Mali opposition leader kidnapped in jihadist-ridden territory near Timbuktu

The kidnapping of a leading national figure is an unprecedented escalation of Mali’s conflict

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Soumaila Cisse, the opposition presidential candidate
Soumaila Cisse, the opposition presidential candidate Credit: Boubacar Sada Sissoko/Union for the Republic and Democracy via AP

Mali’s key opposition leader has been kidnapped a few days before the country is due to hold national elections, in a huge blow to the beleaguered west African nation.

Soumaïla Cisse, who leads the Union for Republic and Democracy party, was campaigning in a village near his stronghold Niafunké in Timbuktu region, northern Mali.

His party lost contact with him yesterday afternoon. Today they confirmed that he had been kidnapped.  

Mr Cisse was travelling with an 11-person delegation. Five of them been found. Four have been injured and reportedly Mr Cisse’s bodyguard was found dead.

So far no group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. However, the region is plagued by an array of armed groups, including jihadists allied to al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

Rida Lyammouri, a Sahel expert at the Policy Centre for a New South, a Moroccan think tank, said it would be ‘easy and obvious’ to blame Nusrat al-Islam (JNIM), a collection of al-Qaeda allied groups. However, Mr Lyammouri said ‘[too] many pieces [of] the story were still missing to make that assumption.”

The kidnapping of a leading national figure is an unprecedented escalation of Mali’s conflict. Mr Cisse was President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s main challenger in the country’s 2018 presidential elections.

Mali has been wracked by conflict since 2012 when rebels and jihadists swept out of the desert and took over the northern half of the country.

Over the last few years, jihadists have slowly spread out of sparsely populated northern Mali and into the central regions and across porous borders into Burkina Faso and Niger.

Thousands of civilians and soldiers have been killed in the violence and vast swathes of Malian territory has no government control at all.

Controversial parliamentary elections are due to take place on Sunday, despite the country going into lockdown after authorities reported Mali’s first two cases of Coronavirus on Tuesday.

Mali has tried to maintain as many elections as possible over the last eight years, despite being home to what experts refer to as the fastest-growing jihadist insurgency in the world,

Mali's current MPs were elected in 2013, in a ballot won by Mr Keita's Rally for Mali party. Parliamentary elections were meant to take place again in late 2018 but the poll has been postponed several times because of insecurity and strikes.

It is unclear whether or not the government will continue with the elections this Sunday.