Mali’s political situation is as tense as it’s ever been, with Covid-related economic disruptions added to an already dismal security environment, police violence against civilians, and a growing sense of public alarm at the direction the country is moving in. The man of the moment appears to be a 66-year-old imam named Mahmoud Dicko. Having organized a pair of huge street rallies in Bamako and other towns (on 5 and 19 June) calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), Dicko has emerged as the de facto leader of Mali’s political opposition–even though he’s not formally involved in politics. Facing the massive show of force mounted by Dicko and his allies, IBK has agreed to talks that might lead to some sort of power-sharing arrangement.
Nobody who has paid attention to Dicko’s lengthy involvement in Malian public affairs has been surprised to see him playing such a prominent political role today. Although trained as religious scholar, he has been working with or alongside Mali’s officially secular state since the 1980s, when he was named to AMUPI, a council of Islamic affairs created by the government. Shortly after rising to the helm of AMUPI’s successor organization, the Haut Conseil Islamique, Dicko spearheaded the opposition to progressive family legislation in 2009, mobilizing street protests and filling Bamako’s Stade du 26 Mars stadium with supporters. He and his allies succeeded in killing this legislation primarily by framing it as part of a Western attempt to undermine Malian family values. This experience demonstrated two things: that Islam had become a political force to be reckoned with in Mali, and that Dicko was an ambitious and skilled political entrepreneur.
Judging from his interviews in French-language European media, you’d be tempted to consider Dicko a religious moderate and apolitical defender of tolerance. In his recent interview with Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, one of France’s top Sahel specialists, for Politique Internationale, Dicko claimed to be all in favor of the bedrock institutions of modern liberalism, from elections to an independent judiciary. The problem, he said, is that these institutions in Mali have been subverted by bad actors–members of the country’s despised classe politique who have bent the nominally democratic process to their own selfish ends. The true cause of Mali’s multifaceted crisis, according to Dicko, is poor governance. The jihadi militants launching attacks in Mali’s northern and central regions have been primarily motivated not by religious ideology (they have only been “superficially Salafized,” in his words) but by the fundamental failure of the Malian state to keep order and provide basic services. You’d almost think Dicko had been reading the latest book by Pérouse de Montclos, which makes a very similar (and, in my view, compelling) case. In the June issue of the Paris-based La Lettre Confidentielle du Mali Dicko describes France as “a partner of Mali” and boasts of his own warm relations with Mali’s former colonial ruler.
But one thing that can be safely said about Mahmoud Dicko is that he knows how to tailor his message to his audience. When addressing Malian audiences in their own language (Dicko speaks Bambara, Fulfulde, and Songhay in addition to Arabic and French), he has often sent very different signals. In his sermons and speeches, he has propagated the myth that violent jihad in Mali was cooked up by the French as part of their sinister bid to recolonize the country (the same narrative famously recounted, in somewhat more extreme form, last November by singer Salif Keita). As hopes for a decisive resolution of the country’s northern instability have soured there has been growing demand in Mali for this story, and Dicko has not hesitated to sell it–for domestic consumption only, that is.
To me the question is not whether Dicko has political ambitions; it’s what his political ambitions are. He better than anyone understands that political Islam has become an influential player on Mali’s political stage. One could easily imagine him as a kingmaker or power behind the throne, along the same lines as the late Hassan al-Turabi in Sudan. But one could also imagine him converting his “association,” the Coordination des Mouvements, Associations, et Sympathisants (established last September), into a party and running as its candidate for president in some future election.
To be clear, I consider the criticisms that Dicko and his allies have levied against IBK as entirely legitimate. The sitting head of state has yet to demonstrate, after seven years in power, that he has a vision for Mali that is not simply “more of the same” even as conditions have steadily gone from bad to worse. IBK is a political survivor and if he had any intention of stepping down voluntarily, he would have done so by now. Moreover, the odds of populist street protests unseating him, as happened to Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré in 2014, are probably low as long as thousands of French and UN troops remain on Malian soil.
Yet public discontent is high, particularly in Bamako, and it is not hard to envision a large group of Malians deciding that they shouldn’t have to put up with IBK’s disastrous regime for another three years. They see their country falling apart all around them and they want someone to take action now. Imam Dicko probably commands more legitimacy with the Malian public than IBK these days, but we have no clear picture yet of what Dicko and his supporters would do with formal power if they held it. The opposition coalition has issued a rather vague manifesto of aspirations (e.g. “institutional reforms to guarantee free and fair elections” and “guaranteed access to public services”).
In his book Bamako Sounds, Ryan Skinner described “an in-the-mix ethics that values keeping things in play (opportunistic and provisional) in order to work them out.” Lately I find myself thinking about that line more and more. Experience has taught me not to expect dramatic resolutions to crisis in Mali. Rather, the most likely outcome is always one in which political entrepreneurs try to “keep things in play” for as long as possible, exploiting instead of banishing conditions of uncertainty. One prediction I can make is that whatever the mix of political change might be in Bamako, Mahmoud Dicko and political Islam will be in it.