What Role for the Chérif of Nioro in Mali’s Current Political Upheaval?

Mali is in the midst of a serious political upheaval now, as the June 5 Movement – so named for the date of its first protest – mobilizes tens of thousands of people in the capital Bamako to call on President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) to resign. The June 5 movement followed its June 5 protest with another on June 19, and the next rally is schedule for June 27.

I have discussed the organizers of the June 5 Movement in previous posts The most prominent of the organizers is the Muslim cleric Mahmoud Dicko. But I want to turn to a major Malian cleric who is playing a less direct but equally crucial role in the current moment. I am referring to Mohamed Ould Cheiknè Hamaullah, the Chérif of Nioro du Sahel. The Chérif is the foremost Sufi leader in Mali (Dicko is Salafi, or even post-Salafi). The Chérif has, in recent years, been publicly aligned with Dicko on various issues – including their mutual opposition to IBK’s re-election in 2018.

In between the June 5 protest and the June 19 protest, Prime Minister Boubou Cissé flew to Nioro (map) to meet the Chérif, after IBK had asked Cissé to stay on as Prime Minister while forming a “government of change.”

According to one readout of the two-hour meeting, Cissé asked three things of the Chérif: (1) Give his blessing for Cissé’s retention as Prime Minister; (2) Ask the June 5 organizers to delay the June 19 rally; and (3) Reopen his local shops. The Chérif agreed only to the first of these requests, and then made his own three requests, via Cissé, of IBK: (1) That IBK remove his (IBK’s) son Karim from positions of influence; (2) That the president restore the candidates in the legislative elections whose initial victories were overturned by the Constitutional Court; and (3) That the president fire Manassa Danioko, President of the Constitutional Court.

At the June 19 rally, Dicko affirmed that the Chérif supported the protest and had refused the government’s request to intercede.

What of Danioko? I am still finding the reporting about quite hard to sort through, and to tell who has resigned, but some sources say that Danioko is unwilling to step down, and that it would be legally quite complicated if not impossible for IBK to invoke Constitutional provisions that would allow him to dissolve the court.

Karim Keïta, an elected deputy representing a Bamako district and a key player in the president’s network, appears unlikely to step back from power either.

There is a lot more to say about the Chérif – for more context on him, see Benjamin Soares’ classic book Islam and the Prayer Economy. And see also Andrew Lebovich’s excellent 2019 paper on Mali’s clerics here.

In brief, the Chérif is playing a multi-faceted role now as (a) a powerful symbol of authority, one whose aura various actors are seeking to draw on, and (b) a key negotiator with the government in and of himself.

Finally, I recommend this piece by Olivier Dubois, discussing ways that the June 5 movement resonates – and does not resonate – in different parts of Mali, including the Kayes Region, where Nioro is situated.

Family Networks and Mali’s Key Governing Institutions

This post caught my eye the other day. It says, “Issiaka Sidibé, father-in-law of President IBK [Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta], named president of the High Court of Justice.”

Here is a response from another Malian observer, reading, “He was elected in the electoral district of Koulikoro, elected by his colleagues as president of the High Court of Justice of Mali, hence the word nomination is misleading. ‘Father-in-law of IBK,’ this connection is an invention coming from you.”

So there’s a lot to sort through here, with consequences for how to understand the workings of Mali’s institutions at the highest levels.

Issiaka Sidibé served as president of Mali’s National Assembly from 2014 to 2020, stepping down after the recent legislative elections in March/April of this year. He is the father-in-law not of President Keïta but of Keïta’s son Karim, who also serves as a deputy in parliament – in 2013, several months after his father was elected president, Karim won a legislative seat representing the capital Bamako’s Commune II). The younger Keïta was re-elected in this year’s vote. Within the National Assembly, he also holds a prominent post as President of the Defense, Security, and Civilian Protection Commission.

Karim Keïta (see one biography of him here, and a discussion of his inner circle here, both in French) reportedly has substantial influence over his father’s picks for top personnel – although this question takes us back to the debate between the two Malian commentators cited above. One could have the same debate about the new president of the National Assembly, Moussa Timbiné (who represents Bamako’s Commune V) – but various accounts say confidently that the two Keïtas, and especially Karim, had a strong hand in Timbiné’s selection. Sidibé, Karim Keïta, and Timbiné all belong to President Keïta’s Rally for Mali (French acronym RPM) party.

Turning to the High Court of Justice (French), this body is composed of nine members of the National Assembly, and is the body which judges the President of the Republic and cabinet ministers if they face charges of treason or other crimes. The High Court has nine members elected from among the National Assembly’s deputies, and its slate changes with each new Assembly. The nine new members (French) for the Sixth Assembly, and their party affiliations, are:

  1. Sina Oumar Traoré, MPM-UDD
  2. Kadidia Sangaré, MRD
  3. Soungalo Togola, Adema
  4. Mamadou Salif Diallo, Adema
  5. Abdoul Kadri Ibrahim Diallo, VRD
  6. Issiaka Sidibé, RPM
  7. Cheickna Coulibaly, RPM
  8. Mohamed Ould Mataly, RPM (note: he is under sanctions from the United Nations Security Council)
  9. Maïmouna Ouloguem, BENSO

As president of the Court, Sidibé replaces Abdrahamane Niang, another reported (French) close associate of President Keïta.

What does all this mean? On the one hand, it is not unusual around the world to see multiple members of a family enter politics and win high office – certainly the United States has no shortage of examples of that. But I have to say, I’m less than enthusiastic about political dynasties in my own country. And it makes sense that the Keïtas would want an ally of theirs as president of the National Assembly – what is the point, after all, of having a political party if not to try to control the executive and legislative branches simultaneously? But at what point does the influence of a single parliamentary deputy, based on family connections, become anti-democratic? At what point does a political network cross the line from being a clique of powerful individuals (which will invariably operate in any presidential administration) to being a clique that bends the key institutions of the state to its own interests? Moreover, having the president’s son’s father-in-law presiding over the body that would judge the president were he to be accused of a crime does, to say the least, set up a clear and worrying conflict of interest.

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.