Tuesdays with Mahmoud

During a recent press conference (below), Mahmoud Dicko–former head of Mali’s Haut Conseil Islamique and de facto leader of its political opposition–said that big events in Mali often happen on Tuesdays. The 19 November 1968 coup that overthrew President Modibo Keita was on a Tuesday. The 26 March 1991 coup that overthrew President Moussa Traoré was also on a Tuesday. He didn’t cite further examples, but two points determine a line, and one can imagine that line leading up to Tuesday, 11 August 2020, which Dicko described as a “decisive day” in Malian affairs.

Fortunately Dicko didn’t mention Mali’s most recent coup (21-22 March 2012), perhaps because that began on a Wednesday, was complete by a Thursday, and in any case has often been called the most idiotic coup that ever happened–with good reason. (Though none of this has prevented some with poor memories from slotting that coup into the “great Malian events that happened on Tuesdays” category as well.)

11 August 2020 is meant to be a showdown between the forces calling for regime change, with Dicko at their head, and the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). Building on their momentum from a series of street protests starting in early June, the anti-regime camp has planned for weeks to mobilize their supporters. The unstated goal seems to be a massive show of civil disobedience that forces IBK to resign from office, rather like the protests that prompted Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré to leave power in 2014.

It could happen. Mali’s usual models of forced regime change–coups either initiated by the army (à la 1968 and 2012) or starting out as street demonstrations and resulting in the army taking power (à la 1991) don’t seem likely in 2020, with Mali already the focus of concerted “stabilization” efforts by foreign powers and international organizations. But should the Malian armed forces stop supporting IBK and decide simply to sit this one out, Mali could see its own version of the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which French and UN troops would be hard-pressed to quell. Thus, with considerable disorder but little violence, would the governing regime lose power.

Dicko has proved an able organizer, a popular figure who has accumulated an energetic base. If you listen to Sunday’s press conference (mostly in Bambara), you’ll hear his admirers in the audience raucously voicing their support and, periodically, chanting his name. Dicko’s populist aura these days is quite unlike that of his chief rival/sometime ally in leading Mali’s Islamic civil society, Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara. You can see the contrast by comparing their respective press conferences this week; Haïdara’s (also in Bambara) is below. If both men are charismatic leaders who like to refer to themselves in the third person, the similarities end there.

Where Dicko appears on an outdoor stage thronged with people before an adoring crowd, Haïdara sits in a well-appointed living room, a small child (his grandson?) sitting–sometimes fidgeting, sometimes napping–next to him the entire time. In 2003 anthropologist Dorothea Schulz described Haïdara as sitting outside of and critiquing the political and religious establishment. For years he maintained that position. These days, as head of the HCI, he seems more comfortably part of the establishment, and lacks both Dicko’s heated rhetoric and confrontational approach. Where Dicko wants to frame the 11 August protest as a date with destiny, Haïdara seems determined to play down the potential for conflict, at least within the Muslim community, and stops short of calling for anyone’s resignation. And where Dicko makes a point of accusing France of meddling, Haïdara doesn’t even mention the French.

What comes next–will Mali’s government abruptly fall, or will there be a negotiated, more gradual transition? It seems to me that the throngs of young men who flock to Dicko’s rallies are unlikely to settle for a new cabinet or even a new prime minister. They see IBK as fundamentally unfit to rule. The whole scene is reminiscent of March 2012, when the country’s previously elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), was ousted from power. Here’s something I wrote back then:

Mali’s March 22 coup continues a terrible precedent, reinforcing the notion that in desperate times, individuals can use the power of the gun to press the state’s “reset button,” dissolving the institutions of government rather than working through them to effect needed changes. Such an improvisational course is always dangerous, since leaders who lack effective institutional oversight are prone to every type of undemocratic and abusive behavior.

The question Malians have struggled with in 2012 is whether it can be more dangerous to adhere to a constitutional course of action when state institutions are compromised and have lost the trust of the people they are meant to govern.

More than eight years later, distrust in those institutions has only grown. And sooner or later–whether today, or some other Tuesday, or maybe even another day of the week–some new expression of the “sovereign people of Mali” will take action to invalidate the constitution and whatever other formal legal institutions are keeping IBK in power. His government will fall, and Mahmoud Dicko will be standing by to pick up the pieces.

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