Tag Archives: ibk

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

New President, Old Problems: The early days of IBK’s regime

Men set up a stage for a campaign rally next to a poster for Malian presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as IBK) in Bamako, Mali, August 9, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Joe Penney

Any newly elected executive has a difficult task ahead of them regardless of the events preceding their inauguration. For a President one opening matter is to get the right balance of characters into government and getting the country up and running. Style and the setting of priorities are incredibly important. A coherent, suitably ambitious and achievable agenda for power must be made. Get the pace wrong here and you can promise too much and deliver too little or you can end up picking the wrong fights and risk isolation. The early months of a new government can also fall victim to the reliance on the wave of euphoria that delivered them to power. Some forget that this honeymoon period comes to an abrupt end. If taken for granted, a newly installed premier can find that hope and excitement subsides into disappointment and frustration all too quickly. Just ask Gordon Brown how that feels…

So looking to Mali’s new President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (fondly referred to as IBK for short) we can expect the stakes on the early weeks of government to be even higher. A daunting in-tray faces the run-away winner of this year’s elections. How has IBK tried to deliver his election-winning message of peace, unity and technical and administrative competence? Increasingly and ever important for any modern developing world President is external relations, but getting the balance between this and national stability and reconciliation is crucial. These two sides are intrinsically linked yet IBK has urgent issues to address on both fronts – how has he approached this, have some events already forced his hands, and what can we learn already?

Mali’s new cabinet

The first decision that faces any incoming Premier – in this case Prime Minister Oumar Tatam Ly – is the creation of a cabinet. This is a great way of anticipating the attitude of a government going forward. IBK has certainly made choices to deliver a symbolically unified government. Many of the key appointments are detailed in this article. The prestigious role of Foreign Minister has been handed to Zahaby Ould Sidy Mohamed, a Timbuktu-born Arab from the North who was a senior figure in a rebellion in the 1990s. One of his key tasks will be dealing with the United Nations and issues surrounding the already understaffed MINUSA Peacekeeping deployment picking up from the work of General Secretary Sekouba Cisse. Having an individual from the north represent Mali in this way on the world stage opens the door reconciliation with the north. Mali’s Foreign Minister will arguably be the most important portfolio for providing solutions to Mali’s most pressing needs. Firstly, Mali’s relationship with its West African neighbours will be crucial to the safe return of the thousands of refugees and restoring Mali’s territorial integrity. These countries will be vital to Mali’s economic recovery and in tackling trans-continental organised crime.  Looking further afield, the continued presence of French troops is a reminder of the importance of relations outside of Africa. The US is another key ally in this area as is the EU in the form of a major source of development aid. All in all, the decision to give this important role to a man from Mali’s north is a very encouraging act of trust indeed.

Potential international esteem has been gathered in the form of Boubou Cisse who has been made head of Mali’s Mining Ministry and Bouare Fily Sissoko the country’s new Finance Minister. Both Cisse and Sissoko have experience to draw on from their recent work at the World Bank as well as contacts to exploit. Sissoko is also one of four women in Mali’s 34 person strong Cabinet. Seeing women be given prominent roles is promising and perhaps deserves more credit – Mali has matched the number of women in David Cameron’s reshuffled cabinet of 27. An act of continuity comes with the appointment of Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga as Defence Minister who held the position under President Alpha Oumar Konare and the intriguing re-appointment of Territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly and Transport Minister Abdoulaye Koumare. Both these men held these posts under the military junta who came to power through the coup in 2012 and their inclusion would hopefully have the positive effect of appeasing or even bring the disgruntled elements of the military on-side. However, their presence in government could be questioned on the grounds of legitimacy – are these men here on merit – as argued here – or as a result of the coup have they effectively made their way into Mali’s political class by force?

Managing prevailing instability

On paper this cabinet shows the breadth and depth of character and experience to deliver on IBK’s promises.  There is a theme of inclusivity and a good mixture of old and new faces. Their arrival however has not coincided with the timely arrival of a stable and peaceful Mali. The towns of Gao and Kidal in the north-east of the country continue to be the centre of a very precarious security situation. On the 7th of October, in the first attacks in several months, the rebel group Mujao have claimed the life of a Malian soldier after he sustained fatal injuries from rocket fire. At the same time the city of Kidal has only very recently been brought under government control. It recapture was not an easy task for government forces who mounted their assault just before peace talks with the MNLA were due to begin. The decision to pursue the MNLA aggressively at this time seems ill-judged and disjointed and has now placed further strain on negotiations.

Kidal City (almost) open. Source:  Jeune Afrique

The armed groups in the north appear to be in retreat. Contrary to this more optimistic assessment a terrifying document has emerged. An 80 page “Islamist road map” that written around 12 months ago has been discovered. It is thought that the document was prepared for al-Qaeda. Its contents could explain the change in the strategy of al-Qaeda and other armed groups in northern Mali. It reveals a significant rift occurred midway through last year’s insurgency and confirms that some figures within the rebel networks correctly predicted the problem of insurgency over-reach. They claimed that the ambition to make a charge for Bamako would inevitably lead to the involvement of international forces. As a result, the prospect of military defeat became a far more likely outcome. A rush to Bamako would spell disaster for the wider objectives al-Qaeda had for the Sahel and was an unnecessary risk. These individuals were right. In light of the rebels failure to advance south the recommendations of the 80 page document may have only been heeded now. Is AQIM defeated or in a tactical retreat?

Crucially, this document details how al-Qaeda must not rely on the military capacity of its insurgents. Instead it must emerge newly configured with the intention of implementing Sharia law slowly to earn the trust of locals. Is al-Qaeda regrouping, rethinking and slowly re-emerging in Northern Mali? If this is being pursued it would bring the improving security situation into dispute. Indeed, at the end of September more than a dozen people “were killed in a suicide car-bomb attack in a Malian army camp in the city of Timbuktu”. The likely aim of this horrendous act of terror attack was to crush the confidence of the Malian people, destabilise the morale of the army itself and tarnish the army as a symbol of government stability – right in the heart of Mali’s northern territories. Al-Qaeda has resorted to a fight for hearts and minds – not territory. It would be beneficial to them to make peace talks look like a government failure.

This is not a time for IBK to be drawn into a false sense of security. Was cutting his trip to France short a wise move? Probably, but in returning home does IBK look like he is buckling to Al-Qaeda pressure? Or does he come across as a man who knows that his country needs him most of all in the support of domestic peace negotiations? It’s an archetypal rock and a hard place situation.

No time to be complacent

The instability is not only a rebel-induced situation in the north, but civic tensions prevail across the country Bamako included.  Al-Qaeda and the rest of the loosely-affiliated patchwork of rebel groups still active in the Sahel appear to be making a new war of hearts and minds. IBK and the new government must take forward the principle of unity and inclusivity symbolised in their own ranks and make it a reality on the ground.  IBK has looked unflustered through-out his opening months as President. Is this professionalism or complacency? He maintains a calming presence by citing the virtues of the UN and MINUSA and by displaying the support he has from his army. At the same time, it is worth remembering that for last decade Mali has been regarded as a democratic example for the whole of Africa to follow. This view has been dramatically revised over the past months. Criticism has been levelled at the West for insisting on a narrow notion of democracy in their assessment of the country. However “it was the pre-coup status quo that led to collapse”. It appears that for IBK – as for any government – there is an urgent need to continue the strong, symbolic start and to deliver on election pledges swiftly. We will have to see whether IBK’s approach is evidence of a firm hand or “impotence” in the face of Mali’s ongoing security dilemma.

The most important tweet in Mali’s history?


At 2:44pm on the 12th of August 2013, Soumaila Cissé sent arguably the most important tweet in Mali’s history. As the defeated candidate in Mali’s run-off Presidential election, he summarised in no less than 113 characters the strong, positive spirit that his country had expressed over the election period. Though the UN has reported that the second-round of elections occurred ‘without major incident,’ the jury should still be out till all data has been processed whether the logistical fears surrounding the elections materialised. It does appear that the greatest criticisms cited about these early elections – namely reprisal violence – have not occurred. As the BBC’s man in Bamako, Abdourahmane Dia, writes:

Mali seems to be headed towards a peaceful end of its electoral process after Soumaila Cisse conceded to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita following Sunday’s run-off vote.

This is yet another example that politics is not an exact science -many had predicted chaos if Mali held elections so soon. France, anxious to get its troops out of Mali after routing Islamist militants from northern regions earlier this year, faced criticism for pushing for early polls.

Yet the electoral success lies more with the Malian people, who firmly believed the polls would end an era of turmoil.”

Though it is correct that these elections have occurred “without major incident” the difficulties and trauma experienced by some who were simply trying to cast your vote cannot be forgotten. It has been reported that individual Malian’s have been frequently intimidated and sometimes killed trying to vote. A chilling reminder to anyone reading from the Western world of awfully underappreciated our democratic rights sometime appear.

Importantly for Malian’s, Cissé rounded off his most gracious of election defeats with a vow to create a strong and credible opposition. Malian television showed images of Soumaila Cissé going with his wife and children to congratulate Keita and his family at their home. The whole end to the election process was a national occasion. “Soumaila’s conduct was truly impeccable,” said Aissata Camara, a pharmacy lab technician. “It was very impressive and very democratic as well. It was a relief for all of us.” Another man interviewed in the street said “I was moved to tears when I heard of what Soumaila had done. He has freed this country from any problems.” Despite all his humility, it is worth mentioning that Cissé still cited some concerns over voting fraud.

With all the news about Soumaila Cissé, it is important to remember that Mali has a new President with plenty of work to do. There is plenty of information about Ibrahim Keita on the internet. The challenges sitting in his overflowing and newly acquired in-tray are enormous. The Huffington Post immediately centres Keita’s premiership on the issue of the Tuareg while The Guardian emphasises the difficulties in reigniting the economy and managing the flow of international aid after years of endemic mismanagement. If these elections are really meant to serve as a new chapter for Mali, and putting the turmoil behind, then politics and governance must start now. Cissé appears to already begun his job. Now we will have to wait and see what IBK’s plans to do first to take his country forward.

How much can these elections put a line under Mali’s troubles? Another tweet offers a more measured and reflective point. Freelance journalist Peter Tinti aptly points out that though the elections serve as a crucial first step it is important to “keep in mind” that Mali’s problems of the last 20 years have not come from the lack of free and fair elections. The greater challenge that awaits Mali’s new incumbents – and opposition – is to resume the mission of building strong institutions. Though elections have evidently been successful in beginning national reconciliation, Mali needs to expand its democratic credentials and not rely purely on the existence of ballot boxes. It is a promising start, but a lot still needs to be done.

Indeed these successful elections are more cause for ’a collective sigh of relief’ rather than celebrations in the streets.