Political: Mali will go to the polls on 29 July 2018 to elect a new president. The incumbent, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, has announced that he will be standing for re-election for a second term. The president of Mali is elected via a two-round system, with the victor requiring at least 50 per cent of the vote to win a five-year term in office. Campaigning for the vote will begin on 07 July and finish on 27 July. If a second round is necessary, it will be held on 12 August 2018. A dozen other candidates have announced their candidacy, the strongest of which is seen as opposition leader Soumaila Cisse, a former finance minister who ran against Keita in 2013. Other candidates include Modibo Kone, a rural development expert at the West African Development Bank, and Hamadoun Toure, who runs the “Smart Africa” initiative.
The election period is likely to lead to a spike in civil unrest and terrorism – much of Mali remains outside of the control of the central government in Bamako. Mali is also one of the world’s poorest countries and corruption is endemic.
There has been a growing and vocal opposition to Keita’s rule in recent times who came to power with a landslide victory in 2013 on the back of the military coup d’etat in 2012. The government has not permitted anti-government protests in Bamako since a state of emergency was implemented in 2015. On 03 June 2018, dozens of people were injured in banned opposition marches. The march focussed on demands to ensure the upcoming elections were transparent and that all parties were given fair access to the media. Activists claimed that the government fired live rounds at protesters, but this was denied by the government. A further anti-government protest on 08 June went off largely without incident after UN and African Union brokered a deal with the government. Opposition figures suggested that up to 300,000 took to the streets, while local estimates put the figure between 10,000-20,000. Unrest is set to continue during the election period, with a high potential for violent clashes.
Islamic militants and groups aligned to Al Qaeda took control of Mali’s northern desert region in 2012 and proceeded to pillage many towns and cities including Timbuktu. The insurgency was exacerbated by the 2012 coup d’état in Mali which left a security vacuum in much of the country. While the advance by militants was halted and pushed back by Malian, French, and UN forces, much of central and northern Mali remain outside of government control; this is despite a peace deal in 2015 aimed at isolating jihadist forces. Indeed, in June 2018, the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) through June 2019. Militants retain the ability and desire to conduct terror attacks across the country. Examples of recent terror incidents include:
01 July 2018 – An attack on a military patrol in northern Mali led to four civilian deaths and 31 injuries (including four French soldiers) after a combined gun and bomb attack in Gao. The attack was claimed JNIM (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin) an umbrella group formed by four groups which have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.
26 April 2018 – At least 47 people were killed and two injured in two armed attacks on the settlements of Aklaz and Awakassa in the Ménaka region of Mali. The attack was attributed to Islamic State.
27 February 2018 – A vehicle belonging to the armed forces was hit by an improvised explosive device about 7km east of Dioura in the Ségou region. Six soldiers were killed in the attack attributed to JNIM.
09 February 2018 – Five civilians were killed and 18 more injured in Mopti after their vehicle struck a landmine. The attack was also attributed to JNIM.
25 January 2018 – 26 people were killed in a suspected Islamic State attack on a civilian passenger vehicle in Mopti. Many others were wound.
It is also important to note that while JNIM and other terror groups have not attacked Bamako in 2018, they did attack in 2017 and were also behind an attack at the French Embassy in neighbouring Burkina Faso in March 2018. In both of these incidents, foreigners were specifically targeted.
Aside from terror incidents, Mali has also seen violent ethnic strife in recent times. For example, 16 people were confirmed dead after clashes between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and Dozo hunters in central Mali in late June 2018. The groups (and the Taureg) continue to fight over land, grazing ground, and water rights. While the capital has largely been spared from this aforementioned level of violence.
The 2013 election largely went off without significant violent incidents, despite jihadist groups threatening to attack polling stations. However, under the JNIM umbrella, militant groups are stronger and with a more cohesive strategy than in 2013. Those in Mali during the election period can expect high levels of security countrywide, with polling stations likely to have even higher levels of security on election day due to the potential for clashes involving militants or different ethnic groups.
Commentators have questioned the timing of the election as instability in central and northern regions will not enable a comprehensive, legitimate, free, and fair election to take place. This is vital to give Mali the leadership with a strong mandate to reimpose centralised power over unstable regions.
Election monitors, including those from the European Union, are set to be in Mali during the election period. However, it is questionable if they will be able to provide the necessary coverage throughout Mali given its security weaknesses. Moreover, two unions representing local administrators, whose responsibilities include distributing voter cards, went on strike from 25 June until 04 July. This raises further questions regarding the ability of the government to hold a transparent and all-encompassing election.
Travellers to Mali are advised of the myriad of potential threats that they may face even in more secure areas such as the capital. It is important that comprehensive journey management planning is undertaken for all travel to the country. Travellers should maintain a high level of situational awareness and a heightened level of personal security. Travel should not be undertaken alone and should be avoided, if possible, during dark hours. Travel outside of the capital can only be undertaken using heightened security measures, while travel to the north of the country can only be undertaken with a military escort.
As already noted, protests in Mali are likely to turn violent. They are also likely to increase in frequency from the start of the election period on 07 July. All large gatherings should be avoided even if they initially seem peaceful. Demonstrations are most like to occur outside political and governmental buildings in Bamako; actions which the opposition view as favouring the government may lead to spontaneous protests. Travellers should follow local media and use the Solace Secure app to stay up to date with security-related events including political protests.
Enhanced security measures are expected during the election period, including the greater use of checkpoints. It is important that travellers keep vehicle and identification documents with them at all times. All checkpoints should be approached slowly and the instructions of Malian security officials should be adhered to. Due to the endemic nature of corruption in Mali, personnel (both genuine and fake) at checkpoints may ask for a bribe. If in doubt of the genuine nature of these officials, ask for identification. However, to avoid escalation, adhere to demands if they are armed.
For most travel to Mali, including the capital Bamako, Solace Global would advise clients to employ the minimum of an airport meet and greet, a security-trained driver for all travel, and a close protection officer. It may also be advised that this level of security is increased for other areas of the country or for specific client profiles. Travellers are also advised to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed for all travel in Mali. This should enable a traveller to be alerted of any security updates within their vicinity and to update others of their movements in case of an emergency.