Tuesday, 13 August 2013

MALI: '' New President''-Keita's Litmus Test

Former Malian finance minister Soumaila Cisse conceded defeat on Monday before even the results were announced. ''I went to see him to congratulate and wish him good luck for Mali,'' he said.

Electoral and security sources claimed earlier on Monday that Keita had pulled ahead with two-thirds of votes counted after Sunday's second round of the election. Keita-widely known as ''IBK'', faced Cisse in the election run-off, which is to provide a fresh start for the west African nation following more than a year of political turmoil, including a military coup and war. The government has until Friday to make public the result on the run-off, called after none of the 27 candidates in the first round, on July 28 secured an outright majority.

The election, the first since 2007, was seen as crucial for unlocking more than $14 billion in aid promised by international donors who halted contributions in the wake of last year's coup that ignited an Islamist insurgency and a French military intervention.

On Saturday, the last day of campaign, Keita had promised to restore the honor of Mali after its collapse into civil war in 2012, during which Tuareg separatists and Islamists seized the north of the country, necessitating an intervention by France this January. It has worked for him. Many Malians believe that Ibrahim Boubacar Keita-IBK- is the right man to lead Mali to post-conflict reconciliation.

Keita may soon have to turn his rhetoric into practical policymaking. His emphasis on national honor could be a durable rallying cry for reconciliation—or a source of friction both inside Mali and with external players, including United Nations peacekeepers tasked with helping extend the government’s authority. U.N. missions elsewhere in Africa, including those in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, have struggled to maintain good ties with the governments they came to support, becoming entangled in fights over human rights, corruption and sovereignty.

For now, there are reasons for cautious optimism about Mali. The fact that the run-off passed without notable violence is a huge relief to the U.N. mission. Known by its French acronym MINUSMA, the force began operating in July but is still well short of its planned strength of more than 12,000 troops and police officers.The lack of violence during the elections suggests that the Islamists have yet to recover from their defeat by the French. MINUSMA personnel have reportedly built good relationships with communities in formerly rebel-held areas.

As president, Keita might be the partner the U.N. needs. He is close to both France, which still has a significant military presence in Mali, and the Malian army, which mounted a coup in March 2012 and retains the potential to cause instability. He has also secured support from Muslim leaders. He was a player in Malian politics in the 1990s and 2000s, when the country was a widely praised democracy. Although his primary support comes from the south, the largest Tuareg separatist group in the north—the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA—has indicated that ''IBK''  is a man that it could do business with.

But questions remain about how Keita’s invocations of Mali’s honor may influence his decisions. There are two fundamental issues over which his appeal to national pride could come to fuel divisive policies: military reform and the post-war political settlement in the north. His ties with the army may facilitate its cooperation with MINUSMA and a smaller European Union operation tasked with military training. But Mali’s army officers will surely want to maintain their political clout, putting pressure on Keita to resist or undercut any reforms that seriously curtail their leverage.

There is also liable to be opposition in the south to political concessions to northern separatist groups, although the government is committed to launching a national dialogue as part of a deal with the MNLA that paved the way for the elections. The MNLA still wants autonomy for the north, and Keita’s handling of the dialogue could be a litmus test for his commitment to reconciliation. In the short term, the Malian authorities have little choice but to engage in serious talks—or at least be perceived as doing so. France, which wants to avoid a costly open-ended commitment, will put pressure on all parties to play along.

The risk for the U.N. may be that, over the longer term, MINUSMA will find itself dealing with an increasingly uncooperative government, especially as France cuts back its presence. Mali’s leaders could cite the country’s “honor” as a recurrent reason for refusing to implement unwelcome reforms backed by the U.N., arguing that fighting international interference is necessary to defend their national pride.

Other U.N. operations have seen their political capital diminished by governments that accuse the organization of undermining their sovereignty. The cases of DRC and South Sudan, where the U.N. and governments are now deeply at odds over human rights, aid money and corruption, could easily be repeated in Mali. But Mali also has deep problems, including criminal trafficking networks that penetrate the political class and army. As MINUSMA consolidates its operation in Mali, its leaders will have to decide if and how to address these underlying problems.

If U.N. officials are to raise hard questions about issues such as military reform and reconciliation, they must find ways to do so that cannot be easily dismissed as insults to national pride. If Keita wishes to rebuild Mali, he must note that states cannot thrive on the basis of honor alone: The details of good governance really do matter after all.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: AFP-Mali's newly elected President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, casting his vote on Sunday.