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Junta tightens its grip as it organises referendum

The big constitutional vote looks set to allow the military to organise its exit from power at its own pace

Colonel Assimi Goïta appears to hold all the cards as the counting of votes from 18 June constitutional referendum gets underway. Results are expected this week.

The military junta had promised to hold the referendum as part of a transition to democracy under pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The referendum was due in March but delays over the draft text, which does not have the support of the opposition (AC Vol 63 No 15, Goïta plays to his nationalist gallery).

Influential Imam Mahmoud Dicko, an opponent of the military junta, urged his supporters to oppose the constitution on 16 June and tens of thousands of Malians participated on Friday in rallies in the capital, Bamako, ahead of Sunday's constitutional referendum (AC Vol 64 No 5, A junta that's going nowhere).

The new constitution creates a Senate alongside the National Assembly but, more controversially, significantly strengthens the role of the president while giving a prominent place to the armed forces. It also legitimises traditional authorities and languages.

On paper, the transitional president is barred from standing in future elections but many in Bamako expect that Goïta will simply resign from the post ahead of the polls in order to stand.

The decision in February to delay the poll also meant the cancellation of presidential elections that had been pencilled in for February 2024 (Dispatches, 14/3/23, Junta holds up return to civil rule and breaks its deal with the Ecowas regional bloc). Passing the constitution is a prerequisite before a timetable for elections can be set.

In another sign of confidence on the eve of the referendum, Goïta called for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in the country to leave 'without delay'.

Any decision to extend MINUSMA's mandate would require UN Security Council members to adopt a resolution by the end of June. Russia is expected to veto that resolution. And its Wagner Group, which is increasingly influential in Mali and the wider Sahel, has been stepping up its military operations in the country – but faces accusations of human rights abuses according to UN-backed investigations.

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