Sahel (and Adjacent Zones) Roundup, Including Some Long Reads

United Nations Development Programme, “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Pathways to Recruitment and Disengagement,” February 2023. This is a follow-up to an impactful and insightful 2017 study that focused on state abuses as a “tipping point” for recruitment. This follow-on report makes a key distinction between recruits who join, often quite quickly, due to a trigger event, versus “slow” recruits who do not have a single trigger event. There’s a lot to think about here.

Rahmane Idrissa, “In Bamako,” London Review of Books, 2 February 2023. Prof. Idrissa is essential reading on the Sahel, although I paused over almost every sentence in the below paragraph – I don’t agree with the implication that Dicko had or has a master plan.

Doumbi’s talk of ‘wars of religion’ tells us something about the clashing visions that could easily destroy Hampâté Bâ’s multicultural vision of Mali. Doumbi’s main adversary is Imam Mahmoud Dicko, a charismatic Salafi cleric who has been working for decades to turn Mali into an Islamic republic. He was instrumental in Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s accession to the presidency in 2013: in return for Dicko’s support, Keïta promised to promote an Islamist platform championed by the youth wing of Dicko’s unofficial movement. But Keïta didn’t come good, and in the summer of 2020, Dicko helped to engineer his downfall. Until the military takeover later that year, Dicko could almost smell the ultimate prize – a constitutional change that would turn his informal position as Mali’s ‘moral authority’ (a label given to him by the media) into an official one in an Islamised or even fully Islamic republic. That would have brought jihadist leaders into the political process, and driven Doumbi, and others like him, into the wilderness.

Timbuktu Institute, “Mali: Évolutions de la transition et nouvelles dynamiques sociopolitiques et sécuritaires au nord,” January 2023. Here’s the table of contents:

Kalidou Sy, “Le désarroi de Youssouf, le policier qui failli arrêter Malam Dicko,” afriqueXXI, 6 January 2023. Amazing details here:

À Djibo, le rapport à la religion a toujours été mesuré. Différents courants de l’islam cohabitaient. « Il y avait deux confréries : la Tidjaniya (les Doucouré) et la mosquée de Woursababé (les Cissé). Ces derniers furent les premiers à s’être installés à Djibo. » Mais au début des années 1990, l’arrivée d’un homme a tout changé : « C’était en 1991 ou en 1992, je ne sais plus. Le père de Malam Dicko est arrivé d’un village malien situé à la frontière du Burkina. »

Il commence par demander une parcelle de terre pour construire sa mosquée – requête qui est acceptée par les Tidjanes et les Woursababés. Avec ses discours « révolutionnaires », il cherche à déconstruire l’ordre social et n’hésite pas à s’en prendre ouvertement à ses pairs marabouts. « Dans ses prêches, il soutient qu’un marabout ne doit pas attendre d’aumône, qu’il doit travailler lui-même, qu’il ne faut pas faire de mariages fastueux avec de grosses dépenses pour ensuite vivre dans la précarité », explique Youssouf. Cela ne plaît guère aux autres confréries, d’autant qu’au fil du temps, le nombre de ses adeptes a augmenté.

Au début des années 2010, son fils Ibrahim Malam Dicko a pris la relève. Très éloquent, il était vu comme un gourou par ses adeptes : « Il prêchait du social, se remémore Youssouf. Malam disait qu’il n’est pas permis d’égorger plus de deux moutons durant les fêtes. Il avait beaucoup d’adeptes qui voyaient en ses discours une révolution au sens noble de leur islam. »

James Courtwright, “A Small Town in Ghana Erupted in Violence. Were Jihadists Fueling the Fight?” New Lines Magazine, 25 January 2023. An excerpt:

New Lines traveled to Bawku to investigate the conflict and found that, rather than creeping jihadism, residents, local politicians and community leaders described a dispute with deep historical and political roots being fueled by partisanship, social media and weapons proliferation. The war on terror may be on Ghana’s doorstep, but an eagerness to conflate local conflict with international jihadism may in fact only be fanning the flames further.

Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s New Order,” New Left Review, 26 January 2023. Quoting:

Some might dismiss this episode [of fighting in Tripoli in August 2022] as yet another skirmish in an interminable conflict between the shifting armed alliances in Tripoli. And so it may be. But there is also a broader trend at work here. Over the years, these repeated confrontations have entrenched the power of several fearsome militias, which have become increasingly professionalized while gradually expanding their territory. Post-Qadhafi Libya offered exceptionally favourable conditions for such groups, most of which operate as official security forces and enjoy generous state funding. At first, these organizations were unruly, fractious and unambitious – prone to splits and petty internal rivalries. Yet over time they have developed centralized leadership structures and absorbed growing numbers of the former regime’s military and intelligence officers. The result has been the consolidation of a militia landscape that, in Tripoli alone, initially involved dozens of different armed groups.

Obi Anyadike, ” ‘Everyone knows somebody who has been kidnapped’: Inside Nigeria’s Banditry Epidemic,” The New Humanitarian, 30 January 2023. A key paragraph:

The most feared bandit leaders levy taxes, settle local disputes, and have praise songs sung about them. These are young men, typically in their 30s, casual in their use of violence, who claim a political solidarity with the pastoralists even though Fulani – like Ismael – are among their victims. When not feuding, they cooperate with one another in shifting alliances, but also compete in a perpetual arms race for deadlier military equipment. 

Jared Miller, “The Politics and Profit of a Crisis: A Political Marketplace Analysis of the Humanitarian Crisis in Northeast Nigeria,” World Peace Foundation, 1 February 2023. An important section (p. 24):

Since the conflict began, more than $3.8 billion in international aid has flowed into the northeast. In 2020, UNOCHA estimated that $1.1 billion was needed to provide necessary humanitarian aid to an estimated 7.8 million people, 3.8 million of whom needed food security assistance. The diversion of humanitarian aid is not unique to Nigeria, but it has become part of the political economy of the northeast and has created vested interests in a continued crisis.


Humanitarian actors report immense pressure to shift the narrative, and the corresponding agenda, from humanitarian response to development despite the continued insecurity or lack of government control. This is a call that is shared by both the Nigerian government and Nigerians in the northeast, though their reasons are likely very different. Some sought a return to normal life while others may have seen it as an opportunity to use development rents to fund their political budgets. Regardless of the motivation, collective calls to shift to development also came with an input of funds for rebuilding.

Could Mali’s Coup Have Been Avoided? Part One – IBK’s Mistakes

In March 2012, Mali had a coup, and in August 2020, Mali had another coup. Was it inevitable that Mali would cycle back around to this point? And if not, what could have been done to avoid this outcome?

Trying to answer this question, I’ve divided this post into two parts. Here, in part one, I take a look at general features of ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK)’s managerial style as well as specific decisions he and his team made. One could argue that the cumulative effect of his performance, as well as a few specific decisions, made a coup highly likely. But I also think it’s too simple to just lay blame at the feet of IBK. That’s partly because he and his approach are features, rather than bugs, in Malian politics, and partly because the overall situation would be challenging for anyone to successfully preside over. And then tomorrow, in part two, I will look at general features of international/Western actors’ approach to Mali, and specific decisions key international actors made – they, too, deserve significant blame here.

In the interest of relative brevity I’m not going to dwell too long on any particular point, and all of my lists are non-exhaustive.

General Features of IBK’s Managerial Style

There were at least six recurring problems in how IBK approached the presidency:

  1. He put family members into key positions – especially his highly visible son Karim, but also in-laws and family members’ close associates and friends. And top political appointees put their family members into key positions, and so forth. These appointments stoked popular anger and undermined people’s trust in the president. This issue of family members in government was something the new junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, specifically mentioned in their first statement.
  2. He stumbled into big corruption scandals, notably the fallout from the excessively inflated price of a presidential jet purchased in 2014.
  3. He fired prime ministers and reshuffled cabinets too often – six prime ministers in seven years. By overplaying that card, that meant that when he tried to play it again this summer in the face of mass protests it did little good. The turnover also fed speculation that he was difficult to work with and jealous of his power. And the turnover reinforced widespread perceptions that there is no real accountability in Malian politics, only a game of musical chairs – ministers and military officers would be fired, seemingly for good cause, only to resurface in a later cabinet.
  4. He never decisively cracked down on security force abuses or militias. And on the few occasions when he tried to contain and dissolve various government-adjacent militias, it was too late. He allowed a culture of impunity and abuse to thrive, which in turn (a) fueled conflict, (b) increased the salience of ethnicity in violence and in politics, and (c) created new centers of power in the country that ended up undermining his own power.
  5. He repeatedly misread the popular mood in Bamako and pushed ahead with electoral initiatives that were not, strictly speaking, absolutely necessary to his own political survival – and in the process wasted political capital. Here I am thinking specifically of the abortive constitutional referendum of 2017 and the legislative elections of this year; more on the latter issue below.
  6. He crossed Imam Mahmoud Dicko. They fell out for real circa late 2017 and early 2018 for complicated reasons, including IBK’s appointment of a prime minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, with whom Dicko had serious friction. IBK won re-election in 2018 despite Dicko’s explicit opposition, but it is clear now that IBK underestimated Dicko greatly. Dicko is not the only cleric in the country, but he is distinctive in the combination of his willingness and his ability to turn people out in the streets of Bamako to challenge elected authorities – other clerics might be able to, but appear more reticent about doing so and especially about being the face of popular contestation. Dicko may not determine electoral outcomes, but by mobilizing mass protests this summer he – deliberately or accidentally – softened up IBK for this coup.

Specific Decisions IBK and His Team Made

Here are decisions I would qualify as mistakes, in chronological order:

  1. Buying that jet, man… (March 2014)
  2. Sending then-Prime Minister Moussa Mara to Kidal in an attempted show of force against ex-rebels, provoking an embarrassing clash and withdrawal (May 2014)
  3. Not reacting more swiftly and decisively when sustained jihadist violence began in central Mali (January 2015)
  4. Pursuing the constitutional referendum (summer 2017)
  5. Firing Dicko from his role exploring the possibility of negotiating with jihadists (very late 2017/early 2018) and getting into open conflict with Dicko; not finding a way to reconcile Dicko and then-Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga (in office December 2017-April 2019)
  6. Firing Maïga (April 2019). This one is highly debatable but Maïga was one of IBK’s most capable (and longest-serving) prime ministers. Maïga was fired, at least officially, due to the massacre of over 160 villagers in central Mali in March 2019 – but this firing appears to have been at least partly an act of deflection on IBK’s part. Again, less turnover in government might have given IBK more cards to play when protests broke out in summer 2020.
  7. Intervening (most likely) in the High Islamic Council election to replace Dicko (April 2019). By deepening the conflict with Dicko, IBK set the stage for the conflict to escalate further this summer.
  8. Not reacting swiftly and decisively when opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé was kidnapped (March 2020). Keïta should have immediately formed a task force/crisis cell, rather than waiting for a few weeks, and should have brought in heavyweights (yes, probably including Dicko) to try to secure Cissé’s release quickly. Cissé remains in captivity as of this writing.
  9. Holding the legislative elections (March/April 2020) and then almost certainly ordering the manipulation of some results (April 2020). This was the most proximate mistake, a key trigger for the protests in June and ultimately for the coup. And it built on the general problems and the earlier mistakes. As a good democrat, I obviously support holding elections on time rather than indefinitely delaying them; but from the perspective of realpolitik, IBK should have used COVID-19 as a reason for once again delaying the elections (which were originally scheduled for 2018).
  10. Flailing in response to the protests this summer (June-August). Offering things piecemeal, rather than as a package – to go full bore conciliatory or to completely refuse any conciliation would have likely been better than the middle course he tried.

Initial Conclusion About IBK

It’s easy for me in Ohio, or the think tankers and intelligence analysts and diplomats and NGO staffers in Washington, Paris, London, or New York, or Dakar, or Bamako, to think any one of us would have avoided IBK’s mistakes and run the presidency as a disciplined, meritocratic, highly responsive and decisive institution. But it’s unsatisfying to say that IBK was simply bad at his job, or somehow exceptionally venal in comparison with his peers.

In fact, some of the seemingly flagrant misjudgments he made are actually instances of relatively widespread patterns. For example, it’s relatively common in the Sahel and elsewhere for heads of state to empower their children – in Mali’s neighbor Niger, a blogger recently spent several weeks in detention after a commenter on her Facebook feed happened to criticize President Mahamadou Issoufou’s son. Major corruption scandals are unfolding right now in Niger and in another of Mali’s neighbors, Mauritania.

Governing or trying to govern a country like Mali involves delicate balancing acts, difficult tradeoffs involving whom to trust, and myriad temptations and opportunities for overreach. And Keïta, a former prime minister and National Assembly president, was no naif. Hindsight is 2020, and in most of the instances I’ve qualified as mistakes, there were competing arguments for action or inaction, decisiveness or indecisiveness. To always hang back when it’s best to hang back, to always act when it’s time to act – that would require immense political talent and foresight.

IBK was also dealt an objectively bad atrocious hand. Just imagine presiding over a country that is (a) desperately poor and landlocked, (b) trying to move past a coup and a de facto partition, (c) crawling with foreign soldiers, and (d) the central target of a major regional jihadist force. Add to that a peace accord that was/is very difficult to implement (although IBK compounded that difficulty by so often dragging his feet on implementing it). The accord became a kind of prison, locking him into complex negotiations with some extremely skilled and stubborn interlocutors who sometimes seemed to hold more cards than he did – and contributing to his decisions to forge ahead with various (in retrospect) ill-considered electoral gambits. Add to that the shocking pace at which the situation in central Mali deteriorated, all while the north-focused peace accord remained the international community’s primary political priority for Mali. And then try to govern from a capital roiled by political intrigues, hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers away from the main conflict theaters in the country.

Moreover, it’s also not as though the real contenders for presidential power in post-2012 Mali represented a wide menu of approaches, backgrounds, and outlooks. IBK comes out of a deeply entrenched, stagnant “political class” of technocrats-turned-party politicians. If IBK hadn’t become president of Mali in 2013, it’s highly likely that someone more or less like him would have. Is there a cab driver in Bamako, or a schoolteacher in Ségou, or a shepherd in Youwarou, who would do a better job at being president? Probably – but they have no shot. And at the regional level, IBK’s profile is not too different from the background of Niger’s current President Mahamadou Issoufou or Burkina Faso’s current President Roch Kaboré: highly educated, deeply experienced in government and party politics, in and out of the opposition, etc. Nor is IBK’s profile too different from that of Soumaïla Cissé, the runner-up in both the 2013 and 2018 elections. So while today it is easy to say, “Oh yes, IBK fell because he regularly overreached and unperformed,” we might equally easily, in some slight variant of this timeline, be saying the same about Cissé or any of a dozen other leading politicians.

So was it inevitable than anyone taking the Malian presidency in 2013 would fall before the end of his/her second term? No, and I for one certainly didn’t think a coup was a leading scenario for the country (although the idea was definitely in the air by July). But I do think the pressures of the Malian presidency require extraordinary skill and sensitivity to manage and balance, and any president could easily become a focus for popular dissatisfaction (and soldiers’ dissatisfaction) amid the many extremely serious and overlapping predicaments in which many Malians find themselves. The next president of Mali may enter office knowing that it’s unwise to appoint their children to key posts, and unwise to antagonize Dicko, but those guidelines won’t get them too far – the next president is also highly likely to find that ugly tradeoffs are practically built into the job and that all political alliances are unstable.

But IBK is only part of the story. If I can gather my thoughts sufficiently, I will be back tomorrow with part 2, dealing with international actors


An Apparent Military Coup in Mali: 10 Questions

Today was turbulent in Mali, with fast-moving narratives emerging and competing throughout the day. At around 17:00 Bamako time/13:00 Eastern time, however, AFP confirmed that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé had been arrested by the leaders of a mutiny. Things are so confused that, as of the time of writing, it’s still not clear to outsiders who is in charge of the mutiny/coup.

The apparent coup appears to have begun with a mutiny at a military base at Kati, just outside the capital Bamako (map).

The coup comes amid a summer of protests by the “June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces” (French acronym M5-RFP), a Bamako-centric coalition of opposition politicians, civil society actors, and the prominent Imam Mahmoud Dicko. The M5-RFP’s core demand has (had?) been for President Keïta to resign. This week, the M5-RFP had planned and begun to carry out a series of protest actions, to culminate in another mass protest on Friday. Today, images and videos circulated showing civilian protesters congregating in Bamako’s Place de l’Indépendance, the locale for previous M5-RFP protests. Further images and videos showed the protesters welcoming and supporting the mutineers:

Amid the dramatic events unfolding in Bamako, foreign powers – France, the United States, and the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – were attempting to forestall a coup and plead for calm. ECOWAS has been the formal mediator between the presidency and the M5-RFP.

Today’s apparent coup has already evoked numerous comparisons with the last two coups in Mali, which occurred in 1991 and 2012, respectively. To speak at a level of crude simplicity, the sequence of mass protests followed by a coup evokes parallels with 1991, while the sequence of a mutiny at Kati escalating into a coup in Bamako evokes parallels with 2012.

What happens next is, of course, anyone’s guess. But here are some questions I have:

  1. How far in advance was this apparent coup planned? Is it spontaneous, representing an improvised escalation of a (spontaneous) mutiny? Did it arise partly or wholly out of the dismissal of a major officer by the president? Or was it planned further in advance by elements within the armed forces who had been encouraged by the protests – and/or who were broadly losing confidence in President Keïta? From one perspective, the protests can be regarded as a symptom rather than a cause of the presidency’s problems. After all, well before the protests began, Mali faced a multi-faceted security, institutional, economic, and political crisis.
  2. If the apparent coup was planned, who was informed in advance? Were M5-RFP leaders informed? Did the coup leaders convey their intentions to any international audiences?
  3. If there is any convergence – past, present, or future – between the mutineers/coup-makers and the M5-RFP, how long will that last?
  4. How long will the mutineers remain in (partial) control of the state? Is the era of long-lasting military juntas decisively over – that is, will pressure from ECOWAS, France, the United States, and others force a transition to a civilian caretaker regime within a relatively short time? The 2012 junta was in power for only a few weeks. Within the Sahel as a whole in recent years, coup-makers have typically ceded power to civilians within 18 months or less (Burkina Faso 2014, Niger 2010-2011, Mauritania 2008-2009, etc.) – although in Mauritania a general became a civilian and then effectively ceded power to himself.
  5. Will international actors attempt to restore IBK to power? Theoretically, his term is set to expire in 2023; he is the legal president of Mali unless he formally resigns. On the one hand, international actors have throughout the summer consistently implied that they would be loath to see IBK go. On the other hand, bringing him back could simply set up Mali for a repeat of this scenario within weeks or months.
  6. If the mutineers/junta last only a short time in power and IBK formally resigns, will constitutional procedures be followed – will the President of the National Assembly become interim president, followed by new elections? If so, how will the military deal with the fact that the current National Assembly President, Moussa Timbiné, is one of 31 parliamentary deputies whose legitimacy is contested?
  7. If (when) there is a new election, what future is there for Mali’s “political class,” which as a body always appears to come out on top, with familiar faces cycling through key posts. If the coup gives way to a new act for the same political class, that could be quite disheartening for all those in the streets now. But is there an alternative to the “political class”?
  8. What does the coup mean for the various components of the international security presence in Mali – the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping operation, France’s Operation Barkhane counterterrorism mission, the G5 Sahel Joint Force battalions, etc.? As Peter Tinti comments, “The coup in Mali, if confirmed, is a policy disaster for France, ECOWAS, the UN, EU, etc. All were counting on IBK muddling through the rest of his mandate (or stepping down via negotiations).” What are the coup-makers’ attitudes and intentions toward the international security presence? And perhaps even more importantly, how will the funders and architects of that presence evaluate the continued value and importance of these security deployments, training missions, and stabilization efforts?
  9. What reactions will the coup elicit within Mali but outside Bamako? The M5-RFP has elicited only weak demonstrations of active support beyond the capital. Key actors with stakes in the existing (old?) order will have reasons to be very unhappy with a coup in the capital. For example, the northern ex-rebel bloc the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA) might conceivably declare independence for the Kidal Region, its home turf – but it appears much more likely that the CMA will be very nervous and unhappy about the prospect of disruptions to the Algiers Accord, a 2015 peace deal. The CMA has, along with IBK, been guilty of slow-rolling the accord’s implementation, but they are also highly invested in its continuation.
  10. What does all this portend for Mali’s future as a whole? What will be the human consequences of what appears like a new low for the country? The trajectory of the country could always change – but in the short term, it seems things will get even worse.

Four Reasons Why Mali in 2020 Is Not Burkina Faso in 2014

There was a lively commentary posted yesterday (August 4) at the Malian news aggregator site Maliweb, by Diagne Fodé Roland. I’ll translate the title as “Mali in 2020 Is on the Path of Burkina in 2014.” The twin reference is to the anti-incumbent protests that have been unfolding in Mali since June of this year, and to the 2014 popular uprising (and military coup) that overthrew Burkina Faso’s longtime ruler Blaise Compaoré in 2014.

The Malian protests are led by a coalition of groups known as the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (French acronym M5-RFP). Their main demand (now perhaps not shared by all parts of the movement) has been the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK).

I was not previously familiar with the writing of Diagne (I believe this to be his surname), but given how widely he has been published in the Senegalese press, he may be Senegalese rather than Malian. He quotes heavily from another thinker, Issa N’Diaye, whose work is also new to me – Diagne quotes from N’Diaye’s provocatively titled book Silence, on démocratise !démocratie et fractures sociales au Mali (Silence, We’re Democratizing! Democracy and Social Fractures in Mali). The argument Diagne picks up on from Ndiaye is that after the popular uprising (and military coup) that overthrew Mali’s longtime military dictator Moussa Traoré in 1991, the new system of multiparty democracy was in reality a neocolonial “festival of bandits” where members of the old ruling party (UDPM) took over the new ruling party (ADEMA) and marginalized the original movers in the revolution. In this view, part of the Malian left was disempowered and the remainder was incorporated into a “neocolonial bourgeoisie in vassalage to the liberal plans of structural adjustment dictated by the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.” In Diagne’s view, that history of what he sees as kleptocracy for elites and immiseration for ordinary Malians sets the stage for the current crisis.

Diagne’s points here are worth taking seriously, and his analysis is shared by not a few Malians. At the very least, the phrase “political class” has recurred throughout the crisis, and there is a palpable sense of fatigue and disgust with that class. The next part of Diagne’s historical narrative pertains to the northern rebellion of 2012 and the French intervention, which Diagne sees as a neo-imperialist maneuver. Diagne describes the insecurity in the country in highly conspiratorial terms, an analysis I do not share but which many Malians do seem to share. But to pursue that discussion would take us off track – I want to get back to the headline of Diagne’s piece.

Diagne does not develop, at all, the comparison between Mali and Burkina Faso – in fact, I wonder whether an editor slapped that headline on the piece. But the comparison is worth exploring, for at least two reasons:

  1. Burkina Faso’s transition is the most recent instance of a popular revolution in the Sahel, and
  2. The involvement of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in attempting to mediate Mali’s crisis invites a regional reading of the Malian situation. I have even seen the argument (I wish I had saved the link/post) that the real audience for ECOWAS’ missions to Mali is the domestic constituencies of those same ECOWAS heads of state, and that ECOWAS leaders are above all concerned that anti-incumbent protests not spread to their own countries. That’s a discussion worth pursuing in another post, I think.

I also won’t discuss the revolution in Burkina Faso exhaustively here – for that, I recommend Ernest Harsch’s Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution. Instead, I want to highlight four reasons why I think Mali 2020 and Burkina Faso 2014 are quite different from one another.

1. IBK is not Compaoré

Simply by virtue of math, I think one has to say that IBK in 2020 and Compaoré in 2014 belong to different categories. IBK is an embattled leader, a career member of the Malian “political class,” and now the symbol of that class, especially in the eyes of his opponents – yet he is also a term-limited incumbent in his second term, who came to power by the ballot box, and who has been in power for well under a decade (he took office in 2013). The elections IBK won in 2013 and 2018 were flawed (low turnout, and almost certainly some rigging), but they were not, in my view, the stage-managed elections of a “competitive authoritarian” dictatorship. All of this is a far cry from the career of Compaoré, who came to power in a bloody 1987 coup, was elected and re-elected president in grossly undemocratic elections in 1991 and 1998, skirted term limits on a technicality in 2005, and was preparing to flout term limits again in the lead-up to the 2015 election. IBK has not been president long enough to instill the kind of resentment that developed under Compaoré – no one protesting in the streets now in Bamako was born while IBK was president (I assume/hope), but plenty of protesters in Burkina Faso in 2014 had lived all their lives under Compaoré’s rule.

2. There are no Malian equivalents to the symbolism/martyrdom of Thomas Sankara or Norbert Zongo (yet)

The Burkinabè revolution was multi-causal and complex, but it’s worth mentioning two key figures who became symbols for the protesters there, and whom the protesters (and much of the wider society, it seems to me) consider martyrs of the Compaoré regime. The first is Compaoré’s immediate predecessor, the revolutionary dictator Thomas Sankara (in power 1983-1987), who is widely admired not just in Burkina Faso but across Africa and around the world (including by me, for what it’s worth) for his efforts to transform Burkina Faso’s society and economy and to make the country egalitarian and truly independent. Sankara’s murder during Compaoré’s 1987 coup is, for many Burkinabè citizens, a wound that refuses to heal, and during and after the protests there has been a powerful call for the country to reckon with that tragic history. The second figure is Norbert Zongo, a journalist murdered in 1998, likely at the hands of Compaoré’s regime and in connection with his investigation into the murder of a driver employed by Compaoré’s brother François, a story with wider implications for understanding corruption and impunity within the regime. These figures are not the only victims of the Compaoré regime, but their memories loomed large in the 2014 uprising.

I do not see any Malian equivalents to those figures, not at the same level of symbolism and resonance. This is not to say that there are not Malians dying in tragic and preventable ways; the insecurity in the center and the north of the country claims victims on a daily basis. There have even been deaths associated with the Malian security forces’ response to the M5-RFP’s protests. But I do not see a parallel to Sankara and Zongo in Mali in the sense of prominent, widely respected and even beloved figures whose deaths can be laid directly at the incumbent’s doorstep in some deeply personal way. Deep as the anger toward IBK may be among the M5-RFP’s supporters, I am not sure it matches the depth of the Burkinabè protesters’ anger and disgust toward Compaoré in 2014.

The most dangerous moment so far in the Malian government’s response to the M5-RFP, I would say, came over the weekend of July 10-12 when the security forces were detaining M5-RFP leaders and cracking down on protesters with excessive force. If the security forces inadvertently produce martyrs amid this crisis, the dynamic could shift substantially.

Another, related point is that there were dress rehearsals, of sorts, for the Burkinabè uprising of 2014 – notably, there were waves of protests in 2008 and 2011. One could argue that various episodes in Mali’s history (the 1991 revolution, or perhaps the 2009 protests against a controversial Family Code, or perhaps something else) were precedents for the current moment, but 1991 was a long time ago and previous mobilizations by clerics were issue-specific, or focused on figures below the level of the president. Mali in 2020 does not appear to be at the peak of a long-building wave.

3. The M5-RFP has little visible support outside Bamako

Another crucial difference between Burkina Faso in 2014 and Mali in 2020 is that the Burkinabè revolution had a broader geographical ambit. Certainly the M5-RFP is not completely lacking in support outside the capital, and certainly Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou was the heart of the 2014 revolution there – but numerous commentators have pointed out that the M5-RFP has not mobilized substantial protests in cities other than Bamako. Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso in 2014 (and in the earlier protest waves in 2008 and 2011), there was substantial mobilization in the economic hub Bobo-Dioulasso and elsewhere. If IBK outlasts the M5-RFP, as he is still fairly likely to do, a significant reason will be that the protests are not truly national in scope.

4. The Burkinabè revolution was relatively leaderless, whereas the M5-RFP is elite-led and therefore vulnerable

The whole idea of “leaderless movements” is partly a myth, of course, and there were organized groups that played substantial roles in the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso – the most famous of them being Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom), founded by musicians in 2013. And the ground for the uprising was partly prepared through intra-elite splits, including the departure of several major figures from Compaoré’s camp in 2012 (among them current President Roch Kaboré). Yet amid the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso, it was not so easy as it is in Mali in 2020 to pick out the handful of people who appear to be in charge. The M5-RFP is a formal coalition of three groups, which gives you a relatively small group of key leaders, such as Imam Mahmoud Dicko, his close associate Issa Kaou Djim, and the former ministers Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mountaga Tall, and Choguel Maïga. It is not that these leaders merely snap their fingers and tens of thousands of people come out – obviously there must be a give-and-take between leaders and protesters as the leaders attempt to read the mood of their supporters. Yet the relatively small, elite character of the leadership leaves them vulnerable to divide-and-rule tactics by IBK’s team, and to infighting and strategic disagreements. With the M5-RFP’s most prominent leader, Dicko, now suggesting that IBK does not need to resign, after all, it appears more likely that the M5-RFP will split than that the M5-RFP will succeed in forcing IBK out of power. In Burkina Faso, in contrast, events moved so quickly in October 2014, and the protesters proved so difficult to placate or divide, that Compaoré was being forced out before he could devise a serious counter-strategy. The increasingly protracted negotiations in Mali have, in a way, favored the M5-RFP so long as they don’t budge; but it has also given IBK time to experiment, lean on his peers and supporters outside Mali, and wait for the M5-RFP to crack.

Mali’s Temporary Skeleton Cabinet

Yesterday, Monday, July 27, the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) held an extraordinary summit by videoconference. The summit addressed the political contestation in Mali between President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and a protest collective called the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP). In the conflict between IBK and M5-RFP, ECOWAS has been the formal external mediator, with the support of France and other foreign powers. ECOWAS sent two mediation missions to Mali’s capital Bamako in June and July, and most recently sent five West African heads of state to Bamako on July 23.

ECOWAS’ recommendations have become stipulations, and the July 27 summit reiterated a deadline of July 31 for implementing the following measures: the formation of a national unity government, the recomposition of the Constitutional Court, the removal of 31 parliamentary deputies whose elections were contested.

Here I just want to focus on the national unity government – a formation that the M5-RFP has not (yet) agreed to join. Yet the Malian presidency, which has also been promising to form some kind of unity government since June, is moving ahead. Also yesterday, the presidency announced a kind of interim, skeleton government with just six essential ministers under Prime Minister Boubou Cissé; this is in keeping with ECOWAS’ framework, which authorized the appointment of core ministers before the full slate was determined.

Here are the appointees:

  1. Defense and Veterans: General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembelé
  2. Territorial Administration and Decentralization: Boubacar Alpha Bah
  3. Security and Civil Protection: General M’Bemba Moussa Keïta
  4. Justice and Human Rights: Kassoum Tapo
  5. Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation: Tiébilé Dramé
  6. Economy and Finance: Abdoulaye Daffé

A few relatively banal observations:

  1. There is a lot of continuity here. I’ve lost track of all the different cabinet reshuffles in Mali (more on that below), but if we look at the government formed in May 2019, after Cissé became Prime Minister we see Dembelé, Bah, and Dramé in their current posts.
  2. Both the newcomers and those continuing on are familiar faces. Tapo, for example, is an ex-minister who was close to former President Amadou Toumani Touré.
  3. The one real political newcomer might be Daffé – from my brief searches, it does not appear that he has held a ministerial post or a parliamentary seat before. But he comes out of a top job in the banking sector; he was the longtime Director of the National Development Bank of Mali. His name was even recently floated as a replacement for Cissé as prime minister. He is reportedly close to the Chérif of Nioro du Sahel, a major Muslim cleric who is somewhat aligned with the M5-RFP but who is also a key interlocutor for the presidency and for Cissé. So he should not be pegged as an apolitical technocrat.
  4. The cabinet reshuffles and games of musical chairs are exactly what the M5-RFP, or at least part of it, is trying to short-circuit. From the perspective of IBK’s opponents, the president has used repeated cabinet reshuffles to shield himself from political consequences. It also seems that most of the M5-RFP’s supporters are tired of politics as usual, and seeing the same faces cycle in and out of government and/or other top jobs is a complaint of the protesters rather than a solution to their complaints. It could reinforce protesters’ cynicism and anger to see previously fired officials (such as General Keïta, who was fired as Chief of Army Staff after the March 2019 massacre at Ogassagou in central Mali) return to powerful positions . Dembelé’s initial nomination in May 2019 was controversial too, given his active role in the 2012 military coup.

At the same time, there are questions about how long the M5-RFP can hold together, particularly when it comes to their core demand for IBK to resign. I’ve said before that I think repeatedly reiterating that demand has given the M5-RFP a lot of bargaining power, but Malian experts such as Bréma Ely Dicko are now predicting that the influential imam Mahmoud Dicko, the foremost leader of the protesters, will break with the others and drop the demand for IBK’s resignation. We will see.

I leave the French-speakers with this thread, which goes through the new cabinet picks in some detail:

Mali’s Imam Mahmoud Dicko and the Northern Nigerian Salafi Ulama, Briefly Compared

As the tension grows surrounding the June 5 protest movement in Mali, the protesters’ most prominent leader – Imam Mahmoud Dicko – is the subject of new and in some cases renewed attention from journalists and others (see here for one recent profile – h/t Andrew Lebovich, who adds his own observations here).

One thing I’ve been thinking about with Dicko is the comparison, or mostly the contrast, between him and some of the northern Nigerian Salafi scholars I wrote about in my first book. Dicko and some of those figures – the late Jafar Mahmud Adam, the late Muhammad Auwal Adam Albani Zaria, Abdulwahab Abdallah, and others – belong to roughly the same generation, born in the 1950s and 1960s, and their careers all included time in Saudi Arabia, especially at the Islamic University of Medina.*

The two contrasts that stand out to me are (a) the relatively much denser field of prominent Salafi scholars in northern Nigeria versus Mali, especially Bamako; and (b) the more clearly pedagogical focus of the northern Nigerian Salafi scholars in comparison to Dicko.

That there would be more prominent Salafi scholars in northern Nigeria than in Mali makes mathematical sense. Say just for the sake of argument that there are 100 million people in northern Nigeria and 20 million people in Mali. One might expect to find five times as many major scholars in northern Nigeria than in Mali. Yet in Mali, there appears to be less than one-fifth of what one finds in northern Nigeria. In terms of fame and influence among Salafis, Dicko appears to stand in a tier by himself, with a sharp drop-off after that in terms of what other Salafi scholars have a mass presence; the name Ibrahim Kontao comes to mind, and there are a few others whose Friday sermons attract massive crowds in Bamako but who probably wouldn’t appreciate having their names published on this blog. Meanwhile, the northern Nigerian sphere is different not just quantitatively but qualitatively – northern Nigerian Salafi shaykhs have YouTube channels, Facebook pages, and a level of media presence that most Malian Salafi shaykhs appear to lack.

This brings us to the second difference: pedagogy. The major northern Nigerian shaykhs, even when highly active in politics and other domains, typically appear to keep a major focus on teaching, often teaching in a more or less classical mode of reading through entire books with students over long periods of time. There is even a Twitter account that I stumbled across recently consisting entirely of clips from Albani Zaria’s lessons, with some clips of Jafar Adam’s lessons as well – showing how the pedagogical dimension and the mediatization dimension intersect in northern Nigeria.

Now this is not a knock against Dicko, but it is not clear to me whether and how much he teaches. As you can see in the profile I linked to at the beginning of this post, there is no question that he has a solid scholarly pedigree and that he could teach – but unlike the northern Nigerian Salafis for whom teaching was not just a pursuit but also a core part of the infrastructure of Salafism in northern Nigeria, Dicko appears to operate less in that mode. Perhaps this is because he is too busy; again, there’s no other Salafi in his weight class in Mali, which probably reinforces what I take to be his absorption in organizational matters. He definitely gives Friday sermons, but this is different from teaching.

Admittedly, as I’ve mentioned here before, a good deal of the religious field of Mali lies outside my view; this may extend to my awareness of which books get taught, and by whom, in Mali – certainly an ability to deal with Hausa sources for northern Nigeria, and my inability to deal with Bambara, is probably making a big difference in what I pick up on and what I don’t. And Malian Salafism on the whole appears to be much less mediated than northern Nigerian Salafism, which also makes a big difference. But still – I haven’t found any videos on YouTube of Dicko teaching, whereas YouTube is replete with videos of the northern Nigerian Salafi scholars delivering lectures and courses.

A final question, then, concerns whether Dicko has clear successors or even close junior peers within the Salafi milieu. The question may seem absurd – anyone who can turn out tens of thousands to protest in Bamako must surely be grooming proteges, one would think. And yet Dicko, when stepping down as president of the High Islamic Council in 2019, appears not only to have been unable to impose a Salafi successor on the council, but not to have put forward a candidate in the first place. Perhaps that was a strategic choice, about picking battles, and not a sign that he lacks protégés, but it is striking that Dicko’s foremost allies and associates all appear either not to be Salafis or not to be shaykhs. Again this contrasts with the northern Nigerian milieu where, at least in my time in Kano, I had the sense that the Salafi scholars formed a real network, with both senior and junior members. And the pedagogical infrastructures in northern Nigeria gave aspiring star clerics a relatively clear path – study the books with the shaykhs.

*Albani Zaria perhaps never formally enrolled at the Islamic University – it is hard to tell from some of the biographies (Hausa) of him that circulate online; he at least studied with scholars in Medina.

Mali: Roundup on the July 10 Protest and Its Aftermath

In Bamako, the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (French acronym M5-RFP) organized its third mass rally calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK). My previous writing on the protest movement and previous rallies can be found, in chronological order from earliest to most recent, here, herehere, and here. For today I will simply round up the latest coverage rather than doing a sustained analysis.

  • IBK addressed the nation on 8 July, before the third protest; on 10 July, following the protest; and on 11 July, following a day of contestation and several protesters’ deaths. The last address was the most important one, in which IBK pledged to:
    • dismiss the remaining members of the Constitutional Court;
    • implement the other recommendations made by a delegation from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that visited Bamako from 18-20 June;
    • put in place a “consensus-based government team, composed of republican and patriotic leaders and not the breakers and demolishers of the country.”
  • On 11 July, Prime Minister Boubou Cissé visited several sites in Bamako in an effort to lower the political temperature – he visited injured protesters at the Gabriel Touré hospital, and also met staff from ORTM, Mali’s national broadcaster, whose headquarters had been occupied by demonstrators.
  • The M5-RFP’s declaration from 11 July can be found here. They accuse security forces, directed by the president, of committing a range of repressive and destructive acts against the movement, its leaders, and its offices. The declaration also reiterates the group’s call for IBK’s resignation. A major M5-RFP leader, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, put out a similar statement on 12 July. Reuters’ coverage of the arrests and the deaths of at least three protesters can be found here.
  • Anna Schmauder rounded up a number of important pieces here. She and Andrew Lebovich have each also compiled vital lists of journalists and analysts to follow.
  • Mohamed Salaha and Philip Kleinfeld wrote a nice explainer for the New Humanitarian.
  • Mucahid Durmaz at the Mail & Guardian looks at the career of Imam Mahmoud Dicko and his role in the protests.
  • A more sensationalist take on Dicko, which suggests among other possibilities that Dicko could become the “Malian Khomeini,” has elicited a lot of commentary and derision. Parts of the piece are actually decent, and captures part of Dicko’s appeal, but there are also factual errors (these protests do not mark Dicko’s entry into Malian politics, for example) and some interpretations that I think are off-base.
  • The Journal du Mali has a brief profile of Dicko’s right-hand man Issa Kaou N’djim, who is also a key M5-RFP leader.
  • Dicko’s mosque in Bamako’s Badalabougou quarter has become a key site of assembly and conflict. On 12 July, M5-RFP supporters gathered again there for an address by Dicko and to commemorate the dead. Counts of how many protesters have died vary considerably. More on the events in Badalabougou here.
  • France 24 (French): “Anger Simmers in Bamako Despite Imam Dicko’s Calls for Calm”
  • Netblocks (h/t Ousmane Diallo) reported that “social media and messaging apps were partially blocked in Mali on Friday 10 July 2020 amid mass protests.”
  • TV5Monde has a video report on the 31 “despoiled deputies” whose elections were overturned by the Constitutional Court.
  • The protests remain an overwhelmingly Bamako-centric phenomenon, but Sahelien has some coverage from Kayes.

Finally, I tried out my first Twitter poll:

Show Me Where the Malian Constitution Says the President Cannot Resign

Yesterday saw the third mass protest against the government of Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), organized by the June 5 Movement (named for the date of its first protest). I have gone into the background of these protests here, here, and here, and since it’s a Saturday I will not yet do a full update on the recent protest. I just want to highlight one talking point from my own government regarding the protests, a talking point that seems to be unfounded or even misleading.

Several top U.S. diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador to Mali Dennis Hankins and Special Envoy for the Sahel J. Peter Pham, have implied that the protesters’ core demand – that IBK resign – is “extra-constitutional.”

On 23 June, Hankins told Malian journalists that “one cannot force the departure of an elected president.”

And yesterday, 10 July, Pham stated that “any extra-constitutional change of government is out of the question.”

Ok, why? What is “extra-constitutional” about demanding that IBK resign? Here is the English translation of the Malian Constitution – I challenge Hankins, Pham, or any other U.S. government official to find me where it says the president cannot resign. Article 36 contains provisions for what happens if there is a vacancy in the presidency, but nowhere do I see a constitutional restriction against a president resigning. Now, what if he resigns under massive pressure from the street? I still don’t see why that’s “extra-constitutional.” Any basic understanding of democracy would grant citizens the right to protest against their rulers, even to the point of demanding that they resign. If a segment of the citizenry turns up the pressure to the point where the president steps down, that still doesn’t appear to violate the Constitution – or, again, any conventional understanding of democracy. Or would that kind of street politics be “extra-constitutional” because Mahmoud Dicko, the imam who is the most prominent leader of the protests, makes Western diplomats uncomfortable? Even violent protests that provoked a resignation (and these protests have been mostly non-violent) would not make such a resignation “extra-constitutional” – the constitutionality of the resignation and any violence associated with the protests should, to my mind, be considered distinct legal issues.

Ironically, as I’ve pointed out before, the June 5 Movement is probably on shakier ground, constitutionally, with some of the compromises they’ve proposed (and withdrawn); the idea that IBK could turn over all meaningful powers to the prime minister is not supported, at least in my reading, by the Constitution. Their most maximalist demand, namely that IBK resign, appears to actually be the most plausible in Constitutional terms.

I think U.S. diplomats (and Western diplomats in general) have tipped their hands with statements like these, revealing a fundamentally pro-incumbent bias and a distaste for street politics and anyone outside the mold of the conventional Malian politician. I think those biases are problematic and I also think the strategy behind the statements is flawed – what message is being sent to Malians when American diplomats try to dictate the rules of the game? What if IBK does resign – how would/will these talking points read to Malians in a post-IBK scenario?

Unless by “extra-constitutional,” these diplomats are trying to convey that they’re worried about a military coup. That would be a different ballgame altogether…

Mali: Recent Developments Connected with the June 5 Movement

In Mali, and particularly in the capital Bamako, the 5 June Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) is driving a flurry of political negotiations, proposals, and counter-proposals. I’ve gone into the composition of the movement and covered its first two mass demonstrations here and here, and I wrote an overview for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) – so I won’t rehash the context here, but will simply round up some of the latest developments.

  1. On 30 June or 1 July (reports vary), the M5-RFP released a memorandum that appears to modify its core demand – namely that Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) resign. The memorandum makes a number of sweeping demands, including the dissolution of the National Assembly and its replacement by “a transitional legislative mechanism”; and the formation of a transitional government under a prime minister selected by the M5-RFP, with the president’s powers effectively reduced to nothing. Yet Cheick Oumar Sissoko, leader of one of the three main blocs of the M5-RFP (a civil society coalition called Espoir Mali Koura or “Hope for a New Mali”), has said the memorandum does not reflect his own point of view – he still wants IBK to go. Meanwhile I have been thinking about a post from Tchoussal N’Gourgou saying that “the truth is that Mahmoud Dicko [the leading M5-RFP organizer] is condemned to follow the framework dictated by [the Economic Community of West Africa States].” In other words, with the international community weighing in to subtly suggest that it does not want IBK’s resignation and that it does want a negotiated outcome, the M5-RFP and Dicko are forced to accept some outcome less than what they originally demanded.
  2. Some of IBK’s supporters have, unsurprisingly, denounced the memorandum, calling it antidemocratic and unconstitutional. They may have a point. Ironically, the Malian Constitution of 1992 appears to me (not a constitutional constitutional scholar!) to implicitly allow for a president to resign, but only envisions temporary handoffs of power from the president to the prime minister (see Article 36) or the delegation of “certain powers” from the president to the prime minister (Article 51). Any permanent incapacity on the president’s part triggers a new election and I don’t think the constitution envisions a scenario where the president hands off all of his/her powers permanently. Meanwhile, the president can dissolve the National Assembly (Article 42), but that triggers new legislative elections and I am not sure how the demand to create a “transitional legislative mechanism” can be squared with Article 42. But obviously that’s all for Malian lawyers and politicians to work out, should it come to that. And in fairness, IBK slid into an extra-constitutional zone vis-a-vis the National Assembly by allowing deputies to remain in office longer than five years (Article 61). So the Constitution is not the ultimate guide to what will/can happen in Malian politics (or elsewhere!).
  3. On 2 July, the captivity of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé (kidnapped, presumably by jihadists, in the Timbuktu Region on 25 March) passed the 100 day mark. There is a rhetorical competition underway between the president’s allies and the M5-RFP to take ownership of the issue – the M5-RFP cites Cissé’s kidnapping as one of many tragedies amid the crisis they are responding to, while the president’s allies accuse the M5-RFP of taking advantage of the tragedy for political gain.
  4. On 4 July, IBK held three meetings in an effort to tamp down tensions: one with Imam Mahmoud Dicko, the foremost leader of the M5-RFP; one with the parties of the presidential majority in the National Assembly; and one with the “founding families” of Bamako. According to Dicko, the president offered him some kind of ministerial role or “privileges” in the yet-to-be-formed “government of change” that IBK announced in a 14 June address; Dicko refused. IBK reportedly wants a “government of national unity.”
  5. On 5 July, IBK met with M5-RFP representatives (see the presidency’s readout here). The meeting did not achieve a breakthrough, and in fact led the M5-RFP to decry what it sees as IBK’s obstinacy and to renew its call for him to resign (see the M5-RFP communiqué here).
  6. Direct communication between IBK and the M5-RFP leaders is not the only channel of negotiation. Jeune Afrique published an article on 23 June about the “emissaries” of IBK during the crisis, citing names such as ex-Foreign Affairs Minister Tiebilé Dramé, former President Moussa Traoré, and current President of the High Islamic Council Ousmane Madani Haïdara.
  7. The role of religious leaders in the M5-RFP – not just Dicko, but also the Chérif of Nioro du Sahel – continues to generate commentary and controversy. At The Conversation, Boubacar Haidara and Lamine Savane analyze Dicko’s role in the protests; at Journal du Mali (h/t Adam Sandor), there is an analysis of the Chérif’s role. Meanwhile, one cleric belonging to the High Islamic Council, Mohamed Moufa Haïdara, has formed what appears to be a pro-IBK platform explicitly opposed to “mixing politics with religion.”

The next mass rally is scheduled for 10 July, this Friday.

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.