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.