Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is under increasing pressure to resign—or to do something—to break the country’s political stalemate. Thousands have been in the streets on Fridays, after prayers, to demand an end to this regime. On Friday July 10, WhatsApp was buzzing with reports that the planned march against Keita’s government had birthed three smaller phalanxes—one aimed at the national broadcaster’s headquarters, another at the presidential palace at Kuluba, and a third in the opposite direction, towards the airport, to prevent Keita and his family from fleeing. The National Assembly burned (again). Things have only degraded in the days since: protestors shot, with an unknown number dead; elite anti-terrorist forces deployed in the streets; and opposition leaders “kidnapped” and detained for two days, only to be released. Keita has offered tepid concessions, like dissolving the constitutional court, that seem to ignore the depth of the rage. The anti-Keita coalition, known as M5, had been willing to negotiate a resolution that would have kept Keita in power. That offer no longer seems to be on the table. The neighbors, in the form of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), are clearly worried, but Keita—universally known as IBK, less universally as bwa (“daddy”)—seems determined to weather the storm. It’s not at all clear that it’s up to him.
Here’s an impressionistic backgrounder on the current situation. From the outside, you might think that the key issue is the “security situation” in a country that has effectively lost control of its vast north and its historic center. But the phrase “security situation” translates visceral, gut-wrenching fear and anger into anodyne foreign policy talk. Many are armed: some out of cynicism, some with the rational realization that the “security forces” cannot protect you (and might not want to, or worse), some out of a dangerous admixture of rage and worry. And those are just the civilians; never mind the governments’ own “security forces,” the UN “peace-keeping” mission, or the French-led “counter-terrorism” force. The anger directed at France may be greater than it’s ever been, after the terrible losses the Malian army—not to mention too many civilians—have endured in recent months. Rumors fly that French forces aid “jihadist” attacks on Malian bases, offering reconnaissance and withholding air support. It doesn’t matter if I believe this is true (I don’t); it matters a great deal that many Malians believe it, very firmly. That the former gendarme now stands accused of being the pyromaniac fireman is not surprising. That fact doesn’t in and of itself explain the depth of people’s anger. Here’s what does: they hold Keita responsible for enabling French treachery and betraying the Malian army (the FAMA). Meanwhile the “security situation” degrades across much of the country.
Bamako has always been another story, which is part of the problem. Life goes on. And on and on and on. Just as there’s no resolution in sight to a nested set of conflicts that have bedeviled the country and its neighbors, there seems to be no end to the appetites of the Keita government, and especially his family. While people are working to get by, the political class always seems to be getting over.
The proximate cause of the biggest protest movement Keita has yet faced are the recent, failed legislative elections held in March and April (in two rounds). At first blush, these looked better organized than comparable and contemporary elections in Wisconsin (where people were forced to vote in person in a pandemic and, to the chagrin of Republicans, did) or Georgia (where the lesson from the recent governor’s race stolen in 2018 seems to be that the road to victory for Republicans is to keep people, especially black and brown, from voting at all). So, hats off to all those who lined up in places like Niono, with their masks on. The problem came with the counting of the ballots more than the casting of them. The ruling party appeared at first to have lost seats, then (following a ruling by the Constitutional Court) won them back in a disputed recount. The short-term result was that Keita’s party continued to control the National Assembly. Even the current president of the Assembly had his electoral defeat transformed into victory like water into wine at the hands of the Court. Spoiler alert: if Keita were to resign—which he seems determined not to do, although many are calling for it—the president of the Assembly would be his legal successor. Let’s just say that this did not go down well last time (see: Dioncounda Traore, 2012).
The deeper background to the political logjam goes beyond the Assembly, and who’s in it.
Virtually the whole political class is widely considered corrupt, as is the game of politics itself. Keita himself has no small part in this. A proud, exacting and fiercely intelligent septuagenarian, IBK excels at immobilizing his political opponents by pulling them close. This includes the most competent of them. Moussa Mara, former mayor of one of Bamako’s districts? Make him Prime Minister, let him burn his own fingers by grabbing for Kidal, nominal capital of the rebellious North. Tiébele Dramé, long-time critic, early human rights activist, man taken seriously in diplomatic circles? Make him Foreign Minister, inside the tent pissing out, as LBJ would have said, but into one of Mali’s torrential rainstorms. The effect of this strategy in the long-term is to clip the wings of contenders and to try to shred their legitimacy. Put differently, one rotten peanut and you’ll spit out the mouthful.
Keita’s own weaknesses go beyond his taste for fine tailoring and things aged in oak, and beyond his famously short temper. He indulges his son Karim so much that the younger Keita has become a major political problem for the old man. He’s just been forced to resign from a key post on the defense committee in the Assembly. Will that satisfy people building barricades and burning tires in the streets? What’s the point of resigning from a committee if the whole Assembly is considered illegitimate? Karim might be the most hated man in Mali, and that says a lot. Nothing new here—see Karim Wade, Téodoro Nguema Obiang, and all the trash named Trump—but Karim has played a Kushner-esque role as “the person in charge of everything [that fails]” while starring in innumerable clips on Facebook and WhatsApp that put all his appetites on unwholesome display.
Amidst all this, in one of the twists in a political plot that looks more and more like the fevered dream of a show-runner from 24 (popular in Mali as 24 heures chrono), Keita’s most prominent political opponent was taken off the stage when he was kidnapped, apparently by jihadists, while campaigning for the legislatives in March. Soumaïla Cissé has not been seen since—although he is said to be alive—and the government insists that it is working arduously to secure his release (at the very least, this will be very expensive). The most surprising thing about Cissé’s kidnapping was not that it happened, but that he was so imprudent in the first place, apparently refusing UN protection (and a helicopter) in order to campaign in a zone well-known for its poor roads and insecurity. Ironically, Cissé’s absence might only heighten tension in what appears to be a political deadlock between Keita (and his party) and a swelling opposition coalition that has one foot in the world of formal politics, particularly the anti-globalization left, and another in the world of popular Muslim leadership.
Here, Keita might have met his match. Because, while his presidency began with a lot of lip service, bismillahi’s, and general pandering to the High Islamic Council, then led by the influential imam Mahmoud Dicko, Keita’s willingness to corrode the secular nature of the state has ended up weakening his own position. Dicko, meanwhile, might no longer head the Council, but his independence gives him a certain authority. While the coalition against Keita is broad, composed of his sworn enemies and his former allies alike, Dicko as a religious figure hovers slightly above it all. A cynical interpretation would have him in the catbird seat, above the fray but with an eye on the prey.
Who knows what will happen? But there are at least two things to consider. First, it’s worth remembering that IBK cut his political teeth and earned his reputation as the Prime Minister who was able to break an entrenched and intransigent opposition movement in the mid-1990s. It’s part of the reason that he was first elected in 2013, when he seemed to many to be the man for the moment. He quickly squandered whatever political capital he had—you’d risk wrinkling your bespoke suits in anything other than a top of the line Boeing—but that doesn’t mean he won’t survive. Since the Boeing, he’s been through mass protests, notably in 2017 when he found himself squeezed between outside powers pushing him to effect a peace accord with Northern rebels that he should never have signed and citizens in the street telling him that, no, they would not revise the constitution to allow him to implement it. He backed down then, and has retreated on other issues since.
This moment may be different. He has made inadequate concessions, while the hard line he has drawn is very hard indeed. Some of this weekend’s shootings—and the funerals—happened in Badalabougou, around Dicko’s domicile and the neighborhood’s important mosque. That is under the nose of the intelligentsia, the journalists, and the diplomats. The victims are on film. The killers were in uniform. This won’t be easy to back away from. Keita, the strong man, might have cut off his room for retreat. Second, Mahmoud Dicko is undoubtedly intelligent, respected, and by all accounts sincere (even if he’s diplomatic enough to adjust his message for his audience). He’s the man of the hour. Dicko is also the man who—a decade ago—killed the revision to Mali’s family law. He wasn’t alone in that—see Mountaga Tall, and thousands in the streets—but neither were Mali’s feminists alone: they had worked together for that revision for years. The defeat was bitter. In Mali’s tumultuous political history that seems like a lifetime ago; for a woman in an unjust marriage, it might as well be. Malians look to be searching, blindfolded but barefoot, for a path out of the current morass and towards some kind of social justice. We can all hope they find that path—they could show it to the rest of us—but it may pay to be a little leery of those who seem to stand above it all, and to ask what they’re standing on. The simple question Malians are confronting is the same one that tore up tonw (associations) in Harlem before Keita’s re-election in 2018—“Should ‘daddy’ stay or should he go (bwa b’a bila, bwa t’a bila)?” The real question might be, how high a price will the Malian people pay—or tolerate—either way?