Last week, authorities in Mali announced that a constitutional referendum consolidating more power in the presidency and the military had been overwhelmingly approved by voters. Some regional leaders have framed this development as evidence of the Malian junta’s good faith intention to return the country to civilian rule in 2024 after having seized power in two coups in 2020 and 2021. From this perspective, the constitutional reforms address major concerns of the military leadership, clearing the way for the transition. But less than 40 percent of registered voters participated in the referendum, in part because the security conditions in the country are so precarious. Some of the northern armed groups that signed the Algiers Accord of 2015 called for a boycott of the vote. Whether the exercise was an important step in an ongoing transition, or a divisive attempt to legitimize the centralization of power remains very much in the eye of the beholder.
Meanwhile, the junta’s demand that the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, withdraw from the country raises still more questions. Mali’s authorities claim that the peacekeeping mission, on the ground since 2013, fuels inter-communal tension. The ire directed at UN peacekeepers echoes the stance the junta took relative to France, once the most important external actor in Mali’s security sector, which withdrew its forces from the country last August. While it is true that neither French forces nor UN peacekeepers were able to resolve Mali’s complex security woes, the suggestion that addressing the crisis will be easier without their presence is doubtful at best, particularly in light of statements from armed groups in the north suggesting that the drawdown of the mission would be a “fatal blow” to the still incompletely implemented 2015 peace agreement.
What is not at all in question is the reality of ongoing insecurity in the country. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project found that reported deaths from political violence increased by 150 percent in Mali between 2021 and 2022. The external actor favored by Mali’s junta to provide security assistance, Russia’s Wagner Group, has been repeatedly implicated in grave human rights abuses in the country, ironically contributing to the very atmosphere of insecurity the junta has accused others of fostering. The uncertainty that surrounds this weekend’s dramatic events in Russia and the future of Wagner would seem to complicate this arrangement going forward, although Russia’s Foreign Minister has said that Wagner will continue to operate in Mali.
It is difficult to imagine how the rest of the Sahel can overcome the rising tide of violent extremism washing over it and consolidate peace, development, and democracy while Mali’s security and governance crisis persists. But Mali’s trajectory provides observers with little reason for optimism. Ultimately, whether the choices made by its authorities will serve as a cautionary tale or a roadmap for neighbors will depend upon outcomes experienced by its citizens, no matter what the military, or Wagner’s disinformation specialists, have to say.