Mali: Quick Context on the Two Italian Hostages Released

Yesterday, October 8, the head of Mali’s presidential crisis cell confirmed the secure return of four hostages held by jihadists, specifically by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM).

One of these four returned hostages is famous – Soumaïla Cissé, formal head of Mali’s opposition, who was kidnapped while campaigning in the Niafunké district of the Timbuktu Region in March.

And another hostage is a relatively familiar name to Sahel watchers – French national Sophie Pétronin, who was kidnapped in Gao, Mali in 2016.

The other two individuals are less well known. They are two Italian nationals who were kidnapped in separate incidents. One is a priest, Pier Luigi Maccalli, who was kidnapped in September 2018 near Makalondi, Niger (map), very close to the border with Burkina Faso. The village/parish where he was serving, Bomoanga, and the schools associated with his mission, have been targeted in other jihadist attacks as well. The other Italian citizen, Nicola Chiacchio (in some reports and sources, Ciacco), is described in one account as a “tourist who was last known to be cycling from Timbuktu to Douentza,” both in Mali (map of Douentza here). He was kidnapped around February 2019.

The two Italians appeared together in a proof of life video in March 2020. The brief video, and some coverage, are available here; additional coverage is here.

MENASTREAM has a very useful map showing Western hostages held in the Sahel, updated to reflect these four figures’ release:

Reuters provides some details about the lead-up to the hostage releases here.

Unfortunately I can’t do much analysis due to time constraints, but one thing that strikes me is how much the conversation about hostage releases has changed since, say, 2011-2013. Back then I heard a lot more open contempt, at least in the U.S., for the idea of paying ransoms or exchanging prisoners with jihadists. Now the tenor of the public conversation, at least online, appears to run very much in the direction of unreservedly celebrating the return of these hostages and therefore tacitly or explicitly accepting the costs as being worth it. The online conversation has shifted, I think, and the makeup of the voices participating in the online conversation has also changed and expanded significantly, when I step back and think about it. That’s good, I’d say.

Burkina Faso: Update on the Kidnapping and Murder of the Grand Imam of Djibo

Last week I wrote about the kidnapping of the Grand Imam of Djibo, Souaibou Cissé, one of the most prominent religious figures in northern Burkina Faso and particularly in Soum Province, where Djibo is the capital. Cissé was kidnapped on August 11. A tragic update is that he was found dead on August 15.

The imam was kidnapped while traveling by car, returning from Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to Djibo. More specifically, he was kidnapped near the town of Gaskindé, south of Djibo, on a particularly dangerous stretch of the journey. His body was found in Tiléré, a village north of Gaskindé and just south of Djibo (map). His funeral was held the same day.

The imam’s murder has elicited national outcry and consternation in Burkina Faso. President Roch Kaboré said that the murder “aimed at undermining our model of religious tolerance.” The government condemned the killing and promised that the security forces will hunt the murderers. The Federation of Islamic Associations of Burkina Faso, in a statement, offered its condolences and condemned “the inhumanity” of the killers.

As far as I can tell, no one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and murder, although most journalists, Burkinabè elites, and observers (including me) assume that jihadists were the perpetrators. As I wrote in my last post on the topic, the kidnappers appear to have known exactly who they were taking (they let the other passengers in the car go). I wonder now whether the kidnappers on the spot were only empowered to take him, and not to kill him, and thus ended up having to get further instructions from their superiors, which may explain the brief interval between the kidnapping and the discovery of the body. But that’s just a hypothesis. And I could find almost no details about how exactly the body was discovered – why Tiléré? Did any of the residents see the body being deposited there? Burkinabè security forces may be asking some tough questions of Tiléré residents, although this situation shows exactly why the pattern of collective punishment by the security forces is so counterproductive – who will want to talk to the soldiers, whenever they show up in the village? And if the soldiers do get information, how can they know it’s not someone using the imam’s death as a pretext for pointing the finger at a hated neighbor? And if the soldiers don’t get information, will they punish the whole village? And thus the cycle of collective punishment would not only undermine the investigation of this death but might even be perpetuated by that very same investigation.

Finally, the kidnapping exemplifies and reinforces the sense of uncertainty I’ve referred to as a feature of the Sahelian crisis (and mass violence more generally). When someone, even someone prominent, is kidnapped, there is little sense of what will follow. Will the victim be found dead four days later, as in the case of the grand imam? Or will the victim’s captivity drag on and on, as the Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé’s (no relation to the imam, I assume) has? Soumaïla Cissé is coming up on five months in captivity.

This is not about me – at all – but on a personal note I will say that this incident bothered me a lot. Just really sad and grim.

Mali: Recent Developments Connected with the June 5 Movement

In Mali, and particularly in the capital Bamako, the 5 June Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) is driving a flurry of political negotiations, proposals, and counter-proposals. I’ve gone into the composition of the movement and covered its first two mass demonstrations here and here, and I wrote an overview for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) – so I won’t rehash the context here, but will simply round up some of the latest developments.

  1. On 30 June or 1 July (reports vary), the M5-RFP released a memorandum that appears to modify its core demand – namely that Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) resign. The memorandum makes a number of sweeping demands, including the dissolution of the National Assembly and its replacement by “a transitional legislative mechanism”; and the formation of a transitional government under a prime minister selected by the M5-RFP, with the president’s powers effectively reduced to nothing. Yet Cheick Oumar Sissoko, leader of one of the three main blocs of the M5-RFP (a civil society coalition called Espoir Mali Koura or “Hope for a New Mali”), has said the memorandum does not reflect his own point of view – he still wants IBK to go. Meanwhile I have been thinking about a post from Tchoussal N’Gourgou saying that “the truth is that Mahmoud Dicko [the leading M5-RFP organizer] is condemned to follow the framework dictated by [the Economic Community of West Africa States].” In other words, with the international community weighing in to subtly suggest that it does not want IBK’s resignation and that it does want a negotiated outcome, the M5-RFP and Dicko are forced to accept some outcome less than what they originally demanded.
  2. Some of IBK’s supporters have, unsurprisingly, denounced the memorandum, calling it antidemocratic and unconstitutional. They may have a point. Ironically, the Malian Constitution of 1992 appears to me (not a constitutional constitutional scholar!) to implicitly allow for a president to resign, but only envisions temporary handoffs of power from the president to the prime minister (see Article 36) or the delegation of “certain powers” from the president to the prime minister (Article 51). Any permanent incapacity on the president’s part triggers a new election and I don’t think the constitution envisions a scenario where the president hands off all of his/her powers permanently. Meanwhile, the president can dissolve the National Assembly (Article 42), but that triggers new legislative elections and I am not sure how the demand to create a “transitional legislative mechanism” can be squared with Article 42. But obviously that’s all for Malian lawyers and politicians to work out, should it come to that. And in fairness, IBK slid into an extra-constitutional zone vis-a-vis the National Assembly by allowing deputies to remain in office longer than five years (Article 61). So the Constitution is not the ultimate guide to what will/can happen in Malian politics (or elsewhere!).
  3. On 2 July, the captivity of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé (kidnapped, presumably by jihadists, in the Timbuktu Region on 25 March) passed the 100 day mark. There is a rhetorical competition underway between the president’s allies and the M5-RFP to take ownership of the issue – the M5-RFP cites Cissé’s kidnapping as one of many tragedies amid the crisis they are responding to, while the president’s allies accuse the M5-RFP of taking advantage of the tragedy for political gain.
  4. On 4 July, IBK held three meetings in an effort to tamp down tensions: one with Imam Mahmoud Dicko, the foremost leader of the M5-RFP; one with the parties of the presidential majority in the National Assembly; and one with the “founding families” of Bamako. According to Dicko, the president offered him some kind of ministerial role or “privileges” in the yet-to-be-formed “government of change” that IBK announced in a 14 June address; Dicko refused. IBK reportedly wants a “government of national unity.”
  5. On 5 July, IBK met with M5-RFP representatives (see the presidency’s readout here). The meeting did not achieve a breakthrough, and in fact led the M5-RFP to decry what it sees as IBK’s obstinacy and to renew its call for him to resign (see the M5-RFP communiqué here).
  6. Direct communication between IBK and the M5-RFP leaders is not the only channel of negotiation. Jeune Afrique published an article on 23 June about the “emissaries” of IBK during the crisis, citing names such as ex-Foreign Affairs Minister Tiebilé Dramé, former President Moussa Traoré, and current President of the High Islamic Council Ousmane Madani Haïdara.
  7. The role of religious leaders in the M5-RFP – not just Dicko, but also the Chérif of Nioro du Sahel – continues to generate commentary and controversy. At The Conversation, Boubacar Haidara and Lamine Savane analyze Dicko’s role in the protests; at Journal du Mali (h/t Adam Sandor), there is an analysis of the Chérif’s role. Meanwhile, one cleric belonging to the High Islamic Council, Mohamed Moufa Haïdara, has formed what appears to be a pro-IBK platform explicitly opposed to “mixing politics with religion.”

The next mass rally is scheduled for 10 July, this Friday.

Ten Resources on the Coalition pour le Peuple de l’Azawad (CPA), a Timbuktu-Based Political Faction and Armed Group

The Coalition pour le Peuple de l’Azawad (Coalition for the People of Azawad, CPA)* is a political faction and armed group in northern Mali, with its base in the Timbuktu Region. The CPA does not belong to the Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (Coordination of Movements of Azawad, CMA), the main coalition of ex-rebels in northern Mali – and one of three signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord. The CPA has come up in two pieces I’ve written over the last year and a half or so (on jihadists’ political relationships with other actors in Timbuktu, and on the kidnapping of Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, also in Timbuktu). I have not yet delved deeply into understanding the CPA, but since it keeps coming up, here are some key sources on the group, sources that will hopefully prove helpful to any readers who are also interested in the CPA or in wider questions of political-military competition in northern Mali.

  1. The CPA’s Facebook page, where one can read statements and watch videos (for example, here) from key events.
  2. Jeune Afrique‘s March 2014 interview with Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, founder of the CPA, when he broke with the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, MNLA, one of three main movements now in the CMA). See also Jeune Afrique‘s discussion of the CPA’s founding here.
  3. Zeini Moulaye’s 2016 report on security challenges in the Sahel-Sahara, which features a discussion of the CPA’s 2014-2015 history (p. 14), including tensions between Ag Mohamed Assaleh and another key leader, Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoune.
  4. Studio Tamani’s November 2017 report on the creation of the Coordination des mouvements de l’entente (Coordination of Movements of Understanding, CME), an umbrella framework for northern armed groups that are not signatories to the Algiers Accord and that are, for the most part, breakaways from signatory groups. The CPA is a leading member of the CME, and the Studio Tamani report features a brief audio commentary by Ag Mohamedoune.
  5. The United Nations Security Council’s December 2018 narrative explanation of its decision to sanction the CPA’s Secretary-General Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoune for “his involvement in planning, directing, sponsoring, or conducting attacks against: (i) the various entities referenced in the Agreement, including local, regional and state institutions, joint patrols and the Malian Security and Defence forces; (ii) MINUSMA peacekeepers and other UN and associated personnel, including members of the Panel of experts; (iii) international security presences, including the FC-G5S, European Union Missions and French forces.”
  6. The February 2019 report from the United Nations Panel of Experts on Mali, where pp. 14-15 discuss the CPA, its activities in the Timbuktu Region, and its relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Panel of Experts’ August 2018 report also discusses the CPA, especially on pp. 24-25.
  7. Le Point’s August 2018 interview with Ag Mohamedoune, where he responds to the Panel of Experts’ statements that the CPA coordinates and has relationships with jihadists.
  8. L’Indépendant‘s March 2020 report on leadership struggles within the CPA and certain leaders’ public criticisms of Ag Mohamedoune.
  9. The May 2020 communiqué from the CPA stating that Ag Mohamedoune had been stripped of his post and had no longer represented the CPA since February 2020.
  10. Adib Bencherif’s 2018 article “Le Mali post « Accord d’Alger » : une période intérimaire entre conflits et négociations,” which helps to place the CPA and the CME into their wider context of armed groups’ relationships and competition in northern Mali since 2015.

*Also sometimes rendered as “le Coalition du Peuple pour l’Azawad.”

Cligendael Institute Paper and Webinar Presentation on the Kidnapping of Malian Opposition Leader Soumaïla Cissé

I’ve written a paper for the Clingendael Institute about the kidnapping of Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé (.pdf). An excerpt:

Cissé’s kidnapping shines a spotlight on how the country’s conflict hotspots are carved up into micro-zones of control and influence, which actors navigate on the basis of imperfect and constantly changing information. Although it makes sense for policy makers and analysts to talk about ‘northern Mali’ or ‘central Mali’ as a shorthand, such mental maps should not determine policy frameworks; truly resolving Mali’s crises will require a meaningful set of political settlements at the hyper-local level.

I also participated in a webinar hosted by Clingendael on June 11, where I discussed my paper as part of a wider set of reflections on “Five Years Into the Malian Peace Agreement: Where Do We Stand?” Here is the video:

For more from the other presenters, see the following papers:

Mali: On Moussa Timbiné, the New President of the National Assembly, and a Bit of Context

On May 11, following legislative elections held in two rounds on March 29 and April 19, Mali’s 6th National Assembly selected Moussa Timbiné the body’s new president. Timbiné replaces Issaka Sidibé, who served in the position from 2014-2020.

Timbiné, 47, belongs to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s Rassemblement pour le Mali (Rally for Mali, RPM). He was a founding member of the party in 2001, coming from a background in student union activism and then working his way up the ranks of the party as a youth leader and then an elected official, rising to become second Vice President of the Assembly in its last iteration. He is ethnically Dogon and Songhaï, hailing from the Bandiagara administrative district of the Mopti Region, central Mali. In parliament, however, he represents the capital Bamako’s Commune V. A longer biography of Timbiné can be found here (French).

Timbiné is seen as a close ally not just of Keïta the father but also the president’s influential son Karim. (Notably, outgoing National Assembly President Sidibé is Karim Keïta’s father-in-law.) Observers see the Keïta family’s strong hand in putting forth Timbiné, whose candidacy as speaker was a bit of a surprise; until a day before the vote, the RPM’s designee had been another deputy, Mamadou Diarrassouba, who represents Dioïla in the southern Koulikoro Region.

Ironically, moreover, Timbiné had recently nearly lost his own seat. After the second round of voting, provisional results gave the barest of victories, 50.4% to 49.6%, to an opposition  candidate, Boubou Diallo. Diallo belongs to the Union pour la République et la Démocratie (Union for the Republic and Democracy, URD), the country’s foremost opposition party, whose leader Soumaïla Cissé was kidnapped on March 25 and is still in captivity. Indeed, the overall results from Bamako at first appeared to be a bloodbath for Keïta’s RPM there, with the party losing all but one seat (Karim Keïta’s) of the nine it held going into the elections. On April 30, however, Mali’s Constitutional Court reversed the results from various constituencies; by the revised figures, RPM gained ten seats, including four in Bamako, of which one was Commune V. RPM came out with 51 seats total, giving it the largest bloc in the National Assembly but falling well short of a majority. In any case, for those who regard the election results as compromised, Timbiné’s installation as president of the assembly is symbolic and symptomatic.

The scope of Timbiné’s victory within the assembly also raises questions about how much of an opposition there really is in Mali. Timbiné received 134 votes out of the body’s 147 members, against 8 votes for former Prime Minister Moussa Mara. Reportedly, some or even all of the URD members even voted to support him (or were given instructions to cast blank ballots, depending on which account you read). The URD deputies’ behavior angered many of the party’s supporters, prompting party leadership to issue what reads like an apology. In any event, the RPM’s losses in the election and its minority share within the new assembly do not necessarily mean that President Keïta and his allies have lost their grip on the chamber.


Mali: Another Look at the Presidential Election Results

The “Les Afriques dans le Monde” project at Sciences Po Bordeaux has posted some useful maps and charts on Mali’s presidential elections.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • It’s really striking to see the pie charts that include abstentions. The visuals really underscore the weakness of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s second term mandate.
  • The post highlights that of more than 65,000 new voters added to the rolls for the 12 August runoff, approximately half of them were in Gao and half in the diaspora. These are the kinds of numbers that have raised eyebrows in Mali.
  • The maps showing vote share by region are also extremely useful. The map of the first round highlights how well IBK did in the north (especially Kidal and Gao) and how poorly he did in Mopti (which also had, far and away, the highest number of polling place closures due to violence. Interestingly, as the authors note, IBK’s main rival Soumaïla Cissé had his best score in Timbuktu (20%), and his second-best in Gao, so this is not a story of Cissé doing well in south and IBK doing well in the north – rather, it’s the story of two candidates with significant northern support amid a divided south, where the share of votes going to other candidates was much higher. Cissé had minimal support in the south, actually.
  • The map of the second round reinforces these patterns. IBK dominated Kidal, but Cissé preserved a substantial vote share in Timbuktu (increasing, actually, to 26% there) and Gao. Only in those two regions, moreover, was the share of people voting greater than the share of people not voting. In the south, again, Cissé had relatively little support. Moreover, abstentions reached 70% in Segou, Bamako, and Sikasso.
  • I would reiterate what I’ve said before, namely that IBK is in some sense not really the president of Mopti (and even, one could argue, Segou). The violence was so severe, and the abstentions so high, that I take the outcome there as a rejection of the process itself.

Mali: How Did IBK Win Re-Election?

Yesterday, 16 August, Mali’s Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization announced official results from the second round of Mali’s presidential elections. The first round, held 29 July, narrowed the field to two candidates – incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and long-time opposition candidate and former Finance Minister Soumaïla Cissé. The first round results gave IBK approximately 41% of the vote to Cissé’s nearly 18%, leaving around 41% of the electorate undecided. The second round was held on 12 August. The official results from the second round give IBK 67.17% to Cissé’s 32.83%. Turnout is estimated at 34.5%, which is dismayingly low but which is also in line with turnout figures from previous Malian elections, especially in the second round.

How did IBK win, especially in the face of Mali’s terrible problems? Three factors occur to me so far, though the list is surely non-exhaustive.

First, and most immediately, the opposition did not rally around Cissé in the second round. As I discussed here, in Francophone West Africa’s two-round systems, an opposition candidate hoping to oust an incumbent almost always needs a wave of endorsements and alliances between the first and second rounds if that candidate is to win. That bandwagon effect did not happen for Cissé – the lower-scoring candidates almost all stayed neutral, with some of them professing open derision for both IBK and Cissé. Fourth-place finisher Cheick Modibo Diarra, for example, said on 10 August in a communiqué (French), “My belief remains that neither the one nor the other corresponds to our ideal of change. To replace Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta with Soumaïla Cissé is not an alternation, it is not change for us, it is nothing more and nothing less than a game of musical chairs.”

Diarra, a former acting prime minister, may not be in the best position to denounce games of musical chairs – but the sentiment he expressed may have been more widely shared by voters. Clearly, if we go by official results, many people saw no point in voting; insecurity in northern and central Mali can explain some of the low turnout, but some of it should be attributed to apathy/cynicism/disgust as well. Cissé was unable to convince sufficient numbers of elites or voters that he represented a credible alternative to the political status quo. There is a broader fatigue, it seems, with the whole political class, and IBK benefits from that fatigue in the sense that he won almost by default. The devil you know, etc.

Second, it’s worth according a role – although I’m still thinking through how big of one – to current Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (let’s call him SBM). Since SBM, a former intelligence chief and defense minister, was appointed in December 2017, various observers have seen that appointment in the context of the then-upcoming elections. According to these theories (and here I’m mixing in some of what I heard on short trips to Bamako in January and March of this year), SBM’s appointment had a triple purpose: (a) removing a potentially formidable competitor from the field of presidential candidates, (b) appointing someone seen as more competent and well-connected than the cycle of short-lived prime ministers IBK had run through since 2013, and (c) appointing someone from the north (Gao) with a mandate to making the political and logistical arrangements necessary to have a credible and victorious election throughout the whole country and especially in the north. The north is obviously not the most populated part of the country, but it seems IBK was keen to (a) have the election take place there at all, at least to an extent that would satisfy foreign powers, and (b) to win there, likely to argue that he had a truly national mandate. SBM, through visits to the north and the center, as well as through numerous visits abroad, may have played a key role in convincing various elites (domestic and foreign) that a second term for IBK would be better for them than any realistic alternative. Worth noting too, with regard to the north, is that many of the leading politicians there, despite past or current involvement with rebellions and past or current tensions with the central government, are nevertheless members of the ruling party. In any case, SBM’s appointment seems to have both accelerated and clarified some of the intra-elite agreements that have allowed IBK to take a second term.

Third, we obviously have to take the issue of fraud very seriously – or, because “fraud” conveys a narrow sense of same-day ballot-box stuffing and tampering with vote tallies, let’s use the broader term of manipulation. It’s hard to sort through all the allegations (example) that voter blocs were bought and paid for (especially in the north), that backroom deals were struck, etc. But the allegations are widespread (as is the satirical commentary), and Cissé himself has rejected the results (even before they were published). A rejoinder might be that opposition candidates in West Africa (and in Africa more broadly) regularly call foul when official results are released – but that doesn’t mean those candidates are always wrong! The question, really, is to what extent IBK’s people used the levers of incumbency to make deals that predetermined or influenced the outcome. It’s hard for me to say, but I think two points stand out: (a) if IBK’s people did manipulate the process, they were not confident enough about their power/position to blatantly rig the results, especially in the first round; and, relatedly, (b) if IBK’s people did manipulate the process, they were careful to ensure that it would still be credible enough for the international community to accept the outcome. The domestic arena is not the only one that matters, after all.

Hopefully, the availability of more precise voting data in the coming days and weeks will shed further light on these questions and on other mechanics of IBK’s victory. For now, though, Malians and outsiders will be pondering what the next five years will bring for the country.

A Look at Allegations of Fraud in Mali’s Presidential Elections (First Round)

Last week, I looked at the results from the first round of Mali’s presidential elections (29 July), discussing what those results say about the top two candidates’ prospects in the second round (12 August). Those candidates are the incumbent, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), and long-time opposition candidate (and 2013 runner-up) Soumaïla Cissé.

The results give us a framework for thinking about political realities – whether the results are genuine or not, they reflect something fundamental about the balance of power in the country.* Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that there have been widespread allegations of rigging and tampering.

The question of fraud is intimately linked with questions of insecurity, as some of the key allegations concern suspected box-stuffing in the north and center of the country, where violence is rife. In other words, some of the president’s opponents accuse him of exploiting the insecurity to pad his vote totals in areas where it will be difficult to verify the integrity of the electoral process.

In this connection, it’s worth noting that in various parts of the north and the center, nearly 250,000 voters or over 3% of the electorate weren’t able to vote at all – here, for example, is the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization’s widely-circulated “list of centers and offices where voters were not able to vote.” The overwhelming majority of these voting centers are in the central Mopti region, but some are in the north.

A quick post like this can’t do justice to the complexity and seriousness of these questions, but here is some of what has been said, done, and reported about allegations of fraud:

  • AFP: “The three main opposition candidates in Mali’s presidential election [Cissé, Aliou Diallo, and Cheick Modibo Diarra] announced Sunday they were mounting a legal challenge in the country’s constitutional court alleging ‘ballot box-stuffing’ and other irregularities, after incumbent Ibrahim Boubacar Keita took the lead in the first round of the vote last month.”
  • RFI and Le Monde report on a formal condemnation of the first round’s alleged procedural problems by 18 candidates, including the top three opposition figures.
  • Le Monde, in the context of a larger article about electoral process and fraud allegations, discusses the high reported voter turnout in the northern Kidal region (88% turnout, 80% voting for IBK, compared with 43% turnout nationwide and 41% voting for IBK nationally) and in the northern Menaka region (86% turnout, 79% voting for IBK).
  • VOA/AFP have a report from the northern Gao region alleging ballot-box stuffing in nomad (i.e., Tuareg and Arab) zones, although Malian journalist Baba Ahmed criticized the report for foregrounding voices he felt are not representative of the people of Gao.
  • Le Républicain has an article on the pressures facing the Constitutional Court.

For a broader sense of the immediate politics, it’s also well worth reading Olivier Dubois’ recent article on the political atmosphere and the maneuvers of the candidates.

*After all, even if the results are based on rigging, the numbers tell us something about either how much power different factions have to rig or, at the very least, how confident they feel about their rigging.

Mali: Soumaïla Cissé Courts Religious Leaders in Advance of the Second Round

On 12 August, Mali will hold the second round of its presidential elections. The top two vote-getters – the incumbent, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), and the runner-up from the previous election, Soumaïla Cissé – will face off. As I mentioned here, Cissé has something of an uphill climb ahead of him in this short interval between the first and the second rounds. Having scored just 18% to Keïta’s 41%, Cissé has to quickly assemble a diverse coalition in order to win.

In this context, it is worth commenting on Cissé’s visit on 6 August to the town of Nioro du Sahel (map) to see the figure who is arguably Mali’s leading religious personality – Mohamed Ould Bouyé Haïdara, better known as the Chérif of Nioro. “Chérif” here is simply the French transliteration of the Arabic sharif, meaning a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. More immediately, the Chérif is the son of Shaykh Hamallah (1893-1943), one of the most prominent and controversial Sufi shaykhs in colonial West Africa. Hamallah’s story is too complicated to retrace here – see Benjamin Soares’ book for more.

After his visit to Nioro, Cissé announced that he had received the Chérif’s formal support for the second round. Cissé commented on the Chérif’s “aspiration…to see the country definitively get out of the crisis that we have known during these recent dark years.”

With the Chérif’s support, Cissé can also expect that of Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali and another key Muslim leader in the country. In January of this year, Dicko (who leans Salafi, but is sometimes accommodating toward Sufis and their interests) stated that he would follow the Chérif’s lead when it came to the 2018 elections. Both the Chérif and Dicko, it will be recalled, backed IBK in 2013, partly through a movement called Sabati 2012 (which is itself, we should note, again supporting IBK this time).

At this time, an IBK victory still seems more probable to me than a Cissé victory, although the endorsements of some of the major, still undecided candidates from the first round could make a big difference one way or the other. In any case, one takeaway is that key Malian religious leaders appear confident that they can break with IBK and come out okay even if he wins a second term. Even if IBK wins re-election, then, one should not assume that he has a massive mandate, either from ordinary Malians or from the country’s political, social, and religious elites.