Mali faces challenges before the Sunday election

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s July 26, 2013 blog post.

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The ink is barely dry on the June 18 peace accord between the Malian government and the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), and ethnic violence erupted last weekend in Kidal, the MNLA stronghold. The government quickly accused Tuaregs of committing attacks in which four Malians were killed–putting the ceasefire agreement at risk.

In the mayhem, shops were looted and cars were burned. French, Malian and U.N. peacekeeping troops are now positioned in Kidal to maintain security ahead of Sunday’s elections. The townspeople were already upset with the government since voter registration cards had not been widely distributed in the region. The fragile standoff will not hold if voters are deprived from participating in the election for a new president.

Tuaregs and Arabs living in the region have long felt disenfranchised, representing only 1.5 million of Mali’s 15 million population. They live in a harsh desert region twice the size of France. Having been there several times, once you travel north of the town of Mopti, three hundred miles from Bamako, the vast desert region can consume you. Roads in many of the areas are barely passable, and water is scarce. Voters make great efforts to reach the polling places.

“Mali faces a number of challenges to make the election inclusive, with voters from every corner of the country participating”, said Marissa Samake. Her husband Yeah Samake, one of the candidates, has been busy crisscrossing the country, actively campaigning in the different regions, cities and towns. “Just yesterday I was in Baguineda, Segou, Fana, Baraouelli, Sikasso and Koutiala, and today heading to San, Tominia and Koury, all electorate heavy zones” Samake noted. Other candidates reportedly are also actively campaigning in the same areas. Few however have reached the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.

The Malian government was to distribute voter registration cards to almost seven million registered voters by June 25, which did not happen. Now the plan was to get as many cards into the hands of voters as possible before Sunday’s election. The interior ministry has indicated that approximately 60 percent of the voters have received their cards—lower than the projected 80 percent.

In Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal the percentage of voters receiving their cards is dramatically lower, with only 20 percent reaching the people. In Kidal, a “hotbed” of unrest, the majority of the 30,000 registered voters may not be included in Sunday’s election, which could enflame the region. There is also concern that thousands of Tuaregs and Arabs displaced during the Islamists occupation last year, living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, will also not be included.

Interim President Dioncounda Traore met yesterday with Tuareg leaders to placate them, which could be short-lived. Mr. Traore needs to unite the country so there is a peaceful outcome on Sunday and the second run-off in August. Several political party officials have stated they will accept the outcome of the election, regardless of the lower than expected turnout.

Mr. Traore however, as the leader of the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA) political party, reportedly is more focused on his candidate Dramane Dembele, who along with Modibo Sidibe a former prime minister, are leaders in some of the polls.

Mali’s newly elected president must be a unifier to bring a lasting peace. In addition all of the ethnic factions in Mali need to be fairly represented in the legislative elections that will follow.

The rebuilding of Mali will be paramount, with new infrastructure, reorganizing the military, expanding education opportunities, providing better health care in the villages; an overall economic recovery that will provide new jobs.

The elections must be perceived as free and fair, so that the $4 billion promised by international donors for Mali’s recovery will not be jeopardized.

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