Mali: Keita tasked with resolving separatist rebellion

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's face is on posters across the capital, Bamako. Picture: Reuters
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's face is on posters across the capital, Bamako. Picture: Reuters
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Mali’s president-elect, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, now has the challenge of finding a resolution to the simmering separatist rebellion in the country’s north.

But based on his recent campaign visit to the rebel’s stronghold, it looks like the path to reconciliation won’t be easy.

Rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA) – Azawad is the name they give to their homeland – tried to block Mr Keita’s plane from landing when visited recently. When that failed, they hurled stones at his parked jet.

And Mr Keita does not have much time to prepare for negotiations: under a deal signed in June, talks with separatist Tuareg rebels are supposed to take place within 60 days of the formation of the new government.

The talks are expected to be “extremely politically sensitive,” said Bruce Whitehouse, a Bamako-­based Mali specialist who teaches at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania.

However, Mr Keita might be effective in the talks, Mr Whitehouse said, adding: “He’s somebody who can sort of straddle the fence and appeal to different groups at the same time.

“He might be well positioned to make some difficult risky moves and still be able to represent himself as doing the right thing by the Malian people.”

Mr Keita ran for the presidency in the two previous elections of 2002 and 2007. He served as foreign minister and National Assembly speaker during his time in Malian government.

Many voters say they want Mr Keita – widely known by his initials, “IBK” – to take an uncompromising position with the NMLA. They blame the separatists for creating Mali’s political disaster. Army soldiers unhappy with then president Amadou Toumani Toure’s handling of the rebellion launched a coup, and the power vacuum allowed al-Qaeda-linked militants to take hold of northern Mali.

“I voted for IBK because we want a president who can liberate the north,” said Sata, 28. “He should not negotiate with the Tuareg rebels because people should respect the law and Mali will not be divided. IBK should not tolerate these excesses. We need a total change in Mali.”

The Tuareg rebels did not endorse either presidential candidate, though at least one representative of the group said he favoured Mr Keita over opponent Soumaila Cisse, who had said he was against any autonomy for the north.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the rebel group in Europe said they had “taken note” of Mr Keita’s victory, which was confirmed late on Monday.

Moussa Ag Assarid said: “We hope that with him and his team we will end up at a just, equitable and definitive solution.”

Tuaregs, the lighter-skinned nomads of Mali’s north, petitioned colonial ruler France at the time of Mali’s independence 53 years ago to be granted their own territory independent from the rest of the country. The Tuaregs pointed to linguistic, cultural and racial differences which have long made them distinct from the black ethnicities that make up the Malian majority.

Mali’s government has faced waves of rebellions over the years, signing agreements that promised the north greater resources and influence. The uprising that began in early 2012 forced the Malian military to retreat from the north, and Islamic extremists took advantage of the chaos to seize control. The jihadists ultimately overpowered the secular Tuareg separatists as well.

After a French-led military intervention in January the jihadists fled and Tuareg rebels began returning to the area. In the town of Kidal, the flag of Azawad now flies instead of the Malian one, and rebels remain in control of government buildings.

But nearly 200,000 Malians remain in refugee camps in neighbouring Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, and an untold number are living in the southern capital of Bamako instead of returning home to the north.