On 12 August, Mali will hold the second round of its presidential elections. The top two vote-getters – the incumbent, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), and the runner-up from the previous election, Soumaïla Cissé – will face off. As I mentioned here, Cissé has something of an uphill climb ahead of him in this short interval between the first and the second rounds. Having scored just 18% to Keïta’s 41%, Cissé has to quickly assemble a diverse coalition in order to win.
In this context, it is worth commenting on Cissé’s visit on 6 August to the town of Nioro du Sahel (map) to see the figure who is arguably Mali’s leading religious personality – Mohamed Ould Bouyé Haïdara, better known as the Chérif of Nioro. “Chérif” here is simply the French transliteration of the Arabic sharif, meaning a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. More immediately, the Chérif is the son of Shaykh Hamallah (1893-1943), one of the most prominent and controversial Sufi shaykhs in colonial West Africa. Hamallah’s story is too complicated to retrace here – see Benjamin Soares’ book for more.
After his visit to Nioro, Cissé announced that he had received the Chérif’s formal support for the second round. Cissé commented on the Chérif’s “aspiration…to see the country definitively get out of the crisis that we have known during these recent dark years.”
With the Chérif’s support, Cissé can also expect that of Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali and another key Muslim leader in the country. In January of this year, Dicko (who leans Salafi, but is sometimes accommodating toward Sufis and their interests) stated that he would follow the Chérif’s lead when it came to the 2018 elections. Both the Chérif and Dicko, it will be recalled, backed IBK in 2013, partly through a movement called Sabati 2012 (which is itself, we should note, again supporting IBK this time).
At this time, an IBK victory still seems more probable to me than a Cissé victory, although the endorsements of some of the major, still undecided candidates from the first round could make a big difference one way or the other. In any case, one takeaway is that key Malian religious leaders appear confident that they can break with IBK and come out okay even if he wins a second term. Even if IBK wins re-election, then, one should not assume that he has a massive mandate, either from ordinary Malians or from the country’s political, social, and religious elites.