Mali holds crucial polls on Sunday with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita seeking re-election in a country reeling from jihadist violence and ethnic attacks.
The international community hopes the poll will strengthen a 2015 accord that Mali, a linchpin state in the troubled Sahel region, sees as its cornerstone for peace.
But violence has peppered the election, with the final days of campaigning marred by an attack on a candidate’s convoy and renewed killings of civilians.
Despite the peace deal, which gathers the government, government-allied groups and former Tuareg rebels, a state of emergency remains in force and heads into its fourth year in November.
Jihadist violence, meanwhile, has spread from northern Mali to the centre and south and spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, often exacerbating communal conflicts.
– ‘No more war-mongering’ –
Twenty-four candidates are in the race for the presidency, and over eight million people are eligible to vote.
Keita, elected in 2013, is accused by his opponents, including several former ministers, of poor governance and security failures. Nearly 300 civilians have died in ethnic clashes this year alone.
On Wednesday, at least three Fulani civilians were killed in central Mali in an attack by suspected traditional hunters, according to civil society and security sources.
The Fulani community regularly denounces abuses against them by Bambara and Dogon farmers in the fight against jihadists, accusing authorities of ignoring or even taking part in them.
Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, Keita, 73, defended his record and branded the attacks as “pockets of violence and remnants of terrorism”.
“There’s no more war-mongering in Mali today,” Keita said.
He acknowledged that the violence had “metastasised to central Mali”, but said the state was making a “colossal financial effort” to combat it.
– Rivals -<
Keita’s challengers are headed by Soumaila Cisse, a former finance and economy minister, who lost by a large margin in the second round of the 2013 election.
Others are Modibo Kone, a rural development expert at the West African Development Bank, and Hamadoun Toure, who runs the “Smart Africa” initiative to drive development on the continent via technology.
Another candidate, businessman Aliou Boubacar Diallo, said IBK had “failed miserably”. Diallo’s convoy was attacked by armed assailants while he was campaigning.
“Everywhere we have been, it is this insecurity which tops Malians’ concerns,” Diallo said.
Other contenders include astrophysicist and former prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra. There is only one female candidate — Djeneba Ndiaye, a 55-year-old businesswoman.
– Fraud claims –
Amid concerns that the vote could not be held in some restive parts of the country, over 30,000 security personnel have been commandeered to ensure security.
In the north, where the state is largely absent, armed groups who signed the peace agreement have also been roped in.
The campaign unfolded amid tight security and marked by a controversy over the electoral roll — with the opposition warning of possible fraud.
Cisse’s team claimed there were two electoral lists and hundreds of fake polling stations listed.
The European Union is expected to deploy around 100 observers on Sunday. Its chief observer, Italian Euro-MP Cecile Kyenge, called on Wednesday for “more transparency” and access for all observers, including 3,000 Malians.
Turnout is traditionally low in Mali during the first round of voting, hovering around 50 percent.
If Keita — widely known as IBK — or any of his contenders fail to secure more than half of the ballots, a second round will take place on August 12.
The first results are expected within 48 hours of the vote, with official results following on August 3 at the latest.