Mali protesters turn to populist imam Mahmoud Dicko to end cycle of corruption

By Jason Burke

A fragile calm has returned to Bamako. The debris has been cleared from the streets and the barricades around the Salam mosque in the neighbourhood of Badalabougou are gone. For the moment, a bloody confrontation between security forces and demonstrators in the capital of Mali appears to have been averted.

But the pause is likely to be temporary. Leaders of the landlocked west African nation’s protest movement have promised to go “right to the bitter end” to force through dramatic political change, after six weeks of rising unrest. “We will wage this battle until we bring in a new democratic era in Mali. We have lost too many killed to retreat now,” Mohamed Salia Touré, a prominent protest leader and young politician, told the Observer.

A major prayer meeting and protest has been called off, putting a brake on the campaign against president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. At least 11 people have been killed and more than 150 wounded, many by security forces who fired on demonstrators during three days of street clashes earlier this month.

The violence has prompted condemnation from the African Union, the UN and the EU, as well as the dispatch of a regional mediation team. But there is little sign of any resolution to the crisis in Mali, which is seen as the strategic key to the Sahel. This swath of desert and scrub interspersed with fertile irrigated land stretches from Senegal on Africa’s Atlantic coast to Sudan on the Red Sea. The zone is threatened by climate change, famine, weak governments and extremism. The Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated all these problems, and added more.

“The regional situation is extremely tense,” said Alioune Tine, an activist and UN human rights expert. “We’re caught in a hellish circle of violence, contestation, and insurrection. Those who have power don’t want to give it up, and corruption has stripped politics and states of any legitimacy.”

Imam Mahmoud Dicko at launch of his movement, the Coordination of movements, associations and sympathisers last September.
Imam Mahmoud Dicko at launch of his movement, the Coordination of movements, associations and sympathisers last September. Photograph: Michele Cattani/AFP/Getty Images

The failure of states to protect or serve their populations, say analysts, has led to the emergence of many different types of protest movement including rebellions by armed groups, jihadists and popular movements.Mali was plunged into instability in 2012, when a military mutiny removed the elected president, and an alliance of ethnic and Islamist militants seized much of the north of the country, including the city of Timbuktu.

French troops forced the extremists to retreat from Timbuktu but neither they, nor local Malian forces, have been able to decisively defeat the insurgency since – though they did kill a senior al-Qaida leader. Thousands have died, and many more been displaced in the continuing conflict.

Keïta, a 75-year-old veteran of Mali’s politics, came to power in 2013 and won a second term as president in 2018. But there has been rising anger at government incompetence, endemic corruption and a deteriorating economy. Protesters took to the streets when the constitutional court overturned the provisional results of parliamentary polls held in March and April after Keita’s party had performed poorly.

The leader of the protest movement is Mahmoud Dicko, a rotund 66-year-old imam who studied Islam in Saudi Arabia and rose to prominence as chairman of Mali’s High Islamic Council. He successfully opposed the introduction of sex education in Malian schools which he said would encourage homosexuality and led a campaign which forced the government to weaken legislation promoting gender equality.

Armed groups in Mali
Armed groups in Mali.

Critics have accused Dicko of wanting to impose a rigorous religious regime on Mali’s 20 million inhabitants – 95% of whom are Muslim – and even compared him to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. But the imam’s pragmatism and willingness to work with major figures from Mali’s traditional, syncretic Sufi tradition of Islam suggest such accusations may be misplaced.

Dicko insists he has no intention of revising or replacing Mali’s democratic system, but will work within it.

“It would be wrong to see Dicko as some kind of caricature. Overseas, he is often seen as wanting to impose Islamic law but he doesn’t foreground religion. It’s one of the big unknowns about him,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, director of the Sahel project at the International Crisis Group.

Instead, Dicko relies on a message of national renewal to mobilise followers, calling repeatedly on “children of the nation” to help him regenerate politics and society.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta faces rising anger at government incompetence, endemic corruption and a deteriorating economy.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta faces rising anger at government incompetence, endemic corruption and a deteriorating economy. Photograph: Reuters

Mali is one of the poorest countries on earth – more than 40% of the population live in extreme poverty – and the rising insecurity of recent years has crippled the economy. While schools have remained shut across much of the country, recently published images of the president’s son partying on a yacht abroad further fuelled anger.

“Dicko is our moral authority,” said Touré, the youth leader and a close associate of the imam. “He’s the only one who speaks to our fundamental needs, not the politicians or the political parties. He is not a politician and he is not part of the political elite. He prefers to lead the prayer in the mosque, and fight for real change.”

Touré, 36, said Dicko’s fight against homosexuality struck a chord with young people, because it was “not in accord with our traditions and values in Mali”.

Dicko has however avoided joining the vocal attacks on France, the former colonial power, which some in Mali claim has stationed soldiers there to extract mineral resources not to fight religious extremists.“Dicko has been vocal about corruption,” said Jezequel. “He is extremely clever and organised…. And has proved very successful in mobilising a very diverse opposition movement.”

In recent years, many countries in Africa have seen new “insurgent” politicians or popular movements emerge to contest the power of entrenched rulers or elites. From the Hirak movement in Algeria to that led in Uganda by former reggae star Bobi Wine, fresh actors have begun channelling discontent and building a constituency among more educated younger voters.

International observers are ambivalent about the protest movement. France has 5,000 troops stationed in Mali, fighting insurgents, and the country hosts one of the most expensive – and most dangerous – United Nations peacekeeping missions in the world. Many western officials would like to see a more efficient, active and robust administration in Mali, but fear upheaval.

Though its broad-brushed message resonates widely, the precise aims of the Malian protest movement remain unclear.

Dicko has said that the resignation of Keïta might cause more problems than it would resolve, and that the president should accept a figurehead role, ceding most of his power to a new prime minister. Others are still calling for the president’s departure.

For the moment, any incoherence is ignored. Fatima al-Ansar said: “When people are desperate, when people are suffering, they will give their hand to the first person who might help.”