Mali: the Sheriff of Nioro, maker of presidents

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: God Almighty: When religion influences politics

By Manon Laplace
Posted on Thursday, 22 December 2022 15:07, updated on Friday, 23 December 2022 15:33

The Sheriff of Nioro, in September 2020 © MICHELE CATTANI / AFP

A major religious figure in Sufi Islam, Bouyé Haïdara has become one of the richest businessmen in the country and a key figure for ambitious politicians.

This is part 4 of a 7-part series

Rare are the occasions that still push Mohamed Ould Cheikh Hamahoullah, 84, to leave Nioro du Sahel, the town in western Mali where he was born. With his palms turned towards the sky, his mouth underlined by a white goatee reminiscent of his father’s, and a black chèche concealing his head, he regularly preaches to thousands of followers from the courtyard of his zawiya (Sufi religious building).

It is estimated that 5-10 million talibés follow the religious leader, who is nicknamed Bouyé Haïdara. He owes this influence to his father, Sheikh Hamahullah. In the 20th century, this Sufi mystic founded Hamallism, a branch of the Tidjane brotherhood, which federated around the struggle against the French colonisers.

“The influence of the Sheriff of Nioro is due to the very nature of the movement he leads. Hamallism stems from the Tidjaniya, the most important brotherhood in West Africa,”says Boubacar Haïdara, author of a thesis titled The forms of articulation of Islam and politics in Mali.

‘IBK owed his victory to Bouyé’

The aura of the sheriff – a status derived from a self-proclaimed direct lineage to the Prophet Mohammed – transcends the boundaries of the religious sphere. For decades, the town of Nioro, which flanks the southern border with Mauritania, has seen Malian presidents and politicians come and go. There is no need for the spiritual leader to travel the 330km or so that separate him from the capital: all those who pass or aspire to pass by the presidential palace of Koulouba come to him.

“All the regimes in place have been aware of the status of the sheriff, who has always exerted a form of social or political pressure, to the point of imposing himself as a key figure. […] This has led to many of his relatives inheriting strategic portfolios or key positions,” says Bakary Sambe, director of the Timbuktu Institute and professor at the Gaston-Berger University in Saint-Louis, Senegal.

[…] people close to the sheriff succeeded each other in Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s government

It was the 2013 presidential election that really brought to light the influence of the Sheriff of Nioro on political affairs. “Before, we visited him mainly for his religious standing. However, when Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta [IBK] [embraced] support from the clerics to come to power, the nature of the relationship changed. This is one of the reasons why IBK never attached importance to his presidential majority. He was aware that he owed his victory to Bouyé and Imam Dicko,” says Boubacar Haïdara.

At the time, it was said that the leader of the Hamallists had contributed hundreds of millions of CFA francs to the campaign of the president of the Rally for Mali (RPM). Once IBK was installed in the presidency, “people close to the sheriff succeeded each other in Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s government, like Abdoulaye Daffé, a Hamallist loyalist who was director of the Development Bank of Mali before becoming minister of finance”, says researcher Boubacar Haïdara. However, the rupture came with the legislative elections. People close to Bouyé and candidates from the majority then set their sights on the same constituencies.

Support from Assimi Goïta

There will never be reconciliation. When Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was overthrown on 18 August 2020, Mouhamed Ould Cheikh Hamahoullah finally judged him “incapable and incompetent” and threw his weight behind the colonels led by Assimi Goïta. “I have full confidence in the junta,” he told several foreign journalists the day after the putsch, which he refused to call a coup.

This support has been reiterated ever since, with Hamahoullah urging Malians to “give themselves time” to let the transition move forward. “I support the transition as long as it saves the honour and dignity of Malians”, he says today, condemning the “humiliation” of Mali by a “foreign power”.

His followers also show their support for the programme of interim authorities in Bamako. “At every demonstration in favour of the transition or against the ECOWAS sanctions, there are many followers of Bouyé, who personally calls on his supporters to take to the streets. Again, this is an illustration of his political influence,” says Boubacar Haïdara.

‘He no longer hesitates to tackle Imam Dicko’

Openly in favour of an extension of the transition, the Sheriff of Nioro differs with another religious figure to whom he has long been considered close: Imam Mahmoud Dicko. While the former makes many pro-junta statements, the latter is increasingly critical of what he considers to be an “arrogant government”.

“It has been said that Bouyé was the spiritual father of Dicko, but religiously speaking, the only thing they have in common is that they belong to Islam,” says Boubacar Haïdara. They joined forces, especially around IBK, when they had common political interests. Even so, the religious branches to which they belong are poles apart and their vision of society is radically different. Now that their political positions diverge, they no longer visit each other and Bouyé does not hesitate to publicly criticise Imam Dicko.

It was the first moment in the democratic era when religious figures took the public space somewhat hostage…

However, it was together that the two religious figures crossed swords with the authorities, back in 2009, to torpedo the progressive family code voted by the National Assembly under Amadou Toumani Touré. “It was the first moment in the democratic era when religious figures took the public space somewhat hostage, it was their first political fight. It was their first political battle, and a trigger for the political influence of Islam in Mali,” says Boubacar Haïdara, a researcher.

This struggle lasted for several years, until, during the first part of the transition, Bintou Founé Samaké was appointed minister for the promotion of women, children and the family. The activist was directly targeted by Bouyé Haïdara, who made her dismissal a condition sine qua non for maintaining his support for the junta.

‘Very, very rich’

It must be said that the leader of the Hamallists has the ear of the authorities well beyond the Malian political arena. “Like that of the Tidjane brotherhood, to which he belongs, the aura of the Sheriff of Nioro extends to the whole sub-region, and particularly to Mauritania. He belongs to the Kountas tribe, in the far east of the country, within which he is very influential. He also has alliances with other tribes, such as the Ouled Daoud, from which the current Mauritanian Minister of Defence comes, or the Oulad M’Bareck, to which many of the country’s leading bankers belong,” says Bakary Sambe.

This cross-border network allows him to conduct a flourishing import-export business. While he is said to have a “colossal” fortune, the sheriff of Nioro is reputed to be one of the “most powerful traders in Mali”, according to a specialist in religious matters who wishes to remain anonymous. “You won’t find anyone to tell you about the sheriff’s fortune, except to say that he is very rich, very very rich indeed, and that he is at the forefront of the economic scene in his region,” says our interlocutor.

A prosperity that, according to some observers, is the result of the generosity of successive governments. “The advantages, especially customs, that he enjoys for the transport of his goods are an open secret. This allows him to sell his products at an unbeatable price and to stifle all competition,” says the specialist, state favours that the Hamallist leader has always denied.

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