Lessons from Mali’s referendum for its transition process

Aptly managing the post-referendum period will be critical for transitional authorities.

Mali’s 18 June referendum has returned a ‘yes’ vote of 96.91% to approve the new constitution, which was drafted by a commission created by decree in June 2022.

The adoption of this new constitution marks a key stage in the timeline agreed upon by the transitional authorities and the Economic Community of West African States for returning power to an elected civilian government. This follows two unsuccessful attempts by former presidents Amadou Toumani Touré (in 2012) and Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (2017) to revise the old constitution of 1992. The transitional authorities had agreed to draw up the draft constitution on the recommendation of the national conference – Assises nationales de la refondation – in December 2021.

However, the very idea of amending the constitution during the transitional period was contested from the start by numerous stakeholders in Mali. United by the ‘February 20 Call to Save Mali’, 12 political parties and several civil society organisations took the view that the unelected president of the transition, Colonel Assimi Goïta, had no mandate to amend the current constitution, or to provide the country with a new one.

Imam Mahmoud Dicko’s Coordination of Movements, Associations and Sympathizers and the Malian League of Imams and Scholars for Islamic Solidarity also opposed the draft constitution. It enshrined the principle of the secular state as opposed to their preferred expression of ‘multi-faith state’.

President Goïta's cabinet reshuffle has retained military personnel and excluded political parties

The main challenge of the referendum – and the first electoral test for the military – was the voter turnout. While confirmed at 38.23% by the Constitutional Court, it had initially been estimated at 28% by the Election Observation Mission in Mali. Both turnout rates nonetheless suggest that the engagement the authorities had hoped for didn’t materialise.

In addition, voting couldn’t take place in certain parts of the country, particularly in Kidal, the stronghold of former rebels of the Coordination of Azawad Movements. Opposed to this constitutional reform, signatory groups of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali officially rejected the draft basic law, saying that essential points of this agreement were not considered.

The integrity of the ballot was also contested. According to various independent observers,  voting was marred by incidents in several central and northern areas. In the south, political movements and civil society organisations within the ‘United Front Against the Referendum’ complained of fraud. The political party PARENA rejected the results, and several appeals were lodged with the Constitutional Court responsible for announcing the official results.

The new constitution, which is the transitional government’s masterpiece for the refoundation of the Malian state, is therefore being collectively resisted by the political opposition (including the signatory armed groups), political party coalitions, civil society organisations and religious movements. This further splits political cohesion around the transition.

Promulgation of the new constitution will undoubtedly be followed by protests

Furthermore, the referendum’s provisional results came at a pivotal time for Mali’s political and security situation, with the government’s 16 June decision to withdraw its consent for the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. The opposition of signatory groups and certain political parties to the withdrawal of the mission also highlights that the decision-making process did not consider all stakeholders’ opinions. Ten years since the start of the political and security crisis, Mali remains divided over solutions to it.

Encouraged by the provisional results, President Goïta carried out a partial ministerial reshuffle on 1 July. As pillars of the transition, all military personnel and allies have remained in the new government team. However, representatives of traditional political parties, and most ministers affiliated with Prime Minister Choguel Maïga’s June 5 Movement, were not reappointed. Yet, the political lessons of the referendum and its outcome called for greater political compromise and inclusivity.

This situation, which lacks consensus, could be a source of heightened political tension between now and the end of the transition, which is scheduled for March 2024.

Confirmation of the ‘yes’ victory and promulgation of the new constitution may be followed by protests, notably from the ‘United Front Against the Referendum’. On 26 June, this group – made up of the leadership of the ‘February 20 Call to Save Mali’ group, the Convergence for the Development of Mali and the Alliance for Solidarity in Mali-Convergence of Patriotic Forces – called for the provisional results to be annulled.

Authorities must promote inclusive governance and improve the electoral process

The main traditional political parties – Alliance for Democracy in Mali, Rally for Mali and Union for the Republic and Democracy – which, to date, have supported the transition so as not to jeopardise their chances in the March 2024 presidential election, could also take the path of contesting the result.

To mitigate the risk of political crisis at this decisive period in the transition, the authorities should prioritise governance that’s as inclusive as possible, in partnership with the country’s various factions in politics and civil society. A calm political climate is needed in order to keep to the timetable both for a return to constitutional order and to create the conditions for stability in Mali in the medium and long term.

The transitional government should therefore take advantage of the next eight months to build a constructive dialogue with all these stakeholders. And to initiate, on a consensual basis, the structural reforms in economic and political governance that the Malian people have asked for in consultative processes for years. In this context, the challenges associated with holding the referendum highlight the need for continued improvement of the electoral process.

This is the only way to guarantee the legitimacy of the outcomes of the current transition and the sustainability of the various reforms implemented under it.

Hassane Koné, Senior Researcher and Djiby Sow, Senior Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

Image: © AFP

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