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Mali run-off pits Keïta's record against Cissé's pledge for change

Stringer, Issouf Sanogo, AFP | Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (L) and presidential run-off election challenger Soumaïla Cissé (R).

Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and Soumaïla Cissé are vying for Mali's presidency in Sunday's run-off vote, as they did in 2013. Incumbent Keïta is the frontrunner, but Cissé is hoping to attract voters disillusioned by his rival’s mixed record in office.


With 41.7 percent of votes in the first round on July 29, 73-year-old President Keïta appears to have the advantage ahead of Sunday’s run-off vote. Cissé, his 68-year-old challenger, with 17.78 percent of votes two weeks ago, will need a considerable transfer of ballots from eliminated first-round opponents to keep Keïta from re-election and Mali's Koulouba Palace. The trouble for Cissé is that Aliou Diallo, who finished third with eight percent, and Cheik Modibo Diarra, who was fourth with seven percent, have both said they will not back Cissé ahead of Sunday’s deciding vote.

Unable to rally the opposition onside, the Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) party contender is hoping to convince voters disappointed by Keïta’s five years in office. For his part, IBK, as the outgoing president is known, is betting on his record making all the difference.

'Consolidate, amplify, correct'

During his last campaign rally on Friday in Bamako, Keïta deployed a three-objective slogan: “consolidate benefits, amplify successes and correct deficiencies”. In terms of economics, IBK can indeed boast of some successes: In recent years, Mali’s has exceeded five-percent growth and the country once again became Africa’s leading cotton producer in 2017 and 2018. Still, some observers believe the country has nevertheless become poorer. Income per capita has dropped since 2014 according to the World Bank and some 47 percent of Mali’s 18 million inhabitants are living under the poverty line.

In terms of security, the president’s record is similarly mixed. Five years after France intervened to pry control of northern Mali from jihadists, the international community has grown impatient waiting for effective implementation of the 2015 peace accord between Bamako and rebel groups; since the accord was signed, Islamist violence, until then circumscribed to the north of the country, has spread through Mali to its borders with Burkina Faso and Niger. On June 29, the headquarters of the joint G5 Sahel force in Sévaré, central Mali, was the target of a deadly attack claimed by an Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda. And over the past two years, also in central Mali, unprecedented ethnic conflict has broken out, between Fula and Dogon factions in particular.

“But since he named Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga as prime minister last January, IBK has scored points,” says Christophe Boisbouvier, journalist at Radio France Internationale’s Africa bureau. “For the first time in four years, in March of last year, a prime minister was able to go to Kidal, in the far north. In central localities like Mopti, the state has been able to resettle, with its prefect and sub-prefect representatives.”

Another regular bone of contention for the opposition to Keïta has been corruption of power. In fact, from the start of his term, the president faced a spectacular affair of overbilling on military hardware that cost him the support of some, notably religious figures, influential in Malian political spheres.

'Identify the illness in order to cure it'

Fighting insecurity, implementing the peace accord and ending corruption have all been campaign lines for Keïta’s run-off challenger. For Cissé, the watchword on the campaign trail has been dialogue. “One must speak to Malians, people must speak with one another,” he told FRANCE 24 before July’s first round. “As we say where we come from, one must identify the illness in order to cure it. The solutions must be inclusive solutions that we find ourselves.”

Cissé may speak but he has had trouble persuading. While the UDR candidate succeeded in rallying opposition leaders onside in condemning the so-called “electoral hold-up” of July’s first round, he has not managed to convert that “democratic front” into support for his candidacy for president. Will he have more luck with unsatisfied voters?

The stakes are high given the incumbent’s first-round advance. “One of IBK’s assets is his strong entrenchment vote-wise in the most populated areas of the country. In the south, in particular, in his strongholds of Sikasso, Koutiala and Koulikoro, where he got maximum votes in 2013,” Boisbouvier said. “Cissé isn’t from the south like IBK; he’s from the central-north, from Niafunké, a region that is less populated, but he still does assemble a lot of people in Bamako. He is backed by two influential personalities, the very well-connected Tiébilé Dramé from the Party for National Rebirth (PARENA) and the former radio host Ras Bath, who is very popular in Bamako.”

But those two supporters are unlikely to tip the balance for Cissé. A former finance minister and former president of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), Cissé is on his third Malian presidential bid and “has difficulty incarnating political renewal today in Mali”, said Christelle Pire, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Bamako. “Like IBK, he hails from the historical Adéma party [Alliance for Democracy in Mali, which held power from 1992 to 2002]. He, too, was a cabinet minister during Alpha Oumar Konaré’s presidency. They were even members, side by side, of the same government. They both hail from the same generation of politicians.”

And yet in Mali, experience always benefits he who already holds the reins of power. The country has yet see an incumbent president lose an election to a challenger candidate.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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