Mali’s controversial constitutional referendum

Mali was scheduled to hold a referendum on constitutional reform on July 9th. On June 21st, two days before the campaign for the referendum was to start, the vote was postponed sine die following widespread demonstrations. What prompted this resistance to, and ultimate postponement of the planned referendum? What is so controversial about this constitutional revision?

The constitutional changes were meant to implement clauses of the Algiers Peace Agreement signed between the Malian government and former rebel groups in 2015, and to correct “deficiencies and shortcomings” in the constitution. One of the important changes was to be the introduction of a Senate, to give an official role to Mali’s traditional leaders.

On June 3, the National Assembly endorsed the proposed constitutional revisions by 111 votes to 35. Opposition parties voted against the reform, arguing that it strengthens presidential powers unduly. Main concerns include the ability for the president to appoint 30 percent of senators as well as the presiding judge of the constitutional court. Also, the president would be able to dismiss the prime minister at will (effectively transforming Mali from a premier-presidential to a president-parliamentary type of semi-presidential regime).

Following the vote, a platform of political opposition members and civil society activists came together in a determined campaign against the referendum, conducting several demonstrations. The largest of these, on June 17, brought thousands of protesters into the streets of Bamako, who also seized the opportunity to accuse the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) of bad governance. With a year left ahead of presidential polls in July 2018 where IBK will stand for reelection, protests appeared to be morphing from opposition against the constitutional reform to a broader indictment of the government. In the face of this resistance, the government bowed to the pressure, at least temporarily, by postponing the referendum.

This is not the first time that constitutional reform in Mali has been aborted at the last moment.[1]  In November 2001, former President Alpha Oumar Konaré called off a referendum scheduled for the following month. Some of the criticisms at the time echo concerns voiced by the opposition to the current revision – notably increased presidential control of the constitutional court (Wing, 457). Also, interestingly, many of the proposed changes this year were included in the constitutional reform effort of former President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) that was cut short by the 2012 coup. In 2012, those changes that faced similar, significant opposition included: the introduction of a Senate whereto the president would be able to appoint a significant number of senators; the president’s ability to appoint the chief justice of the constitutional court;[2] and the president’s power to dismiss the prime minister at will (Wing, 462).

Not surprisingly, among the leading opponents today are some of those who most vocally opposed the same constitutional changes back in 2012, including Tiébilié Dramé, the président of the Party for National Rebirth (Parena), and Mme. Sy Kadiatou Sow who leads the joint civil society-political party movement against the constitutional referendum, “An tè A Bana. Touche pas à ma Constitution” (Don’t touch my constitution). These opponents criticize not just the proposed changes, but also the reform process itself for lacking transparency and not being inclusive – criticisms also advanced in 2012 – and for being ill-advised when segments of the population would be unable to vote due to ongoing insecurity. According to Wing (2015), the controversies surrounding constitutional reform in 2012 contributed to the overthrow of then President ATT by further delegitimizing an already unpopular government.

Taking lessons from the past, the government’s decision to postpone the referendum was probably a wise one. In a context where the central government remains week and lacks the ability to exercise its authority across the entirety of the country, it is all the more important that the constitutional reform process benefits from widespread legitimacy. The challenge is now how to ensure that promises made in the 2015 Peace Agreement are acted upon, should constitutional changes be significantly delayed.

[1] See Susanna Wing’s interesting analysis of past troubled constitutional reform efforts in Mali: Susanna Wing (2015), “ ‘Hands off my constitution’: Constitutional reform and the workings of democracy in Mali, “ in Journal of Modern African Studies, 53, 3, pp. 451-475.

[2] The chief justice of the constitutional court is responsible for proclaiming electoral results; also, the constitutional court is tasked with resolving electoral disputes. The president’s ability to appoint the chief justice of the court is particularly controversial with IBK up for reelection in 2018.

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