In a historic move that marks the beginning of the Fourth Republic, Mali has chosen to break away from its colonial past by dropping French as the official language. The decision was made through a constitutional change that received overwhelming support, with 96.91% of voters in favor, in a referendum held on June 18.
While French will continue to be the working language in the country, the new constitution bestows official language status on 13 other national languages spoken in Mali. This change reflects the nation’s determination to celebrate its linguistic diversity and promote inclusivity.
Prior to this constitutional shift, French had served as Mali’s official language since the country gained independence from France in 1960. The use of French, a colonial legacy, has been a contentious issue for many citizens who view it as a symbol of the nation’s past subjugation and cultural suppression.
Under the new constitutional framework, national languages such as Bambara, Bobo, Dogon, and Minianka, which have deep cultural and historical significance, have been granted official status. These languages hold a special place in the hearts of Mali’s diverse population, and their elevation to official status is seen as a step toward recognizing and preserving the rich cultural heritage of the country.
Mali, a nation boasting around 70 local languages spoken by its people, is known for its linguistic tapestry, reflecting the cultural diversity of its various regions. The decision to acknowledge and embrace this linguistic richness sends a powerful message of unity and respect for all communities.
It is worth noting that some of these national languages, like Bambara, have been widely spoken and used in Mali for centuries. However, their recognition as official languages under a 1982 decree had already marked an initial step toward linguistic diversity.
The path to the Fourth Republic has not been without its challenges. Mali experienced political instability in recent years, with two subsequent coups disrupting the nation’s governance. In August 2020, the military took control in a coup, followed by another coup in May 2021. The new constitution is viewed as a critical instrument for rebuilding the country and establishing a stable democratic foundation.
The military junta leader, Col. Assimi Goita, played a pivotal role in putting the new constitution into effect, signaling a fresh start for the nation. The leadership has expressed its commitment to using the constitution as a catalyst for Mali’s rejuvenation, aiming to foster a more inclusive and representative governance system.
However, the timeline for the nation’s path to democracy has faced delays, with the junta initially promising elections in February 2022 but later postponing them to February 2024. These delays reflect the challenges in navigating the complex political landscape and building a consensus for a stable and effective democratic process.
The decision to drop French as the official language comes amid a broader context of growing anti-France sentiments across West Africa. Mali, like other nations in the region, has faced criticism for perceived French military and political interference, sparking calls for greater sovereignty and independence in determining their own future.
The move to embrace national languages while retaining French as the working language signals Mali’s desire to forge a new identity, one that cherishes its cultural heritage and seeks to establish itself as a united and self-determined nation on the international stage.
As Mali embarks on this transformative journey, it confronts both challenges and opportunities. The shift in language policy is a testament to the nation’s willingness to redefine itself and build a stronger foundation for a more inclusive, culturally rich, and democratic society in the Fourth Republic. As Mali navigates this path, it sends a message to the world about the value of linguistic diversity and the significance of self-determination in shaping a nation’s destiny.