Bamako — Tens of thousands of Malians took to the streets of Bamako on Friday to call for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, whose government is accused of corruption and failing to stem rising violence in northern and central parts of the country.
Police fired tear gas at attendees, who are protesting for the second time this month in a campaign organised by a coalition of opposition and civil society groups that includes the influential cleric, Mahmoud Dicko.
Muslim cleric Mahmoud Dicko has risen as their de facto leader and has seen his influence grow amid the social unrest.
“The president has not listened to the people. But this time, he will understand,” Dicko had earlier told reporters, vowing that “this Friday’s rally will be one of the most important”.
Unlike the last rally, the protest movement this time sent a delegation to the president’s office to fetch his letter of resignation. They were blocked by security forces and came back empty-handed.
In a statement on Friday evening, the movement warned that “the people will exercise their right to civil disobedience.”
“We will be non-violent. But we will fight to the satisfaction of our demand,” concluded imam Dicko.
Who is Mahmoud Dicko?
Recognisable by his white hat and Islamic dress, the 66-year-old is a well-known figure in Malian politics.
Originally a close ally of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who appointed him as the head of the High Islamic Council, Dicko’s rise in the ranks was aided by his conservative views mixed with a modern approach to Islam. He refuses for instance to impose the sharia law in Mali.
“Since 2012, Mahmoud Dicko has never hidden his regular contact with rebel and Salafi armed groups and is reported to have helped the president negotiate with them, although the government denies this,” explains Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for European Perspective and Security Studies in Paris.
“His form of political Islam was an effective tool in countering their narrative,” he told RFI.
But after seven years of Keita’s leadership, Dicko and his supporters want accountability.
“You have a president who was elected with a programme and it’s been a complete failure. There is now insecurity inside Bamako,” explains Dupuy, referring to Mali’s Islamist insurgency which was initially limited to the north.
“Social problems have not been dealt with nor has corruption,” Dupuy says, with the economy stagnating, public services faltering and a widespread perception of bad governance.
March’s long-delayed parliamentary poll was meant to be a step towards resolving the crisis, but it ended up mired in allegations of electoral fraud and led to calls from the opposition for parliament to be dissolved.
“Many people are saying, ‘How can you run parliament when the main opposition leader is missing?'” Dupuy says, recalling the abduction of Soumaila Cissé days before the election.
After months of silence, Keita announced this week that Cissé was alive.
As pressure mounts on Keita, known as IBK, a delegation of regional leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has called for the creation of a national unity government.
The delegation also urged the government to re-run parts of a recent legislative election after some results were overturned by the country’s constitutional court in a ruling that benefited Keita’s party and has deepened political tensions.
Keita was re-elected for a second five-year term in 2018 but has struggled to halt attacks by extremists linked to the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and rising inter-communal violence that has displaced hundreds of thousands. A 2015 peace agreement between the Malian government and armed groups continues to stagnate.
Following the protests on Friday, UN chief António Guterres appealed for calm.
“The secretary-general calls on all political leaders to send clear messages to their supporters to exercise utmost restraint and to refrain from any action likely to fuel tensions,” said Farhan Haq, a spokesperson for Guterres.
In recent days, the 75-year-old has also made several concessions, such as raising the salaries of public teachers after a long-running pay dispute. He also pledged to form a new unity government to try and mute criticism.
On Thursday, mediators from the West African regional bloc Ecowas arrived in Bamako to try to find a way out of the crisis, meeting with all of Mali’s political actors, including IBK and Dicko.
“Mali is currently facing a political and social crisis,” said Geoffey Onyeama, the foreign minister of Niger, currently holding the Ecowas presidency.
“President Mahamadou Issoufou has asked us to come to try and mediate, to prevent the crisis from spreading to the sub-region,” he told Niger’s state radio.
A border attack on a military post in Côte d’Ivoire last week, highlighted that the insecurity threat has already spread beyond Mali and the other G5 countries including Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania.
The attack was a reminder of the daunting task posed to French military, national armies, and one of the UN’s largest peacekeeping forces in stemming the violence, despite recent gains and the formation of a major coalition.
The incident has also sharpened opposition to foreign intervention, which Mali’s powerful imam Mahmoud Dicko has made his battle cry.
“He has used the withdrawal of French and international troops as a tool to promote a new anti-imperial position,” offers Dupuy, a tool that has proved popular among some segments of the Malian population who accuse the president of being too close to France.
But that could now could change, according to Dupuy, who says IBK is not indispensable: “A huge part of the population, various political actors and some in the military are questioning his capacity to be a leader inside and outside the country.”
This is a concern for France, which has some 5,200 troops stationed in Mali and other G5 countries as part of its Barkhane operation.
President Emmanuel Macron is due to travel to the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on 30 June to take stock of the progress made in fighting jihadist groups in the Sahel.
However, for Dupuy, Mali’s domestic crisis is unlikely to top his schedule.
“France’s focus right now is Burkina Faso, which risks becoming a new Mali,” comments Dupuy, pointing to the rising attacks against civilians, which killed 1,500 people in 2019.
Paris is monitoring the situation in Ouagadougou closely ahead of polls there in November Dupuy says. Neighboring Côte d’Ivoire is also holding elections this year, which is of equal concern to France, more so than Bamako.
“Burkina Faso is experiencing the same problems that Mali went through in 2012,” continues Dupuy, “No more state, a gap between the north and south and the risk of power shifting into the wrong hands. That is the priority for France,” he said.