Who is Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta?

IBK

Though we still have not heard any official results from Mali’s historic Sunday election, which were initially due Tuesday and have now been postponed until tomorrow, it’s hard to escape notice of the unofficial word that former prime minister Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta is leading the vote, perhaps by a large enough margin to avoid a planned August 11 runoff.Mali Flag Icon

It’s difficult to know whether the delays are from the actual vote-counting itself or from behind-the-scenes talks among the various stakeholders in the election results.  Either way, when the votes are announced tomorrow (the last day that election officials have under law to announce them), it seems all but certain that Keïta (pictured above) will come out on top in a vote that saw the highest turnout in Mali’s history — around 53%.

Election observers, who have had consistent access to voting conditions in Mali, in contrast to yesterday’s vote in Zimbabwe, largely reported that Sunday’s election was essentially free and fair.  But another leading contender, Soumaïla Cissé, has already warned that he will challenge the results if Keïta, popularly known simply by his initials, ‘IBK,’ wins the first round outright, and his party has accused IBK’s supporters of ballot-stuffing.  Keïta appeared to be running particularly strong in Bamako, Mali’s capital in the south of the country, though Cissé, who was born in the northern city of Timbuktu, claimed that he was running stronger in the country’s interior.

Despite meeting the basic thresholds for a legitimate election, there have been concerns that in holding such a hasty vote after the country’s recent liberation, the election would be marred by insufficient time for a issues-based campaign, by flaws in the mechanics of holding a new vote, and by the fact that a million northerners remain displaced inside Mali or in neighboring countries.  The election was the first following a political crisis that saw the country’s elected president since 2002, Amadou Toumani Touré (also known by his initials, ‘ATT’), toppled in a military coup last March, thereby postponing what had been the planned March 2012 election to choose a successor to Touré.  The coup, however, subsequently emboldened Tuareg separatist resistance groups in the north, and Malian forces were unable to prevent the takeover of much of northern Mali, first by Tuareg groups like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and later by homegrown and foreign-based Islamic radicals, who introduced sharia law in Timbuktu, one of the largest cities in northern Mali.  French president François Hollande launched a military intervention in February 2013 to liberate the north and to secure the transitional government’s control of Bamako.  France and the United States have both pushed for rapid elections in order to facilitate permanent peace talks between Bamako and Tuareg separatists, in hopes that it will secure the Sahel region from transformation into a base for Islamic terrorism.

Given the likelihood that IBK is on the precipice of leading Mali — either after tomorrow’s announcement or after the August 11 runoff vote — what do we know about him, and how will he approach the myriad economic, political and security challenges facing Mali over the next five years?

At age 68, Keïta is a mainstay of Malian politics, and both he and Cissé were on the ballot in the pivotal 2002 election that launched Touré to the presidency — in the first round of that race, Touré won 29% to 21.4% for Cissé and just 21.2% for Keïta.  Excluded from the runoff, IBK endorsed ATT in the second round, who later won with 65% of the vote.

The Paris-educated Keïta spent more than a quarter-century in France as a graduate student and a professor before he began his political career as a supporter of Alpha Oumar Konaré, Mali’s democratically elected president from 1992 to 2002.  Originally appointed an ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Burkina Faso and Niger in 1992, he was promoted to minister of foreign affairs in 1993 and subsequently served as Konaré’s prime minister from 1994 to 2000, when he resigned after a falling out with Konaré.  In a report on Keïta earlier this week, France24 reports that as prime minister, Keïta helped liberalize Malian markets:

Officially, IBK is a socialist. But his six years as prime minister saw the liberalisation of the Malian economy. IBK also succeeded in standing up to the country’s powerful student and trade unions in the 1990s, earning him a strongman reputation and the sobriquet “Kankeletigui” – or “the man who keeps his word” – in Mali.

On the political stage, IBK has proved to be more pragmatist than ideologue – “a shapeshifter.”

He founded a new political party, Rassemblement pour le Mali (RPM, Rally for Mali), in 2001 with an eye toward the 2002 presidential race.  But after his loss in that election, he turned to the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly), serving as the chamber’s president from 2002 to 2007.  Though Keïta also ran for president in 2007, he won only around 19% of the vote against Touré (though he won nearly double that in Bamako).

Like Cissé and former Modibo Sidibé, also a former prime minister, a former foreign minister and an Touré loyalist, Keïta was running in the aborted 2012 president race prior to Mali’s military coup.

Cissé, who formed the Union pour la République et la Démocratie (URD, Union for the Republic and Democracy) in 2002, and Keïta both have their roots in the Alliance pour la Démocratie au Mali (ADEMA, Alliance for Democracy in Mali), the party of Konaré and of Touré, and the largest party in Mali, which had backed political novice Dramane Dembélé, a protégé of outgoing acting president Dioncounda Traoré, in the 2013 vote.  Accordingly, policy differences among the four frontrunners have been fairly negligible.  Throughout the campaign, Keïta waged a race heavy on slogans — posters proclaim that Keïta is a ‘strong man,’ whose presidential campaign is ‘for the honor of Mali.’

That’s given Keïta both the positive and negative baggage of the ‘strongman’ moniker, though it remains to be seen just how strong a president he would be — he counts Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso’s authoritarian president since 1987, and former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo (who’s been arrested and facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court) as a friend and the two were classmates at the Sorbonne decades ago, and he’s been accused of being too welcoming of Mali’s military coup leaders.

Though he’s promised to negotiate a lasting according with Tuareg forces, the cultural rupture between nomadic northern Berbers and sub-Saharan Africans in the south has divided Mali since it gained independence from France in 1960.  But projecting an image of a strong and experienced leader has helped Keïta consolidate a bandwagon effect — he and Sidibé are both the favored candidates of the French military and diplomats, become the de facto candidate of the French military, and IBK is seen as acceptable to both the military and more fervent Muslims.

In an interview with Jeune Afrique last week, however, Keïta tried to reassure skeptics that he would come to the national dialogue with a conciliatory tone:

Nous ne sommes pas des cow-boys, et les Touaregs ne sont pas des Indiens que l’on serait déterminés à exterminer ! Nos soldats ne sont pas des soudards, ce sont des patriotes…. Il faut nous faire confiance. Nous, les Maliens, avons ce pays en partage, toutes communautés confondues, et nous avons la capacité de régler cette question de manière fraternelle.  [We are not cowboys, and the Tuareg are not Indians that we’re determined to exterminate! Our soldiers are not mercenaries, they are patriots…. You have to trust us. We Malians have shared this country, all communities, and we have the ability to resolve this issue in a fraternal manner.]

Photo credit to RFI/Pierre René-Worms.

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