Malians went to the polls on Sunday for a delayed parliamentary election just hours after the country recorded its first coronavirus death and the main opposition figure was kidnapped and suspected of being in the hands of jihadists.
The vote raised security concerns even before the war-torn West African country on Wednesday registered its first coronavirus infection.
Some 200,000 people displaced by near-daily violence in central and northern Mali will be unable to vote because “no mechanism has been put in place” for this, said a government official.
There were also concerns that the impoverished state of some 19 million people – where large tracts of territory are beyond state control – is at particular risk from an epidemic of COVID-19.
Late Saturday, a few hours before the scheduled opening of polling stations at 08:00 GMT Sunday, the country’s first coronavirus death was announced, the number of infections rising to 18.
The election will see new deputies elected to the 147-seat National Assembly for the first time since 2013, when President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s party, the Rassemblement pour le Mali, won a substantial majority.
Parliamentary elections were to be held again in late 2018 after Keita’s re-election, but the poll was postponed several times, largely for security reasons.
After the vote for the first round on Sunday, a second round is scheduled for April 19.
Casting a shadow over the vote is the fate of opposition veteran Soumaila Cisse, who was kidnapped on Wednesday while campaigning in the center of the country.
Cisse, 70, a finalist in three presidential elections, and six members of his team were kidnapped in an attack in which his bodyguard was killed.
He was “presumably” detained by jihadists loyal to the Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa, who heads a branch of the Al-Qaeda-aligned GSIM active in the Sahel, according to a security source and a local official.
Cisse and his entourage were probably now “far from where they were kidnapped,” a security source told AFP.
Government electoral spokesman Amini Belko Maiga admitted that voting conditions were not ideal.
“It is true that we cannot say that everything is perfect, but we are doing our best,” he said, referring to the threat from the coronavirus.
He added that handwashing kits had been distributed in the countryside, while in Bamako, the capital, the authorities would provide masks and hand sanitizers.
The Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) of Cisse urged its supporters on Saturday to be even more numerous.
“In these difficult times facing our country, more than ever, party activists are resolutely invited to redouble their efforts for a massive participation in the elections of March 29, 2020,” said the country’s main opposition party.
However, several other opposition parties asked for the vote to be postponed because of fears related to coronaviruses.
Hope for peace
The country has been plagued by conflict since 2012, when rebels captured much of the country’s arid north.
The jihadists overtook the rebels in the north and swept through the center of the country, accelerating a conflict that killed thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Despite the many difficulties, experts nevertheless hope that Sunday’s elections will lead to reforms likely to lift Mali out of its cycle of violence.
In particular, the hope is that the new parliament will implement the reforms of a peace agreement negotiated between the government of Bamako and several armed groups in Algiers in 2015.
Implementation has been painfully slow, although this year the Malian army deployed units made up of former rebels and regulars, one of the provisions of the Algiers agreement.
The pact also provides for the decentralization of governance in Mali, a request from certain rebel groups.