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France at the top table for Mali president's inauguration

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Leaders from Morocco to Gabon will cheer on the inauguration of Mali's new president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Thursday in a show of African unity as Mali enters a new era of democracy after months of political chaos.

But in many ways the ceremony at the 55,000-seat March 26 Stadium in the capital Bamako will hold most significance for France -- drawing a line under what has been viewed as one of the more successful foreign interventions by a Western power in recent decades.

Idriss Deby of Chad, the Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara and Moroccan king Mohammed VI are prominent guests among 26 heads of state invited to welcome Mali's new leader, elected by a landslide on August 11, and enjoy military parades and cultural displays.

But a place of honour will be reserved for French President Francois Hollande, who launched a military action in January, aided by African troops, which ousted Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda who occupied northern Mali last year.

"For many Malians and indeed for the international community the conduct of a violence-free election was always a far more desirable outcome than ensuring electoral due process and fairness and in this respect, the peaceful conclusion of the election was sufficient to label the whole exercise a 'success'," said Manji Cheto, a London-based analyst with the Africa Practice think-tank in a recent blog post.

France's engagement in Mali, however, is more nuanced and less straightforward than a simple mission to free the former colony from the clutches of Islamism, and in many senses Thursday's ceremony marks a beginning rather than an end to French involvement.

"Given French strategic interests in the region -- from uranium mining, or oil and gas exploration by French companies in the Sahel, the prospects of oil exploration in northern Mali itself, and protecting France's broader political interests in west Africa -- it would reasonable to assume that Paris had never intended the troop withdrawal to mark an end to its engagement in Mali," Cheto said.

Although France never officially backed a candidate in the presidential election, most analysts in Bamako believed it was cheering on Keita's rival Soumaila Cisse, a committed "Francophile".

Now Paris will be relying on its second choice to forward its interests in the region by making good on his pledge when he was sworn in on September 4 to unite Mali and end endemic corruption in the deeply-divided west African nation.

"I want to reconcile hearts and minds, restore true brotherhood between us so that all the different people can play their part harmoniously in the national symphony," Keita, 68, said.

Keita's election in the first presidential polls since 2007 was seen as crucial for unlocking more than $4 billion in aid promised by international donors who halted contributions in the wake of last year's coup.

The return to democracy has been praised by Hollande, who will be accompanied by four senior ministers and is expected to hold talks with Keita on security, reconciliation, economic recovery and the fight against corruption.

The ever-present issue of instability was thrown into sharp relief on Sunday when youths affiliated to Mali's main Tuareg separatist group tried to prevent a plane carrying three ministers from landing in their northern bastion of Kidal, throwing rocks at their convoy.

The attack followed and exchange of gunfire between the Malian army and "bandits", during security operations near the Mauritanian border last week which left two soldiers wounded, according to security sources.

The incidents "came as a useful reminder that, in the coming weeks, the authorities will have to deal with people who have in the past demonstrated unpredictable behaviour and did not hesitate to openly play one-upmanship," said analyst Gaoussou Drabo in a commentary for the national daily newspaper L'Essor (Progress).

He warned that the "excessive behaviour" demonstrated by marginalised populations in the north could well spill over into a more general violent discontent unless Keita urgently addressed the flagging economy and the poverty experienced by ordinary Malians.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130918/france-at-the-top-table-mali-presidents-inauguration