Security Advisory: Mali Elections 29 July 2018July 27, 2018 in Mali
• Malian elections are due to take place on 29 July, with a second-round run-off to be determined if no candidate wins an absolute majority (51%).
• There is significant risk for disruption at polling stations in northern and central Mali, where insecurity is heightened by the presence of terrorist organisations, and ethnic clashes continue.
• There is a potential for residual disruption or violence in the days following the election.
• MS Risk advises travellers in the area to avoid large gatherings or places frequented by foreigners. Terrorist groups have targeted military facilities of the G5 Sahel joint force and most recently conducted attacks at Sevare Airport in the Mopti Region.
MS Risk has previously assessed Mali as a HIGH-THREAT location for terrorist activity and ethnic clashes. There has been an increase in violence in Mali in the lead-up to the 29 July 2018 presidential elections. This is likely to be exacerbated in the period leading up to the election, and in its immediate aftermath. Polling stations in northern and central Mali that are ostensibly in the control of terrorist groups may be exposed to violence or attacks as a means to thwart voting. There is a heightened risk of demonstrations as the election draws nearer; these could result in clashes with police or opposition protesters.
MS Risk advises against all travel over the weekend, especially to the provinces of Gao, Kidal, Mopti and Timbuktu, as well as to parts of the provinces of Kayes, Koulikoro and Segou. MS Risk advises against all but essential travel for the remainder of Mali, including the capital Bamako. Mali is under a state of emergency, which is in effect until 31 October 2018.
The United Nations and France have provided an increased security presence throughout the election process. This is likely to include patrols and security checks. This is in addition to the already robust security measure in place at key junctures throughout the country. There are likely to be more vehicle and personal security checks during this time in which no one will be exempt.
On 29 July, Malians will vote in a presidential election, determining whether incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will win a second term amid rising discontent over increasing insecurity in the country. The election occurs amid increasing violence and insecurity in northern and central Mali; with concerns that polls may not be able to open in certain parts of the country. There are three interconnected concerns that exacerbate the security conditions: Terrorism, increasing ethnic violence, and distrust in the security forces.
In recent years, militant extremists have returned from fighting in large terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS in areas like Libya, northern Nigeria, and further afield. Upon their return, they have brought with them extremist ideologies, contacts and sometimes significant money that has allowed them to recruit members and build operations in order to start new cells, including the Azawad Salvation Movement (MSA), and al-Qaeda affiliates Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Macina Liberation Front. This threat is exacerbated by the free movement between West African countries. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is comprised of 15 countries which, like the European Union, allow their citizens to travel between them without visas. Border areas in much of West Africa are porous and sparsely secured, making it difficult to track the movements of would be militants.
Northern Mali has become a sanctuary for terrorist organisations, as the area is sparsely populated, difficult to patrol, and lacks sufficient government influence. Attacks in the northern regions of the country have typically involved terrorist groups targeting local security officials, the Malian and French armies as well as peacekeepers from the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA). According to open source reporting notes, in 2016 there were 118 attacks in Mali against MINUSMA elements. As the election draws near, the frequency of attacks has increased.
On 29 June 2018, a suicide bomber in a vehicle painted in UN colours attacked the Malian headquarters of the G5 Sahel anti-terror task force in Sevare, killing two Malian soldiers and a civilian. The attack was the first on the headquarters of the G5. Al-Qaeda-linked organisation, “Support Group for Islam and Muslims”, claimed the attack. They are the main extremist alliance in the Sahel region, and in northern Mali.
Two days later on 1 July, French soldiers of the Barkhane military operation in northern Mali were ambushed by terrorists near the town of Boure, Gao region. One resident of Gao said the French convoy was clearly targeted by a suicide car bomb.
On 25 July, Ambodedjo Airport in Sevare, central Mali, was shelled. There were no casualties reported, and reports of damage are unclear. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but it is believed to be linked to extremist groups that have continually targeted security forces in the region. The G5 headquarters are located in Sevare, and Ambodedjo Airport is one the UN’s major air hubs — and the only terminal serving the regional capital of Mopti.
Mali announced the dates of the presidential election in February, prompting al-Qaeda’s Mali branch to issue warnings on social media against going to the polls. Abdou Abdirrahmane As-sanhaji, senior judge of a coalition of jihadist groups, wrote: “Our duty to all is to neutralize these unbelieving unbelievers [referring to politicians] with hands stained by the blood of the innocent and with pockets and safes filled with the money of the needy.” These threats and the increased violence in the region may thwart voter turnout, particularly in regions that have ostensibly been under the control of terrorist groups. Earlier this year, Al-Qaeda affiliates also issued a threat against Western interests in West Africa. These targets include MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, as well as the French-led Operation Barkhane, and the G5 Joint security force.
In May, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres highlighted security shortcomings on several of MINUSMA’s sites in Mali, citing “Poor conditions on and around the site.” Further, the G5 Sahel, which was to be fully operational by mid-2018, has faced delays due to logistical issues, and recently, accusations of human rights abuses. The UN reports that in May, Malian soldiers of the G5 force had “summarily” executed 12 Fulani men in a market in central Mopti region, in retaliation for the death of a soldier. The extrajudicial killing led to significant distrust of the organisation within the local population. This exacerbates the already significant issue of distrust in security forces leading to community organised militias.
Distrust in security forces leads to rising ethnic tension
The increasing distrust in regional security forces has caused a rise in community organised militias, which have caused several communities in northern and central Mali to organise their own self-defence organisations. This produces a cycle of distrust that benefits terrorist organisations. The Malian army attacks civilians, believing them to be extremists, and the terrorist groups attack civilians, believing them to be complicit with the military. In turn, the civilians organise defence groups to protect their communities, but in turn express distrust at other communities, who they could believe are complicit with extremists. This divide has recently fallen along ethnic lines, particularly between the ethnic Fulani Muslims and other groups such as the Tuareg, Peuhl and Bambara. Tuaregs in Mali have formed militia called IMGHAD Self-Defense Group and Allies (GATIA), which supports the Malian military. The traditional Tuareg pastoralists have long clashed with ethnic Fulani herders; in recent years, the Fulani have been accused by the Tuareg, Dogon and Bambara of being recruited by extremists. As a result, clashes between the Tuareg and Fulani have exacerbated the crisis. In July, the UN reported that at least 289 civilians, and including young children, have been killed in communal violence since the beginning of the year.
Similarly, light-skinned Arab and Tuareg communities have consistently complained of persecution by Malian soldiers, made up mostly of black ethnic groups from the south and centre of the country. On 25 July, armed protesters from Mali’s Arab community fired shots into the air, burned tyres and torched vehicles in Timbuktu. The protest was comprised mainly of Arab youths protesting against worsening insecurity and ill treatment by security forces. Demonstrators filled the streets, forcing shops and banks to shut. The protest reportedly began after the robbery of a pharmacy owned by a black Bambara trader late on 24 July. Malian troops arrested four Arab youths, sparking a gun battle. There were no casualties reported. The situation has calmed, however the tensions between the groups is ongoing.
Northern and central Mali are already difficult to patrol. However, the lack of security, coupled with the seemingly targeted attacks on particular ethic groups, whether from the military, or from ethnic- or community-aligned self-defence groups, could worsen conditions. These actions could cause some amongst the victims to sympathise with the terrorist groups, creating an opportunity to increase recruitment for radicalised anti-government activity. Alioune Tine, the UN’s Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali, noted that violent extremists had taken advantage of the lack of basic services “to exploit communities and pit them against each other”. Overall, this serves to exacerbate the security situation throughout the country and undermine both domestic and international efforts to quell the rising insecurity.