the Malian government accuses the UN of being passive and responsible for massacres.

Representatives of the UN member nations had until the end of June to decide whether to renew the MINUSMA mandate. Yet the latest dramatic decision by military leaders is not surprising, as rumours have recently been circulating that there, the Malian Foreign Minister will announce a thunderbolt. This would amount to a demand that French soldiers leave Mali, following months of tensions and inflammatory statements directed at the French President. “Neither the Secretary-General's proposals, nor the draft resolution currently being negotiated by the members of this Council, provide an appropriate response to the expectations of Malians”, according to Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop.

In a report given to the UN last December, Malian authorities had already listed their demands in regard to MINUSMA, which included prioritizing “the security dimension of its mandate”, strengthening “support for the Malian armed forces”, and opting “for offensive action and patrols”. From the Malian government’s perspective, MINUSMA needs to review its mission and move away from a traditional approach to instead provide concrete support to the Malian armed forces to support them in their fight against armed terrorist groups.

Growing Mistrust Since the Colonels Came to Power

Since Colonel Assimi Goïta came to power in Mali, the country has repeatedly shown serious disapproval toward the West and even UN actions in Mali. In an address given to the UN Security Council on 16 June 2023, Abdoulaye Diop denounced what he saw as “the instrumentalization and politicization of human rights issues”, before accusing the MINUSMA of feeding “tensions between Malian communities which are exacerbated by extremely serious allegations that are highly detrimental to peace”.

As a result of these incidents, the mission’s spokesman Olivier Salgado was asked to leave Mali in July 2022, and Guillaume NGefa, the director of MINUSMA’s human rights division, was asked to leave in March 2023. The Malian government has been criticized for not promoting collaboration with the UN mission on the ground. For example, the UN noted in its latest report that “between 1 April and 11 May, the mission requested 565 flight authorizations, 167 of which were not granted”, adding that since January four of the five requests to the Malian authorities to investigate human rights issues “have been refused”. These frictions forced several countries to withdraw or not renew their involvement, causing a 17 percent drop in the mission’s workforce.

The colonels in power continue have not limited their defiance to politics and diplomacy, but have extended it to French media outlets, which have been banned from broadcasting on Malian soil. As a result, neither Radio France Internationale (RFI) nor France 24 have been available for almost a year. Local media are required to avoid merely relaying “Western propaganda on Malian soil” and to behave responsibly, meaning to avoid publishing information that could destabilize Mali or affect the morale of the troops and population.

Organizing a Referendum in the Absence of Security

Malian voters were asked to vote to approve a series of reforms proposed by the military authorities on 18 June. The aim of the constitutional referendum is to reform Mali so it can finally begin a programme of development. However, the ballot has been contested by parts of civil society and particularly by the political parties that do not directly support the military authorities, who believe that the latter do not have the right to organize such an important referendum. These groups claim that the aim of the military transition should be to restore security and rapidly organize elections in accordance with the timeline proposed by the international community.

Voter turnout was affected by a lack of security in many regions and according to reports, less than 50 percent of voters took part. In addition to numerous cases of voter fraud reported by the opposition and some members of the public, several organizational failings were also recorded which undermine the credibility of the vote. In much of the north of the country, which is controlled by armed militias, it was not possible to deliver voting equipment. In the Ménaka region in the north-east, which has been under attack from Islamic State for months, voting was limited to the regional capital. Modele-Mali, a nationwide group of civil society observers supported by the European Union, reported in a press release that more than 80 polling stations were “non-functional due to security issues” in Mopti, a central region and one of the epicentres of the violence that has plagued Mali since 2012.

A New Constitution for a New Mali

The new constitution would strengthen the power of the head of state. They would then determine national policy, which under the current 1992 constitution is conducted by the government. The proposed new constitution would allow the head of state to appoint and dismiss members of parliament and the prime minister. As Brema Ely Dicko, a researcher at the University of Bamako, explains, “the government is responsible to the president”, rather than to the national assembly. But the president can be impeached by Parliament for “high treason”, meaning that “we are moving from a semi-presidential to a presidential regime”.

The proposed constitution also bolsters the army, stating that “the state shall ensure that the armed and security forces always have the capabilities required for their missions”.

Mali’s sovereignty is also clearly affirmed in the new constitution, with a desire to give priority to Malians and their local culture. As a result, the multitude of traditional languages used in the country would become official languages, with French, the language of the colonizer, being relegated to the status of a working language. The new constitution grants traditional authorities a more important role in society, as they are the “guardians of values”. Furthermore, some of the members of the Senate will be appointed from their number, and they will also be able to participate in the settlement of some kinds of disputes, under conditions stipulated by law.

The reforms include the creation of a Senate which will replace the High Council of Local Authorities. A Court of Auditors will be set up to monitor public finances, and MPs and senators will be obliged to submit a declaration of assets, which will be updated annually.

Finally, the Constitution states that the exploitation of natural resources “must be carried out in compliance with environmental protection laws and in the interest of both present and future generations”.

Drafting the New Constitution Divides Religious Leaders

Mali continues to be a country where religion carries great significance and religious leaders, who are increasingly prominent in public forums, were divided on the topic of the referendum. It is hard to say which side of the debate the majority of the country’s many religious leaders are on. Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of Mali’s leading religious authorities and one of the most influential men in the country, is openly opposed to the reform, which he believes does not take into account the core aspirations of young Malians.

As the new constitution does not confer specific benefits on religious groups, many called for a boycott of the vote on 18 June. The Islamic High Council of Mali (HCIM) and the League of Imams and Scholars for Islamic Solidarity (LIMAMA) would prefer if the clause concerning secularism was replaced by a clause concerning a “multi-faith state”.

On 10 June, a LIMAMA representative stated on public television: “Secularism is an anti-Islamic term. The presence of such a clause in the constitution is contrary to our belief and to the religion of the majority of the population”. The Coordination of Movements, Associations, and Sympathizers (CMAS), which is allied to the influential Muslim leader Mahmoud Dicko, declared that a new constitution “will not help Mali to emerge from the multidimensional crises it is suffering”.

Meanwhile, prominent cleric Bouye Haïdara and Ousmane Madani Haïdara, who is the spiritual leader of the Tuareg Ansar Dine group, both urged Malians to vote yes for the new constitution.

Ten Principal Challenges Facing Mali

While security issues remain Mali’s main problem, it is important not to overlook other issues the country faces. At present, the combination of problems the country faces clearly jeopardize its very unity. If care is not taken, the country could end up partitioned. If Mali becomes so destabilized that it collapses, this would inevitably lead to the triumph of Islamic State, and to the spread of instability, which might last indefinitely and reach all the countries of the Sahel and even the entire sub-region. Urgent action is therefore required to preserve and guarantee Mali’s integrity and sovereignty.

In the short term, and in the wake of a possible democratic transition, the challenges Mali faces can be organized into ten categories:

  • Respecting the timeline for restoring constitutional order that was established by the international community.
  • Organizing transparent and free elections that are not susceptible to any major challenge, facilitating the construction and consolidation of the democratic process.
  • Maintaining or rebuilding a secular Mali in which inter-faith dialogue remains a reality and where religious leaders are no longer able to deliberately intervene in politics.
  • Working to create credible politicians that the population considers legitimate.
  • Laying the foundations for a trustworthy governance by eliminating the corruption that plagues public and private administrations.
  • Bringing Malians together to put an end to conflicts between communities.
  • Recapturing and regaining control of the entire national territory to prevent the dissolution of Mali and facilitate the free circulation of goods and people.
  • Relaunching the economy with a programme for tourism, and a plan for industrializing the country and modernizing agriculture.
  • Building and equipping an army of citizens who will respect the republican mission of the new constitution.
  • Reducing unemployment among young people by empowering people through high-quality civic-minded training programmes.

The challenges faced by Mali are numerous but not insurmountable for a people that has had no choice but to be highly resilient. However, there are questions about whether these challenges can be met, particularly in a climate of distrust of the international community. Is mending the relationship between Mali and the international community necessary for Malian development? And given its size, is Mali really capable of preserving its territory on its own?

While theoretically a year out from the handover from military to civilian rule, the referendum has provided an opportunity to measure the level of national cohesion, the nature of the forces involved, and, above all, to test Mali’s ability to organize a credible presidential election in 2024.

Translated by Eve Richens and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.