Will Mali's poll bring unity and peace?

Left: A child runs in front of a mural that reads "Peace", in Timbuktu on 24 July  2013. Top right: A supporter of presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubakar Keita. Bottom right: A drumming supporter  of presidential candidate Soumaila Cisse

Mali's race to presidential elections comes to a head on Sunday 28 July, raising a double quandary for the West African nation recovering from a northern rebellion, a coup and foreign military intervention.

Not only do Malians have to decide which among 27 candidates to vote for; there are also mixed opinions over whether the poll is going to unite the country or further divide it.

It is less than seven months since France sent 4,500 troops to oust Islamist insurgents occupying Mali's northern regions.

Start Quote

We cannot go on like this... anything would be better”

End Quote Abdoulaye Maiga Plumber in Bamako

Those troops have now been scaled back to 3,200, with more set to leave as a United Nations force, known as Minusma, grows to a projected 12,600 uniformed personnel by the end of the year.

But security concerns remain in the north; according to the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) some 527,000 people remain internally displaced or in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

They are from the volatile north and the vast majority of them will not be able to vote.

''Only a few hundred of the refugees and, as far as we can tell, only a small proportion of the internally displaced population have accessed their voter's cards," UNHCR's acting representative for Mali, Sebastien Apatita, told the BBC.

"We have raised our concerns with the ministry for territorial affairs, which is in charge of organising the elections."

Mali's presidential elections - in 90 seconds

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has referred to the process as ''imperfect'' while asking Malians to accept the result.

Mali's independent electoral commission has pointed out flaws in the electoral roll.

More than 6.7 million biometric voters' cards - so called Nina cards - have been produced, based on a list that was drawn up between 2009 and 2011.

As a result of the list being outdated, no 18-year-olds and only some 19-year-olds will be able to vote in the presidential election, which will go to a run-off on 11 August if there is no outright winner on Sunday.

Palpable excitement

One candidate, Tiebele Drame, has quit the race, over concerns about a flawed electoral process including the fact that there are serious doubts over the fairness of the process in the northern town of Kidal, which is still occupied by Tuareg rebels.

Nina envy - more than a card

A security guard holding up his Nina card in Bamako, Mali

The biggest stars of Mali's presidential election are less likely to be its 27 candidates but 6.7 million biometric voters' cards known by the acronym Nina.

People queue for hours to get their Nina cards. Having one has become a matter of status, especially since a chaotic distribution process has left thousands of people without.

Free, valid for 10 years and featuring the holder's photograph, the neat-looking French-made Nina cards are already considered the most fraud-proof form of ID in Mali. In the bank you see people getting out their Nina cards even though they are not official ID yet, and the other people with old ID look rather sheepish.

The Ministry of Territorial administration claims 82% of cards have been collected in less than three weeks but organisations such as the UN refugee agency, which has been attempting to facilitate voting among the internally displaced and refugees, doubt that estimate.

Nina cards carry one fatal flaw: They do not indicate the address of the holder's polling station. This has to be obtained by SMS.

Last Saturday, two election officials were briefly abducted there by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), even though its leadership has signed a ceasefire to enable the poll to take place.

But in Bamako there are posters and stickers on every street and many of the city's ubiquitous motorcyclists are riding around in giveaway candidates' T-shirts.

There is palpable excitement over the elections and arguments from the international community - which insists on the poll as a condition for reopening aid channels - appear to have gained ground at the grass roots.

This contrasts with previous elections in Mali where turnout has rarely exceeded 35%.

Ibrahima Sangho, president of Apem - an umbrella organisation supporting local non-governmental organisations with voter education and poll observation - predicts a record turnout.

''I believe it will reach 50% or even more," he said.

"Despite flaws in the process, this election is going to be the best ever in Mali.

"The Nina cards are the best voters' cards we have ever had and people know it,'' he added.

Bamako security guard Ibrahima Traore said he was eager to vote because he felt the election marked an opportunity for Mali to turn its back on bad governance.

''There are two things that make me want to vote," he said.

"One is that the international community is watching closely: Mali's economy is based on aid but donor countries are themselves in crisis and want to see their money being better spent than before.

"The other reason is that no-one in the existing transitional government is allowed to stand so they are less likely to try to fix the result."

Braving Kidal

Others are convinced that the current transitional government - appointed after a coup in March 2012 - has to be replaced.

''We cannot go on like this,'' said plumber Abdoulaye Maiga.

''The current bunch are stuffing their pockets - anything would be better.''

Women and girls wearing outfits made of wax cloth depicting presidential candidate Soumaila Cisse dance and hold up a baby, also decorated with a campaign sticker, during a campaign rally in Bamako, Mali, Saturday 20 July 2013 Malians are hoping the poll will end more than a year of civil strife in the West African nation - following a coup in March 2012, a month before scheduled elections.
Supporters of presidential candidate Cheick Modibo Diarra distribute campaign flyers from the back of a moped as they ride in a campaign caravan through the streets of Bamako, Mali on Saturday 20 July 2013. More than 27 presidential candidates are running - and if there is no clear winner the two leading candidates will head for a run-off on 11 August.
A Tuareg man dances at a campaign rally for presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Timbuktu on 24 July 2013 There has been a air of excitement around the campaigns. This Tuareg man is dancing at a rally in Timbuktu, the historic city in the north which was captured by Islamist militants in the wake of the coup.
A man searches for his name on a list of eligible voters at an election centre in Bamako, Mali - 23 July 2013 The voters' roll is based on a list that was drawn up between 2009 and 2011, so the names of younger voters may be missing. There is also concern that those displaced from the north will be unable to vote.
Electoral campaign posters are seen on a hippopotamus monument in Bamako, Mali - 23 July 2013 This hippopotamus statue in the capital, Bamako, is strewn with election poster including one for Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a former prime minister.
Former Malian prime minister and presidential candidate Ibrahim Bboubacar Keita arrives on 7 July 2013 at a stadium in Bamako, Mali, to launch his election campaign Known as "IBK", religious stations in the mainly Muslim country, have been calling for people to vote for him.
A performer wears body paint depicting presidential candidate Soumaila Cisse as he walks past a campaign sign, during a rally for Cisse in Bamako, Mali, on Saturday 20 July 2013 There is nothing explicit in the electoral code to stop imams or the army from telling people how to vote. IBK's main rival seems to be ex-Finance Minister Soumaila Cisse, who has a slogan "hope of the youth".
Men sit next to a painting of the ex-junta leader Amadou Haya Sanogo in Bamako in Mali on 16 July 2013 The military has not declared a preferred candidate. These men are sitting next to a painting of coup leader Capt Amadou Sanogo, who is now head of a committee to oversee reforms in the Malian military.

African Union ambassador Pierre Buyoya put it more delicately to the BBC: ''The election has come around somewhat fast but there is no guarantee that an election in Mali in six months' time would be any better.''

The candidates include three former prime ministers, a former finance minister and one woman.

But only the candidates with seemingly the largest election machines - Ibrahim Boubakar Keita and Soumaila Cisse - have had the means and perhaps the guts to charter aircraft to go campaigning in rebel-held Kidal.

Election rallies by the candidates began on 7 July but many have been poorly attended, perhaps in part due to the current Ramadan fast and the rainy weather.

In one of the world´s most aid-dependent countries, election issues are few and far between, with most candidates making the same two main promises: A more powerful army and a clampdown on corruption.

Two important unknowns linger in the election and may decide its outcome - the electoral preference of the large and restive armed forces and that of the religious community.

There is nothing in the electoral code that explicitly bans the army or imams in the mainly Muslim country from telling people how to vote.

The military has been very discreet about its preference, but Mr Keita is seen as their favourite given that he never criticised the coup.

Some Muslim leaders have also been calling for people to vote for him - when you turn on a religious radio station in Bamako you hear the presenter telling you to "vote IBK", but it remains to be seen if anyone takes any notice.

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