Mali goes to the polls in a historic referendum, where few can vote

Malian citizens participated in a referendum on Sunday to decide on constitutional changes aimed at facilitating elections and a return to civilian governance, as stated by the military rulers and regional powers.

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Timbuktu, Mali, Africa -

The military government, which came to power through coups in 2020 and 2021, committed to organizing the plebiscite under pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to transition towards democracy.

Voting commenced at 08:00 GMT with results anticipated within 72 hours. Presidential elections have been scheduled for February 2024. Due to the ongoing armed conflict, a low voter turnout was expected (and confirmed) in the country of 21 million people.

Although approximately 8 million Malians were eligible to vote, many would be unable to cast their ballots due to vast territories in the northern and central regions being controlled by armed groups associated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS. According to Al Jazeera, voting was not taking place in the northern city of Kidal, and in Timbuktu, armed groups had issued threats to attack polling stations.

However, a sense of defiance reigned in the capital city, Bamako, with Malians expressing a strong desire to have their voices heard and drive the constitutional change forward.

The referendum relates to the proposed new constitution, drafted by a committee, including controversial alterations, and asking voters a “yes” or “no” question: “do you approve of the draft constitution?”

Advocates argue that these changes to the constitution would strengthen fragile political institutions, while opponents contend that they would grant excessive power to the president.

Regional organizations and the United Nations view the referendum as a pivotal test of the military’s commitment to the transition and the conduct of a nationwide democratic process, especially in the face of escalating attacks by violent religious groups.

The suggested revisions aim to enhance the authority of the president and the military while diminishing the influence of the parliament and cut all ties with its coloniser, France.

Under the proposed changes, the military would assume responsibility for the “implementation of the law,” and the president would wield greater control over the prime minister and the Cabinet.

The Malian population is participating in a voting process to decide on the acceptance or rejection of a draft constitution, which is regarded as a crucial assessment of Assimi Goita, the leader of the military junta, who has not indicated whether he intends to compete for the presidency. In 2021, he supervised the detention of the country’s acting civilian leader and prime minister.

Goita, in a televised address on Friday, emphasized that the project aimed to secure the future of the Malian state, restore its authority, and rebuild trust between institutions and citizens.

Mali, located in West Africa, has faced various challenges in recent years. In 2012, a rebellion in the northern part of the country by separatist groups, as well as the emergence of jihadist groups, resulted in a deteriorating security situation. The Malian government struggled to maintain control over the territory, leading to what was to be the first of many military coups in 2012 and intensified violence over the last decade, destabilizing the region and fuelling an anti-French sentiment across West Africa.

Despite the presence of international forces and ongoing efforts by the Malian government to combat insecurity, the situation remained volatile. Jihadist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), continue to carry out attacks, particularly in the northern and central regions of Mali. These attacks target both military and civilian populations, including government officials, security forces, and international peacekeepers.

The security challenges in Mali have also exacerbated humanitarian issues, including displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, food insecurity, and limited access to basic services. Efforts to address these challenges involve not only security measures but also political dialogue, development initiatives, and the promotion of good governance.

Deemed a failed state by many a nieghbour, the question remains whether this military junta’s referendum will have the power to mobilise and regain the people’s trust, as well as that of the ECOWAS community.

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