Leaders from across Africa and France watched the inauguration of Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in front of thousands of his supporters as the nation entered a new era of democracy after months of political chaos.
Idriss Deby of Chad, the Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara and Moroccan king Mohammed VI were prominent guests among numerous heads of state invited to welcome the new leader on Thursday, elected by a landslide on August 11.
In many ways the ceremony at the 55,000-seat March 26 Stadium in the capital Bamako held 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.
A place of honour was reserved for the French President Francois Hollande, who launched a military action in January, aided by African troops, and defeated armed groups linked to al-Qaeda who occupied northern Mali last year.
“We are at the successful conclusion, because it is a victory, a big victory for Mali that we celebrate together today,” Hollande said to loud applause.
The ceremony began with Hollande and Keita standing before the Malian flag for the national anthem before Hollande addressed the crowd ahead of musical and cultural performances and military marches.
Keita pledged to unite Mali and end endemic corruption as he was sworn in on September 4 to lead the deeply-divided west African nation’s emergence from months of political crisis sparked by a military coup in March last year.
“I will not forget for a moment that you put me where I am to take care of all aspects of the life of our nation. National reconciliation remains the most urgent priority,” he said after taking the oath to preserve the constitution, democracy and the rule of law.
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.
“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.
Pledge to unite
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 the rebels, 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 be 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 bn 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.