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.

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.”

Mali: Three Takeaways from President Keïta’s June 14 Address to the Nation

On June 14, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) delivered an address to the nation. Find the text here and the audio here (both in French).

Here are three takeaways:

  1. The speech appears to be a direct reaction to the June 5 rally in Bamako where demonstrators, the opposition, and the prominent cleric Mahmoud Dicko called for IBK to step down. In the speech, IBK acknowledges “the anger and the cries” in the country, and pledges that he will soon meet the leaders of the “June 5th Movement.”
  2. IBK has tasked Prime Minister Boubou Cissé (who took office in April 2019) with forming a “government of change” charged with implementing the results of the Inclusive National Dialogue of December 2019. More striking than the cabinet reshuffle, though, is the fact that Cissé is being retained – IBK has had a penchant for cycling through prime ministers quickly.
  3. The president laid out five priority areas: education, health, restoring confidence in (electoral) institutions, displacement and reintegration, and security.

How seriously did the June 5 protests worry the government? At a minimum, Keïta does not appear to feel that he can simply shrug the protests off. I am not sure his opponents will be satisfied, however, with this promise to implement a dialogue held six months ago – especially given that a significant portion of the opposition boycotted that dialogue and will likely oppose some of the measures coming out of it, such as a constitutional referendum. We’ll see what comes of the meeting between the June 5 leaders and the president – and we’ll see what comes of the next anti-IBK rally, planned for June 19 (French).

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.