Hiiraan Xog, When Malians go to the polls in the country’s runoff presidential election on Sunday, threats of terror attacks again will be on their minds, just as they were two weeks ago during the first round of elections when terror attacks disrupted several polling stations across the country.
Malians will be thinking not only about how the threat of terrorism will affect the elections, but also about how the elections will shape the country’s fight against militant groups with ties to al-Qaida and the Islamic State groups.
Tiena Coulibaly, Mali’s minister of defense, told VOA the government has taken all of the necessary measures to ensure security across the country during the election and that the government is serious about its campaign against militant groups.
“The threat from extremist [groups] was much smaller than we feared it would be [during the first round of elections],” Coulibaly said. “That’s because we have sent many [additional] soldiers to the central parts of the country.”
Coulibaly added that French troops with Operation Barkhane are also helping with security arrangements during the elections and that the government will be relying on several armed rebel groups as well that have signed a peace agreement with the government in 2015.
“In the north we have agreed with the armed groups that have signed the peace agreement  with government that they would help the army to secure the elections,” he said.
The exact number of polling stations disrupted by violence during the first round of elections last month is not known, but media reports suggest that of the 23,000 polling stations that were supposed to be open, more than 4,500 of them were disrupted by armed attacks and over 600 polling stations were closed.
Coulibaly told VOA that nearly 800 polling stations were closed because of insecurity and armed attacks.
Despite assurances by the government, ordinary Malians are still concerned about the prospects of terror attacks during the election on Sunday.
Ousmane Christian Diarra, general secretary of the Association of District Administrators of Mali, told VOA that the threat of attacks by militants in parts of the country is very serious and real.
“Boura Sadou Tamboura, general secretary of the Boni subprefecture [district] office located in Mopti [in central Mali], was killed on Wednesday while he was sitting in front of his house with two friends who survived the attack by jihadists,” Diarra said.
Diarra said he “instructed all our members not to report to their respective places as long as the insecurity persists, such as in Mopti, where the government is unable to maintain security.”
During the first round of elections, in Timbuktu in northern Mali, witnesses told Reuters that armed men had intimidated voters, seized ballot boxes and in some cases set fire to them in the few polling stations outside the town.
“They came, they fired their weapons and then they took the ballot boxes away,” Insubdar Inaboud, a witness and Timbuktu resident, told Reuters.
Inaboud was disappointed about not being able to cast his ballot because of insecurity.
Several militant groups with ties to al-Qaida and the Islamic State are operating in Mali, including the Saharan Emirate of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun and Macina Liberation Front.
In March 2017, these al-Qaida-linked groups came together to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and pledged allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“We have been tracking a continued rise in activity in Mali’s central region related to the coalition of JNIM,” Wendy Williams, adjunct research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, told VOA.
“Their reach has expanded into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso,” she said.
The Islamic State is also making its presence felt in the border region between Mali and Niger.
The Islamic State group “has begun to make inroads into Mali, using it as a launching pad for attacks in neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso,” David Ibsen, executive director of the Counter Extremism Project, a global nonprofit research center that follows extremism around the globe, told VOA.
Ibsen said the exact number of militants with allegiance to terror groups like al-Qaida and IS “is difficult to establish,” but “their trail of death and destruction in Mali and the region is clear.” He said international help is needed to counter the threat.
Alix Boucher, an analyst at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, said outside actors should intervene but with caution.
“The behavior of all contingents needs to be above reproach so that they do not inadvertently feed into extremist narratives,” Boucher said.
Faith in democracy
Some analysts like Jonathan Sears of the Centre FrancoPaix at the University of Quebec in Montreal, who has visited Mali several times, are optimistic and charge that Malians are committed to democracy in the face of enormous difficulties and threats.
“What astonishes me is that despite all of the very challenging conditions of chronic poverty, Malians still risk their lives to go and vote,” Sears said.