Protests escalated against the regime of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, President of the Republic of Mali, which is experiencing a deep and multi-faceted political crisis even as the new opposition movement has centred around the leadership of Imam Mahmoud Dicko who is one of the leading religious figures.

Background of the political crisis in Mali

Incumbent president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta came to power on 11 August 2013 in the aftermath of an acute political crisis whose main features were the outbreak of the insurgency by Tuareg and Arab separatist groups in northern Mali in January 2012, a military coup in Bamako that toppled the regime of Amadou Toumani Touré on 22 March 2012, and the control by extremist fundamentalist groups over the whole of northern Mali late March 2012. In January 2013, the French army intervend to liberate northern Mali from radical groups, and after weeks of continuous fighting, the French military troops drove the terrorist gangs out of the main cities, while the conflict is still ongoing in remote desert areas.

While President Keïta contributed strongly to the political life since the Revolution that toppled the rule of General Moussa Troaré (March 1991), assuming the positions of Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prime Minister and Parliament Speaker under President Alpha Omar Konaré, he failed in the elections of 2002 and 2007, although he became the main opposition figure under President Toumani Touré.

Keïta won a wide consensus in the 2013 elections as it was hoped that he would achieve the goal of rebuilding and uniting the country. However, since he came to power, the political crisis escalated. On the one hand, he could not materialize the desired reconciliation with the Arab and Tuareg movements in the north despite the agreement signed with them in June 2015. On the other hand, he failed to re-establish the rule of the state and deploy the army in the three major cities of the north (Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal).

Since the end of 2015, the political crisis shifted to central Mali. It centred in the bloody conflict between the Dogon and Fulani tribes. The weak and disintegrated Malian army failed to intervene to keep security. Indeed, the Keïta government was accused of arming some nationalist militias loyal to it, and some Fulani organizations formed a strong alliance with violent terrorist groups.

According to the reports of international organizations, the economic and living conditions reached record levels of deterioration, in terms of the spread of corruption, bribery and mismanagement, approaching the threshold of social explosion whose strong omens appeared after the 2018 elections which were won for the second time by Keïta, although he came out of the electoral campaign exhausted and incapable of containing the continuous protest crises during the last two years.

While the opposition’s official political figure was the former minister Soumaïla Cissé, who competed against Keïta since 2002 for the heritage of President Konaré, the real opposition to the regime centred around an unprecedented alliance between the traditional community which continues to be largely controlled by clerics of Sufist sheikhs, and syndicates and civil society organizations. The effectiveness of the new opposition alliance was demonstrated in the boycott of the legislative elections organized in late March 2020 after having been delayed for two whole years. The turnout was weak and the results were rejected by a wide sector of the political spectrum and the judiciary. The situation became worse with the abduction of the opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé by terrorist organizations which continue to hold him. Thus, the current protest wave has erupted on 5 June 2020, after the collapse of the de-escalation attempts made by President Keïta and after he sacrificed his Prime Minister Ousmane Maïga whom he dismissed in April 2020.

Imam Mahmoud Dicko leads the opposition alliance known as the Rally of Patriotic Forces, referred to as M5, or June 5 Movement. It is a broad network that brings together political activists, representatives of the civil society, and youth and women movements. The main demands of the Rally are: the cancellation of the results of the legislative elections, the dissolution of the Constitutional Court, and the formation of a national unity government that would oversee holding an inclusive political dialogue and run a transitional period leading to transparent and fair legislative and presidential elections. On the other hand, some components of the opposition go as far as demanding the immediate resignation of President Keïta.

Who is Imam Dicko?

Imam Mahmoud Dicko, who leads the protest movement, was born in the religious and cultural city of Timbuktu in 1954. He studied in the Institute of Islamic Sciences in Mauritania and later in Saudi Arabia. He was influenced by the Salafist Movement and participated, in the 1980s, in the establishment of the Malian Association for the Unity and Progress of Islam (AMUPI). In 2008, he became the President  of the High Islamic Council of Mali, which was founded by the former President Alpha Omar Konaré, and assigned to it the fundamental aspect of the country’s religious policy. He remained President of the Council till April 2019. While he was always close to the current President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, endorsed his nomination for president in 2002, and played an active role in his success in the 2013 elections, he started to gradually distance himself from Keïta since 2018, considering that Keïta started to transform Malian secularism into a regime that is hostile to religion and the religious establishment, although Dicko does not demand the implementation of the Sharia or changing the secular constitutional system.

While Imam Dicko did not previously aspire for political leadership, saying that he would be content with the role of Imam and religious guide, in September 2019, he established a large gathering called the Coordination of Movements, Associations and Sympathizers (CMAS), which is a broad network loyal to him that has actually become the main opposition organization. The first activity carried out by Imam Dicko after the establishment of the new network had been the organization of a crowded festival at the Palais de la Culture (Culture Palace) in the capital Bamako on 29 February 2020 at which he called on his advocates to take their destiny into their own hands. He also called for a major demonstration on 6 March 2020. The Office of the Prosecutor summoned Imam Dicko to appear in court but his advocates surrounded him. So, the summons was cancelled and an official apology was made to him by the government.

Doubtlessly, Imam Dicko has become a strong card in the political scene after he openly gained the support of Sheikh Mohamed Ould Hamahoullah, better known as the Sheriff of Nioro, which is a Sufist figure of Mauritanian origin with hundreds of thousands of followers in Mali (in addition to Mauritania, Côte d'Ivoire, and Burkina Faso). Thus, Imam Dicko became in a strong position that would allow him to lead the current protest movement that has demonstrated a clear capability of continuously moving the street despite the human losses which exceeded 11 victims among the protesters.

Prospects of the protest movement in Mali

In light of the current facts, three different scenarios could be predicted regarding the political situation in Mali:

1. The consensus scenario which is sought by the regional and international organizations that are engaged in a continuous mediation to settle the political crisis through dialogue and mutual concessions. Foremost among those institutions are the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), and the European Union (EU). These have issued an official statement denouncing violence and calling for the launch of a political dialogue between the government and the opposition. Despite the failure of the mediation led by the presidents of five West African countries, namely Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, in converging the viewpoints of the protagonists in Mali, driving ECOWAS to announce holding an emergency session to discuss the developments of this crisis on 27 July 2020, the consensus scenario is still plausible, particularly in light of the de-escalation steps taken by both sides. President Keïta took a decision to freeze the Constitutional Court, release opposition leaders, and accept the principle of the inclusive political dialogue. In return, the opposition leader Imam Dicko called for de-escalation. He rejected the removal of President Keïta, settling for the other demands related to political reform, reorganization of the electoral process, and forming a national unity government.

2. The explosion scenario, which is not implausible in case political dialogue faltered and the security situation got out of control, thus opening the door to a new military coup that would lead to a transition phase followed by presidential and legislative elections, similar to previous experiences witnessed by Mali in 1992 and 2012.

3. The path of the persistence of the crisis and the entry by the country into a long-lasting political deadlock that would extend till the end of incumbent President Keïta’s term (2023) as a result of the absence of a feasible political alternative, failure by the opposition to impose the change through the streets, and the hardship of passing another attempted military coup in light of the amount of external rejection.

Conclusion

  • The current political crisis in Mali is attributable to the failure by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to achieve the goal of rebuilding and uniting the country, enforcing security and stability, and dealing with the deterioration in the economy and living conditions. The legislative elections of late March 2020, which were boycotted by the opposition, constituted the spark of the protests that broke out on 5 June 2020.
  • Imam Mahmoud Dicko leads the opposition alliance known as the Rally of Patriotic Forces, which comprises a broad network of political activists, representatives of the civil society, and youth and women movements. The Rally demands the cancellation of the results of the legislative elections, the dissolution of the Constitutional Court, and the formation of a national unity government that would oversee holding an inclusive political dialogue and run a transitional period leading to transparent and fair legislative and presidential elections. However, some components of the opposition go as far as demanding the immediate resignation of President Keïta.
  • The potential scenarios for the crisis in Mali vary between consensus, a military coup, and the persistence of the crisis till the end of the term of incumbent President Keïta in 2023. The likely scenario is reaching a consensus between the President and the opposition, especially in light of the continuous endeavours by the ECOWAS group of countries to resolve the crisis.

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