Mahmoud Dicko, the populist imam challenging Malis President Keita

With no end in sight to Malis economic and security crises, a prominent conservative cleric has emerged as the most potent challenge to a widely discredited political establishment perceived as having run out of ideas and solutions.


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Days after orchestrating a protest movement that brought down Malis prime minister, in April last year, popular cleric Mahmoud Dicko was asked whether he intended to trade religion for politics.

“I am not a politician, but I am a leader and I have opinions,” he told French-speaking magazine Jeune Afrique. “If that is political, then yes, I am political.”

Just over a year later, the prominent imam is at the forefront of an even larger protest movement that has brought tens of thousands of protesters to the streets of Bamako to call for another resignation — that of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the embattled Malian president commonly known as IBK.

Protesters accuse Keita and his government of failing to address Malis multiple crises, ranging from a continued jihadist insurgency in the north, to intercommunal violence in the centre and a crippling economic crisis in the south, where 90 percent of the countrys population lives.

Triggered by the disputed results of legislative elections in March, the recent protests turned violent at the weekend as security forces cracked down on protesters and opposition leaders, killing at least four people in Bamakos worst civil unrest in years.

The protest movement has brought together a motley coalition of opposition politicians, anti-corruption activists and religious figures — with Dicko acting as the undisputed crowd puller, whipping up hostility towards the government and then calling for restraint.

Between Riyadh and Timbuktu

A one-time Keita ally, the 66-year-old cleric is no political novice. Dubbed the “peoples imam” by his own supporters, he has played a prominent role in public life for more than a decade, chairing the countrys High Islamic Council from 2008 to 2019.

Dicko was born into a leading family from Timbuktu , the ancient “city of 333 saints”. As with other local religious leaders, his brand of Islam defies easy categorisation, blending the social conservatism nurtured by his training in Saudi Arabia with a form of reverence for the mystical traditions of West Africa.

The imam first rose to prominence in 2009, leading a protest campaign that forced Malis then President Amadou Toumani Touré to water down a reform of family law that would have expanded womens rights. More recently, he secured the withdrawal of a school textbook that touched on the subject of homosexuality.

In between, the outspoken cleric stirred outrage by suggesting the 2015 terrorist attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako was divine punishment for Malians who “imported” homosexuality from the West.

And while he welcomed Frances military intervention to repel jihadist insurgents in 2013, he has since likened the troops continued presence to colonial-era practices, stoking an anti-French sentiment that has angered Paris and embarrassed Malis president.

Talking to jihadis

But the troublesome imam wasnt always a thorn in Keitas side. In 2013, he backed IBK for the presidency and accompanied him on several trips abroad — most notably in the Gulf, where his Saudi connections were particularly valued.

His conservative credentials also facilitated on-off talks with jihadi insurgents back home, as Keitas government alternated between armed confrontation and attempts to sway the more moderate, homegrown factions.

The decision by former prime minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga to relieve Dicko of that role precipitated the imams fallout with the government. Angered by the snub, the “peoples imam” rallied tens of thousands of supporters last year to call for the PMs removal — which he duly obtained.

According to sociologist Bréma Ely Dicko (no relation), both the cleric and his mentor Mohamed Ould Bouyé Haïdara, also known as the chériif de Nioro, felt sidelined by the government they once supported. “They were both frustrated, and the regime they once helped became the regime they had to fight,” he explained.

In further evidence of his scarcely concealed political ambitions, Mahmoud Dicko quit the High Islamic Council later that year to found his own Islamist movement, the Coordination des Mouvements, Associations et Sympathisants (CMAS). Since then, Malis fractured opposition has gravitated around his movement, hoping to tap on its broad appeal.

“Many opposition figures who would have stood no chance of seizing power are now relying on the imam and his followers for leverage, thereby handing him considerable political clout,” said analyst Aly Younkara in an interview with French daily Le Monde.

Problems everywhere

With Keitas many foes now loosely allied in the so-called June 5 Movement (M5), named after the first day of protests last month, Dicko has emerged as the unofficial spokesperson for the many grievances voiced by Malians exasperated by the continuing economic and security crisis.

“We have problems between communities, within the army and even between clerics – problems everywhere,” Dicko told FRANCE 24s sister company, radio RFI in June. “There is poor governance and a deep malaise in the country. Corruption is rampant. I say it and I say it again!”

The latest wave of protests was sparked by a dispute over parliamentary elections, which saw the countrys constitutional court reverse provisional results and hand additional seats to the president's party. The decision infuriated many Malians, exasperated by cronyism and corruption in a country stRead More – Source