Mali is facing an unprecedented — and some might say long overdue — political crisis. June witnessed two massive demonstrations in Bamako, numbering tens of thousands of people, demanding the resignation of 75-year-old President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK).

Exactly ten years ago, Sahara Focus’ editor was commissioned by the European Commission (EC) to write a report on political Islam in Mali. Its two main points were: that Algeria’s was playing a dangerous destabilising game by supporting the movement of Algeria-based terrorists belong to the AQIM into Mali; and secondly, that a popular preacher named Mahmoud Dicko would become a political force to be reckoned with and would most likely hold the keys to Mali’s political future. The report was destroyed by the EC and not a trace of it — not even the commission contract — remains in Brussels’ archives. The reason is that the report’s conclusion was the exact opposite of what both France, an influential voice in Brussels, and the EC wanted to hear. 

Thousands of demonstrators in Bamako demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta

Algeria has indeed been the major destabilising force in the Sahel over the last ten years. Throughout that period, it has continuously supported and provided sanctuary for a number of jihadists leaders and their followers — notably Iyad ag Ghali, the leader of Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM) — while Imam Mahmoud Dicko really does now hold the keys to Mali’s political future. 

Bamako’s two massive demonstrations, on 5 and 19 June, were both led by Dicko who is a rallying figure at the head of a potentially powerful aggregation. This coalition — composed of: political opposition parties; civil society movements and organisations —called for both political and economic reforms and the resignation of IBK. 

After the 5 June demonstration, IBK revealed his hand, talking about his willingness to incorporate opposition parties into government, and make a number of institutional changes. They were rejected out of hand, with the demand that nothing less than the resignation of IBK was acceptable. A high-level ECOWAS commission delegation visited Bamako over 18-20 June in an attempt to mediate and find a way forward. Its main recommendations — namely a unitary government and the partial re-running of the recent legislative elections, which triggered the current surge in discontent — were rejected more or less out of hand by the Mouvement de 5 Juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (5M-RFP) as the new grouping is called. 

The 19 June rally went ahead as planned. Tens of thousands gathered in Bamako’s Independence Square, chanting slogans, blowing plastic trumpets and holding placards with anti-government messages, while a letter was sent to IBK demanding his resignation. At the rally Imam Dicko led prayers, while opposition politician Cheick Oumar Sissoko called for civil disobedience until IBK stepped down. Although peaceful, the demonstration had an angrier atmosphere than that of 5 June. That may have been the result of 24 Malian soldiers, possibly many more, being killed in another deadly ambush on the country’s demoralised armed forces in central Mali on 14 June. 

It is difficult to see where Mali’s popular uprising will lead because the M5-RFP is something of a multi-headed monster. It is made up of: several political parties; civil society movements including some religious ones; and non-associates individuals with different agendas and different views on the future.

There are two other reasons for such uncertainty. One is that there are no signs of the whereabouts of the opposition leader, Soumaïla Cissé, who was kidnapped in late March and who might have provided a political figurehead to this movement. The second is that France, already sinking into the military mire, appears to have little idea of how to handle the situation.

Secondly, especially in France, is that Dicko is seen as a conservative Wahabist with possible Saudi Arabian sympathies who might move Mali closer to some sort of Salafist Islamist state in a country that has previously been well-anchored in the tolerance of the Malikite tradition. Dicko’s Wahabism is actually much closer to Mali’s traditions than France might understand. He is conservative on many family and social issues, but also progressive. The strength of his populism ten years ago was that his preaching was socially and political honest: he called a spade a spade. He explained to audiences of thousands that the reason why they lived in so much poverty was because the country’s rulers were corrupt. Mali’s deep inequalities were nothing to do with God, religion or any other spiritual malevolence but due to a corrupt, predatory political class and bad governance. That was something that most Malians could understand as they saw it all around them in their daily lives. Dicko’s preaching articulated this and his populism was rooted in the secular not the sacred. It was also something that France and Brussels feared because it had a revolutionary ring to it.

Today, Dicko is able to unite these many strands of opposition and discontent because he is ‘on the money’ and Malians are sick of corruption and bad governance. His rise is the symbol of the failure of the Malian political elite and of Paris’ Françafrique policy which has nurtured such corrupt regimes for most of the post-colonial era. The one comfort that France might take from Dicko’s emergence on the political scene is that anti-French sentiment is giving way to anti-IBK sentiment.

How Dicko and the M5-RFP move forward from here is unclear. Whereas Dicko sees the necessity for the Malian state and its institutions to be completely rebuilt, many of those within the M5-RFP may well settle for compromises of one sort or another. The Constitutional Court — the trigger for this latest disquiet (Sahara Focus – May 2020) — is already likely to be transformed and four of its nine members have already resigned. And IBK himself might possibly step down, albeit no doubt with certain guarantees. 

However, the president’s supporters are fighting back. Gathered within a platform calling itself the Convergence of the Republican Forces (CFR), they met on 21 June to reaffirm their determination to support the institutions of the republic starting with IBK. It is currently difficult to assess the CFR’s strength because it is being drowned out by the 5M-RFP. 

What is now clear, as it has been to some for a very long time, is that the regime’s legitimacy is exhausted and has reached the end of the line. Fortunately, Mali has a strong sense of democracy and a strong civil society. However, over the years, Malians have been deprived of any means of democratic expression of their dissatisfaction other than in the form of street protests. For that, the National Assembly, as the symbol of a failed political class, bears huge responsibility. Civil society, perhaps galvanised by Mahmoud Dicko, needs to act very quickly because Mali is drowning. 

Meanwhile the UN, US, EU, and African Union have all called on the key actors to engage in dialogue and restraint, while reaffirming the right to peaceful protest. This external pressure appears to be trying to channel the key parties to agree to ECOWAS’ recommendations that were rejected before the 19 June demonstration, namely for some sort of unity government, along with a rerun of those legislative election results that were tampered with by the Constitutional Court. At the same time, fears are being expressed in some Western quarters that Dicko may be the beginning of moves towards some sort of religious Wahabist rule.

This excerpt is taken from Sahara Focus, our monthly intelligence report on the Sahara region. Click here to receive a free sample copy.

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