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Mali: Fragmented territorial sovereignty and contested political space

Bamako Niger River
Bamako Niger River/Virginie Baudais

On 5 June, thousands of demonstrators in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, carried placards calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK)—‘IBK dégage’—or bearing the words, ‘Down with the constitutional court’, ‘Free Soumaïla Cissé’, or ‘Bad governance kills people with corruption and unemployment’. Elected for the first time in 2013, after the 2012 military coup, and re-elected in 2018, President Keïta is facing serious challenges amidst the continuing degradation of the security situation in the country. In a context of structural fragility, the sovereignty of the state and, most importantly, the monopoly of violence are being disputed by numerous actors including non-state armed groups and self-defence militias. Dissent against the regime is growing, mainly supported by religious organizations and civil society organizations calling for the resignation of President Keïta and denouncing not only his governance, but also the corruption of the state and the inability of the Malian army to restore security. On 5 June, the opposition to the regime proved its capacity for mass mobilization raising the fundamental question of the capacity of the regime to deal with the multiple challenges and, more generally, the ability of the Malian state to regain its sovereignty, which is fragmented, under international control and constantly disputed by domestic actors.

Territorial sovereignty under international control

The international hold on Mali’s sovereignty manifests itself at two distinct levels. At the regional level—and particularly the Sahel—Mali has long been a theatre of struggle and competition between regional ‘superpowers’, especially Algeria and Libya, who have used northern Mali for their own purposes and agenda, with little or no political coordination with the Malian government. At the international level, Mali’s long-standing economic and security dependency on international partners and former colonial power has weakened the legitimacy of consecutive governments and fuelled popular distrust toward both the ruling class and the international community.

As a direct consequence of a new rebellion in Northern Mali (2011–12), the country was at the top of the international agenda under the successive mediations of Burkina Faso and Algeria and through the negotiations that led to the signature of the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreement. Since 2013 several international security operations and actors have been deployed in Mali to support the Malian Defence and Security Forces: the French Operation Serval; Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) troops including from Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal; Chadian Soldiers (Forces armées tchadiennes d’intervention au Mali (FATIM)); the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA); the Group of Five (G5) Sahel and French regional Operation Barkhane. All these forces have intervened at the invitation of the Malian authorities either during the political transition in 2012 or by President Keïta.

Under international command and/or according to specific rules of engagement (ROE), all these forces conduct their operations alone or in collaboration with the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA). Therefore, a new territorial division—operational areas and sectors—has emerged where international troops are stationed: the country is divided into seven sectors including headquarters in Bamako. As SIPRI research findings on central Mali highlight, populations do not understand the mandate of these international forces, including MINUSMA and, in rural areas, military (non-)interventions leave the population dubitative about their effectiveness and capability to protect civilians. In the north of the country, in particular, counterterrorism has given considerable leeway, not only to Operation Barkhane with activities such as searches of houses during the night that have provoked fear and resentment among populations, but also to national armies as recently reported by Amnesty International. To support its (re-) deployment in the country, the FAMA—the primary target of terrorist groups with a high number of casualties—also receive support from the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) and the civilian mission of the EU (EU Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) Sahel–Mali). Despite this important support, the EU recently expressed its ‘indignation and deep concern at what are clear violations of human rights’ following the killings of more than 40 people, including women and children and the serious suspicions of the possible involvement of FAMA.

In addition to the military efforts, the humanitarian crisis also led to the deployment of humanitarian operations: in June 2019 there were 112 humanitarian organizations operating in the country, including 49 national organizations, 48 international organizations, 8 UN organizations, 4 Red Cross movements and 3 governmental organizations. Most of them are conducting their operations in the north (73) and in the centre (57) although there are some in the south (36). These organizations, which are supposed to operate for a limited time in Mali, cover a wide variety of areas, delivering the public and basic social services that the state fails to provide. Significantly, multilateral and bilateral development and aid agencies also support the state and sometimes contribute directly to the definition and implementation of various reforms.

Need for the state to recover sovereign functions

While military support focuses mostly on hard security issues, development aid agencies and humanitarian organizations are geared towards alleviating the suffering of the population and protecting civilians from abuses. However, these interventions can only yield the expected outcome if the Malian state is able to recover its sovereign functions. In most peripheral regions where public services are absent, some functions have been taken over by non-state security actors.

Recent SIPRI surveys carried out in central Mali show that the concerns of the population stem from the inability of the government to guarantee security throughout the territory to the state’s failure to deliver public goods and services to local communities. Although the government has recently taken steps to redeploy troops in Kidal and Mopti and Ségou regions, the populations continue to turn to other non-State security providers, such as self-defence groups, dozos and village militias, to defend themselves. They also turn to customary leaders to remedy the absence of public services (justice, health and education). However, despite these local mechanisms, some enclaves are particularly vulnerable to attacks. In their attempt to combat symbols of Western culture, some armed groups indeed increasingly target local authorities or officials, but also teachers, health workers or employees of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Internally contested sovereignty

Domestically, the current regime is increasingly contested. Its inability to restore security, the protracted implementation of the 2015 peace agreement (which refers to the crisis in northern Mali and does not reflect the current situation in the country), the extension of the crisis to other Malian regions, the contested legislative elections held during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the abduction of the main opponent to the president, Soumaïla Cissé, have fuelled recent discontent.

On 5 June 2020, associations and movements such as Coordination des Mouvements, Associations et Sympathisants de l’Imam Mahmoud Dicko (CMAS), the Front de Sauvegarde de la Démocratie (FSD) and the Mouvement Espoir Mali Koura (EMK) called for a massive mobilization at Independence Square in Bamako. The movement brought together a wide and diversified range of actors: political leaders—such as historical opponents Oumar Mariko or Choguel Kokalla Maïga—but also religious actors and civil society organizations. Thousands of Malians gathered to call for the resignation of President Keïta and the protest was peaceful, although violent clashes occurred in the evening as some protesters attempted to march towards President Keïta’s residence in Bamako’s neighbourhood of Sebenikoro.

Building on Mali’s numerous security and political challenges, this coalition and the 5 June demonstration appear to be an outlet for accumulated discontents: the inability of Keïta’s regime to improve the living conditions of the population, the corruption—also denounced by international actors—and more recently, the arrest, on 9 May, of Clement Dembélé, a human rights activist and president of the Plateforme de lutte contre la corruption et le chômage au Mali (he was eventually liberated on 22 May). The impressive mobilization illustrates how one of its main figures, imam Mahmoud Dicko, has succeeded in positioning himself as a channel for the people’s grievances and, possibly also, as a credible political alternative or ‘kingmaker’.

From neutrality and benevolent support to political activism: The mutation of religious movements in Mali

For years, key religious Islamic movements have progressively invested in the public and political arena, seeking to interfere in the institutional game by taking advantage of the failing legitimacy of the state in a country where more than 90 per cent of the population is Muslim.

One of the most spectacular demonstrations occurred during the national debate on the reform of the Malian Family Code in 2009, when religious leaders who were strongly opposed to the modernizing of the 1962 Family Code organized massive protests gathering 50 000 demonstrators. They succeeded in forcing the withdrawal of the ‘modernist’ version adopted by the National Assembly. Dicko, then president of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM), described the reform of this code as ‘a project fabricated by the so-called civil society and financed by Westerners’, which is illustrative of a growing anti-Western narrative and also a capacity to mobilize people on possible Islamic alternative to a failing modern state.

The 2012 coup represented an additional opportunity for religious leaders to denounce the corruption of the ‘secular’ political class who have ruled the country since independence. During the political transition, Dicko and Mohamed Ould Cheikna Hamallah—another influential Muslim figure known as the sheriff of Nioro or Bouyé—strongly supported the then prime minister, Cheikh Oumar Diarra, who, in turn, backed the creation of a Ministry of Religious Affairs. In April 2012, Imam Dicko tried to use his religious capital to connect with some leaders of armed groups in the north and lead negotiations for the release of 160 Malian soldiers. After meeting with Islamist leaders of the rebellion in Gao in July, he declared sharing Iyad ag Ghaly’s (leader of Ansar Dine, a militant Islamist group) conservative values regarding the Islamic law and also refused to condemn the destruction of the Saints’ tombs in Timbuktu.

Religious influence continues to grow

Within the political arena, the influence of religion continues to grow and ‘since the coup, political confusion and disappointment in the capital have created spaces for religious leaders, especially members of the HCIM, to occupy overtly political roles.’ The religious sphere is a mosaic with religious actors sometimes holding very different positions. The HCIM is supposed to represent all Islamic forms, including both Dicko’s Wahhabi and Cheikh Ousmane Madani Haidara’s Malikite branches that have two distinct visions for Malian society and levels of political involvement. Cheikh Ousmane Madani Haidara, the leader of Ansar Dine (a Sunni reformist movement not to be confused with ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine) was elected head of the HCIM (April 2019) thus replacing Dicko. Finally, another influential Muslim leader—Mohamed Ould Cheikna Hamallah or Bouyé, the spiritual guide of the Hamallists and leader of the Tidjaniya—took a political stand during the 2013 presidential election and supported Sabati 2012, a popular movement created to back Keïta’s candidacy, but in 2018 he endorsed Soumaïla Cissé, the main opponent of the incumbent president.

During the presidential and legislative elections of 2013, religious leaders seized another opportunity to influence the political arena. First, a close collaborator of Dicko and secretary general of the HCIM, has been appointed as head of the National Independent Electoral Commission. Later, in December 2018, religious leaders also succeeded in rallying approximately 60 000 people, against the drafting of a school textbook including a chapter on ‘sexual orientation’—financially supported by the Dutch cooperation—and denounced by Dicko as a way to ‘teach homosexuality to children at school’. In February 2019, during a meeting at the Stadium on 26 March, Dicko and the sheriff of Nioro, Bouyé, denounced the poor governance of the government and asked for the resignation of the then Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, which occurred on 18 April ahead of a no-confidence vote.

Mahmoud Dicko: Emerging political leadership

Through various political and social actions, religious movements are positioning themselves as essential providers of basic social and educational services. If their influence keeps growing, Dicko could emerge as the main alternative figure to ruling President Keïta.

In bridging both civil society and political opposition, religious leaders are capitalizing on existing divisions and state weaknesses to develop an operative narrative focused on anti-corruption and public morale. Although Dicko supported President Keïta’s candidacy in 2013, he eventually withdrew his support in the 2018 presidential election due to the lack of results and might now step forward and play a proactive and visible political role. In September 2019, Dicko launched the movement, Coordination des mouvements, associations et sympathisants and its capacity to mobilize thousands of people now directly threatens President Keïta’s legitimacy.

With these new developments in Bamako, Mali’s future looks gloomy. International military deployments have not yet restored security. President Keïta’s will to open dialogue with jihadists, including ag Ghaly (leader of the Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans (GSIM)) and Amadou Koufa (leader of the Katiba Macina) was viewed as a move that could possibly lead the way out of the crisis. However, the appointment of a special representative for Mali’s central regions has not led to peace and the recent abduction of Soumaïla Cissé questions the capacity of the government to negotiate with armed groups. The memory of the events of 1991 that led to democratic transition and the ability of the Malian people to fight for their rights should not be underestimated, as shown by the significant mobilization of protesters against a contested regime on 5 June. The Mouvement du 5 juin–Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques is calling for a new protest on 19 June.


Dr Virginie Baudais is a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Sahel and West Africa Programme.