Malian Prime Minister Boubou Cisse addresses the media after casting his ballot in Bamako, March 29 2020. Picture: MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Malian Prime Minister Boubou Cisse addresses the media after casting his ballot in Bamako, March 29 2020. Picture: MICHELE CATTANI / AFP

Bamako — Malians voted on Sunday in a long-delayed parliamentary election just hours after the country posted its first coronavirus death and the kidnapped leading opposition figure thought to be in the hands of jihadists.

There were security misgivings about the vote even before the war-torn West African country recorded its first coronavirus infection on Wednesday.

About 200,000 people displaced by the near-daily violence in Mali’s centre and north could not vote because “no mechanism has been established” for them to do so, a government official said.

It is feared that the impoverished country with a population of about 19-million and large swathes of territory lie outside government control is particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.

Late on Saturday, just hours before polls opened at 10am SA time on Sunday, the country’s first coronavirus death was announced, with the number of infections rising to 18.

“I came to vote, but I’m afraid,” said Souleymane Diallo, a 34-year-old teacher. “As you can see there’s nobody here. Maybe because it’s the morning, but it’s also not surprising because of the situation.”

The poll will see new MPs elected to the 147-seat National Assembly for the first time since 2013, when President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s Rally for Mali party won a substantial majority.

Parliamentary elections were meant to take place again in late 2018 after  Keita’s re-election, but the poll was postponed several times, largely on  security concern.

After Sunday’s first round vote, a second round is due on April 19.

Casting a shadow over the vote is the fate of veteran opposition leader Soumaila Cisse, who was kidnapped on Wednesday while campaigning in the centre of the country.

Cisse, 70, who has been runner-up in three presidential elections, and six members of his team were abducted in an attack in which his bodyguard was killed.

A security source and a local official said it was “likely” he was being held by jihadists loyal to Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa, who leads a branch of the al-Qaeda-aligned GSIM active in the Sahel.

Cisse and his entourage were probably now “far from where they were abducted”, said the security source.

Government election spokesperson Amini Belko Maiga has admitted that voting conditions were not ideal.

“It’s true that we cannot say that everything is perfect, but we’re doing the maximum,” he said, referring to coronavirus. Handwashing kits had been distributed in the countryside, while in the capital Bamako, authorities would make masks and hand sanitisers available.

Cisse’s Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) on Saturday urged its supporters to turn out in even greater numbers.

“In these difficult times our country is going through, more than ever, the party’s activists are resolutely urged to redouble their efforts for a massive participation in the March 29, 2020 elections,” said the country’s main opposition party.

However, several other opposition parties called for the vote to be postponed.