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.

Mali: Clerics Rally to Defend Their Class and Weaken the President

On January 19, the Malian imam Abdoul Aziz Yattabaré was stabbed to death in the capital Bamako while exiting his mosque. A member of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM) and director of the Islamic Institute of Missira, Yattabaré’s death evoked wide grief.

The assassination also provoked a public dispute between the HCIM’s leader Mahmoud Dicko and the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), with Dicko’s spokesman quickly casting doubt on the government’s statements concerning the assassination and the accused assassin. At the heart of the controversy are a few questions, including whether the imam was assassinated because he condemned homosexuality. Dicko’s spokesman also implied that Yattabaré’s death reflected a government effort to silence Dicko and his circle amid wider tensions between the government and several religious leaders, most prominently Dicko and the Chérif of Nioro, who is arguably the leading Sufi shaykh in Mali.

Dicko and the Chérif (the latter represented by a spokesman) followed up with a mass rally in Bamako on 10 February. The key demands made there were for (a) a new law criminalizing homosexuality, (b) better governance and security, and (c) the sacking of Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (SBM).

There is obviously a lot going on here all at once. Here are a few points:

  • As a pressure bloc, Mali’s religious leaders seem to have the most influence when it comes to “social issues” and particularly ones related to sexuality; the same clerics recently got the government to back down on sex education in schools. And the clerics seem to be much less influential when it comes to determining electoral outcomes; Dicko and the Chérif, despite vocal opposition, did not thwart IBK’s re-election last year. So in denouncing homosexuality, the clerics are on familiar and, for them, very strong ground.
  • Calling for SBM’s resignation is a savvy political move in the sense that he is the strongest prime minister IBK has had so far. There was rapid turnover in prime ministers during Keïta’s first term. SBM has also been credited, rightly or wrongly, with winning the re-elect for IBK. If you want to weaken the president, in other words, calling for SBM’s firing is not a stupid tactic.
  • In terms of popular attitudes toward homosexuality, I think some Western commentators discussing the rally in Bamako came off as a bit too smug and contemptuous, forgetting that (a) it wasn’t that long ago that major Western politicians such as Barack Obama opposed gay marriage, and (b) in a context of widespread insecurity and paranoia, conspiracy theories can gain a lot of currency within information economies. I’m not saying any of this to defend homophobia, but rather to say that if you put yourself in the shoes of someone at one of these rallies, it is not incomprehensible why someone might latch onto the idea that there is a homosexual cabal running the country and seeking to undermine Islam; amid endemic violence, it often seems that people reach for explanations that revolve around a sense that “things are not what they seem,” or in particular, “the elites are not who they seem.” The circulation of conspiracy theories combines with anti-Western sentiment to allow clerics such as Dicko to present themselves as defenders of what is “authentically” Malian and Muslim against an alleged foreign onslaught.
  • The clerics may also feel some genuine fear, as a class, and are thus going on the offensive because they feel themselves to be on the defensive. Not too long after Yattabaré’s murder, another Bamako-based preacher was stabbed, although not fatally. The clerics may be feeling more vulnerable than they admit. Having been in both the HCIM offices and Dicko’s mosque, I can say that security is not tight in either place. I imagine that may change now.