By Paul Melly
Brushing aside any concern about coronavirus, huge crowds are sustaining a campaign of mass protest across Mali, demanding the resignation of the West African state’s increasingly beleaguered president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.
Corruption and cronyism, weak public services and national leadership, electoral malpractice and the government’s inability to bring an end to inter-communal and jihadist violence have fuelled popular frustration.
Opposition political parties have joined together to organise demonstrations, but theirs has not been the decisive voice that has repeatedly brought tens of thousands out on to the streets in a display of public anger unprecedented for decades – and which has now forced Mr Keïta and his ministers to negotiate.
The real mobiliser – the figure who wields the critical crowd pulling power – is an imam, Mahmoud Dicko.
He is the central player in this challenge to a president who looks complacent and bereft of energy and ideas in the face of the huge problems that continue to pile up for Mali, despite the presence of close to 15,000 international troops and constant injections of external aid.
Imam Dicko is no novice emerging from a discreet life of spiritual leadership in the mainly Muslim nation.
Power stretches to Timbuktu
He has been a major player in public life for at least a decade, but today more than ever he is demonstrating his clout. In April 2019 he organised protests that forced the sacking of then prime minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga.
This year’s huge protest, on 5thJune during Friday prayers, was confined to the capital Bamako and Sikasso, a city in the south.
But two weeks later, crowds were also out in Kayes in the west, Ségou in south-central and even in the ancient desert city of Timbuktu, on the fringes of the Sahara. And the movement could spread further still.
It is Imam Dicko’s mobilising power that has given negotiating muscle to his conventional political allies.
On Tuesday leaders of Mr Keïta’s governing camp sat down for talks with M5, the opposition alliance.
But two days previously they had first met the imam, aware that he has the popular reach that may be decisive.
‘Reverence for mysticism’
International mediators too – from the UN peacekeeping mission to Mali, the European Union (EU) and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) – have also taken care to sound out Imam Dicko.
He came to prominence in 2009 as head of the High Islamic Council, leading a campaign of mass protest that forced Mali’s then President Amadou Toumani Touré to water down a reform of family law that would have bolstered the rights of women.
This confirmed his role as a prominent religious conservative.
Born in the mid-1950s in the Timbuktu region, Imam Dicko was originally a teacher of Arabic, who studied in Saudi Arabia and became the religious leader of the mosque in Badalabogou, a leafy riverside suburb of Bamako.
He was also secretary of the main government religious organisation until the end of the one-party regime and establishment of democracy almost three decades ago.
Despite his Saudi education, Imam Dicko never espoused the kingdom’s austere and fundamentalist Wahabi interpretation of Islam.
He is really an advocate of traditionalist West African Islam, conservative in his view of family issues but a strong defender of Mali’s pre-Muslim cultural roots and pluralistic religious culture and reverence for mysticism. Timbuktu, for example, is known as “the city of 333 saints”.
Imam Dicko has always opposed both the imposition of harsh physical punishments in the name of Islam and the ideology of violent jihad.
When Islamist militants took over the north of Mali in 2012, he tried to reach a solution through talks, even meeting jihadist commander Iyad Ag Ghaly.
And when the militants abandoned dialogue and launched a new offensive, threatening to break through to the south and advance towards Bamako, Imam Dicko welcomed France’s military intervention of January 2013, arguing that its soldiers were rescuing Malians who were “in distress” after being abandoned by fellow Muslim countries.
Formed his own Islamist movement
Yet for Imam Dicko, welcoming the French intervention that saved Bamako from the jihadists never meant also buying into some wider liberal modernity agenda.
He has always defended social conservatism, sometimes in graphic language.
Yet he has always stuck to his conservatism. He said the militants responsible for a 2015 attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako had been sent by God to punish Malians for homosexuality, imported from the West.
And his nationalist sentiments show through when he accuses France of ambitions to re-colonise his country. In that he is like many compatriots – delighted to be rescued back in 2013 but now tiring of a French military operation that has still not managed to shut down the jihadist armed groups.
Today it is this populist appeal that makes him such an influential player in the current political crisis.
Back in the 2013 election he endorsed Mr Keïta, who was running for president on a waffly slogan of restoring national pride after the crisis of the previous two years.
Both that contest and the next, in 2018, saw Mr Keïta crush his much more technocratic challenger, Soumaïla Cissé.
But today the president is under political siege while Mr Cissé is a hostage in the hands of jihadist militants, after being kidnapped on the rural campaign trail for parliamentary elections this March.
As for Imam Dicko, he abandoned President Keïta in 2017 and last year stepped down from the High Islamic Council to form his own Islamist political movement, the Coordination des Mouvements, Associations et Sympathisants (CMAS).
He has been involved in attempts to develop a new dialogue with Ag Ghaly and other jihadist leaders still pursuing the armed struggle, an avenue that Mr Keïta is also attempting to pursue.
‘Standard bearer of nationalism’
But Imam Dicko’s political rift with the president remains profound.
His opposition allies are secular and the current protests are fuelled by anger at all the things that have gone wrong rather than any broad popular appetite for transforming Mali into an Islamic republic.
Besides the relentless security crisis across the north, there have been a string of corruption scandals, while a teachers’ strike had already shut many schools long before the virus lockdown.
There seems little chance that Mr Keïta, re-elected in 2018 with a solid mandate, will be prepared to just quit.
But he might agree to retreat into a more titular role, while the opposition joins a unity government that moves real power out of his hands.
Whatever happens, terms limits bar the president standing again in 2023.
Could that leave the field open for Imam Dicko to emerge as the standard bearer of a nationalist tradition exasperated with the deal-making of the conventional political class?