His supporters waited to see him to believe him. Wearing a white turban making him almost unrecognizable, it is nevertheless him, Soumaïla Cissé, figure of Malian politics and hostage of jihadist groups for more than six months, that the Malians were able to acclaim at Bamako airport, Thursday 8 October.
The main opponent of ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (“IBK”), was kidnapped on March 25 between the municipalities of Saraféré and Koumaïra while he was campaigning in the region of Timbuktu, his electoral stronghold, in the north-west of the Mali.
Released alongside French humanitarian Sophie Pétronin, and Italians Nicola Chiacchio and Pier Luigi Maccali, he agreed to meet with The World Africa on the second day of his regained freedom. From his dinners with his captors to the lessons he learned from his captivity, Soumaïla Cissé looks back on the past six months.
You were kidnapped on March 25 while campaigning near your electoral stronghold. What happened ?
I told myself that it was impossible to campaign while staying at home. That day, we took the road to Koumaïra after lunch. It was a mile from the finish line that we heard a loud bang, a gunshot, hitting my car. My bodyguard was behind. He was hit in the neck, in the artery. As soon as they stopped the convoy, they took my glasses, blindfolded me, put me on a motorbike and I left while the others stayed behind. I spent the night with my captors, a bullet in my foot, although I’m not one to run away.
What do we say to each other from that moment on?
We tell ourselves it’s okay. That it will not last. That here is my home. And then I felt that I was going to be transferred, at the request of some of the kidnappers, to Kidal, in the north of the country. I then realized that the situation was not encouraging.
I must have traveled to twenty different sites during my captivity. I traveled by motorbike, canoe, camel … Over time, I crossed wooded areas, other desert then herbaceous. I began to think to myself that there are hostages who remain hostages for more than three years.
I lived three quarters of the time under trees. There are the insects that sneak into your clothes, the showers that surprise you at two in the morning … The diet is almost the same from the first to the last day. Spaghetti, macaroni, rice, and the bread they make. Dishes that we all share together. It’s clearly not great comfort, let alone heaven. There are no shelters, no social contacts, no drugs …
No claims have been made as a result of your abduction. Were you able to identify your captors?
They did not hide. It was the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM). Their leaders are known, Iyad Ag-Ghali and Amadou Koufa. I did not meet them so far.
I was talking to my captors when I was in the center of the country, while I was much more isolated when I was transferred to the north. During these discussions, I noticed the poverty, the social failure. Some have told me that they lived in Bamako, others in Ivory Coast or Ghana. They were all between 20 and 30 years old and had a fine knowledge of the Koran. They were put in their heads that if they knew the holy book, they would be above it all.
The conditions of your release remain unclear. We are talking about nearly 200 jihadists released. Do you have any information?
What they negotiated, how, why: I don’t know. No need to wonder if people should be worried about this release. One day, a jihadist himself asked me if it was wise to let me go. Because in the event that I become president, I would in turn work with the French to go and bomb them.
It was only yesterday [jeudi 8 octobre] at 2 p.m. I was told that the Malian mediators would come and get me. I saw Mr. Ahmada Ag-Bibi [un proche d’Iyad Ag-Ghali], whom I knew as a member of Parliament, but whose role in the file I was unaware of. The kidnappers brought me new clothes, I washed. It was then that I felt that this freedom could come true.
Did you rub shoulders with Sophie Pétronin, Nicola Chiacchio or Pier Luigi Maccali during your detention?
Absolutely not. I met Sophie on a transfer last Monday at 2pm. Our two cars met at a meeting point and we each stayed in our own, driving for four days. It was only yesterday that we shared the vehicle and the Italians joined our position.
Mali is in transition, after the overthrow in August of the regime of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (“IBK”). You who have been a presidential candidate several times, how do you see your political future?
Discernment is needed today. I will get up to speed first. After six months of absence from a class, you risk repeating a grade. So I’m going to take the time to learn about everyone’s actions, to assess, reposition myself, to know if I still have a role to play, and to see if I’m not lying to myself.
Are you learning from your experience in captivity?
What I take away from this is that there are men in front. Today, terrorism, everyone says we have to beat it up, so we have to get out of dogmatism. Staying in the desert gave me time to think. I was having fun sketching in the sand to find a way out of the crisis for “IBK”, even before the coup d’état.
We must not be stubborn. For example, I have never refused to establish a dialogue with Iyad Ag-Ghali and Amadou Koufa. Dialogue is not synonymous with approving. And in the situation of Mali today, we have to find alternatives to the dominant thought.