A sustained campaign of mass protests in Mali has presented the most formidable challenge to the presidency of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita since he came to power in 2013.
Dissatisfaction has stemmed from economic woes and perceived government corruption, as well as from the government’s failure to contain a worsening security situation that has seen various armed groups jockey for power and has rendered vast swathes of the country ungovernable.
The multilayered conflict broke out in 2012 and has since killed tens of thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands, while an increasingly unpopular French military intervention and 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force have failed to stop the violence from spilling out to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Last month, following disputed results in March’s legislative elections, opposition politicians and civil society formed the June 5 Movement, calling for anti-government protests and demanding Keita quit.
Leading the calls is not a seasoned politician but an imam – Mahmoud Dicko.
Dubbed “the people’s imam”, Dicko last year mobilised tens of thousands to force the departure of Mali’s prime minister. Now he is considered the de facto head of Mali’s opposition and has been sounded out by ECOWAS, the regional political and economic bloc of 15 West African states.
Dicko was born to a family of Muslim scholars in Timbuktu in 1954. He went on to study in Mauritania and then at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, an influential school for the global Salafi movement.
Even so, Dicko’s brand of Islam defies easy categorisation. He has advocated for a traditional West African Islam, and has defended Mali’s pre-Muslim culture and reverence for mysticism.
His outspokenness is not new. Well-versed in religious texts, Arabic as well as in French, he rose to prominence during the 1990s as Mali transitioned to democracy, becoming known for his ability to speak out on matters of religion, governance and, at times, international politics.
In 2009, he successfully led a popular campaign which forced the government to weaken legislation promoting gender equality and later successfully protested for the removal of a school textbook that touched on homosexuality.
His interventions on issues of public morality were widely popular with the Malian public and served to raise his profile, said Ibrahim Yahya Ibrahim, senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“This was part of the process by which he has been able to position himself as this person who can channel the people’s anger toward protest on several issues,” he said.
Dicko’s forays into the public sphere were part of a wider shift in the Muslim-majority country, Yahya added, as religious leaders became emboldened to counter what they perceived as a rampant “Westernisation”.
With Dicko’s support, Keita swept into power in 2013, pledging to stamp out the rebellion that had erupted in northern Mali the previous year.
As head of Mali’s High Islamic Council, Dicko’s influence extended even to armed groups. When the fighters seized northern Mali in 2012, he was appointed as an intermediary between the government and Iyad Ag Ghaly – leader of Ansar Dine, an al-Qaeda affiliate which had participated in the rebellion – in an ultimately failed bid to reach a solution through negotiations.
As the violence spread to central Mali and allegations of governmental ineptitude and corruption mounted, the president – who got re-elected in 2018 – and the imam parted ways.
Last year, Dicko went on to inflict a serious blow to Keita’s presidency when he was able to mobilise tens of thousands of protesters seeking the resignation of Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga.
Then, in September, he quit his position at the Islamic Council to found the Coordination des Mouvements, Associations et Sympathisants (CMAS) movement, before emerging this year as the leader of the June 5 Movement.
“There is poor governance and a deep malaise in the country. Corruption is rampant. I say it and I say it again!,” Dicko told Radio France in June.
Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said Dicko’s success lies in the clarity of his demand – that Keita must go – and in his willingness to give others the spotlight.
“He hasn’t made this all about Mahmoud Dicko,” Thurston said. He added that Dicko’s rise had also been made possible as much by the ascendant popularity of Muslim leaders as by collapsing trust in political elites.
“A lot of Malians are very suspicious of the political class and a lot of the opposition movement were in power before. I’m not sure anyone within the opposition has massive stature and credibility with the public. The clerical class as a whole have a lot more respect.”
Asked about his political ambitions last year, Dicko told the Jeune Afrique weekly: “I am not a politician, but I am a leader and I have opinions. If that is political, then I am political.”
Some are doubtful. Observers have gone as far as to characterise him as a “Malian Khomeini”, a Trojan horse for Islamic governance, despite the purely secular nature of his demands. Others view him as a potential competitor to Keita.
Such rumours are misplaced, said Boubacar Sangare, Sahel researcher at the Bamako-based Institute for Security Studies.
“I don’t think that imam Dicko wants to enter the political sphere in order to challenge politicians. He wants to act as a moral authority, who can use his influence to change decisions.”
Looking ahead, Thurston suggests Dicko could be crucial to bringing armed groups to the negotiating table once again. But the issues plaguing Mali do not end there.
“Dicko can’t fix the problems of COVID-19 and nationwide teachers’ strikes. I think the weakness of the protest movement is that a lot of problems are structural and getting rid of the top guy [Keita] isn’t really going to solve these problems.
“Whoever succeeds him will face crushing problems and pressures.”