Two mass protests in June 2020 in Mali’s capital Bamako shook up the country’s politics, threw the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on the defensive, and precipitated international efforts to forestall what at least some of the protesters are calling for – Keïta’s resignation. A third mass demonstration may occur on 10 July.
For background, a December 2019 poll of Bamako residents showed Keïta with a favorability rating of just 26.5%. The protesters, and apparently many Malians as well, view Keïta as ineffective, aloof, and incapable of dealing with country’s many problems, among them: severe insecurity extending over nearly three-quarters of the national territory; endemic poverty and food insecurity, now exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19; widespread dissatisfaction toward and within the education sector, including among frustrated teachers and students; and citizens’ loss of confidence in multiple institutions of the state, especially the judiciary.
The immediate trigger for the protests was the disputed legislative elections, held in two rounds in March and April after more than eighteen months of delays. The initial proclamation of results by the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization on April 23 was not the cause – it was, rather, the amended results issued by the Constitutional Court on April 30. The Court reversed the outcomes in several districts, netting Keïta’s party the Rally for Mali (French acronym RPM) ten seats. Many of those seats were in Bamako, where the RPM had initially taken bruising losses, holding onto a single seat – that of Karim Keïta, the president’s politically prominent (and controversial) son. Among the incumbents who first appeared to lose but then ultimately hung onto their seats was the RPM’s Moussa Timbiné, who was subsequently elected President of the National Assembly by an overwhelming majority of his fellow deputies.
The elections also underscored the gap between the supposed mechanism for elite accountability in Mali and elsewhere – that is voting – and the protesters’ apparent conviction that only direct action will force change. For context, since Mali began holding multi-party elections in 1992, turnout has often been under 40%, suggesting voters’ lack of interest and/or confidence in the system. One can also note the gap between Keïta’s favorability rating and the 67% score he won during the second round of the 2018 elections – even landslide victories at the ballot box do not necessarily indicate that a politician is well liked, especially in the capital. Keïta’s landslide, and the chronically low turnout for elections generally, also reveal the weakness of the opposition political parties, which is one reason why the protests are helmed first and foremost by an imam, rather than by a conventional politician.
To explain this point further, the protests also grew out of the conflict between President Keïta and two former supporters, who are also two of the most prominent Muslim religious leaders in Mali: Mahmoud Dicko, a Bamako-based religio-political entrepreneur who stepped down as president of the country’s umbrella body for Islamic associations, the High Islamic Council of Mali, last year; and Mohamed Ould Cheickna Hamaullah, better known as the Chérif, a spiritual leader based far to the west of Bamako in one of Mali’s spiritual hubs, Nioro du Sahel. These clerics supported Keïta’s election to the presidency in 2013 but opposed him, unsuccessfully, when he ran for re-election in 2018. Dicko and the Chérif have come to describe Keïta as authoritarian and ineffective; they decry the influence of Karim, and call for fundamental change in the country.
The clerical class has a legitimacy and popularity that Keïta and several other leading politicians lack. Notably, in the same poll of Bamako residents mentioned above, Dicko’s favorability rating was 72.8% while the Chérif’s was 75.2%. The presidency cannot ignore these figures. Even amid the protests, the president’s team has reached out to the Chérif, seeking his mediation.
Dicko is the face and the most prominent leader of the protests, which are the collective effort of three bodies: Dicko’s Coordination des Mouvements, Associations et Sympathisants (Coordination of Movements, Associations, and Sympathizers, CMAS); a group of opposition parties called the Front pour le Sauvegarde de la Démocratie (Front for Safeguarding Democracy, FSD); and a civil society collective called Espoir Mali Koura (Hope for a New Mali, EMK). Together, these organizations have named themselves the “Mouvement du 5 juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques” (June 5 Movement – Assembly of Patriotic Forces, M5-RFP). One important FSD leader is the formal head of the opposition in Mali, Soumaïla Cissé, who was runner-up against Keïta in 2013 and 2018. Cissé was kidnapped on March 25 while campaigning in his home district of Niafunké, Timbuktu Region. For the protesters and the political opposition, Cissé has become a symbol of the depth of Mali’s problems and the perceived failures of the state – even as his physical absence from the scene reinforces Dicko’s centrality to the protests.
Dicko is no stranger to organizing mass protests – he was instrumental in mobilizing thousands of Malians in 2009 to oppose a new Family Code that many leading clerics viewed as anti-Islamic; he organized protests in December 2018 that forced the government to backtrack on proposed curricular changes involving sexual education in Malian schools; and he was a leading force in prompting the resignation of Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga in April 2019.
What Dicko and other protest leaders actually want now is debatable. The call for Keïta’s resignation, the Malian sociologist Bréma Ely Dicko argues, is for some of the protest leaders a rhetorical maneuver designed to force Keïta “into the arena.” An M5-RFP memorandum released on 1 July demanded, among other points, that the president dissolve the National Assembly and replace it with “a transitional legislative mechanism”; appoint a new slate of judges to the Constitutional Court; allow the M5-RFP to select a prime minister who could not be fired by the president; and withdraw from “the executive services of the state.” Such demands are meant to prevent a resumption of the cycle in place since 2013, where Keïta fires his prime minister every time the political temperature rises, using his cabinets as a shield between himself and popular anger. Ironically, however, while Keïta’s resignation would likely not be unconstitutional, some of the M5-RFP’s latest demands likely would violate provisions of the Constitution.
Ultimately, the protesters may win concessions short of Keïta’s resignation or the demands in the memorandum: perhaps a limitation on Karim Keïta’s role; the removal of the now widely criticized head of the Constitutional Court, Manassa Danioko; and/or a partial re-run of the legislative elections. President Keïta has already attempted to show some flexibility. After the first protest on June 5, he announced the creation of a “government of change.” Prime Minister Boubou Cissé, who took office in April 2019, will retain his post while overseeing the new cabinet; even though the M5-RFP now wants to be able to pick the prime minister, Cissé is respected by the protest leaders, who (along with the Chérif) have firm ideas about which members of the old cabinet should stay on; the M5-RFP does not reject Mali’s political class, or even Keïta’s team, root and branch.
All sides in the power struggle, as well as regional and international actors, frame the current situation as a “crisis” for Malian politics. But for whom is it really a crisis, and what exactly does the crisis consist of? For the protesters, the crisis is the overall situation that Mali finds itself in, and they view Keïta as a culprit in that crisis or at least as incapable of reversing it. But for parts of the international community, and perhaps in the view of the Malian government as well, the “crisis” appears to be that a segment of Mali’s citizenry is challenging the president. Mediation efforts, most prominently by the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), aim at assuaging some of the protesters’ anger (for example, ECOWAS proposes rescoring or rerunning elections in the disputed districts). Yet as major actors such as France and the United Nations have expressed their support for ECOWAS’ mediation initiative, these actors have also subtly conveyed their preference that Keïta remain in office. The United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres “call[ed] 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. He also stress[ed] the importance of dialogue and encourages all Malian actors to work inclusively and constructively to preserve the rule of law and respect fundamental rights.” The subtext appears to be that international actors are urging Keïta not to further antagonize the protesters, while conveying to the protest leaders that the most they can expect is a negotiated settlement with Keïta, rather than Keïta’s departure.
International actors’ implicitly pro-incumbent attitude in turn reveals a deeper element of the crisis in Mali and in the Sahel as a whole – even as actors such as French President Emmanuel Macron lament state fragility and call for a “return of the state” to conflict-torn parts of Mali and beyond, those same actors are often complicit in ensuring that the heads of weak states can weather whatever political storms come their way. Yet the political and social distance between Sahelian heads of state and their citizens is one major driver of the region’s crises. The protests in Mali are a symptom of, and a reaction to, a crisis that was unfolding before the protests began.