Mali | IBK on the backfoot
The presidential election due on 29 July has burst into life with a succession of street protests organised by a new opposition front against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK). The first time the oppositionists took to the streets of Bamako, at the beginning of June, the regime cracked down remorselessly with tear gas and baton charges, triggering local and foreign censure.
Undaunted, the opposition reconvened the following week, attracting thousands more to their cause. This time, the police backed off. It was the clearest indication of how far Keïta’s stock has fallen in the capital and beyond, and how much he has squandered the support that won him more than 75% of the votes in the 2013 election.
Now, the main question is whether the opposition candidates can collaborate effectively enough to deny Keïta more than 50% of the vote in the first round of the presidentials. If they can force a second round of voting, many activists in Bamako predict that the “tout sauf Keïta” (anyone but Keïta) rule will apply.
If that happens, the beneficiary will be veteran campaigner Soumaïla Cissé, who got 22% of the votes five years ago. Other frontline contenders include: information technology scientist and former prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra; and two other former prime ministers, Modibo Sidibé and Moussa Mara – who is now backing Diarra. Among the many other candidates is another technocrat, Hamadoun Touré, former secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union (see interview, page 43).
What all the opposition candidates, even former close allies of IBK, have in common is their realisation that so many Malians, especially those under 40, feel betrayed by the ruling elite and the vertiginous levels of corruption in the administration, the police and the school system.
Ballan Diakité, an analyst at the Centre de Recherche d’Analyses Politiques, Economiques et Sociales (CRAPES) in Bamako, says the vote will be decided on prices and public services: “Food prices have been going up relentlessly. There are water and electricity shortages, especially outside Bamako. Our education system is in a bad way.”
Yet IBK’s biggest failure is his regime’s inability to hold off, let alone defeat, the armed groups pushing down from the north into the more populous central region. According to Ibrahim Maïga at the Institute for Security Studies, the failure of the government has left a dangerous vacuum in the central region. “In the Mopti region, people align themselves with armed groups to protect their cattle. In places like Gao, people have used the jihadists as cover to protect their various smuggling rackets,” he says.
Insecurity, no jobs
A report by the UN secretary general António Guterres in June said that less than a third of state officials are in their posts in Mali’s northern and central regions. Maïga adds: “The elections depend on the capacity of the authorities to create minimal conditions of security.” That explains the despatch of some soldiers to Kidal, where the writ of the state does not run, and there is a plan to set up new voting centres.
The economy is forecast to grow at between 4.5% and 5% over the next couple of years, buoyed by incentives for rice and cotton production as well as at least two new gold mining projects. But it is not creating nearly enough jobs.
Former prime minister Mara warns that insecurity and a weak economy could trigger the country’s break up. Areas such as Kayes and Sikasso provide most of the food for Bamako but see almost nothing in return. Many government officials have fled in response to armed attacks.
“It would be nice if we got jobs when we leave university,” says Araba Keita, a journalism student at the Université de Bamako. Like so many others, she has low expectations of the government. Last year’s large protests blocked IBK’s attempts to strengthen the president’s powers and create a costly Senate. Now the demonstrators are protesting against IBK’s failure to address the employment crisis.
Militants from the broad-based Collectif pour la Défense de la République, led by Mohamed Youssouf Bathily (aka Ras Bath), are radically changing politics in Mali. CRAPES’ Diakité explains: “Ras Bath has helped create a new citizen who is aware of his rights and obligations. And with his media appearances, he has uncovered information that is usually hidden.” Ras Bath’s radio show has exposed scandals and corruption at the heart of government.
As the opposition gathers steam, fresh doubts are emerging about the fairness of the elections and the government’s capacity to manage them. Not only have officials fled from swathes of territory in the north and central regions, buthundreds of thousands of eligible citizens have not yet been registered to vote.
Opposition politicians suspect any delay of the elections is part of a wider plot by IBK to prolong his presidency. The leading opposition candidate, Cissé, now supported by Ras Bath and a generation of younger Malian dissidents, argues that he has enough backing to force a second round of voting – in which everyone could unite against the incumbent. Others warn that IBK’s political nous and intra-opposition rivalries could easily derail Cissé’s ambitions.
From the July / August 2018 print edition