The opposition protests against Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known by his acronym IBK) have produced one challenger who has become the poster-child of the movement: Mahmoud Dicko, the charismatic imam of Badalabougou, a central district of the capital city, Bamako.
Over the past weekend, rumors about the imam's welfare — saying he might be abducted — gave rise to heated demonstrations among his supporters, some of whom managed to occupy parts of the parliamentary building and the state broadcaster on Friday.
Authorities cracked down on the protests, resulting in at least nine deaths as well as dozens of injuries by Saturday. On Sunday, Dicko himself conducted the funeral ceremonies.
Dicko plays a major role in Mali's political landscape, as the past few days prove. Sociologist Brema Ely Dicko says the imam is regarded as "both a cleric and an experienced politician."
"He is the moral compass of the country within this context, whereby the political elites have failed people and civil society is not fulfilling its role," he told DW. Dicko seems to have fully embraced that role, attempting to highlight shortcomings of the Malian government amid the current political crisis as well as face the enduring threat of Islamism.
As one of the most important Islamic scholars in the country, which has a Muslim population of at least 95%, Dicko has been working as an imam in Badalabougou for about 40 years. As a Salafist, he has typically presented himself as a proponent of conservative fundamentalist positions.
For a decade, Dicko headed the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM) before handing the reins over to Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara last year. During that time, Dicko repeatedly commented on the political developments in the country.
In 2012, after Islamists and Tuareg militias had conquered large parts of the country, he initially positioned himself as a clear supporter of then-presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who would become president a year later.
At the same time, however, Dicko remained in dialogue with Islamist factions, effectively becoming a mediator attempting to establish a new national unity.
No confidence in IBK
But President Keita's hopeful new beginnings failed to take root. The formation of the new government dragged its heels for years, and elections had to be postponed.
In 2017, Dicko finally turned his back on IBK. However, the real turning point only came in June, when Dicko's network of supporters (CMAS) joined the June 5-movement — Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5) — against the president.
Thomas Schiller, the representative of the German Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung political foundation in Bamako, says that "there had been protests before, and there had always been harsh criticism and rallies against the government, but it's only since Imam Dicko took over the spiritual leadership that this movement has been able to grow into the powerful position we see today."
The message of the movement is clear: IBK has lost the confidence of the people and must accept the consequences accordingly. Or in Mahmoud Dicko's words: "Our country is failing as we speak. We can't hide that. And the person who's chiefly responsible for that is our head of government. He has to be confronted," Dicko recently said during an interview with German broadcaster ARD.
"We must create a framework where there can be hope. That is what the people need today. We can't bear to see our country fail before our own eyes without anybody doing anything against it."
A controversial figure
Among his followers, Dicko is considered a modest man of convictions and without ambitions for political office.
"Each time the country is under threat by poor governance, he will not hesitate to speak out in defense of truth and change," says Imam Oumarou Diarra, who is part of Dicko‘s CMAS alliance.
While Dicko's grand entrance on the scene against the president — with the backing of his alliance — is fresh and still fueling the crisis situation, he appears to be exercising a bit of moderation. There are reports that in previous rallies, the populist imam ordered the crowd to show restraint, averting a mob from gathering outside the presidential palace. Following the tragic events of the weekend, Dicko also called for calm and restraint.
But there is also another side to Dicko — one that attracts a great deal of trepidation, especially from abroad. In recent years, the imam made headlines with some of his reactionary statements, declaring terrorist attacks as "God's punishment" for alcohol consumption and homosexuality.
It is these kinds of statements that cast a different light on Dicko, Mali's self-proclaimed moral authority.
Schiller says that some observers are worried about his rise, with many classifying him as an Islamist. He himself believes that Dicko wants to be viewed as occupying the role of a kingmaker who has no political aspiration himself.
And even though the imminent threat of an "Islamic Republic of Mali" seems presently unrealistic in Schiller's view, he nevertheless emphasizes that the country is at a crossroads. "For the Malian state, this protest movement since Friday has been a disaster."
Even now, the government cannot control large parts of the country, especially in northern and central Mali — with the recent protests highlighting how the South of the country could also easily be derailed.
"At this point, Mali does not really have the governmental structures to direct such a movement into certain channels and absorb it politically. The government is very weak, and the protest movement will further weaken the existing rudimentary structures in the country."
Mahamadou Kane contributed to this article.