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‘France has no right to impose its solutions in Mali,’ says Imam Mahmoud Dicko

By Fatoumata Diallo, Manon Laplace
Posted on Wednesday, 16 June 2021 09:31

Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the most influential figures in Mali's political landscape, addresses a crowd at Independence Square in Bamako on 5 June 2020. MICHELE CATTANI/AFP

For a long time, the French authorities were suspicious of Mali's Mahmoud Dicko’s growing power: they said that the influential preacher was responsible for increased radicalisation in the country. Although he has left the ranks of the 'Mouvement du 5 Juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques', Imam Dicko continues to advocate for dialogue with Malian jihadists to resolve the conflict that has plagued the country for more than eight years.

Now that Mali’s former transitional president Bah N’Daw – who was firmly opposed to holding any talks with jihadists and was overthrown by the current President, Assimi Goïta, on 24 May – is no longer in the picture, the authorities may be more open to dialogue.

This change in stance prompted France to announce a “profound transformation” of its military presence in the Sahel. “We will not remain passive. We can not conduct joint operations with powers that decide to hold talks with groups that, at the same time, shoot our children,” France’s President Emmanuel Macron said on 10 June. According to Dicko, France’s “radical” tone is counterproductive because it “encourages radicalism”. He advocates for a grassroots resolution to the Sahel crisis, has welcomed the announcement of the France-backed Operation Barkhane anti-terrorism mission’s gradual departure and severely condemns France’s attitude toward his country.

France has announced a “profound transformation” of its military presence in the Sahel. This statement echoes President Macron’s threat, a few days earlier, to withdraw from Mali if the country goes in the direction of “radical Islamisation”. What is your reaction to this decision?

Mahmoud Dicko: France’s President has the right to make his own conclusions. However, we do not share his point of view. Mali is a 98% Muslim country, its Islamisation is simply a fact. As for the supposed radicalisation that is taking place, I believe that he has misread the situation.

Macron is alluding to Mali’s willingness to engage in dialogue with jihadist groups. On the contrary, you feel that dialogue is inevitable. Why is that? 

I don’t see what France has to refuse or accept about this situation. France is not being asked to talk to anyone, Mali is, and it is a sovereign country!

Why should we not talk to people who are our compatriots? It is true that at one point they behaved in an ‘unrepublican’ way. But they are our children, our pupils, our sons. Why refuse to talk to them or try to find a solution to bring them back?

Are there no other alternatives to resolving this conflict?

French forces have been in Mali for eight years, yet the noose continues to tighten around us because Mali has failed to adopt a consistent policy. We have allowed this conflict to become that of the West against armed groups, while in reality, it is Malians who suffer the consequences. The people of the Sahel have failed to understand that this is their crisis, their struggle, and that it is their duty to seek grassroots solutions. France has no right to impose its solutions.

The US spent 20 years in Afghanistan and yet, it now has to sit down and talk with the Taliban. Why shouldn’t Mali be allowed to sit down and talk with its compatriots to find a solution? Should we settle for an endless war that will set the whole Sahel ablaze? We must bear in mind that these communities are already in discussions with the jihadists, without the Malian state. The state must take part in this dialogue.

Do you understand that this is a ‘line in the sand’ for France?

We need to show tolerance and humility. When a sovereign country is assisted militarily by an allied country, that does not justify diktats from the latter. France’s tone often displeases Malians. Telling your allies that ‘If you don’t do what we say, we’ll go away,’ leads to radicalism. This tone is a radical tone. You can’t cure radicalism with radicalism!

I know that France does not like me because I am not a priest, nor a cardinal, nor an archbishop. I am an imam and that is a word that scares France; but it is not imams who have plundered this country, that have pitted one community against another and created bad governance. It is Malian politicians who have embezzled billions and brought this country to its knees, not imam Dicko. I have not been prime minister or a government minister. I am not responsible for any of this.

There have been demonstrations in Bamako calling for Russian intervention. Is this the solution, in your opinion?

Mali must solve its own problems. Not Russia, France nor the US. Let’s not make a mistake about our adversary. Our adversary is not a country, it is not the international community. Mali’s first adversary is its own behaviour: endemic corruption, bad governance, underdevelopment and ignorance, which allows foreign forces to come and settle in and take over our country.

After Bah N’Daw, president of the transitional government, and prime minister Moctar Ouane were overthrown, you said you wanted to observe the situation before giving your opinion. Do you think this latest coup will create problems for the country?

I refuse to comment on Bah N’Daw. I will only say that Mali is once again going through a period of political turbulence. We are in a very difficult situation, which we will only get out of by coming together.

What are your thoughts on France’s condemnation and Mali’s suspension from the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union?

Why did you not condemn what happened in Chad? Why has Chad not been suspended from the same bodies? We are witnessing first-hand the pitfalls of global governance, where the most powerful want to impose their vision on the rest of the world. The rules are not the same for everyone.

What will be the major challenges of the second phase of the transitional government?

First of all, the transitional government will aim to achieve the objectives that it has set, in particular, to hold timely elections and improve the security situation so that Malians can vote in acceptable conditions.

Choguel Maïga, who has just been appointed prime minister by Assimi Goïta, has been open about his desire to revise the 2015 Algiers peace accord. Do you fear that it will now be called into question?

Choguel Maïga is no longer an oppositionist, he is now managing affairs. He cannot ignore the fact that the accord is integral to maintaining the current situation in Mali. I think he is intelligent enough not to question the accord, now that he is prime minister.

Isn’t it strange that Maïga was appointed prime minister since he was previously very critical of the new authorities, whom he accused of wanting to “militarise the state apparatus”?

Choguel is a politician, who has led a political struggle. We must not be fooled, a politician wants to gain power. Their discourse tends to differ, depending on whether they are in power or not. He is now in his role.

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