Paul Melly
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta will be Mali's new president. He emerged with a crushing victory mandate from an election that was conducted more smoothly than many had anticipated. 

Even in the multi-candidate first round, he came close to taking 40% of the total vote, on a turnout that at almost 50% was unusually high by Malian standards. In so firmly endorsing Keïta ('IBK' as he is widely known), his compatriots sent a clear signal about the type of personality they were looking for to lead their country away from the past two years of instability and political failure.

A big figure

Keïta's career over the past 15 years has been marked by a highly individual style. He broke away from the country's largest political party, Adema (Alliance pour la Démocratie au Mali) to form his own movement, positioning himself as a strong defender of firm principles with a broad populist appeal.

With an urban popular base in Bamako, Keïta was able to reconnect with ordinary Malians whose disenchantment with the political class generated a surprising degree of sympathy for the soldiers who seized power in March 2012. Despite his initial condemnation of the coup, he was – perhaps unfairly – accused by rivals of tacitly allying himself with Captain Amadou Sanogo's putschists.

Keïta's election challenger Soumaila Cissé is a more cerebral and technocratic figure. He failed to make the best campaigning use of a key asset, that of his personal origins in Niafunké, one of the northern towns occupied by the now widely detested jihadist groups who took over northern Mali last year.

However, his gracious early acceptance of defeat, even before the official announcement of the election results, proved something of a political coup and burnished his statesmanlike image as a man of principle. His party, URD (Union pour la République et la Démocratie), could yet prove a resilient performer in the forthcoming legislative elections.

Cissé’s pro-active move – dismissing any suggestion that he should appeal over alleged election flaws – now places the full weight of expectation upon Keïta's shoulders. The president-elect’s victory was very much a personal one, rather than that of a political machine.

His investiture is currently scheduled for 19 September and the immediate practical task that he faces is the formation of a new government team.

Getting down to work

It is likely that IBK will look beyond the ranks of his small RPM (Rassemblement Pour le Mali) for many key appointees. He will be under pressure to reward eliminated first round presidential candidates who endorsed him for the run-off; there will be particular interest in whether he offers a post to Dramane Dembélé, Adema’s presidential candidate, who broke with his own party’s alliance with Cissé to endorse Keïta for the final round.

But after that the new president will face two major challenges: the negotiation of a settlement for the north, where the MNLA (Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad) and its allies are lobbying for extensive autonomy; and the rejuvenation of the Malian state machine.

Under the 18 June Ouagadougou Accord with the incumbent interim government, the MNLA allowed Mali's army and administration to re-establish a presence in Kidal region, the Saharan north-east, so that voters there could take part in the presidential election. The agreement also set a 60 day time-frame for the new president to launch negotiations over the future of the north. The MNLA wants a high degree of autonomy, whereas Keïta has positioned himself as a firm defender of a strong united Mali.

The task of finding an acceptable compromise is complicated by the fact that the population of the far north also includes many Arab and black Malians; moreover, the MNLA are not representative of all Tuareg. So a variety of community and ethnic interests has to be taken into account.

Deals with northern Tuareg leaders in the past have all eventually broken down. In part this is because governments failed to fully implement them over the long term. Some northerners also argue that previous deals failed because they were negotiated between Bamako and a few prominent individuals, rather than on a broad-based consensual basis.

IBK's reputation suggests he is an assertive believer in national unity. He may be better placed to persuade southern Malians to accept uncomfortable compromises for the sake of a lasting settlement in the north.

An under-performing state

To some extent, his capacity to do that will depend on how successfully he manages to improve the operation of government and public services.

Aided by trans-Saharan drug trafficking and the theft of aid from some key health programmes, corruption has flourished in recent years. Inefficiency and complacency have become norms.

In the key agricultural sector, for example, the administration repeatedly over-estimated cereals output, while many farming communities were unable to access the subsidized supply of fertilizer that was a key government strategy for boosting farm output.

Such failings have left many ordinary citizens increasingly disillusioned with the performance of the state and the political class who appeared to be out of touch with the reality of their day to day concerns.

So besides overseeing a durable resolution of the northern situation, Keïta needs to revitalize public services, improve transparency and restore public faith in politics.

It is a daunting agenda.

Reasons to hope

During the past 18 months of crisis, the fiscal administration continued to collect tax and customs dues; treasury revenues held up well – which suggests that, for all its flaws, the state machine still commands wide allegiance.

Meanwhile, the MNLA were surprisingly open to compromise in the initial Ouagadougou talks. So perhaps a deal over the north can be achieved.

And most important of all, despite ample grounds for losing faith, Malians turned out in record numbers to vote for their new president. They want their country to succeed. That gives IBK something to work with.