Protesters eye populist imam as Mali’s key to end corruption


Confrontation between security forces and demonstrators in the capital of Mali has killed at least 11 people and wounded more than 150 during three days of street clashes earlier this month.

Demonstrators demanded the ouster of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, vowing to go “right to the bitter end” to force through dramatic political change.

After six weeks of rising unrest, there is a lull in the violence at the moment, but the pause is likely to be temporary.

“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 the government of President Keïta.

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.”

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.

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.

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

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.”

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 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. (Source: The Guardian)