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Mali's new leader faces Tuareg challenge

13 August 2013, 15:32

Bamako - Mali's new president-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is now presented with the challenge of finding a resolution to the simmering separatist rebellion in the country's north.

Based on his recent campaign visit to the rebel's stronghold, though, it looks like the path to reconciliation won't be an easy one.

Rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad — the name they give to their homeland — tried to block Keita's plane from landing on the runway. When that failed, they hurled stones at his parked jet to show their disapproval.

Keita won't have much time to prepare for negotiations: Under an agreement signed in June, talks with the separatist Tuareg rebels are supposed to take place within 60 days of the new government's formation.

The talks are expected to be "extremely politically sensitive," said Bruce Whitehouse, a Bamako-based Mali specialist who teaches at Lehigh University. Keita might be effective in the talks, said Whitehouse.

"He's somebody who can sort of straddle the fence and appeal to different groups at the same time," he said. "He might be well positioned to make some difficult risky moves and still be able to represent himself as doing the right thing by the Malian people."

Many voters, though, say they want Keita — who is widely known by his initials "IBK" — to take an uncompromising position with the NMLA. They blame the separatists for creating Mali's political disaster. Army soldiers who were unhappy with then President Amadou Toumani Toure's handling of the rebellion launched a coup, and the power vacuum allowed al-Qaida-linked militants to take ahold of northern Mali.

"I voted for IBK because we want a president who can liberate the north," said Sata Keita, 28, who is not related to the new president. "He should not negotiate with the Tuareg rebels because people should respect the law and Mali will not be divided. IBK should not tolerate these excesses. We need a total change in Mali."

Definitive solution

The Tuareg rebels did not endorse either candidate, though at least one representative of the group said he favored Keita over his opponent Soumaila Cisse, who had said he was against any autonomy for the north.

Early Tuesday, a spokesperson for the rebel group in Europe said they had "taken note" of Keita's victory.

"We hope that with him and his team we will end up at a just, equitable and definitive solution that will allow Azawadians to make decisions that will be suitable for their development," said Moussa Ag Assarid, an NMLA representative based in Europe.

Tuaregs, the lighter-skinned nomads of Mali's north, petitioned their colonial ruler France at independence 53 years ago to be granted their own territory independent from the rest of the country. The Tuaregs pointed to the linguistic, cultural and racial differences which have long made them distinct from the black ethnicities that make up the Malian majority.

Mali's government has faced waves of rebellions over the years, signing agreements that promised the north greater resources and influence. The one that began in early 2012 forced the Malian military in retreat from the north, and Islamic extremists took advantage of the chaos to seize control and implement their harsh interpretation of Islamic Shariah law. The jihadists ultimately ousted the secular Tuareg separatists as well.

After a French-led military intervention in January 2013, the jihadists fled into the desert and Tuareg rebels began returning to the area. In the town of Kidal, the flag of Azawad now flies instead of the Malian one, and rebels remain in control of numerous government buildings.

- AP


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