Who is Mali’s ‘IBK’: junta’s man or people’s president?

Pierre René-Worms

After two unsuccessful bids, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – known as "IBK" – is the closest he's ever been to Mali's presidency. If he wins, his new job will require a steady hand and flexible spirit. For IBK, that's a familiar juggling act.


Back in the day when Mali was considered an African model of democracy, not a state back from the brink of breakup, two seasoned politicians found themselves locked in a bitter ballot scrap.

More than a decade later, history seems to be repeating itself with the same cast of characters resurfacing on the Malian political stage.

Only this time, the tables appear to have turned.

The leading candidate, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – known universally as “IBK” – held a comfortable lead in the July 28 first round of the 2013 Malian presidential election.

Mali’s landmark election was rushed through on July 28 following a tumultuous year that saw a coup, the breakup of the West African nation with a jihadist takeover of the north and a French military intervention.

Under Mali’s election rules, because there is no outright winner in the first round, a run-off between the two leading candidates must be held on August 11.

Shortly after the declaration that IBK could be heading for a commanding victory, his closest challenger, Soumaila Cissé, cried foul.

"We denounce the ballot stuffing,” said a member of Cissé’s URD (Union for the Republic and Democracy) party on Wednesday. “According to our figures, a second round is inevitable."

Eleven years ago, IBK was doing the denunciations, speaking of “massive and systematic vote-rigging” – against Cissé.

At that time, IBK was lagging behind Cissé in the first round of the 2002 vote. The dispute ended in the courts, with Mali’s Constitutional Court ruling that Cissé had 4,000 more votes than IBK. This meant that Cissé had made it to the run-off vote, which he subsequently lost.

IBK was out – but not for long.

As the frontrunner in the 2013 presidential race, the 68-year-old veteran Malian politician is the closest he has ever come to securing a post that he – and his rival, Cissé – have long coveted.

“There’s definitely an irony here,” said Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist at the Pennsylvania-based Lehigh University. “In 2002, Soumaila Cissé officially edged out IBK in the first round. But a lot of people felt IBK was robbed of a victory. Surely people in the IBK camp are feeling some of these historical wrongs have been righted.”

Ideological brothers sharing political roots

Born in the southern Malian city of Koutiala in the Sikasso region, IBK did his graduate studies in France, where he spent 26 years, which included stints as a researcher at the Paris-based CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) and a lecturer at the University of Paris (Pantheon-Sorbonne).

After his return to Mali in the mid-1980s, IBK embarked on a political career that saw him rise to foreign minister in 1993. A year later, he was appointed prime minister, a position he held until his February 2000 resignation following disagreements within the then-ruling ADEMA (Alliance for Democracy in Mali) party.

IBK then founded the RPM party, which he has led since June 2001.

Two years later, Cissé, himself a former finance minister, also resigned from ADEMA to form the URD (Union for the Republic and Democracy) party.

“IBK and Soumaila Cissé were both members of the same party, they both split from ADEMA in the early 2000s,” noted Whitehouse. “I don’t think they are ideological rivals. Politically, you would have a hard time differentiating their positions.”

A strongman, a ‘shapeshifter’ and a political player

Officially, IBK is a socialist. But his six years as prime minister saw the liberalisation of the Malian economy. IBK also succeeded in standing up to the country’s powerful student and trade unions in the 1990s, earning him a strongman reputation and the sobriquet “Kankeletigui” – or “the man who keeps his word” – in Mali.

On the political stage, IBK has proved to be more pragmatist than ideologue – “a shapeshifter”, as Whitehouse puts it.

“IBK has been adept at playing both sides of the fence,” explained Whitehouse. “He likes to hedge his bets.”

On the 2013 campaign trail, that ability was most evident in the subtle and not-so-subtle endorsements he received from two important quarters: the military junta and Muslim religious organisations.

Defeaning silence on the military junta

IBK’s relations with the military junta that ousted Mali’s democratically-elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré, in the March 2012 coup has been a subject of much suspicion and rumours in Bamako.

Observers have noted that IBK is one of the only major Malian politicians who was not roughed up by troops loyal to coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo.

Cissé, in contrast, appears to have been particularly targeted by Sanogo. Shortly after the coup, the 63-year-old Malian politician was forced to flee Bamako after being attacked by soldiers loyal to the junta leader.

On the campaign trail, Cissé spoke out forcefully against the coup, calling for the junta to be “deleted” from politics.

On the other hand, IBK’s silence on the junta in the lead-up to the July 28 election was deafening on the campaign trail.

When pushed on the subject – in a lengthy interview with the French weekly, Jeune Afrique, last month – IBK revealed that Sanogo had summoned him to his military barracks on the outskirts of Bamako shortly after the coup.

“I went there and I was received with great courtesy. I told him [Sanogo] what I thought. I said he had not chosen the right path and no country in the world would approve of a coup. For the African Union, it’s an indefensible crime and I share that opinion,” said IBK.

Questioned about what he would do with Sanogo if he was elected, IBK replied with a taciturn, “As an officer of the Malian army, he will obey the supreme commander of the armed forces – which I will be,” he said.

While the junta has not publicly come out and supported any one of Mali’s 27 presidential candidates, most analysts and ordinary Malians know that IBK can either work with – or firmly deal with – the 40-year-old junta leader.

Wooing Muslim religious leaders

That strongman reputation, in the end, appears to be the crux of IBK’s appeal to Malian voters this year.

In an election that featured a fair number of new faces and calls for change, the Malian people seem to have opted for a safe, experienced pair of hands at a time when the nation is facing myriad problems.

The fact that IBK has proved to be a wily politician is an advantage at a time when Mali is facing myriad challenges. If he becomes president, IBK’s top priority will likely be a national reconciliation mission aimed at tackling the country’s Tuareg secession problem, which has gripped Mali ever since it gained independence from France in 1960.

On the campaign trail, IBK – a Francophile intellectual with a taste for the finer things in life and a playboy reputation – has played up his Muslim religious credentials in a country where nearly 95% of the 15 million population is Muslim.

His official title, El Hadj Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, marks him as a “haji” - a man who has made the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.

IBK’s effective 2013 campaign – run by French PR firm, Havas, and Ivorian firm, Voodoo – featured posters of the RPM candidate in Western suits as well as the traditional flowing Malian robes. Observers have noted how IBK began his campaign speeches with a verse from the Koran.

As in previous elections, IBK gained the support of Mali’s Muslim leaders in the 2013 race, including the High Islamic Council of Mali – a powerful collective of about 20 Islamic organizations – as well as a new group, Sabati.

West African analysts debate whether endorsements from Muslim religious leaders are more risky than beneficial in countries that follow a more syncretic form of Islam. But IBK understands that endorsements from top religious figures are unlikely to hurt his chances of victory.

“IBK appeals to different groups. He’s the junta’s candidate, he’s the Muslim candidate and he’s France’s candidate,” explained Whitehouse. “The problem is, if he’s victorious, there will always be a pall of suspicion – did he really win it? Was his victory manipulated by the military or the French? These questions arise once a leader has lost popularity. It then becomes easy to discredit them. This is what happened to [the now deposed Malian president] ATT. The same thing could happen to IBK.”


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