Mali’s New President-Elect Faces a Long, Hard Road Ahead

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ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP / Getty Images

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita cast his vote at a polling on Aug. 11, 2013 in Bamako.

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will be Mali’s new president after his rival conceded the fight late Monday night, days before the official results of Sunday’s election were to be announced. Former finance minister and one-time ally Soumalia Cissé’s concession is a seemingly smooth conclusion to the tightly contested election. It clears the way for a new page in Mali after a tumultuous 18 months that saw a coup, the near division of the country, an al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist take over of the north, a French-led military intervention and the arrival of a U.N. peacekeeping force. Winning a race that started with 27 candidates and went to a second round on Sunday seems almost simple compared to what Keita faces as he attempts to mend the country’s wounds. If his past and his campaign promises to restore Mali’s honor—an oblique reference to efforts to quieten a disgruntled ethnic group that seeks autonomy for the country’s north—are any indication, he is unlikely to solve the problems that have undermined Mali for decades, setting the stage for more strife to come.

The immediate future, however, is more optimistic. The successful election will unlock some $4 billion in promised aid from international donors, who refused contributions until Mali could mark a successful return to democracy. In addition the United States, one of Mali’s most important military partners, will be able to resume military assistance to the country as it embarks on a new efforts to prevent Islamist militants from expanding their foothold in the region. Mali’s northern expanse, the size of France and Spain combined, is a largely lawless area that borders the Saharan stretches of Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and Niger. The Sahel, as the region is known, is home to drug smugglers, gunrunners, kidnap-for-ransom gangs, human traffickers and militant groups linked to al-Qaeda, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

One of the world’s most aid-dependent countries, Mali’s sudden collapse, triggered by a coup on March 22, 2012, was a shock to most observers, who had long held the country up as a beacon of democracy in a region plagued by strongmen. But democracy in Mali was a façade stitched out of a social imperative to seek consensus and accommodation at the expense of accountability. As a result both government institutions and the military had been hollowed out by a decade of corruption and nepotism—a state of affairs made all the more clear when military efforts to calm a northern rebellion collapsed immediately following the coup. Soldiers in the northern garrisons fled at the first sign of the rebel advance, shedding their uniforms and refusing to protect a civilian population now at the mercy of ethnic Tuareg rebels allied with the Islamist groups based in the Sahel. In three days the alliance captured the capitals of the three northern regions, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. Once entrenched, the Islamists shunted the Tuareg-dominated National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) rebels aside and instituted their harsh interpretation of Islamic law on a terrified population.

Keita’s campaign promise to end corruption echoed that of coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, who justified overthrowing the government for the same reasons. “Mali was stolen from us,” Keita said in a recent campaign speech. “That government ate it up and sucked the bones dry. They humiliated us to the point that people started to ally with the Islamists. Malians, that will never happen again.” Yet Keita, as a member of parliament and a Prime Minister from 1994 to 2000, was a member of the same government. His detractors wonder how a product of such a system will ever be able to clean it up. Then again, voters had little choice: most candidates came from the same pool of political elite. Keita boasted he earned endorsements from at least 22 of the 25 candidates knocked out of the race.

Short on details, Keita, 68, also promised to restore Mali’s dignity and honor. He has been an outspoken critic of a 2006 peace deal with the Tuareg separatists that now make up the MNLA. The deal was never fully realized, causing dismay among the historically nomadic and light-skinned Tuaregs that live in the north and who say they are systematically excluded from benefiting by the nation’s wealth. The other ethnic groups of the area resent what they see as undue concessions to a group that makes up less than 10 percent of the population. The reality, say most observers, is that corruption among northern leaders deprived all sides their due.

No matter his thoughts on the prior peace deal, Keita will have to oversee the implementation of a far-reaching reconciliation program if he is to prevent further uprisings. That will prove difficult. The recent crisis has hardened attitudes, and northern residents largely blame Tuaregs—even the ones not affiliated with the uprising—for opening the doors to the Islamists and allowing them to unleash a 10-month reign of terror that only ended with a French military intervention. The MNLA, which still controls the northern city of Kidal, allowed a ceasefire for elections, though only a reported 12% of voters cast ballots there. And hostilities are likely to resume if negotiations don’t start up soon. The U.N. refugee agency says 527,000 Malians, mostly Tuaregs and light skinned Arabs, have decamped from the north for fear of reprisals. If they don’t return, the economy of the north, already weak, could collapse entirely.

The French forces, which once numbered 4,500, will draw down to a 1,000-strong counterterror force by year’s end. Meanwhile some 12,600 U.N. peacekeepers, mostly drawn from African Union states, will start deploying to Mali as part of an open-ended stabilization force. Mali welcomes the force, and its integrated police and military training program will be essential for strengthening the armed forces—as well as the population’s faith in their soldiers. But the influx of such high numbers can put additional strains on a country that are not be immediately apparent, from economic distortion to resentment stemming from cultural misunderstandings.

Cissé, after conceding in person to Keita, announced his decision on Twitter: “May God bless Mali,” he wrote. Mali will need those blessings. So too will Keita.