President IBK – Year One by Jonathan Marriott

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has had a politically challenging first year in office. His personal popularity has slumped and any sign of recovery has stagnated. Photo credit: TVC News

The 12th of August was the first anniversary of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s landslide election victory, but any evidence on the streets of Bamako might have been hard to come by. Everywhere you look in the Malian press these past few weeks there are retrospectives on the last twelve months, but unlike this week one year ago, there won’t be much in the way of flag-waving, smiling faces and music. In response to a disappointing come-down from last year’s optimism, all are looking to “the worst president that Mali has ever had” for an answer – how did he get here? What has been done with all that hope? Options are still open to the former World Bank employee, but they require compromise and a willing attitude, both things he seems increasingly reluctant to give.

That IBK has disappointed and underwhelmed is uncontroversial on all sides; despite having brought all the necessary threads together to weave a stable and economically sound future in the run-up to his election, the country has continued to unravel. However he did it, IBK’s friends have grown more numbered, and the hope and feeling of solidarity that infused his campaign has dissipated. This time one year ago, the country was recovering from a war that saw its northern regions, collectively an area as large as France, overrun by al-Qaeda affiliated military organisations, forcing intervention from their old colonial masters, the French. But a year on, the government’s control over the north is flimsy and incomplete, and two weeks ago Keita signed a defence agreement with French President François Hollande that means French troops will stay in the country on a long-term basis. Peace talks with the comparatively moderate separatists the MNLA (Mouvement Nationale de Libération de l’Azawad) were first scheduled for this time last year, but still haven’t really happened yet. A stultifying inertia seems to have gripped the country’s governing body, as deadlines seem to slip by, opportunities for opening new discourse fall at the first hurdles, and movements towards inclusion and consolidation wither from inattention. Whilst the French are very much back in the country, raising questions of neo-colonialism, allegations of corruption and nepotism have begun to accumulate against IBK, and the much-discussed multi-billion euro EU aid has once again been halted. So much of that hope and euphoria you may have seen at his election has turned to set faces, subdued and gloomy criticism, frustrated voices and scandal. IBK is pretty much all that remains of his cabinet, the whole lot of them having resigned en masse in May this year.

His position is looking lonelier as he has managed to alienate so many of that almost incredibly long list of friends that propelled him into power in the first place, and yet he seems to approach issues with an air of complacency and inattention, which is frustrating his electorate. But though lonelier he may be, he is perhaps not all that uncomfortable: from the back of his brand new $1.4 million Rolls Royce perhaps the fortunes of Mali seem a bit less pressing, the voices of exasperation and calls for his resignation surely only heard mutedly. Or they would, if the luxury vehicle were ever to leave the exclusive Missabougou quarter of Bamako where it languishes in a garage. It has been seen as a symbolic portrayal of his lavishness and abdication of responsibility; the impoverished north whose rebellion created the circumstances for his election, and whose fate is intimately and (sadly) oppositely tied to that of any state in Mali, is almost entirely without paved road. Keita seems to have turned around and gone home, filling his cabinet and government with family members, and shunning open engagement with the electorate. As one commentator put it: “IBK has lost his tongue – that with which he used to shake heaven and earth to make himself heard. It is a silence which says much about his limitations faced with the hard reality of the exercise of power”.

Others have extolled the heroism of Soumailla Cissé, who on the day of IBK’s election visited his house to concede, before the votes were counted, pledging himself to help the new President to forge a better future for Mali. It was widely seen as an act of political heroism; he had fallen on his sword for the good of the country and to maintain its forward momentum, but Keita’s use of the mandate and support he was gifted during the turbulent months at the beginning of 2013 have drawn strong criticism. In an article on this website in November of last year, Sam Garbett presciently warned of the dangers of great expectations for Keita’s presidency, in particular mentioning Gordon Brown’s abject prime ministership in the UK. Prescient because, as frustrations have risen and Keita’s reputation for having a strong hand has waned, disappointment and gloom, that must surely give way to anger and rebellion, have spread.

But all is not lost. Peace talks with the MNLA (the Tuareg separatists unaffiliated with al-Qaeda) are still on the cards, if the political will is there to pursue them. A new dialogue, agreed upon among the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) on the 8th of June, has already seen the release of 30 prisoners from Kidal. It may be a crucial moment for Mali, amid frustration and growing distrust over the failed peace process, since a cease fire was broken in May. On the 26th of June at the African leaders’ summit, Ban-Ki Moon called for talks with the separatists in Mali beginning August 17, again providing some political pressure for a solution. Could a meeting of MNLA chiefs, much reported in April, yet bear fruit? The antagonisms between North and South seem hardly likely to disappear overnight. In April the new Prime Minister, Moussa Mara, declared outright war against the MNLA, In May 50 government troops were killed in a failed attempt to retake the MNLA-occupied town of Kidal, a fiasco for which Mara was widely criticised, and the foreign minister disappointed a UN securtiy council meeting by labelling them Terrorists, and showing little inclination to reach out to them. If the country is to be unified, steps need to be taken to welcome the Tuareg into the nation as equal citizens, and although precious little voluntarism from the politicians in charge is forthcoming, with pressure in the right places a new integrated Mali is still a possibility.

So where next for Mali? Further into the doldrums and authoritarianism? For now, the mood suggests a dim hope that given continued support, and given a political discourse absent from petty rivalries, partisan politics and personal ambitions, Mali may yet find its untapped potential under IBK. For the moment, however, the outlook is distinctly unappealing.

Jonathan Marriott

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