When five West African presidents went to Mali last Thursday to defuse a political crisis that has alarmed governments in the region and beyond, one man whose assent they aggressively and fruitlessly to obtain was Mahmoud Dicko, the de-facto leader of the biggest opposition movement poised to uproot the government in Mali.
Mahmoud Dicko, a Saudi-trained preacher known for his Koranic erudition and social conservatism, is seen by admirers and detractors alike as the galvanizing force behind a protest movement now threatening the political survival of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
International powers are anxious for the crisis to end, fearful it could undermine multi-billion-dollar efforts spearheaded by former colonial power France to contain insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in the region.
Infuriated by grievances ranging from disputed legislative election results to the army’s repeated losses to Islamist militants, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks. Public opposition to Keita hardened further, almost irreversibly after at least 14 protesters were killed in clashes with security forces earlier this month.
Stepping to the rostrum at the first rally in the capital Bamako on June 5, Dicko, 66, drew on his signature brand of religiously-infused nationalism.“This great nation of Mali, builder of empires and kingdoms, is not a submissive people,” Dicko said, addressing the crowd of mostly young men in the local Bambara language mixed with French and Arabic. “It is a people standing proud!” he said, thrusting a fist into the air as they chanted his name.
While protesters come from a diverse coalition of religious, political and civil society groups, Dicko is universally viewed as the driving force. Some of the president’s supporters think that could be a good thing.
Dicko’s influence unnerves some in Mali, which is 95% Muslim but has a secular constitution, and France where some commentators have likened him to Iran’s late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
\He studied in Mauritania and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, where he embraced conservative Salafist ideas. Mohamed Kimbiri, a member of the High Islamic Council, said Dicko was not challenging state secularism but wanted a less rigid version.
“Today, he alone can command the Malian ship,” Kimbiri told Reuters. “The corrupt politicians have disqualified themselves, and the Malian public is now really in favour of the religious leaders.”