Mali’s presidential election was preceded by outbreaks of violence and terrorist attacks before concluding with a contentious run-off election on August 12 after the first round of voting on July 29 failed to produce a clear winner (Malijet, August 8). In a showdown identical to that of the election in 2013, incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita beat out former Finance Minister Soumaila Cisse, securing a second, five-year term as president.
Mali, along with neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, is facing a rising threat of jihadist attacks from several terrorist organizations, most notably al-Qaeda linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)—both of which control significant territory in Mali but regularly operate inside Niger and Burkina Faso. The result of the election and preceding violence is not a clear step forward or backward in the fight against the spread of militancy across the greater Sahel region. Rather, it is a reflection of widespread political disillusionment in Mali and an indication of what the future likely holds—a continuation of disjointed local security policies and increasingly war-weary international partners.
The lead up to the election was marred by allegations of voter irregularities and violence as upwards of 871 polling stations were closed due to attacks and general insecurity. The embattled Mopti and Gao regions, where a large percentage of the terrorist attacks occurred, were particularly affected (AllAfrica, August 7). Two of the most noteworthy attacks leading to the election include: the JNIM-claimed car bombing in Gao on July 1 that injured eight French troops participating in Operation Barkhane, and a suicide bombing on June 29 in the town of Sevare in the Mopti Region against the headquarters of the Sahel G5. The Sahel G5 is a joint security force comprised of military personnel from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania that is tasked with counterterrorism operations along their respective borders (Malijet, July 2). The attack, which JNIM also later claimed via Mauritanian media outlet al-Akhbar, was more symbolic of JNIM’s persistence and capabilities than it was successful. The attack left three soldiers dead and ultimately led to a reshuffling of the G5’s leadership from Malian General Didier Dacko to Mauritania’s General Hanena Ould Sidi (Malijet, July 19). Member parties hope the reshuffle will help spur momentum and lead to greater buy-in from Mauritania. In comparison to the other member states, Mauritania is less affected by JNIM and ISGS attacks and has contributed fewer resources.
While the G5 managed to reshuffle its leadership, voters in Mali elected to move forward with the status quo despite the generally poor perception of Keita, who was sworn in on September 4, just one day before the United States officially added JNIM to its list of designated terrorist organizations (Africa News, September 5; U.S. Department of State, September 5). While the result of the election does not inspire great optimism, it could still be a better outcome than if the untested Soumalia Cisse won the election.
The country has not made significant strides forward in terms of economic issues, corruption, or security. Widespread accusations of extrajudicial killings by Malian security forces have worsened communal violence in the northern and central regions and hindered counterterrorism operations against JNIM and ISGS. Signatories to the 2015 peace deal with Tuareg-led rebel groups—yet to be fully implemented—have played an active role in facilitating the activities of various jihadist groups. Despite all of this and Keita’s overall lackluster performance, he at least brings with him somewhat of a sense of predictability in his relationships and political dealings, which is beneficial for a country that needs to continue fostering strong relationships with its counterterrorism partners and donors. As France seeks to reduce the number of troops participating in Operation Burkhane and the United States is reportedly considering pulling U.S. counterterrorism forces in neighboring Niger as it shifts focus to Russia and China, Mali’s need for stable leadership is particularly strong (New York Times, September 2).