Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a central figure in Mali’s political life for over 20 years, was the winner in Sunday’s runoff vote in the landlocked West African nation’s presidential election, as his rival, Soumaila Cisse, conceded and congratulated his compatriots on a civic duty well done.
The election, which gained plaudits from African, U.S., and European observers, represents a major step toward the restoration of constitutional stability in a country that has been under attack from al Qaeda-linked North African militants, as well as separatists demanding a Tuareg state in the vast savannah and desert regions north of the Niger river. It also frees up some $4 billion in pledged international aid, suspended in the aftermath of the coup that interrupted the electoral process originally scheduled for May 2012. President Francois Hollande of France is expected to attend Keita’s inauguration next month in Mali’s capital of Bamako.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, widely known as IBK in Mali, is 67, served as prime minister, opposed Cisse and deposed president Amadou Toumani Toure in the elections of the 2002 and 2007 (both of which Toure won), and is currently the president of the National Assembly, which was not dissolved after the coup and the instauration of a transitional president. Soumaila Cisse is a former finance minister and executive director of the West African economic union, ECOWA (CEDEAO). Notwithstanding the bitterness of the campaign, in which some 28 candidates were on the first-round ballot three weeks ago and in the course of which Cisse accused the IBK camp of irregularities, the two sides appear to be in agreement that order and stability in Mali are the immediate priorities. It is not inconceivable that IBK will offer Cisse, known as “Soumi,” a cabinet position.
In terms of reconciling Malian society, the logic would be that the two men come from opposite ends of the country, Keita from the big cotton hub of Koutiala in the far south and Cisse from Timbuctu, which suffered nearly a year of Islamist rule when Malian forces were driven out of the north in the first months of 2012. Nominally a socialist and a top member of the Socialist Internationale, IBK has sought support from conservative Muslim authorities and an electorate which is overwhelmingly Muslim. Cisse represents a current that could be described as liberal in the European sense of the word. Both men are French educated, the president-elect in history and political science, the runner-up in engineering; they are in agreement that policies must be aimed at encouraging the south’s rich cotton and textile industries. The country’s 14 million population is overwhelmingly very young.
As the Weekly Standard noted as the first round got under way, the improved security situation in the far north of Mali, and particularly the control by USAF-assisted French forces of the key air field at Tessalit (near the Algerian border in the southwestern Sahara), represents a strategic advantage for the government. It insures a continuing Western concern to protect Mali from becoming a breach in the line across the Sahel that the jihadist hordes have been seeking to breach in order to invade black Africa.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita adamantly refused any concessions to the separatists or the Islamist radicals during the 2012 war, and supported the rescue of Mali by a four-thousand strong French expeditionary force when the Islamist forces, who had supplanted the separatists as the main force in the north, crossed the Niger in January of this year and threatened the capital city, Bamako. He will be under some pressure, including discrete French lobbying, to accommodate at least some of the Tuareg demands for more regional self-government.
Until the Malian army is re-organized and re-equipped and re-trained, security depends on French forces, with U.S. air support, a multi-national African military mission, and even, reportedly, a battalion sized contingent of Chinese advisors. Let it never be said the Chinese do not recognize opportunity on the African continent.
The French, without illusions about a permanent “victory” over the elusive bands of jihadist warriors hiding in the desert, probably would prefer an accommodation between the southern political class and the anti-jihadist Tuareg in the north. At the simplest, the quid would be military cooperation and the quo would be some degree of autonomy; whether such a thing is possible – whether, for example, the Tuareg separatists can agree to cooperate with “black” Malians of the south (though there are many in the north as well) – remains a challenge for anyone concerned about Mali’s public interest, as opposed to personal, clan, or tribal enrichment.
Whether the Bamako political class has learned a lesson in the importance of clean government remains to be demonstrated; but the donor nations have only themselves to blame for this, to the degree they taught a generation of Malian politicians and administrative officials that serious accountability is, basically, for the birds.
The U.S., however, can take pride in the democratic progress of one of its prize pupils, whose political and military elites, at least until last year, were among the State department’s model Africans. To the degree a confirmed IBK victory would be a case of déjà vu all over again, we can surely take comfort in the thought the Foggy Bottom experts are polishing their lenses.