Commentary: Bamako’s new government
Implications for Mali and the North-South reconciliation processParticipate in the discussion / twitter #Sahelprogramme
On 8 January 2015, for the third time since his election in August 2013, Malian President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), decided to reshuffle the existing Cabinet and to appoint his ‘High Representative for the Inter-Malian Inclusive Dialogue’, Modibo Keita, as the new Prime Minister. How to explain this instability in the Government? Will the new Prime Minister be able to foster Malian unity? Is Modibo Keita’s appointment a positive signal for the prospects of the fifth round of peace talk negotiations in Algiers?
Why a third Cabinet shuffle?
2013 was undoubtedly IBK’s political annus horribilis. Intense armed conflict in the north, an increasing number of corruption allegations and several accusations of patronage have significantly damaged the President’s image and therefore his authority. The main objective of this third Cabinet reshuffle was therefore to leave behind the political issues that have contaminated his presidency over the last year.
Moussa Mara, who was dismissed as Prime Minister on 8 January 2015, had been a surprise appointment in April 2014. Thirty-nine years old and an inexperienced political actor, he was seen by IBK as a symbol of the younger generation, with no executive influence. Politically weak (head of a party with only one member at the National Assembly), Mara tried to use his position to enhance his political image and challenge IBK’s leadership, and played a significant role in his own fall from grace.
Using IBK’s passive posture towards the crisis in the north, Mara led the government’s communications on the conflict and never hesitated to exploit southern nationalist sentiments for political gain. His ‘provocative’ visit to Kidal in May 2014, at a time of intensive diplomatic work, had dramatic consequences for the security situation. Following verbal provocation towards the armed groups in the city, his visit degenerated into massive violence between those groups and Mara’s protection force. The Malian army retaliated against the rebel combatants but was defeated and had to retreat from the northern region for the second time since the beginning of the crisis in January 2012. Internationally condemned, this visit also had a deeper impact on the Government by forcing one of its central members, Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, to resign. On the political level, Mara’s ambitions were a growing concern for IBK and the presidential Rassemblement pour le Mali (RPM) party. The party had never totally supported this ‘unaffiliated’ Prime Minister, and in June 2014 had even initiated a (failed) motion of censure towards him.
Modibo Keita’s appointment was therefore reassuring for the presidential party and the political establishment as a whole. The 73-year-old new Prime Minister has never challenged IBK’s authority and will probably not use his position for his own political gain or to challenge the President.
Is the new government a good signal for Mali?
With Mara’s dismissal, IBK aims to secure his own political ground. However, by appointing Modibo Keita, he has chosen political experience over generational renewal and paved the way for discontent within society. Whereas the outgoing Prime Minister represented a young political generation and a new way of doing politics (using, for example, social media networks), his successor has a long history in Malian politics. Since 1979, Keita has served all the political regimes, including the military one, as a minister, ambassador, presidential adviser, Secretary General of the Presidency and (for three months in 2002) Prime Minister. His nomination was welcomed as a consensual choice by Mali’s political elite but was seen as disappointing by the younger population, who fear a return to old practices of corruption, nepotism and political arrangements.
Several others members of the new government already have governmental experience, especially during the Alpha Oumar Konaré (1992–2002) and Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT, 2002–2012) regimes. This new government has been heavily criticised by IBK’s main political opponents, especially the leader of the parliamentary opposition who described it a ‘war government made out of political veterans’.
IBK’s ‘recycling’ of the old political elites enabled him to broaden the basis of his coalition. By integrating new parties and establishing a ‘broader than necessary’ coalition, he has significantly increased the new government’s parliamentary support (129 members of Parliament out of 147). At the same time, he has contributed to increasing political competition and a return to ‘fair weather’ politics (i.e. shifting from one party to another). By using some ‘old fashioned’ policy methods, IBK risks repeating the mistakes of ATT’s presidency, whose consensus policy allegedly paved the way for the 2012 crisis, and, in the end, weakening his own position. In the mid-term, the absence of concrete results on the security or economic level could lead to a growing gap between an old political society and the rest of the population. Even though it would not directly threaten IBK’s political position until the next elections in 2018, this discontent could weaken people’s support for Mali’s elites and, as a consequence, endanger the stabilisation process supported by the international community.
The new government and the inter-Malian peace talks
While Moussa Mara’s actions towards the northern groups (e.g. calling them terrorists after the Kidal events in May) were generally seen as an obstacle to peace, Prime Minister Keita appears to be more respected by the armed groups and those involved in the mediation. His previous responsibilities as High Representative for Inter-Malian Inclusive Dialogue made him a central figure in the peace talks since April 2014 and a good interlocutor in the next round of discussions. His appointment sent a positive message to the international mediation team, which was increasingly questioning Bamako’s attitude towards the negotiations (favoring the military option, counter-insurgency strategies and support to ethnic vigilantes). As well as Keita’s appointment, the promotion of the Minister of Solidarity, Humanitarian Action and Reconstruction of the North as number three in the new government also gave an indication of Mali’s ‘new’ political priorities. This gesture was designed to show Bamako’s political commitment to the Algiers discussions and to the need for comprehensive solutions.
Despite the positive signal this government reshuffle sent to the international community, there are several reasons for reservation. Since the appointment of this new government, no significant progress has been made in the security situation in the north. Worse, the presidential visit to Gao on 29 January 2015 officially confirmed the Government’s political (and even military) support for community vigilantes: ‘They call them governmental vigilantes. That is not true! They are only Malians who refuse to submit.’ (1) . On the political level, the dismissal of the Minister of Decentralisation and the City, and the elimination of this portfolio in the new apparatus, also raises questions about the Government’s intent to address the root issues of the crisis, especially in term of political representativeness and country-wide economic development.
Lastly, IBK’s appointment of Mohamed ag Erlaf, former coordinator of the litigious Programme spécial pour la Paix, la Sécurité et le Développement du Nord Mali (PSPSDN), as Minister of the Environment in the new government seems a counter-productive move. While the PSPSDN’s main purpose was to secure and develop the northern regions, the programme was mainly used by the Malian government to strengthen its military presence. Ag Erlaf is therefore a controversial figure among northern communities. Indeed, he is accused of being part of ATT’s nomenklatura, a ‘collaborator’ with the southern ‘cause’, and one of the main people responsible for the 2012 Tuareg uprising.
Through this third cabinet reshuffle, IBK has successfully managed to replace and marginalise all the ministers responsible for his 2013 political annus horribilis. While this could indicate that IBK is keen to make a fresh start with his foreign partners, criticisms on the domestic-side regarding the return of an old political elite and patronage have increased the gap between the people and political establishment. The gap between generations has deepened and the parallels between IBK’s regime and ATT’s ‘consensus formula’ do not bode well for the Malian President’s interests in the long run. Despite the supportive comments made by international partners about this new government, Bamako has not yet demonstrated its will to move forward constructively and with a viable solution to the 2012 conflict. Although replacing controversial figureheads within the Government gives a promising signal to the international community, the real direction of government policy towards the troubles in the north does not seem to have changed fundamentally. Return
 See Radio France International, “Mali: A Gao, IBK réaffirme le role de l’ONU dans le pays“, http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20150130-mali-gao-ibk-reaffirme-le-role-onu-le-pays/#./?&_suid=142364140301103037135588062441 (accessed 11th February 2015).