SEGOU, Mali: Behind the stage looming over the banks of the Niger River, there came worrying information. Jihadis were poised to attack Mali’s most important cultural festival.
On stage, everything was calm. Officials gave speeches to usher in the much-loved event while relaxed-looking security guards looked on. Behind the scenes, security chiefs were on the alert, and calls were stacking up on the mobile phone of Com. 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 theater 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 epicenter of a jihadi revolt that began more than seven years ago.
In 2019, militant groups killed over 450 civilians in central Mali alone, Human Rights Watch said this week. That figure does not include soldiers and police officers that militants have been slaughtering by the dozen in recent months.
Com. Diallo (for security reasons, he didn’t want to reveal his real name) 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 anyone 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 Feb. 4-9 this year, covering everything from lectures, to theater, dance, music and traditional storytelling.
Foreign tourists used to regularly attend too. Today, they are nowhere to be seen, for the threat to their lives has never been greater.
Ten days before the festival began, 20 soldiers were gunned down by about 100 motorbike-riding jihadis, some 100 kilometers 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, have been kept under raps, but several hundred uniformed men were visible in the town during the festival, an AFP journalist confirmed, and the country’s counterterrorism squad was dispatched from the capital.
“The threat is everywhere and nowhere,” said Malick Doumbia, a 26-year-old festivalgoer who had traveled from Bamako, adding that he was “relieved to see the security forces mobilized.”
Security is an issue every year, but attacking such a popular festival would not be in jihadis’ 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.”
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,” he said, “we got involved.”
Among other things, European police trainers helped establish a crisis center headquartered in a local-government office. They also donated computers and walkie-talkies. In the crisis center, Malian officers discussed the rumors of jihadi infiltration the day after they surfaced. No evidence backed them up.
In the meantime, an internal government report relating to the rumors 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.”