Côte d’Ivoire: Ousmane Diakité, the Imam of the Middle Way

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

By Aïssatou Diallo, in Abidjan
Posted on Saturday, 24 December 2022 11:19

Whether Catholic or Muslim, how far does the influence of African religious leaders extend? © Montage JA; Sipa; AFP

Discreet and unknown to the general public, Sheikh Aïma Ousmane Diakité has years of mediation experience and influence behind him. For a year now, he has been at the head of Cosim in Côte d'Ivoire with the heavy task of countering the spread of the ideology of terrorist groups.

This is part 6 of a 7-part series

What do Ivorians know about Sheikh Aïma Ousmane Diakité? Not much, the man keeps a low profile. But his candour is well known to the public. One episode left a lasting impression. On 21 June 2017, all the country’s political figures and Muslim businessmen gathered at the great mosque of the posh Riviera Golf district. It’s a big crowd for the Night of Destiny, an important moment of the month of Ramadan.

Ousmane Diakité, then executive secretary of the Superior Council of Imams of Côte d’Ivoire (COSIM), had the floor. His preaching focused on unlawful financial gain and corruption. “If you embezzle funds, do not think that you have only disobeyed the law of the Republic. You have also disobeyed the orders of Allah,” he explained in a calm voice that emerges from his graying beard and imposing build.

In the audience, some nod in approval. No one in particular is targeted, but the imam has some harsh words.

He continued: “Some people buy a conscience by telling themselves that they will use some of the money they steal to build mosques, to send people to Mecca… The Muslim religion does not accept this. There is no spiritual money laundering. Making sacrifices with stolen money does not make it lawful.”

The sermon was then widely commented on. In speaking out on corruption, Ousmane Diakité raised a taboo issue. In 2017, according to the NGO Transparency International, Côte d’Ivoire ranked 103rd out of 180 on the corruption perception index.

A man of principles

Ousmane Diakité is now the president of COSIM- he was elected in April 2021 – an organisation that counts 26,742 imams and enjoys a strong presence throughout the country. This position makes him the leader of the Muslim community in Côte d’Ivoire. He has nevertheless retained the leadership of the Arafat Mosque in Bounoumin, Cocody, where his offices are located, as well as the African Muslim University.

Described as a man of principle, he is known for his ability to compromise. The choice of this man to succeed Imam Mamadou Touré is the result of a faultless record and loyalty to the organisation.

Ousmane Diakité was born in 1956 in Odienné, in the Kabadougou region of northwestern Côte d’Ivoire. After primary and secondary education at the Dar-el Hadith school in Bouaké, he moved to France. There he studied French at the University of Human Sciences in Strasbourg. In 1979, he joined the Mohammed V University in Morocco. After obtaining a master’s degree in public law, with a major in domestic public policy, he returned to his country.

From 1983 to 1986, he was first a teacher of Arabic and French at the Mamadou Coulibaly school in Odienné. He then became a civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior as secretary general of a town hall, initially in Odienné, before being posted to several other town halls in this northern region. In 1987, Muslim religious leaders created their organisation: Ousmane Diakité did not hesitate to join COSIM.

Close to Cheick Fofana

There was a real need to unify the practice of Islam in the country. “At the time, Muslim festivals were celebrated over several days according to the different currents and countries of origin. Even the pilgrimage was organised in scattered ranks,” notes an observer of the political scene. The strength of COSIM is that it has succeeded in imposing itself as the sole interlocutor of the state and in supervising the practice of Islam in Côte d’Ivoire.

One of the leaders of the organisation is Cheick Boikary Fofana, an important mediator who was involved in the resolution of several crises that the country has experienced. When he died in May 2020, Alassane Ouattara said he was “very sad” about the death of his “friend and brother”.

“In 2011, when mosques were attacked and imams were murdered during the post-election crisis, Cheick made a speech telling all members of the community not to take revenge, not to react, not to retaliate. He wanted to prevent the crisis from turning into a religious war. His appeal was well received and he was congratulated all over the world,” recalls Seidou Konaté, principal rector of the Grand Mosque of Yopougon.

His mosque in the Toit Rouge neighbourhood still bears the scars of the violence. “People were burned here. Have you seen the black part under the hangar? The slab was also burnt. It was softened. We had to break it up to start again. It was a difficult time. But today, thanks to mediation attempts, people are living together again.”

Mediator during crises

During the dark years of the country’s history, Ousmane Diakité played an important role. In 2007, he became the executive secretary of COSIM. Above all, he was the man Cheick Boikary Fofana trusted. “He was his representative in mediations during the crisis, particularly within the Convention of Ivorian Civil Society. He was his right-hand man,” says a close friend. It is therefore natural that in 2014, he was appointed as a member of the Independent Electoral Commission, on behalf of the Muslim community.

It is this trajectory that allowed him to reach his current position by winning the election to head COSIM against two rivals. “His victory is due to the fact that he has stood alongside the imams for years. His presidency is also a continuity of Cheick Boikary Fofana’s, who was very appreciated,” explains a leader of an Islamic association.

If his predecessors were sometimes considered too close to the government, especially the The Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP, in power), Ousmane Diakité keeps a safe distance from politics. At his official installation as the guide of the Muslim community on 12 June 2021, Alassane Ouattara was represented by the Minister of the Interior, Security and Civil Protection, General Vagondo Diomandé. “He distrusts politicians, whom he keeps at a safe distance. He does not try to court their attention and he does not like to be courted,” says a close friend. But will he break this rule to address the issues of the country when circumstances require it?

Fight against jihadist networks

For the time being, the 7th president of COSIM is working to consolidate links with other religious communities. He is also working on building relationships between COSIM and Islamic organisations in other countries. He is close to Ali Orhon Pehlivan, president of the NGO AIDE, which is part of the Turkish Aziz Huday Wakfi Foundation, under the authority of Cheick Nour Tobas. He is also close to the Turkish Serkan Kayalar. At the end of May, Ousmane Diakité participated, at the invitation of the Qatari authorities, in a meeting on religions and hate speech.

In the context of the jihadist threat in the border areas of Côte d’Ivoire, COSIM plays a discreet but indispensable role in prevention. The first step is the teaching of Islam and this involves the training of imams. Every year, about a hundred of them are selected for training in Morocco. He also intervenes on the appointment of imams in mosques.

“We are in favour of an Islam that does not impose its doctrine on others, that does not condition its relationship with others on the basis of their religious beliefs, and that does not judge because judgement belongs to God,” says Imam Seidou Konaté. “This is what we call moderate Islam, of the just middle ground. This is what the Koran advocates. If you are not moderate in your practice, and in your relationship with others, you will not be able to convert. Islam is practised out of conviction, it is not imposed,” he adds.

The organisation carries out numerous activities in the villages bordering Burkina, Mali and Guinea. At each stage of this “socio-cultural caravan” organised in partnership with civil society organisations or a Muslim youth association, they distribute food. A doctor is also present. An observer of the political scene analyses: “COSIM has a focal point in almost every village of the country. It is an indispensable actor for mediation in cases of inter-community conflicts. This is a key point because jihadist groups take advantage of fragility to establish themselves.

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