Mali’s interim government announced on Friday that the country’s presidential elections will go to a second round, which has been scheduled for August 11, after no candidates succeeded in securing a majority in the landmark polls.
Figures for Sunday’s ballot, which were announced on live television, indicated that former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came in first in Mali’s presidential elections, gaining 39.2 percent of the vote, however he will face his main rival, ex-Finance Minister Soumalia Cisse, who attained 19.4 percent of the vote, after he failed to secure an outright majority. The results, which were announced by Territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, are provisional and need to be confirmed by the West African nation’s Constitutional Court. No candidate gained the fifty percent of the vote that is necessary in order to declare a victory. Dramane Dembele, the candidate for Mali’s largest political party, the Alliance for Democracy in Mali, polled just 9.6 percent, taking third place. Twenty-four other presidential candidates also took part in the polls. It is widely believed that Mr. Dembele’s votes, along with those of fourth placed candidate Modibo Sidibe, which amount to a total of 14.5 percent, are likely to be transferred to Cisse in the run-off.
The announcement of a run-off will likely ease tensions which have risen since partial results earlier in the week gave Mr. Keita a large lead, indicating that he may win outright. Although Sunday’s voting was carried out in a peaceful manner, and has been praised by observer missions, Mr. Cisse’s party on Wednesday has announced that the elections had been marred by what it termed as “ballot stuffing,” a form of electoral fraud in which people submit multiple ballots during a vote in which only one ballot per person is allowed. Critics have argued that Mali, which was under pressure from the international community, may have rushed into the polls and risked mishandling the elections which would result in more harm than good. However the country has been praised by the international community for running a transparent, credible and peaceful election. In response to Wednesday’s allegations, acting President Dioncounda Traore and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have acknowledged that the vote may be “imperfect” in a country were 500,000 citizens continue to be displaced by a military coup that was launched in March 2012. They have however urged Malians to respect the outcome.
Despite heavy security during voting, after the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the main armed groups in northern Mali, announced that it would “strike polling stations more than 3.5 million Malians cast their ballot, resulting in a 51.5 percent turnout which eclipsed its next best of 38 percent. The turnout was also higher than the United States has managed in three of its presidential elections since 1984. This high turnout has in effect demonstrated that Malians are ready to get back to the democratic government that was present prior to a military coup which led to armed Islamist militants taking over the northern regions of the country.
In a statement that was published on Sunday, Al-Qaeda’s north African branch has confirmed that one of its top leaders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, was killed in fighting in Mali. The confirmation from the terrorist group comes three months after officials in Chad and France announced the leaders’ death.
Algerian-born Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, considered to have been one of the most radical leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed “on the battlefield defending Umma (the Muslim community) and Sharia law.” This is according to a statement that was released on Sunday and carried by ANI, which is a private Mauritanian news agency. According to ANI director Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Abou Al-Maali, “it is the first time that an AQIM statement officially referred to the death of Abou Zeid.” The statement however provided no date for his death. Back in March, officials in Paris had announced that Abou Zeid was killed after France led an offensive to remove al-Qaeda-linked groups from the northern regions of Mali. Both France and Chad have indicated that the 46-year-old militant was killed at the end of February.
Born in Debdeb, Algeria, which is located close to the border with Libya, Abou Zeid was a young activist in the FIS Islamist movement which won the country’s first democratic elections in 1991 but which was denied power. He then disappeared underground and remained in silence for most of the 1990’s. He re-emerged in 2003 as second in command of the GSPC, which kidnapped dozens of foreigners in southern Algeria. The group, along with several other organizations, would later evolve into AQIM. According to court documents Abou Zeid, whose real name was Mohamed Ghdir, was considered to be a deputy to AQIM’s “Saharan emir” Yahia Djouadi. He commanded a battalion of fighters from Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, which was known as Tareq ibn Ziyan, named after an eighth-century Muslim military commander.
Meanwhile in Mali, a female lawmaker is set to run for President in elections which are due to be held next month. Aissata Cise Haidara, 54, announced her candidacy on Saturday at a rally which was attended by several thousand supporters, composed mainly of women and young people. During the rally, she stated that “I am a candidate, not just to make up the numbers but to play a role in the rebuilding of Mali, which has become an unrecognizable country today.” She further indicated that “we must develop all of Mali although more must be done in the north. But we have to be careful because if you focus development in the north, the south will itself revolt.” Ms. Haidara is an MP for Bourem, which is situated in northern Mali. Amongst other candidates in the running for the presidency are former prime ministers Soumana Sacko and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
International mediators have so far failed to secure an agreement between Mali’s Interim President and the northern rebels. Although talks last weekend have brought the two groups closer, an agreement is necessary in order to enable elections to go ahead as planned on 28 July. The MNLA indicated last week that it was ready to sign an accord proposed by Burkina Faso, which is the regional mediator, however current Mali President Dioncounda Traore has yet to agree. Consequently the talks are continuing between the two groups. The coming presidential elections are seen as a key step in the recovery of Mali.
The recent suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have demonstrated how the Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations that are located within the Sahara. What does this mean for France? The country and its troops may be tied down in the region for years to come. In turn, regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for the French government and its Western allies as a lack of greater cooperation amongst the countries located in the Sahara is only aiding the militants in regrouping in quieter parts of the vast desert. One of these quieter territories is the lawless regions of southern Libya, which security officials have indicated is becoming the latest haven for al-Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from their strongholds in northern Mali earlier this year.
According to a senior adviser to Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore, “the south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like before.” This remark comes just days after Niger announced that last week’s suicide raids, which killed twenty-five people at the army base and desert uranium mine run by France’s Areva, were launched from Libya. Libya however has denied these allegations.
Smugglers have long used Libya’s poorly controlled south – a crossroads of routes to Chad, Algeria and Niger – for trafficking drugs, contraband cigarettes and people to Europe. However the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 resulted in a flood of weapons and ammunition being brought into the Sahara. Tuareg separatists used them in order to seize power in northern Mali, only to be ousted by even better-armed Islamists who set up training camps and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law until French forces arrived. In turn, the Islamists have also exploited Libya’s weakness. It is known that former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had purchased weapons there after Gaddafi’s fall and his fighters passed through southern Libya to carry out a mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, in which 37 foreigners died.
With no effective national army, Libya relies on local brigades in order to police its southern border region, where at least one hundred people died in ethnic violence last year. Tripoli’s failure to restore security in the region may only encourage Islamist militants to set up permanent camps and weapons stores in the area. Since the attack on Areva, France has urged regional powers to cooperate in order to tackle the threat that is coming from Libya as the country relies on Niger for one fifth of the uranium in order to power its nuclear reactors. Niger’s long border with Mali, tough line on tackling militants and its role as a supplier of uranium to France have long made the country a target. Since the attacks, US troops have begun to train the army while the government in Niamey has stepped up its security in the northern regions of the country, where French Special Forces went in earlier this year in order to protect the mines. Four French mine workers who were taken hostage in Arlit in 2010 are still being held.
While Paris is keen on decreasing its troop numbers in the region, the persistent arguing and mistrust amongst the regional powers continues to be an issues, with President Francois Hollande admitting last week that French forces may be used elsewhere in the Sahel. European governments, alarmed with the developments, also approved a 110-man mission this week that will focus on improving border security by training Libyan police and security forces.
In a region that mainly comprises of vast desert regions, borders often have little meaning, and militants can blend in with nomads. Consequently hunting Islamist militants requires states riven by mutual suspicion to work together. Officials in the United States have indicated that efforts to tackle the spreading influence of al-Qaeda’s ideology throughout the Sahara has been beset by long-standing rivalries, notably between Morocco and Algeria, coupled with a lack of trust and communication amongst the regional capitals.
Algeria, the Sahara’s main military power, has long bristled at the idea of outside intervention in the region, particularly one led by its former colonial ruler, France. Although the Algerian government allowed French warplanes operating in Mali to fly over its territory, Malian officials have indicated that Algeria should be more active, whether by arresting militants or preventing the flow of fuel that allows them to cover vast desert distance. The northern Malian town of Gao lies about 1,500 km (930 miles) from the border of southern Libya.
Mauritania also needs to place more of an effort on this issue. This is mainly due to the country’s strategic location on the western edge of the Sahara coupled with a high number of its citizens who are senior militants and with its experience in tackling Islamist militants at home.
The rapidly changing face of Islamist militancy also creates problems for the local governments. For years, al-Qaeda’s North African wing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), relied largely on Algerians. However last year, the militant group was composed of gunmen from across northern Africa along with citizens from West Africa – militants who are more experienced and have a greater knowledge of the territory.
In Mali, drone surveillance and on the ground counter-terrorism teams have put a lot of effort in order to suppress the militants. Suicide attacks around the northern towns of Gao and Menaka this month claimed no victims apart from the bombers themselves. According to officials in France, around 600 Islamists have been killed since Operation Serval was launched in January. In turn, about 200 tonnes of ammunition and dozens of vehicles were seized in operations that scoured the desert regions and mountain bases. This disrupted arms and fuel dumps that militants had prepared during their nine-month occupation of northern Mali. According to a French officer in Mali, “they don’t seem to have the ability to coordinate attacks in Mali anymore…we assume that they will try and regroup but it will take time for them and it is risky as they know we are watching.” The French campaign in Mali has been backed by a British spy plane while the US has drones operating from Niger alongside an established monitoring base in Burkina Faso. But while Islamist militants once traveled in large convoys, they have since adapted and are keeping a low provide. A trend which will likely be seen over the next few years, as militants continue to adapt themselves to nor only the territory, but to the techniques that the West uses in order to track them down.