Bamako - Leaders from across Africa and France arrived in
Mali on Thursday for the inauguration of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in
front of thousands of 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 26 heads of state invited
to welcome Mali's new leader, elected by a landslide on 11 August, and enjoy
military parades and cultural displays.
But French President Francois Hollande was expected to take
centre stage at the 55 000-seat March 26 Stadium in the capital Bamako, with
the ceremony drawing a line under military action launched by Paris in January
to oust armed Islamists from northern Mali.
Hollande was due to deliver a speech inviting Malians to
"turn a new page after a difficult period that put the country on the edge
of the abyss", aides said.
"A new page is opening, it is for the Malians to write
and France will be at their side," he was expected to say.
The ceremony was to start with Hollande and Keita standing
before the Malian flag for the national anthem around 11:00 but the programme
was running behind schedule.
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
"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.
Army officers angry at the level of support they had
received to combat a separatist Tuareg rebellion in the north overthrew the
democratically-elected government of president Amadou Toumani Toure on 22 March
In the chaos that followed, the Tuareg seized control of an
area larger than France before being ousted by al-Qaeda-linked groups who
imposed a brutal interpretation of Islamic law on the local population,
carrying out amputations and executions.
Their actions drew worldwide condemnation and prompted
France to launch a military offensive at Mali's behest to oust the Islamists.
The country's return to relative stability paved the way for
Keita to emerge as Mali's new leader in presidential elections deemed the most
successful since the country gained independence from France in 1960 and has
allowed Paris to begin withdrawing most of the 4 500 troops it sent in.
The son of a civil servant, Keita was born in 1945 in the
southern industrial city of Koutiala, the declining heartland of cotton
His election in the first presidential polls since 2007 was
seen as crucial for unlocking more than $4bn in aid promised by international
donors who halted contributions in the wake of last year's coup.
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.
Corruption has tainted government institutions and the
military in Mali since independence and the country remains in the bottom third
of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
A 2012 report by the Washington-based think-tank the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Foundation spoke of "state
complicity with organised crime" as the main factor enabling the rise of
armed Islamist rebel groups in the north.
The return to democracy has been praised by Hollande, who
was accompanied by four senior ministers and is expected to hold talks with
Keita on security, reconciliation, economic recovery and the fight against
corruption during his visit.
Hollande's entourage said he would also hold a mini-summit
on the security situation in the Central African Republic with the leaders of
Gabon, Chad and Cameroon, the main contributors to an African Union force in
the CAR, occupied by rebels since March.