Mali: A Second Round of Protests Against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta

On Friday, June 5, a mass demonstration in Mali’s capital Bamako called for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) to resign. To briefly recap what I wrote here, the organizers – a proto-political party called CMAS led by prominent cleric Mahmoud Dicko; a coalition of political parties called the FSD; and a civil society formation led by filmmaker Cheick Oumar Sissoko and called EMK – have clearly tapped into a formidable wave of dissatisfaction with IBK’s performance on security, education, corruption, and the recent, controversial legislative elections. The organizers, now calling themselves the Mouvement du 5 juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (June 5 Movement – Rally for Political Forces), held another massive rally on Friday, June 19.

See for yourself:

Two important developments occurred between June 5 and June 19:

  • Keïta, reacting to the June 5 rally, addressed the nation on June 14 and promised to appoint a “government of change,” retaining Prime Minister Boubou Cissé. By my count this is IBK’s sixth cabinet reshuffle since taking office in 2013.
  • The Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS) got involved, sending a delegation to Bamako that included ECOWAS Commission President JeanClaude Kassi Brou and the Foreign Ministers of Niger, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire. Here are most of the senior members of the delegation meeting with Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, who currently holds ECOWAS’ rotating presidency, on June 18 as they prepared to head to Bamako:

The ECOWAS delegation, in Bamako from 18-20 June, met President IBK and Prime Minister Cissé as well as Dicko, other leaders of the 5 June Movement, and several other key groups and bodies. The delegation’s communique is here:

Most significantly, ECOWAS has called on Malian authorities to “reconsider the results” from legislative races whose outcomes were reversed by Mali’s Constitutional Court when it proclaimed, on April 30, the final results of the legislative elections. The Court’s final results contradicted the provisional results issued earlier by the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, following the second round of the elections on April 19. The more I try to confirm the numbers the more muddied it seems to get, but IBK’s Rally for Mali (RPM) gained at least 8 seats in the revised results, including several seats in Bamako where it had initially appeared that the RPM suffered a serious rout. In its communiqué, the ECOWAS delegation writes that the Court’s decision “is at the base of the current socio-political tension.” It is not hard to see why – some citizens’ feeling that IBK is performing abysmally and selfishly, combined with those citizens’ feeling that elections do not offer a genuine vehicle for change and accountability, adds up to a sentiment of real frustration and anger.

Reuters interprets ECOWAS’ statement as a call to re-run the disputed elections; I am not sure that is what ECOWAS is saying, because “reconsider the results” could also mean “go back to the provisional results.” A lot is at stake either way – including the seat of the new President of National Assembly, Moussa Timbiné. I think the presidency would really have to feel that its back was against the wall before it gave up those additional seats and sacrificed major members of its team in the Assembly. And to compound the situation, I’m not sure the protesters would be satisfied with re-run elections. It’s one thing to note, perhaps correctly, that the Court’s decision was a spark for the current demonstrations; it’s another thing to argue that one could extinguish a fire by extinguishing the original spark.

Returning to the protests themselves, a dramatic moment occurred when three emissaries of the organizers, carrying a letter telling the president to resign, were denied entry to the presidential palace at Koulouba. Dicko then quite deliberately called on protesters to go home and avoid violence.

On 20 June, outlets began reporting that four of the eight members of the Constitutional Court had resigned, but as I was writing this post on the night of 21 June, the situation was still unclear to me.

All of this should underline how seriously the authorities, and peer governments, are taking things. The protests back in May were also serious, but this is on a different level. One wonders whether the authorities have an even stronger sense than journalists (and your humble blogger) do of how severe the political threat to IBK is.

What next? More clarity about the Court, the formation of the new government, a decision about the disputed legislative seats, further protests, increasing concern from other West African governments…but beyond that, who can say?

To close, here are two good pieces, in French, from some of Mali’s most insightful analysts:

  • Bokar Sangaré, “The Streamroller Mahmoud Dicko
  • An interview with the sociologist Bréma Ely Dicko: “It is the political class that has failed.” Dicko has some interesting comments about the organizers’ call for Keïta to resign, saying that some of them mean it literally while others are rather “pushing” IBK to “come out of his silence and come down into the arena.”

Analyzing the June 5 Anti-IBK Protest in Bamako, Mali

Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta or IBK has been president of Mali since 2013; he was re-elected in 2018 to a second five-year term. By some measures, he is popular: in the second round of 2018 elections, he received 67% of the vote. By various other measures, he is deeply unpopular: a December 2019 opinion poll of residents in the capital Bamako put his favorability rating at just 26.5%. In legislative elections held in two rounds this March/April, IBK’s Rally for Mali (RPM) party lost as many as 23 seats* – although it then reclaimed 10 of those seats in a decision by the Constitutional Court, a move that prompted demonstrations in different parts of the country, including Bamako, Sikasso, and Kayes. Common criticisms of IBK include the charges that he is weak, corrupt, overly beholden to France, and incapable of dealing with the country’s insecurity and other challenges.

On June 5, three major groups organized an anti-IBK demonstration in Bamako (authorities’ efforts to block it from happening did not succeed, obviously). By all accounts the event attracted a massive turnout – the figure 20,000 was bandied about a lot, although some observers felt that was much too low.

The three organizers are, in order of when they were established:

  • The Front for Safeguarding Democracy (FSD): Created in October 2018, two months after IBK’s re-election, the FSD assembled some thirty parties into an anti-IBK coalition. The central figure in the coalition is the formal head of Mali’s opposition, Soumaïla Cissé, who was the runner-up in the 2013 and 2018 presidential elections (and who was kidnapped, almost certainly held by jihadists, on March 25 of this year). Cissé charged that fraud had swung the results of the 2018 elections, a claim that is worth taking seriously but also a kind of claim often made in West African (and other) presidential elections. The 2018 dispute helps to explain, in part, the FSD’s talk of defending democracy.
  • The Coordination of Movements, Associations, and Sympathizers (CMAS): Launched in September 2019, CMAS is led by Mahmoud Dicko, one of the most prominent Muslim clerics in Mali. From 2008-2019, Dicko was president of the High Islamic Council of Mali (French acronym HCIM). Throughout that time he periodically organized mass rallies to challenge government policies and to weigh in on social and political issues – in other words, he is no stranger to mass politics. Many observers understand CMAS as a vehicle for Dicko to play an even more explicitly political role in Mali. Dicko supported IBK in 2013 but they fell out during the president’s first term, and Dicko opposed IBK’s re-election in 2018. Another key CMAS leader is Issa N’Djim or Djim, Dicko’s longtime spokesman and Coordinator General of CMAS.
  • Espoir Mali Koura (EMK): Set up in May 2020, EMK is a movement of “civil society and individual influential personalities,” as well as political parties. It is led by Cheick Oumar Sissoko, a filmmaker who held ministerial posts (Culture and Education) in the 2000s. The linked story above describes EMK as a successor to “An tè, A Bana,” a platform that participated in pushing back against IBK’s plans to hold a constitutional referendum in 2017; the president ultimately withdrew the proposal.

Note that all of the groups were created within the past two years, but all of them rest on organizational networks and infrastructures, as well as leaders’ public profiles, that date back much longer.

The demonstration, held on a Friday, formally began with the Islamic congregational prayer, led by CMAS’ Oumarou Diarra, who is imam at a mosque in Bamako’s Missabougou neighborhood.

Some Malian commentators expressed alarm at the combination of a public prayer and a political demonstration. One example:

Reading through the replies to that post, though, one sees the range of debate – some commenters see nothing “Islamist” about a public prayer, others affirm that Mali is a laïc (secular) country despite prayers organized by CMAS (or IBK, for that matter), and still others express concerns about what all this means for women’s rights or the trajectory of the country.

Andrew Lebovich provides some thoughtful analysis on these points, in a thread starting here:

After the prayer, the organizers delivered a series of speeches calling on IBK to step down (you can find a list of some of the speakers here). RFI (French) quotes from the speech of one organizer, without naming him: “There is no security, no school, too much corruption and the last straw was the bastardized results of the legislative elections.” IBK, in other words, has become the face of Mali’s problems in the eyes of a significant number of Malians.

Some of Dicko’s own rhetoric, meanwhile, was reportedly quite threatening. He is quoted as saying (French), “I swear that if this rally doesn’t teach him a lesson, history will tell the way in which his power will end.”

After the rally, some demonstrators proceeded to IBK’s residence in Sébénikoro. Some observers reported clashes between police and demonstrators there, and demonstrators burned tires and boards along the main road.

On June 6, the day after the demonstrations, CMAS, EMK, and FSD issued a joint communiqué praising the mobilization, reiterating an ultimatum to IBK that he step down, and asking all Malians to remain mobilized:

 

Meanwhile, what is the role of anti-French sentiment in all this? Trying to find the hyperlink to the December 2019 poll with IBK’s approval rating, I also found these results from the same poll (of 1,320 adults in Bamako):

  • Views of France: 62% very unfavorable, 22% unfavorable, 15.3% favorable
  • Satisfaction with France’s efforts to address Mali’s crisis: 66% very dissatisfied, 15% dissatisfied
  • Views of France’s motivations for its presence in Mali: 77% believe France is in Mali “only for its own [i.e., France’s] interests”
  • Views of whether France should leave Mali: 62% think France should leave Mali, 25.3% think France should change its approach or leave, and 12.6% think France should stay.

The rest of the poll is bad news for France too; it’s just one poll and it’s just in Bamako, of course, but it’s worth taking seriously.

In light of the poll results, it’s worth reading a post (French) EMK’s Sissoko made to the group’s Facebook page on June 6. Decrying what he describes as a suspicious disparity between the attacks suffered by Malian soldiers and what Sissoko sees as the lack of such attacks on French bases, Sissoko comments, “The International Community, with France in front, is the demon that must be exorcised. They want to destroy us for their interests. The facts don’t lie.” In the post, Sissoko did not link this argument directly to the June 5 rally, but it’s clear that for at least part of the coalition that organized the rally, IBK’s departure is not their only demand. And if the results of the poll cited here are accurate, the organizers speak for a wide swath of Bamako residents, and perhaps Malians as a whole, when they denounce IBK and when they question France’s motives.

IBK has not, obviously, stepped down. I don’t think he will. This raises the question of what the organizers and demonstrators hope to achieve, both in the short and long term. It’s worth reading this interview (French) with CMAS’ Djim, which offers a useful explication of CMAS’ views but in which Djim is pretty short on details about what comes next, and perhaps not out of coyness but because CMAS and the other organizers may genuinely not know yet. So the demonstration was a “show of force” – but to what end? To block the sequel to the 2017 referendum effort? Or do the organizers believe that this action, or a series of such actions, can turn into a popular uprising comparable to the one that toppled Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso in 2014, or that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011? Unlike those leaders, of course, IBK came to power via the ballot box and has not been in the presidency for decades. Do the organizers hope to prompt a military coup?

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but I’m not sure where this energy goes. Some of Dicko’s past “asks” were more immediately palatable to presidents – withdraw this law, change this policy, fire this prime minister, etc. Tough asks, but not a demand for the top guy himself to go. In any case, even if IBK outlasts these calls for his resignation, the remaining three years of his mandate could feel quite long indeed.

*The best numbers I’ve seen are that the RPM won 66 seats in the 2013 legislative elections, then won 43 seats according to the initial results of the 2020 elections, then ended up with 53 after the final results were certified. But I’ve seen a few slightly different tallies.