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Keita, a new leader to unify troubled Mali

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Mali's new leader Ibrahim Boubacar Keita could be forgiven for allowing himself a few moments to bask in the glory of an overwhelming presidential election victory -- but the hard work starts immediately.

His daunting workload over the coming months will include tackling an economy battered by political chaos and war, as well as healing ethnic divisions in the north and managing the return of 500,000 people who fled an Islamist insurgency.

More pressing will be his response to the new regime's first big controversy, after it emerged on Wednesday that the army captain who led a coup that destabilised one of Africa's flagship democracies has since been promoted.

Keita presented himself on the campaign stump as a man who relishes a challenge, a unifying figure and healing force for his fractured nation.

Yet it is paradoxically the "strong man" image of the political veteran, with his tough line on terrorism and corruption, that has endeared him to the country who call him "Kankeletegui", Bambara for "man of his word".

The son of a civil servant, Keita was born in 1945 in the southern industrial city of Koutiala, the declining heartland of cotton production.

He divided his student years between the University of Dakar and the Sorbonne in Paris, reading various degrees in history and international relations.

After his studies, he was a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and taught Third World politics at his alma mater.

Keita spent more than two decades in France, developing a reputation as someone very much at ease with Parisian nightlife, and was sniffily referred to in French media as something of a "party animal".

Returning to Mali in 1986, he re-branded himself as a more serious figure, becoming a technical consultant for the European Development Fund and then Mali director for the French chapter of aid group Terre des Hommes.

Avowedly secular, he enjoyed support during his campaign from the influential High Islamic Council of Mali and began campaign speeches by reciting verses from the Koran, a judicious move, analysts noted, in a country which is more than 90 percent Muslim.

The 68-year-old, married with four children and known by friends and foes alike as "IBK", won the election by a landslide, attracting 77.6 percent of the vote in Sunday's run-off, with his rival Soumaila Cisse trailing on 22.4 percent.

It is third time lucky for a man who has coveted Mali's supreme office for more than a decade.

Keita, prime minister from 1994 to 2000, missed out on the presidency in a 2002 poll marred by suspect voting and then experienced his own landslide defeat in 2007 to Amadou Toumani Toure.

He has also served a five-year term as president of the National Assembly of Mali, between his two tilts at the presidency.

Keita has become known for blunt speaking, his refusal to compromise and his reputation for toughness.

Living up to campaign posters which described him as "Strong Man", Keita used his final rally ahead of the first round to assure his followers that "no one will make fun of Mali again".

While Cisse had been vociferous in his criticism of newly-promoted Lt-General Amadou Sanogo's coup of March 22, 2012 that precipitated the fall of northern Mali to Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups, Keita kept his counsel.

The new president advocates a tough line on armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and Tuareg separatist rebels in the north, and has promised to root out corruption but says his priority is the reconciliation of deeply divided Mali.

"My first priority would be the reconciliation of the country... after the trauma that it has suffered, a new start is needed," he said on the final day of campaigning.

"He was a hard worker but he could be very harsh when he was angry," said one of his former drivers, recalling the "very hard time" his old boss gave him for some minor transgression.

The wind of democracy blowing across the African continent in 1991 swept aside General Moussa Traore, who had ruled Mali with an iron fist since 1968, in a popular uprising leading to a military coup.

A year later Keita was deputy chief of the victorious election campaign of Alpha Oumar Konare.

In February 1993, he was appointed foreign minister and then prime minister the following year.

He was being lined up by many as the natural successor to Konare for 2002, but in 2000 infighting forced him out of his party and he has fought the past three elections as a member of his own opposition movement, the Rally for Mali.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130815/keita-new-leader-unify-troubled-mali