Mali’s religious dignitaries’ approving comments on Morocco’s role in Mali mean that Rabat’s pan-Africanism and South-South-themed soft-power runs deep in Bamako.
Rabat – Morocco’s “African diplomacy” has just experienced a strong boost in Mali, with the West African country’s political and religious dignitaries heaping praise on Rabat’s “constant friendship and sympathy for Mali.”
The encouraging statements of “appreciation” and “shared sympathy” dominated much of the Moroccan foreign minister’s September 29 trip to Bamako, the Malian capital.
Under “royal instructions,” Nasser Bourtia, Morocco’s top diplomat, visited Bamako on Tuesday to meet with Mali’s new leadership. During his stay, the Moroccan minister held “fruitful” conversations with all the new, influential faces of Mali’s transition government, according to reports in the Malian and Moroccan media.
A ‘shared history’
Among Bourita’s hosts were the newly-appointed Transition President Bah N’Daw, Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, as well as Vice-President Colonel Assimi Goita, who is also the lead instigator of the country’s recent military coup. In Bourita’s talks with Mali’s new political leadership, there was constant mention of “shared history and commitments.”
Rising to the occasion, Bourita stressed Morocco’s storied readiness to collaborate with, help its “African brothers.”
For their part, Mali’s new political dignitaries unanimously hailed Morocco’s “constant” and “long-standing” support for “Mali and the Malian people” in times of distress and need. Morocco, they suggested in chorus, is more than a committed and rising pan-African leader to emulate. It is also a “true friend” of Mali.
It would be tempting to suggest that all this discourse about “centuries-old friendship” and “shared history” is no big deal and should have been expected. As Mali is one of Morocco’s strongest partners in Africa, such a mild criticism would go, Bourita was only preaching to the choir with his visit—and he should have therefore expected the discourse there to be music to his ears.
But the criticism is unfair and not quite on point, not least because Morocco’s role in Mali goes far beyond the political realm. And Mali’s religious dignitaries seemed to suggest as much in their own equally warm welcome of Bourtia’s visit.
As he met with Bourita, Bouye Haidara, the leader of Mali’s Tijani Brotherhood and the country’s most revered religious figure, also spoke about his “deep appreciation” for Morocco and “the cordial ties between our two people.”
Deep relations, connections
The Malian religious chief insisted the Mali-Morocco ties date back centuries, arguing that the two countries have always dealt with one another in a spirit of “togetherness and sympathy.”
Unlike the country’s new political leadership, Cheick Haidara did not launch into what might have been described, disapprovingly, as a cheap, for-the-occasion hymn to Morocco-Mali relations.
But even then, his unmistakably warm words for the “kingdom and the King” were enough for any observer to make the case for that to which the Cheick had only gestured: His and his religious sect’s deep connections with Morocco.
The Tijani order, a Sufi branch with a large following across West Africa, originated and flourished in Fez, Morocco, before spreading to other parts of Africa. Every year, thousands of Tijanis make a pilgrimage to Fez, a holy site for the Brotherhood. According to reports in the Malian press, Cheick Haidara himself made a pilgrimage to Fez earlier this year.
On an even more personal note, added the Malian sources, the Cheick also visited Morocco in 2016 for medical reasons. On that occasion, “he travelled to Morocco onboard a special flight and was treated at the Mohammed V military hospital in Rabat, thanks to the Moroccan King.”
In his remarks following the meeting with Bourita, Haidara did not dwell on these personal dimensions of his connection to Morocco. Instead, he expressed his “happiness and satisfaction” that “the ties between our two countries deepened under the Late King Mohammed V” and have continued to grow to this day.
Morocco’s mediation, post-coup diplomacy in Mali
For all the reverence and almost bottomless influence that Cheick Haidara exerts on Malian politics, Bourita’s visit would not have been quite complete without an audience with Imam Mahmoud Dicko.
The buoyant activist and politically conscious 66-year-old preacher led the 5 June Movement, the recent anti-government coalition that ultimately resulted in the military’s overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on August 18.
But long before initiating and coordinating Mali’s recent waves of anti-government protests, Imam Dicko had already made a name for himself in his country’s political firmaments. He was known, among other consequential public roles, for acting as the focal point in the mediation between the Malian government and jihadist groups in northern Mali.
More poised for political dialogue and negotiations, the influential imam provided more details and specifics than Cheick Haidara when assessing his meeting with Morocco’s top diplomat. While reiterating Haidara’s central thesis — that the two countries have been friends and close allies for centuries — Imam Dicko was more adept at hinting at the more contemporary, urgent reasons for “further consolidating our ties.”
He explained that Morocco has been a bad and good-weather friend for Mali, emphasizing that Rabat has “helped and accompanied” Bamako over the years. Of Bourita’s visit, he said it “symbolizes in reality Morocco’s and King Mohammed VI’s sympathy and friendship for Mali and the Malian people.” The imam concluded, more significantly: “Every time that Mali has had problems, Morocco has been the first country to offer to help.”
In pointing to Morocco’s readiness to always help Mali in times of trouble, the imam may have been hinting at reports that Morocco recently played a crucial mediation role between the recently overthrown regime and the anti-government coalition.
When the Malian military finally heeded the population’s frustration with the regime and deposed the president, Morocco was the first country to establish diplomatic contact with the new leadership. Rabat’s recognition of the Malian junta was couched in diplomatic language, however.
Namely: Following the coup, Morocco’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for a “peaceful civil transition, allowing a rapid and supervised return to constitutional order.” This overtly diplomatic tone was mostly to keep at bay customary criticism and any other over-interpretations of Morocco’s position on the military coup and its ramifications.
But the suspicions were raised regardless. In the wake of Morocco’s comments on the new Malian leadership, one report seemed to timidly criticize Morocco’s apparent rush to establish contact with the Malian junta. Beyond its ironic headline, however, the article eventually acknowledged — or rather felt compelled to recognize — that Morocco’s “standard-bearer status in West Africa” has made the kingdom both a much-prized ally and an indispensable interlocutor for the region’s leaders.
As the kingmakers and most revered public figures of Mali’s political scene, Cheick Haidara and Imam Dicko count as the ultimate expression of the country’s public opinion, the faces or voices of most Malians’ political inclinations. From this perspective, Cheick Haidara and Imam Dicko’s approving comments on Morocco’s role in Mali mean that Rabat’s pan-Africanism and South-South-themed soft-power runs deep in Bamako.
Above all else, though, that Mali is among the chief beneficiaries of Morocco’s religious diplomacy’s ambition of raising “a new generation” of modern African Imams and Islamic scholars should suggest that Malian pastures look even greener for the kingdom’s continental aspirations.