In Mali, an arts festival defies jihadist violence

4 min

Segou (Mali) (AFP)

Behind the stage looming over the banks of the Niger River, there came worrying information: Jihadists were poised to attack Mali's most important cultural festival.

On stage, everything was calm. Officials lined up to give speeches to usher in the much-loved event while relaxed-looking security guards looked on.

But behind the scenes, security chiefs were on the alert. And the calls were stacking up on the mobile phone of Commander Diallo, an official from Mali's security ministry.

Now in its 16th year, Segou'Art Festival on the Niger is Mali's largest cultural event, a haven of theatre and music in a rising tide of war.

It is staged in the town of Segou in central Mali -- a region that is now the epicentre of a jihadist revolt that began more than seven years ago.

In 2019, militant groups killed over 450 civilians in central Mali alone, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said this week.

That figure does not include soldiers and police officers whom militants have been slaughtering by the dozen in recent months.

Commander Diallo -- his full name has been retained for security reasons -- had his work cut out to keep the festival running safely.

His eyes were fixed on the far bank of the Niger, watching for any threat.

Two patrol boats were sent there, sirens blaring. A dozen soldiers disembarked and fanned out on the far bank, "to dissuade any one who might want to come there," an officer said.

Unfazed by the risk, tens of thousands of Malians attend Segou'Art every year.

The event ran from February 4-9 this year, covering everything from lectures, to theatre, dance, music and traditional storytelling.

Foreign tourists used to regularly attend too.

Today, they are now nowhere to be seen, for the threat to their lives has never been greater.

-'Everywhere and nowhere'-

Ten days before the festival began, 20 soldiers were gunned down by about 100 motorbike-riding jihadists, some 100 (60 miles) kilometres north of Segou.

Near the site of that attack, three policemen were also killed during an overnight ambush on Sunday morning, just as rappers were entertaining thousands of young Malians at Segou'Art.

Authorities had their eyes peeled for an attempt on the festival.

Security measures were put in place and reinforcements sent from the capital Bamako -- "enough to secure the festival," according to Biramou Sissoko, the governor of Mali's Segou region.

Details, including the number of men requisitioned, remain secret.

But several hundred uniformed men were visible in the town during the festival, an AFP journalist saw, and the country's counterterrorism squad was dispatched from the capital Bamako.

"The threat is everywhere and nowhere," said Malick Doumbia, a 26-year-old festival-goer who had travelled from Bamako.

He added that he was "relieved to see the security forces mobilised," and that he was apprehensive about the threat rather than afraid.

Security is an issue every year, but attacking such a popular festival would not be in jihadists' interest, a security official who declined to be named suggested.

"In terms of messaging, (an attack) would be difficult to justify for groups looking to integrate locally".

- Crisis centre -

Malian security officials have had help from the European Union's police-training mission in the country.

Philippe Rio, a general in the French gendarmes and head of the mission, called the festival a "symbol".

"When we saw that the lack of security was becoming an obstacle to the festival's survival and that it was in danger of disappearing, we got involved," he said.

Among other things, European police trainers helped establish a crisis centre headquartered in a local-government office. They also donated computers and walkie-talkies.

In the crisis centre, Malian officers discussed the rumours of jihadist filtration the day after they surfaced. No evidence backed them up.

In the meantime, however, an internal government report relating to the rumours had circulated online and several Western embassies urged their nationals to skip Segou'Art.

"There haven't been many tourists now for years," sighed Omar Yaffa, the president of the Segou guides' association.

"It's a pity."