On Friday, Mali’s new president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, commonly known as IBK, addressed the U.N. General Assembly, vowing to move his country towards reconciliation. His statement comes one day after separatist Tuaregs suspended their participation in peace talks, in a serious blow to Keita’s platform of national unity between Mali’s war-plagued north and more prosperous south.
True, a French-led offensive launched this January largely cleansed Mali’s northern region of jihadist fighters whose 2012 infiltration came on the heels of a Tuareg insurgency — the fourth since Mali gained independence from France in 1960. And despite continuing tensions with armed Tuareg groups in the northern stronghold of Kidal, a June ceasefire paved the way for peaceful national elections held in July and August, which heralded Mali’s return to democracy — or so Keita (and his French backers) hope. Now, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Mali’s largest separatist group, is accusing Bamako of failing to live up to the deal.
But one month into office, Keita badly needs a win, if only in appearance, to soothe uneasy Western donors (of $4.3 billion in promised aid, only $200 million has been delivered), not to mention his war-weary constituents. Though unity was a top issue among voters, and was duly emphasized by all the presidential candidates this summer, widespread bitterness towards the North’s Tuareg and Arab minorities lingers. Analysts agree that the long-festering issue of reconciliation is key to the success of Keita’s presidency — and to the nation’s future stability.
Here, IBK’s political posturing before the U.N. is reminiscent of President François Hollande — France’s most unpopular leader in modern history proudly proclaimed the Mali war on terrorists “won” on September 19. (Operation Serval is one of Hollande’s few successful initiatives since taking office in 2012.) Yet the mission is far from accomplished. Mali’s economy and infrastructure are in shambles after 18 months of conflict. Regional cooperation to combat the Islamist threat is scant. On Thursday, also at the U.N., Keita called for the creation of a multilateral regional force to do just that. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reiterated his statements, noting, “The situation in Mali has been stabilized, but that doesn’t mean that it is in all of the Sahel.” Case in point: recent extremist attacks in Niger, Libya, and along the Tunisian-Algerian border.
Yet France, Mali’s strongest Western ally, is winding down operations in the region, and will withdraw most of its 4,000 troops in Mali by the end of the year, leaving a potential security vacuum behind. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the jihadist movement behind the 2012 northern Mali takeover, looks poised to seize the opportunity. On Friday, it announced that it is replacing two top commanders, slain in action, to lead brigades in Mali. For Keita, preoccupied with resolving separatist tensions, a familiar (and reinvigorated) danger still lurks close to home.