BAMAKO, Mali — Reports of military abuses and extravagant spending have shadowed him. His term in office has been pockmarked by terrorist attacks on peacekeepers and even a luxury hotel. Critics of Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, have taken to chanting, “Father must quit.”
But at a recent campaign rally as he runs for re-election in a vote on Sunday, Mr. Keïta, 73, stood in a crisp white flowing gown before a throng of supporters in Bamako and defiantly responded, “Father won’t quit.”
Malians are heading to the polls when their nation is rife with insecurity, as Islamist groups launch frequent and increasingly bold attacks. Late last month, a suicide bomber drove into the headquarters of the G5 Sahel, a regional military force focused on rooting out terrorism, killing three people. The United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Mali is considered the most dangerous in the world.
Yet Mr. Keïta, with a flush campaign fund and a raft of challengers, is likely to be re-elected, analysts say, in part because the violence could keep many people from the polls. Speaking about security issues, the president recently told journalists that Mali suffered from only “pockets of violence.”
Mr. Keïta promotes his achievements on billboards lining the streets. One features a little girl doing homework under a lamp and brags about the spread of electricity. Others boast of new access to potable drinking water.
“Together, let’s march toward progress,” reads one billboard.
But the memory of Mali’s near collapse six years ago is still raw.
In 2012, low-ranking soldiers in Mali, a former French colony, overthrew the government, saying they were fed up with being underequipped to fight rebels who benefited from of a flood of weapons that poured in after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya.
The instability created by the coup helped solidify control of Mali’s north by an Islamist group called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which aligned with armed Tuareg rebels.
For 10 months, Islamist fighters occupied places like the fabled mud-walled city of Timbuktu. They subjected residents to a brutal form of Shariah law: cutting off the hands of thieves, lashing women for failing to cover their heads and threatening celebrated northern musicians who dared to perform.
In 2013, the same year Mr. Keïta was elected and replaced the transitional government that followed the coup, French troops swooped in and chased the group from the area.
But Islamist militants have made a comeback. In 2015, gunmen stormed a Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali’s capital, killing 20 people, and launched a series of attacks on establishments frequented by Westerners in nearby countries. They often attack some of the 14,000 United Nations peacekeepers put in place to contain the violence in the north; 174 have been killed to date, with 101 killed in “hostile action,” according to the mission.
At the same time, clashes between ethnic groups have spiked. Fatouma Barry fled her village after rumors of violence between ethnic Fulani and Dogon people. She headed to a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Bamako. Her home now is a large white tent next to dozens of other Fulani women and children.
“I’m going to vote, but not for the current president,” Ms. Barry said. “Look at us here.”
Under Mr. Keïta’s leadership, Mali’s security forces have been accused of dozens of abuses, including disappearances and cases of torture and killing, for which no one has been held accountable, according to Human Rights Watch.
A United Nations investigation found that Malian soldiers had executed 12 civilians in a market near the border with Burkina Faso on May 19 after an armed man killed a soldier. Another report to the Security Council called on the government to take greater responsibility for security and expressed concerns about the spillover effects on neighboring countries also dealing with terrorist threats.
Military abuses were among the reasons cited by members of armed insurgent groups who were interviewed about why they had joined the fight, according to a recent report from the aid group Mercy Corps. Other reasons included poverty, unemployment, corruption and a general lack of government services.
In 2014, the International Monetary Fund temporarily halted $70 million worth of aid money citing concerns about Mr. Keïta’s purchase of a $40 million presidential jet. He also was criticized for a round of expensive trips abroad early in his presidency — when he had yet to visit the beleaguered northern region of his own country — as well as political appointments that went to members of his family, including his son.
Under Mr. Keïta’s leadership, Mali’s economy has bounced back from losses suffered during the 2012 coup. Much of Mali’s growth is tied to prices of commodities like gold and cotton. Recent rainfall has helped the cotton crop; gold prices, after dipping, are on the rise again.
But the country is still among the world’s 25 poorest and is heavily reliant on foreign aid. Most Malians eke out a living as farmers, herders or fishermen, relying on the fertile area near the Niger River to survive. More than half of the country is a punishing desert crisscrossed by members of Islamist groups and migrants making their way to Libya where they set sail on the Mediterranean in hopes of a better life in Europe.
Like many nations in the region, Mali is undergoing a growth boom with its population, about 18 million, expected to double in the next 17 years. The median age here is just 15.8.
Young voters between the ages of 23 and 33 make up a third of all registered voters, according to the consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft. Many have mobilized to express their frustrations with Mr. Keïta.
“We think his term in office has been a disaster,” said Mohammed Yousuf Bathily, a youth activist and radio personality who coined the “Father Must Quit” slogan.
Mr. Bathily recently pledged his support to Soumaïla Cissé, a former finance minister and the most popular rival candidate of 24 on the ballot.
“The problem of insecurity has deepened,” Mr. Cissé said in an interview. “The people feel a big frustration and sense of betrayal.”
Analysts said many polls might not even open in some areas because of threats of violence.
Concerns about voter fraud have also been raised in recent days. The campaign manager of Mr. Cissé and another candidate, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, have accused the government of irregularities in voter rolls.
“We are heading toward a lot of questioning of the results for this election,” said Mr. Diarra, an astrophysicist who is a citizen of both Mali and the United States.
The European Union is sending out observers to certain parts of the country where it fears things could go awry.
“The stakes for the election are high,” said Kalilou Sidibé, a professor of international relations at the University of Law and Political Science in Bamako, “and Mali’s democracy and future peace depend on the transparency of the process.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the age of Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. He is 73, not 71.
Dionne Searcey contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.
Orignially published in NYT.