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Mali: February 4

Mali’s military junta has again postponed the holding of elections to restore a civilian democratic government despite repeated assurances that it would do so.

The latest broken promise was for it to hold presidential elections on February 4, 2024. This date was glibly postponed indefinitely in September 2023 due to “technical reasons.” Only the most gullible were surprised by the announcement. The military junta of Colonel Assimi Goïta has made no serious effort to prepare for elections since it overthrew the democratically elected government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020. Keïta had won a second 4-year term in credible elections in 2018 with 67 percent of the vote.

Goïta proceeded to execute another coup in May 2021 when then transitional president Bah Ndaw and his prime minister, Moctar Ouane, began to take steps toward organizing elections in line with the junta’s commitment to an 18-month transition that was to culminate with elections in February 2022. After further negotiations and promises with the Economic Community of West African States, during which the Goïta’s junta angled for a 5-year transition, a February 2024 date was set.

Democratic space has shrunk dramatically under the junta.

Democratic space has shrunk dramatically under the junta. Political opponents and independent civil society actors are intimidated while journalists are threatened, have their credentials revoked, or are arrested. Media outlets face pressure for “patriotic news” coverage. Domestic and international media that criticize the junta are suspended. This was the case for Radio France Internationale (RFI) and France 24, which reported on human rights abuses by the Malian junta. The effect has been a spike in self-censorship.

The junta is also hostile toward reporting of its agreement to bring in an estimated 1,000 forces from the Russian mercenary group Wagner at the cost of $10.9 million per month. Wagner and the Malian junta have subsequently been linked to over 300 incidents of human rights abuses against Malian citizens.

The junta has been similarly hostile toward the United Nations (UN) as it has been the leading international entity investigating allegations of human rights abuses by the junta. The junta declared Guillaume Ngefa-Atondoko Andali, the head of human rights for the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA), persona non grata in 2021 for not propagating the junta’s narrative. In 2023, it demanded the withdrawal of the entire mission, which had been the leading independent body to expose junta human rights abuses, such as allegations of the massacre of 500 Malian civilians by the Malian military and Wagner in the town of Moura in 2022. Security has subsequently deteriorated in many of the regions in northern and Central Mali from which MINUSMA withdrew.

The Malian junta has been able to control the information space with the support of Russian state-sponsored disinformation campaigns that conduct expansive information operations in the country and use their online presence to bully and shout down criticism of the junta.

The junta engineered a referendum in June 2023 that consolidated power in the presidency and would allow junta leaders to serve in a new government, opening the door for Goïta to maintain his hold on power. This process lacked credibility as it excluded large swaths of the Malian political spectrum and civil society, leading to a boycott of the referendum. The opposition has contested the very premise of an unelected authority having a mandate to make amendments to the Constitution. Estimates are that only 28 percent of the eligible voters participated.

People hold up signs that read "vote no in the referendum" during a march in Bamako, Mali.

People hold up signs that read “vote no in the referendum” during a march in Bamako, on June 16, 2023, organized by the Association of Imams against the new junta-backed constitution. Thousands of people gathered for a march against the changing of the constitution ahead of Mali’s referendum vote on June 18, 2023. (Photo: AFP/Stringer)

Despite the intimidation, civilian political groups continue to oppose the military power grab. The June 5 Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) political coalition and other opposition groups have denounced the election postponement. As one opposition party member noted, “For us, each extension will always lead to another extension.

The larger takeaway of the junta’s postponement of the February 2024 polls is the apparent intent to maintain military government indefinitely.

The larger takeaway of the junta’s postponement of the February 2024 polls is the apparent intent to maintain military government indefinitely. The military ruled Mali for most of the period from its independence up to the 1991 transition to civilian government—leaving a legacy of coups, anemic economic development, and repression.

Since the August 2020 coup, Goïta has repeatedly engaged in public ceremonies to rehabilitate the perception of military governance. Shortly after taking power, Goïta sought counsel from former military dictator Moussa Traoré during a public visit to Traoré’s residence in Bamako. During Mali’s Independence Day ceremonies, soldiers greeted and welcomed the former 2012 coup leader, General Amadou Haya Sanogo.

While the postponement of the February 4 election in Mali may be overlooked by observers, the date holds significance for many Malians—and the trajectory of Mali’s governance and democratic prospects.