Tag Archives: IBK

Why Hollande’s determination could be a game-changer for Syria

French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)
French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

With 20 airstrikes on Sunday in the de facto Islamic State/Saesh capital of Raqqa, French president François Hollande made it very clear that he would stay true to his word and launch a ‘merciless war’ against the terrorist camps in Syria controlled by IS/Daesh. Mali Flag IconFrance Flag Iconcentrafrique flagSyria Flag Icon

That may seem like a tall order, especially given the geopolitical conundrums of Syria’s civil war. Russia is also bombing Raqqa and other rebel strongholds, with the explicit goal of boosting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. France, meanwhile, opposes Assad, and Hollande nearly launched airstrikes in 2013 against Assad. The United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, have generally argued that Assad must leave power, and the United States once looked to boost anti-Assad Sunni rebels, some of whom are now allied with IS/Daesh. Now, however, US special forces are on the ground in Syria working with Kurdish peshmerga forces to pressure Raqqa as well. For what it’s worth, Turkey is also boosting the US effort with airstrikes on IS/Daesh, but Turkish forces have also been attacking Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey.

And so on and so on. Last Friday’s attacks on Paris may have simplified the French objective in the region, but it doesn’t make it strategically less messier. Hollande has now made it clear that his goal is to destroy IS/Daesh, not simply to contain it. That makes him, for now, far more hawkish on Syria than either US president Barack Obama or UK prime minister David Cameron. It’s worth remembering that Hollande played a crucial role in bringing Berlin and Athens together for a last-minute bailout deal at the nadir of Greece’s eurozone crisis in July.

The Syrian calculus may also be changing for Obama and Cameron, though. Obama spent nearly a half-hour conferring with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the weekend at the G-20 summit in Turkey, and Hollande is set to meet Obama in person in Washington on November 24, followed by a visit with Putin in Moscow two days later.

An increasingly hawkish France in the Sarkozy-Hollande era

If there’s anyone in world politics today, however, whose record of eliminating jihadist threats and restoring peace in the developing world is decent, it’s Hollande — after at least partially successful operations in Mali and in the Central African Republic.

Throughout most of the world (including France), Hollande is an unpopular and ineffective figure who has neither stood up to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘austerity,’ nor enacted reforms to make the French economy more effective nor lowered France’s persistent unemployment rate. That’s, at least, when his personal love life isn’t making headlines.

But Hollande has developed an impressive record when it comes to engaging and defeating radical jihadists in former French colonies– and in prolonging a new trend of aggressive foreign policy.

His predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, took office in 2007 with the explicit goal of closer security ties with the United States and the United Kingdom, embracing the once toxic mantle of ‘Atlanticist.’ In 2009, he ended France’s four-decade-long rift with NATO, fully integrating France into NATO’s security regime, and he embraced a muscular, hawkish foreign policy — on Libya and elsewhere.

Perhaps to the surprise of some of the more dovish members of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), he has embraced the new French assertiveness on the global stage. Even more surprisingly, it’s Laurent Fabius, a long-time Socialist official, who has carried out Hollande’s muscular foreign policy as France’s foreign minister.

Fabius, who served as France’s youngest prime minister in the 1980s under François Mitterrand, bucked his party in 2005 in advocating a non vote against a European constitution. Nevertheless, he comes from the left wing of the party, and he’s run (unsuccessfully) for the party’s presidential nomination.

Mali — restoring a government in the Sahel

In 2012, in northern Mali, the Tuaregs, nomadic Muslims long resentful of the southern elite, were on the verge of breaking away to form their own northern state. The pressure on Mali’s government culminated in a military coup, deposing Mali’s democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Touré and thereby plunging Mali into even greater chaos. By the end of the year, a relatively stable democratic country had become a magnet for international jihadists, including newly-armed Libyan rebels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Together, the radicals had overtaken both the Malian army and the local Tuareg forces to create a radical Islamist pocket across northern Mali, introducing harsh sharia law and increasingly threatening the southern capital, Bamako.

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RELATED: Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now

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Invited by the new government, Hollande sent a 4,000-person force to Mali in January 2013. Within days, French troops controlled the northern city of Timbuktu and, By April, the international jihadist threat in Mali was significantly reduced, and French troops began withdrawing from Mali, as a regional African force took control over regional security. By August 2013, the country held its delayed presidential election, voting Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta into power and restoring Mali back onto a democratic path, tasked with tough negotiations with Tuareg rebels.

A more wide-ranging force, together with national African troops, remained behind to ensure that the international fighters in Mali didn’t stick around to cause mayhem in other countries in the Sahel.

While IBK, as he’s known in Mali, has not been incredibly successful in pacifying the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who continue to clash with Malian forces and are pushing forward to create their own sovereign state of Azawad. That’s not the best potential outcome for Mali, necessarily, but it did prevent Mali — or the wide Sahel — from becoming the kind of powerless vacuum where international jihadist rule can thrive, like in eastern Syria, western Iraq and present-day Libya. Moreover, even as Mali struggles to consolidate a united country, it can do so without having to wage a war against an IS-style caliphate within its own borders.  Pushing aside hand-wringing about the perception of françafrique, the notion that France continues to play a role in its former colonies to perpetuate its own self-interested political and economic control, Hollande’s targeted and narrowly defined mission made Europe and the Sahel safer as a result.

CAR — giving peace a fresh start

A year later, the Central African Republic, another former French colony, was devolving into chaos.

François Bozizé, the CAR’s president since taking power in a 2003 coup, was himself ousted by the Séléka alliance that first took control of the country’s north in November 2012, then took the capital, Bangui, in March 2013, bringing Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia to power.

Yet Djotodia, even after dissolving his militia, failed to control the increasingly intense fighting between Christians-dominated ‘anti-balaka’ militia and the Muslim dominated Séléka. With the country descending back into civil war, the UN Security Council introduced a peacekeeping force, and Hollande sent 1,600 French troops to help disarm militias, after refusing an initial request from Bozizé earlier in 2013 to stabilize his regime.

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RELATED: Does Djotodia’s resignation matter in
Central African Republic?

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Isolated from the elites of the Bozizé regime and increasingly from other rebel leaders in his own Séléka alliance, Djotodia stepped down in early 2014, and the country eventually appointed an interim leader, Catherine Samba-Panza.

The French peacekeeping effort hasn’t pacified the CAR enough to allow for elections that have now been delayed numerous times. But it may helped prevent wider violence, or even mass genocide, in central Africa. Again, French forces have kept the CAR from becoming a fully failed state and a vacuum for jihadist forces that might delight at forming a base in central Africa.

Syria — a chance for a genuine political settlement

Neither Mali nor the Central African Republic today are what you might call model countries today, not even by the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. Mali’s democratic restoration remains fragile and the country is still divided on tenuous north-south lines. The Central African Republic still hasn’t held postwar elections, and it could crumble back into violence at any moment.

But by the standards of Western intervention over the last 15 years, it’s hard to think of any greater successes. Certainly not Iraq or Afghanistan after the end of US-led intervention there, and certainly not Libya, which is barely functioning today after Sarkozy and Cameron led a US-backed charge to dislodge Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. US drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen have done little, either, to make those countries safer. Hollande’s record may not be perfect, but there’s at least some cause for hope.

It’s also true that Syria is different and, in many ways, from sub-Saharan Africa, and will be a much more difficult challenge for Hollande or any international coalition to pacify. For a country that’s suffered four years of civil war and brutality on all sides, Syrians may not welcome yet another international player to the mix. Intervention from the United States, Russia, Turkey and others only seems to make things worse for everyday Syrians, bringing just fleeting gains to the pro-Assad or anti-Assad forces of the day.

Hollande, like Obama and Putin, must realize that any military victory in pushing back IS/Daesh will ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory without the kind of political settlement that brings an end to Syria’s hostilities, even if that means pushing Assad from power.

IBK wins in Mali after Cissé concedes defeat


Mali has a new president it seems — frontrunner Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta (or just IBK), after his rival in Sunday’s runoff vote, Soumaïla Cissé, conceded defeat earlier today.  Mali Flag Icon

Results have not been announced, though Mali’s election authorities believed that formal results would be ready by the end of the week.

Here’s a profile from a couple of weeks ago on IBK and what his leadership might mean for the troubled country as it turns back along a more democratic path.  His first and most challenging task will be to secure a worthwhile peace accord with northern Tuareg separatists, whose campaign for independence triggered both the March 2012 military coup in Bamako and the subsequent destabilization of northern Mali, which led both foreign and Malian Islamists to take power and institute sharia law.  French military intervention earlier this year deposed the Islamists and propped up the transitional Malian government, and French and other western governments have been eager for Mali’s rapid stabilization.

Mali runoff proceeds peacefully, awaits vote tally for next president

By all major reports from Mali, Sunday’s presidential runoff seems to have concluded freely and peacefully, and election authorities expect to have finished the vote count by the end of the week. Mali Flag Icon

It’s a major step to restoring decades-long democratic rule in Mali after a March 2012 military coup destabilized the country and accelerated the advance of Tuareg separatists in northern Mali and the infiltration of Islamic rule throughout much of the north through the end of last year.

Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta, a former prime minister in the 1990s, led the first round of the vote with 39.2% of the vote to just 19.4% for former finance minister Soumaïla Cissé, and he received the backing of Mali’s largest party, the Alliance pour la Démocratie au Mali (ADEMA, Alliance for Democracy in Mali).

You can read more about Keïta here, more background on the runoff here, and more about the politics of Mali here.

Keïta, Cissé head to August 11 Mali presidential runoff


Six days after Malians went to the polls, the results are finally in, and, as had been previously reported, former prime minister Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta leads the pack of 27 candidates.Mali Flag Icon

But unlike reports that suggested Keïta would win outright in the first round, he’ll face Soumaïla Cissé, a finance minister in the 1990s under former president Alpha Oumar Konaré and, thereafter, president of the commission of the West African Monetary Union from 2004 to 2011.  The August 11 runoff, therefore, will be a partial rerun of Mali’s 2002 presidential election, when Cissé (pictured above) narrowly outpolled Keïta in the first round of the race — the top finisher was Amadou Toumani Touré, who went on to win the 2002 runoff against Cissé with 65% of the vote, and served as Mali’s president until last March’s military coup.

In 2002, it was Keïta’s supporters who were alleging fraud, but this time around, it’s been Cissé, who argued that he would win enough support to deny Keïta a first-round victory.

Keïta won 39.23% of the vote to just 19.44% for Cissé — Keïta’s support base in Bamako, while Cissé won more votes in the country’s interior.  The result, however, gives Keïta (or just ‘IBK’) quite a head start.  While his failure to win a first-round victory may allow an anti-IBK coalition to emerge, it will also diffuse the growing political tension during the wait for official results.  Ultimately, the fact of the Cissé-Keïta runoff will make the final result that much more legitimate for whichever candidate emerges victorious.  Mali’s next president will face the hard task of negotiating a permanent peace with Tuareg separatists in northern Mali, to say nothing of reinvigorating Mali’s economy.

Though the election, held just months after French military forces liberated the north from largely radical Islamist control, was arranged hastily, and was marked by several flaws, the vote brought a turnout in excess of 51%, much higher than in any other previous Malian election.

Here’s a closer look at Keïta, a former prime minister of Alpha Oumar Konaré, and the president of Mali’s Assemblée nationale from 2002 to 2007.  Until the early 2000s, both Keïta and Cissé were Konaré allies and members of Mali’s largest party (and the party of Konaré and Touré), Alliance pour la Démocratie au Mali (ADEMA, Alliance for Democracy in Mali).  But they both split off to form their own parties, essentially vehicles to boost their own candidacies in 2002 and thereafter.  Keïta therefore leads the Rassemblement pour le Mali (RPM, Rally for Mali), and Cissé leads the Union pour la République et la Démocratie (URD, Union for the Republic and Democracy).

Perhaps their main difference in 2013 has been their attitude to the March 2012 coup that toppled Mali’s elected government.  Keïta, who talked three times with Amadou Sanogo, the military captain who led the coup against Touré, has been sometimes nuanced in his criticism of the coup.  Cissé, on the other hand, has been much more aggressive in his opposition to Sanogo and the coup, and Cissé himself fled Bamako, Mali’s capital, after suffering attacks from soldiers during the coup.

While Cissé has an image as a technocratic expert on economics and has been accused of corruption in the past, Keïta has cultivated an image of a strong leader and an honest broker.

ADEMA’s candidate, Dramane Dembélé, a political newcomer and a loyalist of outgoing acting president Dioncounda Traoré, won 9.59%, while former prime minister Modibo Sidibé, a loyalist of Touré, the former president, won just 4.87%.  In fifth place was 43-year-old, Housseini Amion Guindo, a political newcomer from Sikasso, in southern Mali, owns a football club and is formerly the vice president of Mali’s football association.  Guindo won 4.63%, and the other 22 candidate in the race won a cumulative 22% of the vote.

Who is Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta?


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? Continue reading Who is Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta?

Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now


In an otherwise busy weekend for elections, voters in Mali went to the polls yesterday to select a new president, despite the fact that the country has a long way to go in securing a peace agreement to definitively end the crisis of the past 16 months. Mali Flag Icon

It’s no secret that the international community has pushed for an ambitious timetable, just months after France sent troops to the country to restore order by pushing back Tuareg rebels and disparate Islamist groups that had taken control of northern Mali and threatened to overwhelm Bamako, Mali’s capital in the south.  Accordingly, French leaders are anxious to have an elected president that can push for a lasting peace between a legitimate central government and the separatist Tuaregs in the north.  French president François Hollande, aware of France’s heavy-handed history with respect its former African colonies and the legacy of Françafrique, has pushed for as rapid a transition as possible to a stable Mali.  The United States and other Western governments also want an elected government in order to renew political and other humanitarian aid to the country that’s been on hold since a military coup in March 2012 that ousted Amadou Toumani Touré (known popularly as ‘ATT’ in Mali).

But given that France’s military mission only ended in February, there’s been a steady stream of criticism from both inside and outside Mali that the country was not yet ready for an election so soon after its political crisis, and that Paris and other Western governments had pushed Mali into an election sooner than necessary in order to stitch up a peace deal rather than secure a long-term political settlement.

On one hand, Sunday’s presidential race was itself an extension of the postponed election originally planned for March 2012, which was cancelled in the aftermath of last year’s coup that only exacerbated the turmoil in northern Mali, and three of the four frontrunners in Sunday’s race had previously planned to run in the March 2012 vote.  ATT, who had governed Mali since 2002, had announced he was stepping down and, before the ill-timed coup, Mali seemed set for a fairly normal election and a peaceful transfer of power from ATT to a new administration.  It’s also true that the installation of a new government with the legitimacy of a popular mandate could accelerate the momentum for a permanent ceasefire with northern rebels, and the restoration of U.S. aid will certainly boost investment.

But on the other hand, it’s not at all clear that Mali is ready to make that transition when life is still returning to normal — nearly half a million Malians have either fled to neighboring countries in the Sahel or remain internally displaced, and the rush to Sunday’s vote was plagued with confusion over establishing polling places, distributing biometric voter cards in a country of 16 million people and revising voter rolls that had not been updated in four years.  It remains to be seen if northern Malians, some of whom still support the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) that declared the independence of the northern territory of Azawad and some of whom are voting abroad or elsewhere in the country, will deem the vote to have been legitimate.

Although the French forces are largely seen as having been successful earlier this year in ending Mali’s crisis, it was Western intervention in the region that may have led to the fighting in the first place.  Although northern rebel groups have continuously agitated for autonomy since Mali’s independence in 1960, there’s a strong case that Western-provided arms made their way from rebels in Libya fighting against Muammar Gaddafi. Once Gaddafi fell from power, those arms found their way from sympathetic Libyans to nomadic northern Tuaregs, who share much more in common culturally and politically with Libyans than with their southern Malian countrymen.

Given the bumbling role of Western powers that arguably fueled Mali’s crisis, the specter of unintended adverse consequences looms large.

Sunday’s vote seems to have gone about as well as reasonably expected, however, and it may have well marked the largest turnout of any election in Malian history.  Despite fears to the contrary, the voting took place without any violence in Mali’s north, and there were no reports of massive fraud or systemic errors, and that should be deemed as an initial success.

But even if the vote took place without major incidents, there’s no way to know if the election will have been a success.  In many ways, it’s just the first step of a process that, if successful, will heal a rift that goes back more than half a century.  Furthermore, the hasty election heightens the risk that Mali’s new president might not share the same respect for democracy as ATT — by holding elections with the country still recovering from crisis, voters might prefer a candidate with strongman qualities who could lead Mali to slide backward on democracy in the years ahead.  Ultimately, the international community knows that its goal of a peaceful Sahel that’s not a sanctuary for Islamic jihad must be complemented and supported by a Mali that’s making progress toward internal stability, economic growth and national unity (and there’s no guarantee that chasing radical Islamists out of northern Mali won’t destabilize neighboring Niger or Mauritania).  It’s easy to imagine faulting Hollande for pushing Mali too soon toward normalization, ironically due to efforts to keep France’s post-colonial footprint as light as possible.  Continue reading Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now

Eight sub-Saharan African elections within nine weeks highlights region’s fragile democracy


In the next three months, eight sub-Saharan African countries will go to the polls to elect a new president and/or parliament, a relative blitz that will not only highlight the region’s growing, if fragile, democratic institutions, but will call attention to many unique issues facing sub-Saharan Africa: unequal and unsteady growth rates, the role of Islamic jihad and security, improving health outcomes, the rule of law and governance standards, and further development of vital infrastructure.african union

Between July 21 and September 30, voters in countries with an aggregate population of around 100 million are scheduled to cast ballots, though of course not all elections are created equal — or conducted on incredibly equal ground.  In some countries, such as Guinea and Togo, it will be a success if the elections actually take place as planned; in other countries, such as Swaziland and Cameroon, elections will be essentially a sideshow of powerlessness.  In  Zimbabwe, where longtime president Robert Mugabe (pictured above) is seeking yet another term after 33 years in power, and in Madagascar, where voters will choose a new president and legislature after a problematic 2009 coup and a four-year interim government, the vote could herald once-in-a-generation leadership transitions.


Here’s the rundown, in brief:

Togo: July 25togo

Togo, a small west African nation of 7.15 million people, is scheduled to vote for a new parliament, despite the fact that elections have been cancelled twice — first in October 2012 and again in March 2013.  There’s no guarantee that elections this month will actually go forward, either.  While the government and opposition have apparently now reached a deal to hold elections later this month, the composition of the electoral commission remains a major open issue.

Togo’s president, Faure Gnassingbé, took office in 2005 with the support of the country’s military following the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who had served as Togo’s president since 1967.  Despite winning election in presidential votes in 2005 and 2010, he’s seen as somewhat of an authoritarian leader and his party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT, Rally for the Togolese People) dominates the unicameral Assemblée nationale, holding 50 out of 81 seats.  Unlike its neighbors, there’s neither a Christian nor Muslim majority in Togo — out of every two Togolese adheres to indigenous beliefs, though one-third of its residents are Muslim and one-fifth are Christian.

Continue reading Eight sub-Saharan African elections within nine weeks highlights region’s fragile democracy