Malians elected their first president since an interim president was installed after the 2012 coup and French military action in 2013 against incursions by Islamic jihadists. In a run-off vote on Aug. 11, amid blanket rain and rampant mud in Bamako, the capital, Malians there and beyond put Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 68, a former prime minister, 78 percent ahead of his rival, Soumaïla Cissé, a 63-year-old former foreign minister. Keita takes office on Sept. 22.
The run-off, which followed a vote on July 28 with 27 candidates (including one woman), was devoid of violence or chaos, defying predictions by some Malians and others that its tight timeline would prove disastrous.
The sedate run-off reflects Mali’s deep thirst for stability and opens the flood gates of foreign aid totaling $4.2 billion, pledges made by donors at a Brussels conference in May that may or may not materialize. Keita, who was prime minister from 1994 to 2000, campaigned to get tough with reform — including negotiations with the sundry rebel groups in Mali clamoring for independence in the north half of the country.
The United Nations, which began the deployment of a 12,600-force peacekeeping unit in early July — of which about 6,000 soldiers are in Mali right now — provided financial, technical and logistical support to the elections as well as security to outposts in northern Mali, where jihadists have scattered to such remote locales as Kidal and Gao and Tuareg rebels remain entrenched.
Using UN jets, ballots were ferried from Bamako to Timbuktu and outlying areas, aiming to deliver as many as possible during the July 28 election and the run-off, including delivering voting materials to refugee camps in Mauritania.
The UN’s special envoy in Mali, Bert Koenders, a Dutchman, praised the candidates’ conduct during the run-off voting, done, he said, in a “spirit of serenity.” He added that the UN mission, Minusma (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) “will continue to combine all our efforts to accompany the consolidation of peace, reconciliation and development in Mali.”
The French government, which sent 4,000 troops in early 2013 to push back, with the Chadian Army, the jihadists, had a huge stake in the election and its results. It said in the spring that it would pull out most of its troops by the end of the year, leaving about 1,000 to work with Malian forces and the UN contingent.
Laurent Fabius, the French minister of foreign affairs, said of the run-off results: “It is rare for a country to be born twice, but that was the case for Mali, whose very existence was threatened seven months ago. This past Sunday it found the strength to elect a new president in an atmosphere of renewed calm and security.”
Mali has far to go in rebuilding itself after its deep slide into an economic, political and humanitarian abyss: as its living conditions continue to be abject, women bear the brunt of poverty. Though Mali is among the 25 poorest countries in the world, the population has been growing at about 3 percent since 2010. It has the second-highest number of births in the world, after Niger, and the second-highest rate of infant deaths, after Afghanistan. Literacy rates are lower for females (19 percent) than for males (28 percent); and people generally go to school only through 7 to 8 years old. Yet women generally have their own income in this agriculturally based economy because they do most of the farming, but they are also married off young, with 25 percent wedded by age 15.
To find new ways to fix the problems in Mali, Ban Ki-moon said in an interview in July that he would visit Mali and the Sahel region later this year with the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim. Ban and Kim visited the Great Lakes region of Africa together in May, pledging aid for peace and development.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.