The big story to emerge from the inauguration of Mali’s new president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, which took place in Bamako’s 26 Mars stadium on September 19th, was the arrival of Mohammed VI, King of Morocco, for the celebrations with a delegation of 300 dignitaries in tow.
So stark and brash was the nature of this visit that many see in it a major attempt to realign power relations in North Africa and the Sahel. Morocco’s ostensible aim is to finesse the role of privileged’ partner to Mali in the region from its old rival, Algeria. With Algeria in considerable disarray at the moment, due to the ill-health of President Bouteflika and the immense uncertainty about who should succeed him, this is an opportune moment for Morocco to step up to the plate. Its ancient ties with northern Mali, especially with the various Arab communities of Timbuktu, Djenné and Arawan, no doubt confers historic legitimacy to this move in the eyes of many at home in Morocco.
The first concrete result of the visit is an agreement from Morocco to help train 500 new Malian imams. “We share the Maliki madhab (school of religious law) with Mali, so there’s a perfect cohesion between us in the matter of training imams and in that of religious practice too, which is of a moderate Sunni Islam,” Morocco’s ambassador to Mali, Hassan Naciri, told Mali’s state TV station ORTM. “For us, it’s also important to train these imams according to the principles of moderation and tolerance in Islam.”
The Maliki madhab is still the most popular rite in North and West Africa. Generally, it is considered a lot more tolerant and respectful of people’s differences than the Hanbali school that has taken hold of many parts of the Middle East and which the Salafiyya, who are making inroads into countries such as Mali and Morocco, hold dear.
Mohammed VI fears radical Salafism and Wahabism as much as any hereditary ‘traditional’ ruler in the Maghreb, maybe more. In fact, extremist groups in Morocco recently issued death threats against the king. The creeping influence of radical Sunni beliefs throughout the Sahel, aided and abetted by the petro-dollars of the Middle East, has also been a great cause for concern to Mali’s secular political elite. So this move could be seen as a concerted counter-attack against religious radicalism and influence of firebrand Salafi preachers in North and West Africa.
The wider scope of Morocco’s intentions in Mali remains to be seen however. They see, if not common cause, at least a strong empathetic parallel between their struggle against the Polisario in the Western Sahara and Mali’s struggle against Touareg separatists in the north of the country. There were also many reports during the Malian civil war of 2012 of links between jihadi armed groups in northern Mali and disaffected youth in southern Morocco and the Western Sahara. The two countries no doubt see advantages in sharing know-how, intelligence and resources to fight separatism.
The issue of drug smuggling also binds the two countries together, whether they like it or not. Much of the big-time hashish trade that transits through northern Mali is connected to the Moroccan underworld, and there is some evidence of Moroccan involvement in the more lucrative cocaine trade as well.
Morocco might also see the election of a new President in Mali as an opportunity to reassert their influence in the north of the country. Many in the old nationalist Istiqlal party still harbour dreams of a ‘Greater Morocco’, whose influence, if not borders, would encompass all those lands conquered by the great 15th century Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour, which include large tracts of what is now northern Mali. Those dreams may be fanciful, but closer and more vigorous ties with Mali will be at the very least expected to bring new business and resource-extraction opportunities.
Mohammed VI’s Bamako trip is an attempt to reassert Moroccan hegemony in the region at Algeria’s expense, to establish common cause with the new Malian President in terms of fighting separatism, drug smuggling and religious extremism, to ease pressure on the Western Sahara and generally flex the economic muscle of an increasingly confident Morocco.
Andy Morgan (c) 2013