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Malians have been protesting for weeks. Here’s what you need to know.

Economic and security concerns have led to political upheaval.

- July 20, 2020

Political protests in Mali escalated last week after government security forces arrested several leaders of the M5_RFP group, a coalition of religious, civil society and opposition leaders. Security forces shot live rounds at protesters, killing several and stoking angry crowds. A government crackdown led to the deaths of at least 11 protesters.

Nearly 30 years and three democratically elected presidents after Mali’s 1991 transition from military rule, protesters have once again taken to the streets demanding real change. Here’s what you need to know.

Who is protesting and why?

Protests began June 5, with more demonstrators and more violent government crackdown each week. The M5_RFP (Mouvement du 5 Juin — Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques) formed in June after a standoff over elections. M5 holds Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (known as “IBK”) accountable for failed governance and demands his resignation.

Protesters in Mali have filled the streets for weeks. They say they won’t stop until the president resigns.

Following the arrests of opposition leaders, protesters ransacked the National Assembly. Government security forces responded with tear gas and gunfire. On July 11, protesters barricaded streets around the home of Mahmoud Dicko — an M5 spokesman and an imam at the Salam mosque in Badalabougou in Mali’s capital city, Bamako. Protesters wanted to ensure that he, too, was not arrested.

Dicko and other religious leaders have a history of mobilizing Malians to the streets and to the polls. In 2013, Dicko’s support helped secure IBK’s election as president.

Multiple crises fuel the street protests

Rising inequality is a problem in Mali, and many people see political leaders, and government employees in general, living large. The education system, which should be a path to opportunity, is virtually nonfunctional. Strikes close schools, while the threat of violence has left over 2 million Malian children without schools.

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Many Malians have no work, even in the informal sector. Since the coup in 2012 the country’s thriving tourist industry has collapsed. Despite French military intervention, local extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have brought violence to large swaths of Northern and Central Mali. In March a perpetual runner-up in presidential elections named Soumaila Cisse was kidnapped and is still being held, presumably by Katiba Macina, a violent extremist group.

In 2019, more Malians than ever were displaced by insecurity. Households in Bamako and throughout the south face the dual burdens of extra mouths to feed and more competition for employment. The health crisis associated with the coronavirus pandemic has added to the pressure on the government to address all these problems.

What are M5’s demands?

The M5 group demands the president’s resignation, and the dissolution of the National Assembly as well as the Constitutional Court, which it has criticized for overturning provisional 2020 legislative election results in order to install the president’s preferred candidates.

M5 accuses the president of inept governance and corruption. The group called out his son Karim Keita, a National Assembly deputy, for his lavish lifestyle. Many considered Karim Keita ill-equipped to lead the Legislature’s National Defense Commission while Mali faced spreading violent extremism.

M5 also demanded an independent investigation of arbitrary arrests and deaths associated with the protests, and denounced FORSAT, the country’s counterterrorism units, for illegally infiltrating Mali’s security forces and violently repressing demonstrators.

In response, Mali’s president removed Constitutional Court judges and his son resigned his position, but not his legislative seat.

The regional economic body ECOWAS sent a delegation to Mali and proposed a reconfiguration of the constitutional court and a unified national government that includes the opposition. M5 has rejected the proposals and declared the president’s resignation to be its “red line.”

A government of national unity risks repeating history. The “consensus government” of Keita’s predecessor, Amadou Toumani Toure, undermined the opposition without addressing the needs of Malians. Analysts suggest a negotiated deal that leads to just another set of politicians who have access to state resources for their own personal gain won’t solve the ongoing crises and will leave much of the population unsatisfied.

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The Malian state has always had tenuous legitimacy and minimal effective control across Mali. For decades, Tuareg insurgents have called for an independent state of Azawad, or at the very least political and economic integration in Mali. Violent extremist organizations have been active in Mali for decades.

Extremist groups have ramped up violent attacks

Violence in central Mali has been fueled in part by Amadou Koufa — the leader of the Macina Liberation Front or Katiba Macina — who revived the image of the 19th-century Fulani empire to help recruit Fulani youth. Koufa later joined with Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Dine and others under the JNIM (Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin). Amnesty International has reported extrajudicial killings of Fulani at the hands of Malian security forces. Most recently there have been widespread killings in Dogon villages in Central Mali, prompting concerns that the government’s failure to protect citizens could lead to a humanitarian disaster.

Mali is known for predominantly peaceful coexistence among an extraordinarily diverse population, but the promise of democracy seems to have failed. Since 1991, Mali has benefited from millions of aid dollars to support building the rule of law, including donor funds to promote free and fair elections, civic education and to revitalize the justice system.

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Since the mid-1990s, global anti-terrorism campaigns have funded and trained the Malian military. In 2012, France launched Operation Serval to fight violent extremists. Operation Barkhane followed to fight terrorism across the Sahel. Add to the mix the G5 Sahel, a regional security force and MINUSMA, a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Foreign aid has not secured democracy nor halted the violence in Mali — extremist groups continue to disrupt life and the government crackdown on protesters has become increasingly violent. By taking to the streets, Malians are letting the world know that they would like to participate in the building of their own futures.

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Susanna D. Wing is associate professor of political science at Haverford College. Follow her on Twitter @SusannaWing.