Mali’s President Assimi Goïta Cold after Constitutional Referendum Postponed

  • Goïta’s delay of Mali’s constitutional referendum casts doubt on restoring civilian rule by 2024, as agreed with ECOWAS.
  • Anti-French sentiment under Goïta led to French troop withdrawal and expulsion of the ambassador earlier this year.
  • The Mali-Guinea-Burkina Faso axis highlights shifting power dynamics, declining French influence, and growing Russian presence in Africa.
President Goïta - Mali
Mali’s President Assimi Goïta
By: Office of U.S. Ambassador to U.N. public domain per 17 U.S.C. § 101 and § 105 and the Department Copyright Information

Why is Assimi Goïta’s heat level Cold?

Answer: Mali’s ruling junta led by Goïta’has postponed the constitutional referendum, raising questions about its commitment to the reform agenda

The postponement of the constitutional referendum scheduled for March 19 has left Mali’s interim president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, in a difficult position. Since the military coup that overthrew the previous president in August 2020, Mali has been undergoing significant political changes including proposed changes to the country’s constitution. The junta cited the need to install the election management body in all regions of the country and the desire to popularise the draft new constitution as reasons for the postponement.  Despite the Goïta’s reassurances to both the public and international organisations that they still intend to restore civilian leadership in 2024, this postponement casts doubt on their capacity to execute their reform program.

The postponement was also announced after widespread backlash to the significant changes proposed in the country’s new constitution. The increased powers of the president in the new constitution have raised concerns. The president would be able to directly determine the nation’s policies, dissolve the National Assembly, and select and dismiss government ministers. The proposed constitution also highlights that committing a coup d’état will have no time limit for prosecution, but conveniently those engaged in the takeover in 2020 would be exempt due to an amnesty. The constitution would also lower the status of the French language, which is in line with the new anti-French policy approach of the new junta and President Goïta. 

Although France’s military intervention in Mali was initially supported by the local population, anti-French sentiment grew due to the belief that France  dominated the country’s affairs through its military power, economic dependency and diplomatic influence –  with some even labelling the presence of French troops as an “occupation.” Over the past decade, the Islamist militant threat has not only persisted but expanded, reaching the northern borders of countries such as Ivory Coast and Benin. French forces have also focused disproportionately on the northern border with Niger rather than the more volatile Liptako-Gourma region, presumably due to the significant uranium reserves in Niger that power French nuclear plants.

The rising anti-French sentiment in Mali is further intensified by the perception of dominance over the local currency, the West African CFA franc. Utilised by eight West African nations, the CFA franc has been a contentious issue. Detractors claim that it hampers economic progress, encourages reliance on France, and represents French neocolonial control over the region’s economies. The overvaluation of the CFA franc is held responsible for rendering exports less competitive and imports costlier, thereby impeding regional economic development. Nonetheless, the CFA franc’s benefits are significant. The currency, pegged to the Euro and backed by the French treasury, ensures stability and credibility, preventing financial crises and hyperinflation. This stability attracts foreign investment by reducing risk. Mali, having left the CFA in 1962, rejoined in 1984 due to high currency volatility. 

Who is changing Assimi Goïta’s heat level?

Answer: Opposition from religious leaders and Tuareg groups, as well as strained relationships with ECOWAS and the African Union change Goïta’s heat level

One of the key reasons behind this delay is the opposition against the proposed constitution, which has drawn backlash from several factions. One of the primary groups opposing the draft is the Mali League of Imams and Scholars for Islamic Solidarity. The organisation has urged its followers to reject the constitution, which they claim upholds the junta’s commitment to secularism. Given the influence of religious leaders in Mali, this opposition could undermine Goïta’s legitimacy. In addition, armed movements of ethnic Tuaregs in the north of the country are also opposed. The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which comprises the three major armed Tuareg groups, has united to pressure the ruling junta to reconsider the constitution. The CMA is wary of the junta’s approach to the Algiers peace accord signed in 2015, which followed the Tuareg rebellion of 2012 and the attempt to establish an independent state of Azawad (a nation comprising the Tuareg majority regions in the northeast of Mali). This opposition is particularly concerning, as Tuareg militias have previously collaborated with jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Din to prepare offensives. 

Assimi Goïta has also faced significant pressure from regional organisations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU). In the aftermath of the 2020 coup, ECOWAS took decisive action by imposing sanctions on Mali, including a trade and financial embargo. ECOWAS expanded its sanctions into collective punitive measures in January 2022, including border closures. Civil society organisations condemned this move, as the sanctions aggravated the already challenging domestic situation, given that Mali imports 70% of its food requirements and nearly one-third of its population depends on humanitarian aid. 

The sanctions were partially lifted in 2022 after Goïta presented a transition plan, scheduling legislative elections for late 2023 and presidential elections in February 2024. Similarly, the AU suspended Mali´s membership due to unconstitutional governance. The actions taken by ECOWAS and the AU have had some unintended consequences, as such measures can worsen insecurity and social tension, further marginalise countries, and potentially push them towards authoritarianism.

What is driving Assimi Goïta? 

Answer: Maintain power, preserve Mali’s stability by combating jihadism, and diversifying political ties to offset French influence

Goïta’s motivations appear to revolve around maintaining and consolidating power, which entail restoring stability, notably by fighting jihadist threats. The distancing from France and the tensions with ECOWAS and the AU have led to strategic alliances with countries in similar situations, such as Guinea and Burkina Faso. In an attempt to counter French and other Western influences in the region, Goïta has turned to Russia for military assistance and has sought to foster economic ties with China. In recent years, Chinese companies have significantly invested in Mali’s economy, focusing primarily on mining and energy. Chinese firms have also financed and implemented large-scale infrastructure projects, such as the highway connecting Bamako to Senegal, one of Mali’s most important trade partners. China has already become Mali´s third-largest export partner and second-largest import partner, overtaking France. 

Despite the arrival in December 2021 of approximately 1,000 Russian “military advisors” from the Wagner Group, a private military company with ties to the Kremlin, the security situation in Mali has not shown significant improvement Instead, violence has escalated, with over 2,000 civilian casualties reported, a significant increase from the 500 reported in the previous 12 months. A group of U.N.-affiliated human rights specialists demanded an inquiry into allegations of wrongdoing by both the Malian government and the Wagner Group. In response to these concerns, the European Union imposed sanctions on key members of Mali’s transitional administration, including Prime Minister Choguel Maïga and Assimi Goïta, for obstructing the transition to civilian rule. Tensions between Mali’s leaders and the international community further intensified earlier this February when Mali’s government ordered the U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) human rights chief to leave the country. That same week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pledged military support to Mali during his first visit to the West African nation. Mali is one of 16 countries that either voted against or abstained on all resolutions calling for Russia to end hostilities and withdraw from Ukraine, signalling the growing influence of Russia in Mali’s politics.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: As France loses influence a new regional axis aligned with Russia emerges, with Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso strengthening cooperation on various issues

Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, all of which have experienced military coups in the last 2 years, have agreed to strengthen cooperation on various issues, This emerging “Bamako-Conakry-Ouagadougou axis” focuses on strategic areas, reflecting these countries’ desire to diversify their partnerships. In September 2022, Guinea’s military ruler visited Mali on the eve of a high-stakes ECOWAS extraordinary summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Guinea and Mali signed several cooperation agreements in November 2022.  Burkina Faso, another country plagued by jihadist violence, demanded the withdrawal of French forces from its territory, inspired by the developments with Goïta in Mali. The new regime, which emerged from a coup d’état in September 2022 led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, expressed its intention to collaborate more closely with its regional neighbours. Burkina Faso Prime Minister Apollinaire Kyélem de Tambela visited Mali in early February, during which he suggested forming a flexible federation between both countries which has received support among Pan-Africanists activists.

In the wake of a tripartite meeting in Ouagadougou shortly after, high-level diplomats from the three countries agreed to collaborate and launch joint efforts to remove the suspension from the AU and the restrictions and sanctions imposed by ECOWAS. Burkina Faso and Mali also signed an agreement to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. Furthermore, joint initiatives among the three countries were planned, regarding collaboration on mineral resource extraction, fuel exchanges, rural development and a network of rail lines connecting the three capital cities. Interestingly, this meeting took place days after Lavrov’s trip to Mali and Burkina Faso and his pledged support to the military juntas.

Anti-French sentiment in Africa extends beyond Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. In Cameroon, France faces accusations of hindering UN action in the conflict between English-speaking separatist groups and the government. Similarly, in Chad, questions surround France’s involvement as the French government has been supportive of a violent military-lead coup d’état, contrasting its firm opposition to comparable events in Mali and Burkina Faso. Furthermore, the AU allowed for Chad’s membership to continue instead of being consistent with their previous actions. It is increasingly apparent that France’s grasp on its former African strongholds is weakening.
Whether Goïta’s assessment was accurate or a miscalculation remains uncertain, nonetheless, his approach has not yet yielded results. Mali and Burkina Faso’s militaries need foreign support to tackle threats effectively and the Wagner Group, even though more aligned with Goïta’s goals, will not be as effective as a French army which had superior training, regional familiarity, and intelligence capabilities. Mali must also collaborate with fellow ECOWAS members in combating terrorism, particularly by partnering with Niger in the Liptako Gourma region and by mending strained relations with Ivory Coast –  both neighbouring countries being necessary allies. To date, Burkina Faso and Mali have struggled to effectively coordinate their military operations, with the security situation and violence levels worsening. While Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea may cooperate economically, their combined resources are insufficient without external investment. Relying on their new found partnerships with Russia and China is not the solution, and isolation from African neighbours and Western nations will be harmful for their economies.