Monday, 19 June 2023 07:58

Mali’s referendum can’t guarantee a democratic transition

Mali’s interim leader and head of the junta, Colonel Assimi Goïta looks on during Mali’s Independence Day military parade in Bamako on September 22, 2022.

The ruling junta in Mali is holding a constitutional referendum as part of a transition back toward civilian rule, but experts and political opponents say the true aim is consolidating its power in the increasingly violent and unstable Sahel region, which runs through Mali and several other countries.

The junta, which came to power in an August 2020 coup, has promised to stabilize the country, where violent insurgent Islamist groups compete with it and each other for control. Instead, violence on the part of the Islamists and the junta — backed by the Russian mercenary Wagner group — has increased exponentially, with civilians bearing the brunt of the horror.

The vote has been delayed several times, most recently in February of this year, citing logistical reasons. Presidential elections are to be held in February 2024, though it’s unclear whether the junta will adhere to that timeframe.

Some of the proposed constitutional amendments give more power to the president, rather than the parliament — hence the political opposition. Though it’s unclear whether the current leader, Col. Assimi Goïta, will stand in any future election, certainly an ally or proxy for the junta will. That could effectively legitimize the junta’s control and perpetuate the current violence and instability.

“The fear I have for Mali is that we might see, effectively, the restoration of military power which is kind of like going back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, which are commonly referred to in the African politics literature as the ‘Dark Decades,’” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. “That was a really terrible time, but [the current situation] looks kind of like a prelude to reexperiencing that,” he told Vox in an interview.

Security forces have already voted, and civilians are set to vote Sunday, June 18 — a simple “yes” or “no” in response to whether they approve of the changes the junta has proposed to the 1992 Malian constitution, created by civilian leadership after the overthrow of dictator Moussa Traoré in 1991. Opposition to the changes includes a contingent of influential imams who oppose the idea of Mali as a secular country, as well as political parties and civil society groups that reject mechanisms for the junta to consolidate power under the guise of the democratic process.

However, the international community has pushed for the referendum as part of Mali’s path back to civilian governance; regardless of the flaws in the process, it’s a necessary step in the transition, Leonardo Villalón, a professor of political science and African studies at the University of Florida, told Vox. “This referendum is going to be limited and flawed, in the sense that the vote is going to be very difficult to hold in some areas,” he said. “There’s precedent for that, and there’s precedent for widespread acceptance of that,” particularly given the security challenges that Mali faces and its fragile electoral apparatus.

“I’m assuming [the referendum is] going to pass, and the government will make sure it passes,” Villalón told Vox.

The junta promised stability, but violence has only accelerated in Mali

Goïta’s leadership is actually the result of a second coup he staged in May 2021, seizing power from the transitional president and prime minister. Goïta had previously taken power from Mali’s last elected civilian, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta — commonly referred to as IBK — over allegations of corruption and worsening security and economic conditions.

Though the coup sparked an international outcry, thousands of Malians who had protested IBK’s poor handling of the country’s crises supported the military forces as they took the capital Bamako. Islamist terrorist groups and separatist groups flush with weapons and insurgents after Libya’s collapse in 2011 have wreaked havoc across the Sahel region, particularly in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

“[IBK’s] government was not particularly effective on the security front,” Eizenga told Vox. “The situation has gotten much worse, and it’s gotten worse faster since the junta came to power, and I think they bear a lot of responsibility for that, particularly the violence against civilians. But the situation was trending badly before they came to power, too.”

United Nations peacekeeping forces and French military forces had been in Mali since 2013, in an effort to help the government combat extremist forces. However, the junta effectively forced French troops out in 2022 and on Friday demanded that UN peacekeepers leave the country “without delay.”

Though the efficacy of both forces in containing the violence has been dubious at best, the calls for their removal have more to do with the junta’s efforts to whip up populist, nationalist, and anti-colonial sentiment than they do with the military’s own efforts to stabilize areas where insurgent groups are in control.

Indeed, under the present government, the security situation has rapidly deteriorated, Eizenga told Vox. According to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies shared in an email, in 2022 there were 996 violent events involving Islamist groups, which resulted in 3,635 fatalities. As Eizenga told Vox, that makes violence in 2022 “by far the worst on record.” Furthermore, “based on the available data through the first quarter of 2023, we anticipate roughly a doubling of violence since the junta took power.”

That is primarily due to the Moura massacre in Mali’s southern-central Mopti region. As Vox’s Jen Kirby wrote in a March report on the Wagner mercenary group:

In January, a group of independent United Nations experts called for an investigation into reported abuses in Mali, including a potential mass execution in Moura. Malian troops and Russian mercenaries — who are fighting an insurgency — were accused of murdering hundreds of people last March, many of them likely civilians with no apparent ties to insurgent groups.

The junta has defended its actions in Moura, decrying a recent United Nations report on the event and claiming that it was protecting civilians in the area from Islamist violence. But, Eizenga said via email, “part of the logic seems to be to alienate international forces like those comprising [the UN peacekeeping forces], so as to limit scrutiny of the military’s operations particularly with Wagner support.”

The referendum is a difficult start to any potential democratic transition

Despite its failures to stamp out Islamic extremism and the alleged atrocities it’s committed, the junta does have supporters, Villalón said. “They have support and they have a lot of ambivalence — maybe people who aren’t sure about them, but they’re also really dissatisfied with the old guard, the old parties that ruled Mali for so long.”

Some of the opposition to the referendum does come from those “old guard” entrenched political parties, particularly the Parti Pour la Renaissance Nationale, or PARENA, and Solidarité Africaine pour la Démocratie et l’Indépendance, or SADI, which were established in the 1990s.

“Too much power in the hands of the future president will squash all the other institutions,” Sidi Toure, a PARENA spokesperson, told Reuters Friday. PARENA is encouraging Malians to vote “no” to the changes, but, Toure said, it’s unclear what the outcome will be. “Mali and Malians are profoundly divided.”

The referendum has provoked a serious debate about the role of religion in society and politics in the majority-Muslim country, particularly as a rejection of the French model of secularism. Imams are a major force of opposition to the draft constitution, which designates Mali as an “independent, sovereign, unitary, indivisible, democratic, secular and social republic.” Some of the most vocal opponents to the referendum are Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the leaders of the opposition to IBK in 2020, and the Ligue Islamique des Imams du Mali, an association of about 20 Muslim groups. Separatist groups in the north, including the Cadre Stratégique Permanant pour la Paix, la Sécurité et le Développement (CSP-PSD), have also opposed the referendum, saying that the changes are not sufficiently inclusive.

Though Villalón referred to Sunday’s vote as a “referendum on the regime,” Eizenga told Vox that “the hopes for emboldened democracy in Mali, I think, are pretty low.”

Results of Sunday’s referendum are expected within 72 hours after the election, according to Agence France-Presse.