Mali: Who is Bah N’Daw, the new transitional president?
Mali's newly appointed transitional president was sworn in today. While Bah N'Daw's past career has earned him the reputation as an upstanding, uncompromising man, he will have to be accommodating to dig the country out of crisis.
ECOWAS and a swath of Malians wanted a civilian leader, while the junta that overthrew Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) on 18 August wished to keep a military-controlled government in place. Ultimately, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) met all parties halfway on 21 September by appointing Bah N’Daw as transitional president: he had a military career but is currently retired and leading a civilian life.
How has this discreet military man, who had just one brief stint on the Malian political stage as defence minister in 2014, ended up in charge of the transitional government? Who is this man who is set to lead the country over the next 18 months, if the timeline established by the transitional charter is followed? What kind of room for manoeuvre will he have, seeing as how his vice president is none other than the evasive junta head Colonel Assimi Goïta?
Born on 23 August 1950 in San, a town in the Ségou region of central Mali, N’Daw rose to the rank of colonel major in the Malian Air Force but is now retired. Also familiar to people outside the military orbit in Mali, he began serving in the armed forces in 1973. He did his basic training at the joint military school École Militaire Interarmes (EMIA) of Koulikoro from 1976 to 1978, opted to join the Air Force and completed his training abroad in the Soviet Union, where he learned how to pilot helicopters, and in France, where he graduated from the military leadership college École de Guerre.
An ‘upstanding man’
Named aide-de-camp to ex-president Moussa Traoré, a general who came to power after leading the first military coup in Mali’s history, N’Daw left his post unceremoniously in 1990. “He resigned in protest of Traoré’s wife’s interference in the management of government affairs. The incident left an impression on Malians and ever since he has been regarded as an upstanding man,” said Baba Dakono, executive secretary of the Citizen Observatory on Governance and Security in Mali.
From 1992 to 2002, during Alpha Oumar Konaré’s presidency, N’Daw served as deputy chief of staff of the Air Force. One year later, he became chief of staff.
He went on to hold several positions in the army and then, from 2008 to 2012, managed the National Office of Veteran’s Affairs and War Victims (ONAC).
In 2014, the Malian Army suffered a stinging defeat in Kidal and was driven out of the city by armed groups. The defence minister at the time, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, was pressured to resign and N’Daw was chosen as his successor. He remained in the post for only a few months: named in May 2014, his appointment was not renewed under Modibo Keïta’s cabinet, which formed in January 2015 after Moussa Mara resigned as prime minister.
Since then, the retired colonel major has stayed in the shadows. He had not attracted any more attention until his name was uttered on the airwaves of Mali’s national broadcaster ORTM by the person who is now his vice president, Goïta.
Named by the CNSP
Officially, N’Daw’s appointment is the outcome of the work of a committee set up by the junta, in keeping with the recommendations of the transition charter drafted in mid-September.
However, in reality, the junta is behind his appointment. “We thought the CNSP was going to ask us about our proposed candidates. Instead, the committee told us that it had come up with two names: one for president and the other for vice president. The military leaders read their CVs to us and then asked if we were satisfied with both of them,” said a committee member who asked to remain anonymous.
Given that it seemed to be a done deal, the committee members didn’t express opposition to N’Daw’s appointment. “One by one, we took the floor to tell the military leaders that, while we didn’t agree with the selection process, we didn’t have a problem with the candidates themselves: N’Daw is irreproachable and has proved it on several occasions, particularly when he resigned from a senior position because he didn’t want to break with his principles,” our source added.
“The CNSP exercised good judgement in the way it carried out negotiations,” said Dakono. “From the very first day, the committee members knew they couldn’t remain in power. So, this plan of selecting a retired serviceman was carefully considered.”
Even before the announcement that N’Daw had been chosen, ECOWAS made it known that the scenario was likely to be a suitable one. “The transitional president must be a civilian,” said Hamidou Boly, special representative of ECOWAS in Bamako, in an interview on 28 August. But he quickly added: “In a pinch, the president could be someone willing to shift from military to civilian life.”
According to a Malian Army expert, “With the exception of Malick Diaw, the CNSP’s first vice president, every junta leader is either from the Army Engineer Corps or the Air Force. They didn’t search far and wide to come up with N’Daw: they chose someone from their orbit, but older.”
How much room for manoeuvre?
The question, however, is if N’daw will have free rein to lead Mali over the next 18 months. “He was chosen because he is compatible with the CNSP and, especially, Goïta,” said Mohamed Amara, sociologist at the University of Bamako and author of Marchands d’angoisse: Le Mali tel qu’il est, tel qu’il pourrait être (Merchants of anguish: Mali as it is, and how it could be).
Amara added: “If the junta establishes a conflictual balance of power with the president, it runs the risk of being disavowed by part of the population, and in particular the members and sympathisers of the M5-RPF movement, which has criticised the way N’Daw was appointed. Goïta and N’Daw would therefore do well to work together and find the right balance in order to keep up appearances.”
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N’Daw also benefits from positive public opinion. “His appointment was well received because people view him as honest. He can draw on this wellspring of support to unite the Malian people as much as international partners,” said Amara.
The new transitional president now has the weighty task of transforming Mali’s institutions and electoral system to strengthen its democracy. Anti-corruption efforts, in addition to security questions, will be another important issue for the authorities in charge of the transition.
In Bamako, political negotiations are far from over. Talks are currently focused on naming a prime minister and a transitional government. According to our sources, the junta would like to be in control of some ministerial portfolios, including the security and defence ministries. However, the CNSP is going to have to make concessions: the prime minister must be a civilian, as ECOWAS requires before it will consider lifting sanctions on Mali.
Once this milestone has been reached, the establishment of the future national transition committee, which will replace the National Assembly until the upcoming legislative elections, is also expected to be hotly debated. Given his reputation for being uncompromising, the former colonel major will have to learn to be more accommodating if he wishes to make progress on such thorny issues.