Nouakchott, Mauritania, Asharq Al-Awsat—For the last 18 months, Mali has witnessed the most dangerous crisis since its independence in 1960. The crisis had many dimensions. It started as a security issue when a Tuareg rebellion erupted in the north of the country, and ended with armed Islamic groups taking control of its major cities.
The crisis reached the south when the officers of the defeated Malian army led a coup in March 2012 against President Amadou Toumani Touré, who was preparing to leave office after having served two terms. Elections to find his replacement had been scheduled for April 2012, but were postponed after the country entered a constitutional crisis, which was shortly followed by a coup.
This crisis threatened the existence of the Malian state and prompted international military intervention, led by France. It was accompanied by an economic crisis that hit a country that was already one of the world’s poorest; its economy relies on grants and international aid, supported by a bit of agriculture along the banks of the Niger River.
In the recent presidential elections, all of these problems pushed Malians to the ballot boxes in droves. Presumably, they were dreaming of a president with a magic wand who could solve all their problems.
The Malians’ choice, however, was a man who does not have a magic wand. Instead, he has an iron fist. Mali has tried on the iron fist before, when the enthusiasm of the 1991 revolution that ended military rule threatened the state’s security and stability.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, 68, who was elected to the presidency by the Malian people on Sunday, is described by his supporters as a man of action, not words. He is banking on his twenty years of experience in government, where he rose through leadership posts from adviser to the president of the republic, to ambassador, to foreign minister and then president of the parliament. He stood for the presidency in 2002 and 2007, but this year’s elections are the first time he won.
Philippe Hugon, a senior research fellow who heads the Africa program at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), says: “Keïta is a politician who played important roles in Mali through the posts he held. We talk of a veteran in the financial and political arenas who is the answer to the question posed by Malians ahead of the elections: Who is the man capable of running Mali with enough charisma? Who has the necessary experience to solve the fundamental problems of the country?”
Malian journalist Labass Haïdara, the publishing editor of the French L’Indépendent newspaper, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “among all candidates, Keïta was trusted the most by the Malian people to get the country out of its predicaments—a trust he gained from his days as prime minister during the rule of Alpha Oumar Konaré.” He added that “we all remember the time when Mali was finding its way in democracy in the early 1990s. It was subjected to a number of violent shocks. The student movement, which contributed massively to the toppling of dictator Gen. Moussa Traoré, thought they could dictate their demands to the authorities through protests and burning public buildings. The union movement, without whose effective civil disobedience the March 1991 revolution would not have succeeded, was demanding wage rises of 150 percent—the state economy could not cope with such rises. This came in addition to the Tuareg attacks from the north.”
Haïdara said: “Facing these crises, President Alpha Oumar Konaré appointed a number of governments, all of which failed to calm the streets and stem the Tuareg attacks—until he appointed Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta as prime minister. [Keïta] was not slow in reacting to the protests: for the first time since the revolution, leaders of the student movement were arrested and were tried on charges of threatening state security. He also stopped unionists in their tracks. As for the rebellion in the north, he arrested its leaders and brought them to Bamako, where they were tried. None of these things were seen before the arrival of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.”
During that era, Keïta was associated in the minds of Malians with being stern and having the ability to manage crises. But he displayed some contradictions, chief of which were his links to international socialism even though socialist principles were absent from his policies. Some people began to suspect his socialist tendencies, which he often spoke of proudly and publicly.
Keïta began to show interest in politics when he was studying in Paris. He was active in the movement against colonialism led by the Black African Students Federation in France, which made some people describe him as a “left-wing extremist.” He stayed in France for more than a quarter of a century, during which time he acquired postgraduate qualifications in history and international relations from La Sorbonne. With the growing influence of socialism, the young African man became immersed in leftist ideology and took French General Charles de Gaulle as a role model.
Keïta returned to Mali in 1986 and started his political activity by joining one of the secret organizations opposing the rule of Gen. Moussa Traoré. The general was toppled in a bloody uprising 1991, after 23 years of iron-fisted rule. Mali then entered a transitional phase, which ended with the election of Alpha Oumar Konaré as president. Konaré became the first elected president of the third republic in Mali, and Keïta played a pivotal role in mobilizing and engineering support for him in those elections.
Some observers say that Keïta served Alpha Oumar Konaré very well, especially in silencing the opposition that was casting doubts on the credibility of the 1997 elections, in which Konaré was re-elected for a second term. Towards the end of Konaré’s second term, Keïta, who was serving as prime minister and was also the leader of the then-ruling Alliance for Democracy Party, faced opposition from within his party when he proposed himself as an alternative to President Konaré, who like all Malian presidents was constitutionally restricted to serving two terms. Keïta was forced to resign from his post as prime minister in 2000 and relinquish the position of leader of the ruling party. Instead, he established his own party, the Rally for Mali.
Through his new party, Keïta nominated himself for the presidential elections in 2002, coming third; his candidacy tipped the balance between Amadou Toumani Touré and the ruling party’s candidate, Soumaïla Cissé in favour of the former. Three years later, Keïta became the president of the Malian parliament after the legislative elections. He nominated himself a second time in the presidential elections of 2007, coming second behind Amadou Toumani Touré, who won his second term.
His defeat in 2007 began a new phase of his political career. Malian journalist Labass Haïdara says: “Keïta, after his defeat in 2007, began to run his party according to a specific policy that relied on reducing the participation in governance, and he stayed away from the spotlight as much as possible, satisfied with his position as president of the parliament.”
Another Malian journalist, Chahana Takiou, editor of the September 22 newspaper sees Keïta, who was known to be very secretive, as one of those who benefitted most from the March 2012 revolution. Everything in the political arena turned upside down in March 2012, when a number of Malian politicians announced their opposition to a coup that took place only a month before presidential elections were scheduled. Those politicians clashed with its perpetrators—but Keïta preferred to stick with his “calm and calculating” manner: he condemned the coup, but at the same time said he “understood” the army’s actions because it has been “insulted.”
Due to his stance on the March 2010 coup, Keïta has been seen as the army’s candidate by some sides. French researcher Philippe Hugon says: “Keïta was strongly linked to individuals in the army institution, so he remained silent during the military coup.” Hugon added that “Keïta’s links are not limited to the military institution; he also has strong links to a number of the leaders of the region, such as the president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, and the president of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba.”
However, most analysts give precedence to his relations with France, Mali’s former colonial ruler. French newspaper Le Monde wrote that Keïta, as a member of the Socialist International movement, had special relations with socialist officials in France: François Hollande, Laurent Fabius and Manuel Valls. And, of course, he lived, studied and worked in France for 26 years. However, Philippe Hugon cautions that “this does not necessarily say that Keïta enjoys France’s support.”
From the internal perspective, Hugon says “Keïta, who hails from the south, enjoys huge support among traditionalists and religious circles,” noting in particular certain Islamic movements that are popular among ordinary Malians. This is was an indication to the call by the general caliphate of the Hamawi way, to all his followers in Mali who number around 3 million, to vote for Keïta, which angered his opponents, who considered the caliphate to have gone beyond his religious role and interfered in political affairs in a secular state.
Keïta enjoys a popular image as a traditional African man—one whose friends have nicknamed him “Hajj,” because he has performed the pilgrimage to Mecca.
He is also a member of one of the most powerful and influential ethnic groups in Mali. Some describe him as a tribal leader, but he enjoys good relations with the prevailing ethnic groups in the north of his country, the Arabs and Tuareg. These links made his supporters believe he could end tensions in that part of the country.
Issa N’Diaye, a philosophy professor at Bamako University, says: “The issue of the north is sensitive for Malians, who lived through hard times under the rebellion in the area, and Keïta’s stand on this issue was very nationalistic, which won him great support from the Malian people.” He added: “I expect the north to be dealt with sternly; however, the trap that needs to be avoided is not to negotiate and make decisions on behalf of the Malians regarding the rebellion, and I think if he took that route, he would be taking a big risk.”
An Azawadi member of the transitional council, Abderrahman Ag Omaar, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Keïta, who was elected president of Mali after 18 months of military rule, will not be able to act outside the regional political framework that is planned for the area in the corridors of power in Paris.”
Ag Omaar added that “Keïta was part of the Malian government when the Arabs and Tuareg were subjected to massacres in the 1990s; therefore, if he was not a partner in those massacres, he was at least a witness to them.”
Referring to the territory in northern Mali disputed by the Azawadi movement, Ag Omar said: “We hope he is more flexible about the issue of Azawad, and we hope he is true to his promise. Everyone who has ruled Mali, from independence until now, have not kept their promises to the Azawadis.”
Malian journalist Chahana Takiou identified another challenge that awaits Keïta: selecting a team to help him run the country while still leaving a place for the opposition. Takiou expressed fears that Keïta would use power excessively and aggressively when dealing with his opponents.
Philippe Hugon says that “these fears are justified, because the dangers are there. But in the current climate in Mali, a strong man is better than a weak, peaceful man.”
Observers, however, believe Keïta is aware of the challenges he faces. He fought his election campaign under the slogan “Mali First,” and he has a famous line that he repeats in all his speeches: “For the sake of Mali’s dignity, I will restore peace and security, and for the sake of Mali’s dignity, I will restore dialogue between all our people, and I will reunite our people.”