Mali: On Moussa Timbiné, the New President of the National Assembly, and a Bit of Context

On May 11, following legislative elections held in two rounds on March 29 and April 19, Mali’s 6th National Assembly selected Moussa Timbiné the body’s new president. Timbiné replaces Issaka Sidibé, who served in the position from 2014-2020.

Timbiné, 47, belongs to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s Rassemblement pour le Mali (Rally for Mali, RPM). He was a founding member of the party in 2001, coming from a background in student union activism and then working his way up the ranks of the party as a youth leader and then an elected official, rising to become second Vice President of the Assembly in its last iteration. He is ethnically Dogon and Songhaï, hailing from the Bandiagara administrative district of the Mopti Region, central Mali. In parliament, however, he represents the capital Bamako’s Commune V. A longer biography of Timbiné can be found here (French).

Timbiné is seen as a close ally not just of Keïta the father but also the president’s influential son Karim. (Notably, outgoing National Assembly President Sidibé is Karim Keïta’s father-in-law.) Observers see the Keïta family’s strong hand in putting forth Timbiné, whose candidacy as speaker was a bit of a surprise; until a day before the vote, the RPM’s designee had been another deputy, Mamadou Diarrassouba, who represents Dioïla in the southern Koulikoro Region.

Ironically, moreover, Timbiné had recently nearly lost his own seat. After the second round of voting, provisional results gave the barest of victories, 50.4% to 49.6%, to an opposition  candidate, Boubou Diallo. Diallo belongs to the Union pour la République et la Démocratie (Union for the Republic and Democracy, URD), the country’s foremost opposition party, whose leader Soumaïla Cissé was kidnapped on March 25 and is still in captivity. Indeed, the overall results from Bamako at first appeared to be a bloodbath for Keïta’s RPM there, with the party losing all but one seat (Karim Keïta’s) of the nine it held going into the elections. On April 30, however, Mali’s Constitutional Court reversed the results from various constituencies; by the revised figures, RPM gained ten seats, including four in Bamako, of which one was Commune V. RPM came out with 51 seats total, giving it the largest bloc in the National Assembly but falling well short of a majority. In any case, for those who regard the election results as compromised, Timbiné’s installation as president of the assembly is symbolic and symptomatic.

The scope of Timbiné’s victory within the assembly also raises questions about how much of an opposition there really is in Mali. Timbiné received 134 votes out of the body’s 147 members, against 8 votes for former Prime Minister Moussa Mara. Reportedly, some or even all of the URD members even voted to support him (or were given instructions to cast blank ballots, depending on which account you read). The URD deputies’ behavior angered many of the party’s supporters, prompting party leadership to issue what reads like an apology. In any event, the RPM’s losses in the election and its minority share within the new assembly do not necessarily mean that President Keïta and his allies have lost their grip on the chamber.

 

The Death of a Northern Malian Shaykh, and a Few of My Analytical Blindspots

On April 2, northern Malian sources reported the passing of Shaykh Hamdi Ould Muhammad al-Amin (Romanized spellings vary), the chief judge (qadi al-quda) of Kidal.

In a Facebook post (Arabic), one spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA) traced the shaykh’s genealogy back to Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (1729-1811), one of the most influential religious scholars (.pdf) in the Mauritania-Mali sub-region in the past several centuries.

The shaykh appears to have been more than just a learned man. He also seems to have had strong relationships with tribal and political leaders in northern Mali; for example, he was one prominent attendee at the installation (Arabic) of the Kunta confederation’s new ruler Muhammad al-Amin Ould Baba in 2015. The Nord Sud Journal, in its report (French) on the shaykh’s death, notes that his passing was announced by the prominent northern Malian politician and hereditary ruler Alghabass ag Intalla, sectary-general of the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), over WhatsApp. The journal describes the shaykh as a “consensus” figure in northern Mali, writing that he “judged all the disputes between armed groups after the Anefis accords of 2015.” (See background on those accords here.)

The MNLA and HCUA eulogies for the shaykh are another reminder that neither of these movements should be understood as secular. In interviews, MNLA leaders have stated to me that they and the rebellion they launched in 2012 received support from prominent shaykhs and jurists in the region – including another prominent northern Malian shaykh who died in 2017, Al-‘Atiq bin Sa’d al-Din (Arabic).

Identifying the senior Muslim scholars of northern Mali has been a consistent blind spot for me, and with both Ould Muhammad al-Amin and Ibn Sa’d al-Din I became aware of them only upon their deaths. In part, this is simply a weakness of my own research, and a sign that I have not yet found the right sources and interviewees, or have not asked the right questions of the politicians I’ve interviewed. On another level, though, I think the task is objectively harder than, say, identifying prominent clerics in Bamako or Nouakchott. Perhaps this difficulty reflects a center-periphery split, with the ulama (religious scholars) of the capital much more visible than those in the north. Yet there is essentially no difficulty in identifying major political or military figures in northern Mali: such individuals are routinely profiled and interviewed by Jeune Afrique, for example, and they have proven relatively easy to meet in Bamako and even in Washington.

So there are a few questions that have occurred to me over the years:

  1. Has there been a disruption in scholarly reproduction in northern Mali? In other words, do senior scholars have clear successors – from within their families or from among their senior students? From what I’ve read on Ould Muhammad al-Amin and Ibn Sa’d al-Din, scholarly authority appears strongly hereditary in the region – but that does not mean that it will be reproduced automatically, or that sons will have the same status as their fathers. The eulogies for Ould Muhammad al-Amin indicate that there are clear successors in his place, but I have wondered about the wider picture.
  2. Are northern Malian ulama reticent to step into the media spotlight given the conflict in the region, or because of the local scholarly culture? In Bamako, even when I know the names of major scholars and seek out interviews with them, I have found it much harder to have productive interviews with shaykhs than with politicians, including politicians from the north. Is there even more reticence in the north about interacting with foreigners and/or journalists?
  3. How much did the rise of Tabligh in the 1990s and 2000s, and the rise of Salafism and Salafi-jihadism in the region, affect the wider religious field? How were traditionalist – i.e., Maliki-Sufi-Ash’ari – scholars in the north affected? Is it even correct to assume that someone like Ould Muhammad al-Amin, from a family famously identified with the Qadiriyya Sufi order, still identified as Sufi? What is the position of someone like the jihadist(-leaning?) judge Houka Houka ag Alhousseini within the wider religious field – an outlier, a representative of a minority trend, a representative of a growing trend, etc.? Is someone like that only infamous because he is associated with jihadists, while the truly influential religious scholars in the region shun the spotlight?
  4. When the 2015 Algiers Accord, meant to bring peace to northern Mali, refers to the role of cadis/qadis (Islamic judges) in local governance (.pdf, p. 13), do northern leaders have a list of specific people in mind to fulfill these functions – or who are already fulfilling these functions? Or is this more aspirational?

Obviously I welcome any insights that readers may have. The answers to these questions potentially have major import for how one understands the situation in northern Mali. A situation where senior, traditionalist scholars are dying without being replaced could mean that the politicians are the ones dominating the scene and/or that jihadists face less resistance within the religious field. On the other hand, if the senior traditionalists are still present but reticent, that could mean that there are powerful religious influences on politicians and powerful counterweights to jihadists, in complex dynamics that lie outside of my view.

Protests in Bamako and Southern Mali

Protests yesterday in Mali’s capital Bamako showed that the ongoing Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali is seriously affecting politics and interethnic relations in the southern part of the country. Reuters describes the scene:

Hundreds of Malians set up barricades and burned tyres in the streets of Bamako on Thursday, shutting down the capital in the latest protests against a rebellion that has seized several northern towns, and the government’s handling of it.

[…]

A Reuters reporter in Bamako said shops were shuttered early in the afternoon and smoke hung over parts of the city after tyres had been set on fire.

The centre of town was largely deserted except for groups of youths wandering around, the reporter said.

Yesterday’s demonstrations made international news, but protests actually began several days earlier. Military families began protesting in Kati, a town near the capital Bamako, on January 30th. Le Pretoire (French, my translation), writes that on Tuesday the 31st, “The women of the military base in the town of Kati went out and marched in the direction of Koulouba [the presidential palace], burning tires on the Kati-Bamako highway.” On Wednesday, military families reportedly “attacked government buildings and targeted at least one business run by a Tuareg in…Kati.” Protesters have also, the BBC says, targeted Tuareg shops in Segou. Jeune Afrique has begun to speak of “anti-Tuareg pogroms.”

Protesters are angry in part over what they see as the military’s lack of proper equipment. The protesters may also feel scared about the difficulties (French) and setbacks the military has faced so far. There also seems to be a perception among some protesters that the Tuaregs in the south are sympathetic to, or to blame for, the actions of their fellow tribesmen in the north. As Reuters comments, “The demonstrations, sparked by local reports that the military ran out of ammunition and that dozens of soldiers may have been executed during rebel attacks, have raised the prospects of clashes between Malian communities.”

Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure, who has only a few months left in office, has attempted to reassure his nervous nation and to defuse ethnic tensions. For the first time since the Tuareg rebellion resumed, he addressed the nation on Wednesday, “pledg[ing] not to give in to separatist demands but, in a sign of concerns that the conflict could spread, call[ing] on Malians to refrain from attacks on any particular community.” (Read the full text of Toure’s speech here, in French).

The administration is doing a lot of talking behind closed doors as well. Government representatives are meeting Tuareg representatives in Algeria; all signs indicate that the government wants a diplomatic solution and believes one is still possible. Toure is also moving to assuage the protesters’ anger; yesterday morning he met with military wives.

So long as the situation remains bad in the north, though, the possibility of protests and pogroms will remain in the south. This is a bad moment for Mali, and indeed for the region. As Fatoumata Lejeune of the UNHCR wrote on Twitter yesterday, “Touareg uprising in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Wade reelection bid in Senegal. Too much trouble in West Africa these days!”

For updates on the situation in southern Mali, I recommend following Martin Vogl, a journalist based in Bamako who frequently writes for major news outfits.