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Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, Malian president deposed in coup, dies at 76

Then-candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta casts his vote in Mali’s 2013 presidential election. He went on to lead the country for seven years before being ousted by the military. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the former president of Mali who was elected in 2013 in the wake of a coup and then ousted by the military after a turbulent seven-year rule, died Jan. 16 at his home in Bamako, the capital. He was 76 and had been in poor health in recent years.

The state broadcaster, ORTM, announced his death but did not share information about the cause. His death came a week after West African leaders moved to close borders and cut off trade with the country, in response to an announcement from Mali’s transitional government that a new presidential election would not be held until 2026.

Known by his initials IBK, Mr. Keïta was seized by Malian soldiers and forced to step down in August 2020, with three years left in his second term. He appeared in a late-night broadcast on state television announcing that he would resign to avoid bloodshed in the West African nation.

Tens of thousands of Malians had previously taken to the streets, protesting his administration’s response to a fast-growing Islamist insurgency and an economic crisis that only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. When soldiers streamed into Bamako, they were met with jubilation.

By contrast, his ouster spurred condemnation abroad, including from West African leaders, the United States and France, which had sent troops to Mali to battle extremists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The coup injected further instability into the region, where Mali’s small army struggled to defend a country of 20 million from Islamist insurgents who burned villages and sought to expand their territory.

Troops with the junta kept Mr. Keïta in custody for 10 days at a barracks in nearby Kati, where a strikingly similar coup had originated eight years earlier. Both uprisings were driven by military frustrations with the government, and by “a view that the political elite are increasingly disconnected from the populace,” said Judd Devermont, a former director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a 2020 phone interview.

Devermont, who is now special adviser for Africa strategy at the National Security Council, added in the interview that “IBK is ultimately a symbol of a distant and corrupt political elite. His election heralded the second return of civilian rule, but not a change in the way the country governed itself, or in the way that governments need to hold up their side of the social contract.”

Mr. Keïta had deep links to France, the country’s former colonial ruler, and had been involved in Malian politics since democratic rule returned in the early 1990s. He served as prime minister for six years and founded his own political party, Rally for Mali, before unsuccessfully running for president in 2002 and 2007.

By then, the country had become known as a bastion of democracy in West Africa, with a vibrant music scene and history that brought tourists to the ancient city of Timbuktu. That image began to fracture after the 2011 collapse of Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi’s regime, which led militants to stream across the border with weapons.

A rebellion escalated in the Malian north, and in 2012 mutinous soldiers ended the decade-long rule of President Amadou Toumani Touré, resulting in a power vacuum that helped Islamist militants take over much of Mali. The extremists were dislodged by a French-led military operation in 2013, the same year Mr. Keïta was elected with more than 77 percent of the vote.

“No one will make fun of Mali again,” he vowed on the campaign trail, where he appeared in a traditional white flowing robe and appealed to the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population by reciting verses from the Koran. He also promised to end political patronage and pledged “zero tolerance” for corruption.

Supporters had a nickname for Mr. Keïta: Kankeletegui, meaning “man of his word” in Bambara. But his government soon came under fire for buying a $40 million presidential jet, and he was accused of nepotism after his son Karim was appointed chairman of an influential defense committee in the National Assembly.

Mr. Keïta also struggled to quell violence in the country, which spilled into Burkina Faso and Niger, displaced tens of thousands of people, and led the United Nations to spend $1.2 billion a year on what it called the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world.

Islamist insurgents took 170 hostages and killed 20 at a Bamako hotel in 2015, and attacks surged in early 2020. Nearly a fifth of the country’s health-care facilities were destroyed, according to a Washington Post report, and Mr. Keïta’s longtime political opponent Soumaïla Cissé was held hostage for several months by unidentified militants.

Mr. Keïta presided over 5 percent annual growth and was reelected in 2018 amid allegations of electoral fraud. But he struggled to alleviate poverty — with 43 percent of the country living on $1.90 a day or less, according to the World Bank — and cycled through six prime ministers in seven years, using “the rest of the cabinet as scapegoats for problems he wasn’t ready to solve,” Devermont said.

After he was accused of rigging parliamentary elections, demonstrations broke out across the country in 2020, led in part by the popular imam Mahmoud Dicko. The protests continued amid crackdowns by state security ­forces, which have a history of committing torture, extrajudicial killings and “disappearances,” according to Human Rights Watch. Researchers later concluded that pro-Russian disinformation campaigns also fueled the demonstrations, with messages against France and democracy flooding social media.

“IBK did not want to listen to his people,” Nouhoum Togo, a spokesman for the protest coalition M5-RFP, told Reuters after soldiers took Mr. Keïta into custody. “He thought that France . . . or the international community could save him.”

The coup’s organizers included Col. Assimi Goïta, who led another military takeover nine months after the first and named himself president in May. His decision to delay new elections, postponing the return of civilian rule, led the ECOWAS bloc of West African states to impose harsh new sanctions on Mali last week.

[Two coups and no election later, West Africa cuts off Mali]

The son of a civil servant, Mr. Keïta was born in Koutiala, a center of cotton production in the Malian south, on Jan. 29, 1945. He studied political science, history and international relations at the University of Dakar in Senegal and the Sorbonne in Paris, where he taught and worked as a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

After returning to Mali in 1986, he worked as an adviser to the European Development Fund, an aid organization of the European Union, and joined the French chapter of the humanitarian organization Terre des Hommes.

Mr. Keïta helped elect President Alpha Oumar Konaré in 1992 and rose through the government ranks, serving as an ambassador and minister of foreign affairs before being named prime minister in 1994. He was president of the National Assembly for five years beginning in 2002.

Survivors include his wife, Aminata Maïga Keïta, and four children, according to the Associated Press.

Curiously, Mr. Keïta was one of the only leading Malian politicians who was untouched by military officials during the coup in 2012. When he ran for president a year later, some accused him of being too close to the junta. “He incarnates this figure of authority,” Gilles Holder, a Mali expert at the CNRS, told the New York Times. Mr. Keïta, he added, had “invoked the image of General de Gaulle.”

After his election, Mr. Keïta insisted — wrongly, it turned out — that the military’s primacy was over. “Kati will no longer scare Bamako,” he said, referring to the army base where he would be held captive seven years later.