di Sara Zanotta*

On 25th March 2020, the Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta officially announced the first two cases of COVID-19 in the country. Almost three months later, on 15th June, Mali counted 1,809 Coronavirus cases and 104 deaths. These figures need to be put in context, taking into account the country’s instability, tensions, poverty and its endemic corruption, which has severely affected public services, among which the health system. In addition, after the outbreak of the pandemic, the country held the two rounds of the legislative election, initially scheduled in 2018 and then postponed due to security threats, and saw the emergence of an opposition movement, Mouvement du 5 Juin – Rassemblement des forces patriotiques du Mali, led by the prominent imam Mahmoud Dicko who asks for the resignation of the President.
The same day when President Keïta addressed to the nation after the first two Malians tested positive to Coronavirus, another shocking event took place in the country. The leader of the opposition party Union pour la République et la Démocracie (URD), Soumaila Cissé, had gone missing after campaigning near the town of Niafunke, in central Mali. The politician and his bodyguards had been ambushed by unknown assailants. One of his bodyguards had been killed, two others wounded and there was no information on Cissé himself. Despite his kidnapping and the spread of the virus, the President confirmed that the parliamentary election was still going to be held adopting protective measures. The first round was scheduled a few days later, on 29th March, while the second one on 19th April. Most likely, Keïta’s aim was to follow the recommendations of the national inclusive dialogue and to apply the Algiers peace Agreement, signed with the Touareg in 2015, in order to avoid an institutional crisis amid the pandemic and the resulting economic distress.
Despite presidential reassurances, many voting stations did not offer any sanitary devices to avoid the spread of COVID-19, and security threats were not missing, in particular in the most instable parts of the country. As reported by Al Jazeera, in central Mali al-Qaeda affiliates intimidated people not to vote, the president of a voting station was removed, while the representatives of the electoral commission were chased away. In northern Mali, voting was cancelled after terrorists threatened to attack the polling station and voting equipment was destroyed by unknown assailants. As a result, the participation rate was low: the turnout after the second round was of 35.2% in the country and of 13.17% in the capital, Bamako. The President’s party, Rassemblement pour le Mali (RPM), won the election but lost 15 seats in the National Assembly. In addition, the outcome of the election was challenged and, despite Keïta’s hope to avoid an institutional crisis, he seems to have lost almost all legitimacy.
In this unstable situation, Keïta’s opponents tried to take an advantage. In order to get a clear picture, it has to be considered that 90% of Malian population is Muslim, therefore religious leaders play a central role of in the politics of the country. Indeed, political forces often ask for their endorsement, as they manage to obtain the support of the population much better than the traditional parties. For this reason, while taking some measures that limited people’s gatherings, the government chose not close mosques, as a way avoid possible conflicts. In particular, three religious leaders are quite relevant in Malian politics: Chérif Ousmane Madani Haidara, Chérif Bouyé Haidara and imam Dicko. All of them are strong opponents to the incumbent head of State, but it is imam Dicko who is now taking the lead of the opposition. The former president of Haut Conseil Islamique Malien continuously criticises the government and the endemic corruption. He represents a group of quietist Salafi Islamists but he promotes the development of a dialogue with jihadi terrorists groups. Now, with his political movement, Coordination des mouvements, associations et sympathisants de l’imam Mahmoud Dicko, he is leading the Mouvement du 5 Juin – Rassemblement des forces patriotiques du Mali, a group of opponents to President Keïta, that also includes the coalition of opposition parties Front de la Sauvegarde de la Démocratie and Espoire Mali Koura, a civil society movement. On 5th June, they organised a manifestation in the capital, Bamako, with the aim to get the resignation of the President, which saw a very high number of supporters.
Despite the march was organised by three different groups, most people were there to support imam Dicko. Bakary Sambé, the director of Timbuktu Institute in Dakar, commented: «He managed to do something enormous: the islamisation of the contestation. He is an Islamic-nationalist, demagogic but structured rallying point». Youssuf Sangaré, professor at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, on the other hand, thinks that Dicko’s success is not strictly religious. In his opinion, when he entered the political arena, he became the spokesperson of every discontent. In any case, the success of the manifestation is irrefutable: they have already had the opportunity to discuss with the representatives of MINUSMA, CEDEAO and African Union on 7th June. Furthermore, another protest will be held on 19th June.
In such a complex situation, President Keïta had to react. On 14th June, he addressed the nation with a speech in which he discussed the most relevant issues that the country is currently facing and announced that the incumbent government, led by Boubou Cissé, will keep its position but change its policy direction. Briefly, it will become a «government of change». This change will concern three specific aspects of Malian life: the fragility of the health system, the issues of the education system and the political crisis. Firstly, Keïta underlined that the health system will be the priority of the new government and called for the elaboration of a plan to modernise Bamako’s hospitals. Secondly, he asked the government to find an agreement with the teachers’ union which has been claiming the complete application of art. 39 of 2018 Act, which will increase their remuneration. Lastly, and most importantly for the purpose of this article, he agreed to be ready to start a dialogue with the Mouvement du 5 Juin and stated that in the next days further announces will be made relating to the themes at the core of 5th June protests. However, he did not make any reference to his resignation.
To conclude, unfortunately the Coronavirus has not been the one and only problem that Mali has been facing in the last months, but another drop of water in a vase which is about to overflow. It has for sure worsened the conditions of the country and made its most important difficulties emerge, starting from the weakness of its health system to the limited political legitimacy of the government and the President. In this context, the opposition has rallied around imam Dicko, stressing the role of Islam in politics. In the future this might lead to significant change, probably already under way.


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*Studentessa di Relazioni Internazionali, Università degli Studi di Milano

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