Mali’s deepening crisis: Key questions answered

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government facing large protests amid growing insecurity and economic grievances.

Mali protest
Protesters demanding President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's resignation take to the streets of Bamako on June 19 [File: Baba Ahmed/AP Photo]

Escalating violence, grinding poverty and an increasing wave of streets protests – these are some of the challenges faced by the Malian government amid concerns the growing tensions could further destabilise the wider Sahel region.

Below, we take a look at the current situation in Mali and how the country arrived at this point.

What has been happening?

A sprawling country of some 19 million people that neighbours seven states in West Africa, Mali has been engulfed in conflict since 2012, when ethnic Touareg fighters launched a rebellion in the country’s north.

The rebellion was swiftly taken over by armed group fighters who overran and seized control of northern territories for several months. They were pushed back the next year when France, the former colonial power, intervened militarily in support of the Malian forces.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – widely known by his initials, IBK – also came to power in 2013 to hopes that he would turn the country around. 

But despite the presence of thousands of foreign troops, the conflict in the gold- and cotton-producing country has only deepened.

Multiple armed groups have swept south into central Mali, as well as into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, inflaming ethnic tensions along the way.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have so far been killed while hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes.

Eight years on from the initial rebellion, attacks and ethnic killings are routine, with large swaths of the country still outside of government control.

Why are people protesting?

In recent weeks, Mali’s capital, Bamako, has been rocked by large demonstrations demanding Keita’s departure.

The president was re-elected in 2018 for a second five-year term but has struggled with the deteriorating security crisis and, more recently, a strike by teachers and the coronavirus pandemic.

Galvanised by a new opposition alliance led by popular religious leader Mahmoud Dicko, the demonstrations were revived after protests in April 2019 against violence and ethnic massacres forced the resignation of the then-prime minister.

On June 5, tens of thousands of people poured onto Bamako’s streets in anger at the continued failures to stem the violence as well as the government’s record on the ailing economy and fighting corruption.

Commentators say the resentment seems stronger than before and concurrent failures across several areas have created a unity of purpose.

“What’s new is that people are fed up,” Baba Dakono, a Bamako-based political analyst, told AFP news agency.

Ibrahim Maiga, an analyst for the Institute for Security Studies think-tank, said: “You have disgruntled teachers in the streets, all those who have lost a lot in the security crisis, frustrated by bad governance and repeated scandals.”

What about elections?

Coronavirus-related restrictions and parliamentary elections have also increased tensions. To date, Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, has registered 2,005 COVID-19 infections, 112 related deaths and 1,354 recoveries.

In late March, the government held the parliamentary poll despite the fear of attacks and the threat of the pandemic.

Turnout was low, at about 35 percent. Meanwhile, the lead-up to the vote, which was won by Keita’s party, was marred by allegations of vote-buying and intimidation and the kidnapping of opposition leader, Soumaila Cisse.

Then in April, Mali’s constitutional court overturned the results for some 30 seats, which triggered protests in several cities.

One politician who won a seat because of that decision was Moussa Timbine, a Keita loyalist who has since been elected president of the parliament. The affair tainted the political class in the eyes of many Malians.

Last week, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS urged Mali to rerun some of its contested local elections and convene a government of national unity.

“New elections for the constituencies concerned should be organized as soon as possible,” the bloc said in a statement after a two-day mission to the country. 

Dakono said Malian politics have a “crisis of legitimacy”, where few feel the parliament or the constitutional court represents them.

Adding to the sense of instability, Keita has also run through six prime ministers during his time in office. 

Mali’s political opposition had previously suffered from a lack of talented leaders, according to Maiga.

But the new broad-based opposition alliance has now grouped behind Dicko. The imam has channelled various strands of discontent with the government, while hammering home messages about moral values, and what he calls Mali’s national “humiliation”.

But experts say his ultimate aim is unclear. Dicko is a former Keita ally himself who helped the president to power in 2013, before turning opponent.

Brema Ely Dicko, a sociologist, said he thought Dicko had felt slighted after Keita dropped him as a go-between with armed groups.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies