Mali’s Constitutional Crisis
Coup leaders’ moves could imperil democratic transition and further strain ties between African states and the West.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Mali’s junta doubles down on military rule, Senegal arrests a former prime minister, and Nigerians go back to the polls for local elections.
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Mali’s Junta Delays Constitutional Referendum
Mali’s junta has postponed a constitutional referendum that was central to the coup leaders’ justification for remaining in power until 2024.
The military interim government said a revised constitution that significantly reduced parliamentary powers would be put to a referendum vote on March 19. Col. Assimi Goïta, Mali’s military leader and interim president, orchestrated a coup in August 2020 and staged another one nine months later in May 2021.
The regional economic bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), lifted a trade embargo imposed in January 2022 against Mali after Goïta abandoned proposals to remain in power for five years and committed to a March 2024 handover following democratic elections.
Yet the draft constitution delivered to Goïta last month states that the president would appoint ministers and have the right to sack them. Under it, the president could not “under any circumstances” run for more than two terms but would have absolute power under “exceptional measures” in the event of a “serious and immediate” threat to the country. Analysts worried such a statute could be used as a way to seize power, much like Tunisian President Kais Saied used a similar law to grab power last July.
Political observers suspect Goïta and other coup leaders are positioning themselves as potential presidential candidates. Goïta signed an electoral law last June to allow him and other military members of the transitional government to run in elections. Analysts say the decision to postpone the referendum was no surprise since almost no arrangements had been made for the vote.
The latest development suggests that despite proclamations on restoring democratic rule, Mali’s military is seeking to remain in power or at least buy time to overcome political and public opposition to the revised constitution, which would hand absolute power to Goïta. The draft also reaffirms Mali as a secular society, which Islamic leaders in the Muslim-majority country have vowed to vote against.
Mali’s relationship with Western and African partners through the United Nations peacekeeping mission has sharply deteriorated following the two coups. Instead, the junta has relied on the support of Russian private paramilitary organization Wagner Group. With Russian backing, the Malian army has mounted large-scale operations. Human rights groups have pointed to serious incidents of summary executions and other mass atrocities in those campaigns.
Mali also had a coup in 2012 that led to Islamist insurgents exploiting the unrest and seizing key northern cities. French troops initially helped beat back jihadis and regain territory, but attacks spread across the Sahel into a so-called forever war as armed groups capitalized on local grievances and political instability.
Today, insecurity and living standards have gotten worse. Nearly half of Malians live in poverty, and armed groups can easily recruit disgruntled young men without access to education or employment. Elections in Mali, if and when they occur, could risk being a box-ticking exercise like those put in place by so many authoritarian states across Africa, where the facade of democratic rule is delivered through voting exercises.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, March 15: Nigeria and Ghana release inflation data for February.
Wednesday, March 15, to Friday, March 17: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Ethiopia and Niger. He is expected to meet African Union head Moussa Faki Mahamat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Thursday, March 16, to Friday, March 17: Foreign ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation gather over two days in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
Thursday, March 16: The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing focused on U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command.
Saturday, March 18: Nigeria holds delayed governorship and state houses of assembly elections.
Monday, March 20: Tunisia celebrates its Independence Day.
Monday, March 20, to Tuesday, March 21: South Africa’s High Court hears private prosecutions brought by former President Jacob Zuma against advocate Billy Downer and News24 journalist Karyn Maughan, whom Zuma claims published classified information on his medical status. Downer is currently prosecuting Zuma on corruption charges.
Tuesday, March 21: South Africa’s Human Rights Day commemorates the anniversary of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.
The U.N. Human Rights Council discusses Ethiopia.
What We’re Watching
Somaliland refugees. A regional state in Ethiopia issued a statement Thursday denying claims that it had sent troops since Feb. 6 to support clan militias fighting against Somaliland forces on the outskirts of Las Anod city. Ethiopia’s Somali regional state lambasted the accusations as “reckless” and suggested that the Somaliland administration was “seeking to reduce political pressure by pointing fingers at non-existing enemies.”
Fighting broke out in Las Anod after local clan elders declared their intention to cut ties with the self-declared republic of Somaliland and rejoin Somalia. According to aid agencies, about 100,000 people fleeing fighting in Somaliland have taken refuge in a remote area of Ethiopia since early February.
Senegal arrests ex-PM. Senegal’s former prime minister, Cheikh Hadjibou Soumaré, was taken into police custody on Thursday and charged with libel after questioning whether President Macky Sall had financed French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Soumaré was summoned by police over an open letter to the president questioning the alleged donation, his lawyer said.
In the letter, Soumaré, who was prime minister from 2007 to 2009, accused Sall of donating 12 million euros ($12.7 million) from a “poor country” to a “French political figure” whose party is distinguished “by hatred and rejection of others.” Le Pen, the head of France’s National Rally party, visited Sall in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, on Jan. 18.
In a statement responding to Soumaré, government spokesperson Abdou Karim Fofana said Sall’s administration “rejects and condemns such cowardly and baseless insinuations” that stemmed from “an evil desire to discredit [the president and] undermine the institution that he embodies.”
Sall has cracked down on dissent and rhetoric critical of him as he remains silent on claims that he intends to run for a third term in the 2024 presidential election. Senegal recently blocked an initiative by ECOWAS to change its Democracy Protocol to limit presidential terms to two in member states.
WHO abuse. Dozens more women have accused World Health Organization (WHO) workers as well as employees of other nongovernmental organizations of sexual abuse and exploitation during the 2018-20 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the New Humanitarian reports.
In the new allegations, women say they were abused by men working for the WHO, UNICEF, World Vision, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Reports of abuse initially emerged in late 2020 when more than 50 women said male NGO staff had propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or fired them when they refused during a time when hundreds of local and international aid workers rushed into remote Congolese towns.
An internal investigation commissioned by the WHO a year later concluded that alleged perpetrators were local staff hired on short-term contracts who “took advantage of their apparent authority to obtain sexual [favors].” The WHO had nearly 2,800 staff members and contractors working in eastern Congo over the course of the Ebola outbreak.
Nigeria elections. Nigeria’s electoral body postponed governorship and houses of assembly elections by one week; they will be held on March 18. The Independent National Electoral Commission said it needs more time to reset electronic voting machines that were the focus of international criticism in last month’s presidential election.
Officials were supposed to verify voters’ identities using the machines and immediately upload result sheets in each polling unit onto a public website, but election staff failed to show up at some polling units, struggled to operate the machines, and uploaded the majority of results days later.
Analysts worry that turnout on Saturday could be even lower than during the presidential election, which saw the lowest turnout in decades. Most voters may be unable to travel due to an acute cash shortage.
Attention will be on Lagos, where Labour Party’s Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, a 40-year-old architect, is taking on 57-year-old Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) party governor and former director of Lagos State Development and Property Corporation.
The APC has ramped up an aggressive election rally, campaigning across television, radio, and social media since Labour Party’s Peter Obi managed to outpoll APC presidential election winner Bola Tinubu in Lagos (Tinubu’s home state). There are signs of panic among APC politicians, as a loss in the country’s financial capital will be seen as an erosion of Tinubu’s political dynasty, which has held Lagos for more than two decades.
This Week in Diplomacy
Saied’s “African friends.” Tunisia needs geography lessons, Guinea-Bissau’s president, Umaro Mokhtar Sissoco Embaló, said in response to remarks made by Saied that members of his family are married to “Africans.” Standing next to Embaló on Wednesdya, Saied defended his previous racist statements toward Black Africans, remarking that he had friends from law school “who were Africans.” Embaló reminded his Tunisian counterpart: “You yourself are African.”
U.K.-Africa summit. The U.K. government has announced that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will host an African investment summit in April 2024, as London tries to secure trade relationships with key allies beyond European borders.
African leaders have had a busy schedule, with the United States, China, Russia, Turkey, Germany, Japan, and France holding summits on Africa last year or later this year. The U.K. held its first U.K.-African Investment Summit in 2020, with around 6.5 billion pounds ($7.7 billion) of deals inked. But London has seen a gradual disengagement of African partners as countries maintain closer bonds with Beijing and Washington.
Rights groups have also criticized a refugee deal with Rwanda that the U.K. government had attempted to secure with other African nations, such as Ghana, before being publicly rebuffed by Ghana’s foreign affairs ministry.
Chart of the Week
Tunisia’s government debt is at almost 90 percent of GDP, but a $1.9 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund has stalled. According to research firm Capital Economics, Saied’s administration narrowly avoided a default last year only because it secured a $700 million loan from the African Export-Import Bank.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Staring Down the Black Hole of Russia’s Future by Anastasia Edel
• America Is Too Scared of the Multipolar World by Stephen M. Walt
• China’s Ukraine Peace Plan Is Actually About Taiwan by Craig Singleton
What We’re Reading
Ethiopia lifeline. During his visit to Ethiopia next week, Blinken is likely to announce the lifting of restrictions on aid and financial assistance to the country, FP’s Robbie Gramer reports. Ethiopia is pushing for reinstatement of its U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act beneficiary status, removed last January amid allegations of war crimes committed by the Ethiopian federal army.
In a letter dated March 3 to U.S. Trade Secretary Katherine Tai, Ethiopia’s U.S. lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs argued that the country has addressed concerns in a peace deal with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The civil war has delayed a $26 billion debt restructuring, but multilateral partners are refloating the idea of an International Monetary Fund loan.
Cameroon, Nigeria land grabs. Siat Group, a Belgian palm oil and rubber production company, has been responsible for land grabs in the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, according to an investigation by Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi and Kevin Woke in Sahara Reporters.
Locals accuse the company of underpaying Nigerian communities by buying land at $1 per hectare, which is one-third of the price residents pay to rent farmland from neighboring communities each farming season. Locals accuse the company of using fertilizers and chemicals that have polluted their river. According to Kevin-Alerechi and Woke, Siat Group reported 173 million euros ($1895.6 million) in revenue in 2021 but has not adhered to its corporate social responsibility commitments.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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