The choice for Mali

August 6, 2013

Timbuktu, Mali

By Joe Penney

As Mali went to the polls July 28 for the first round of presidential elections meant to restore peace and stability in the vast, landlocked West African country, I traveled from the capital Bamako to the dusty northern city of Timbuktu.

Elections in northern cities like Timbuktu, the storied Saharan trading post and scholarly center around since the early 14th century, were always going to be difficult to organize. The city is roughly 1000 km (620 miles) by road from the capital Bamako, but it takes 20 hours along dirt tracks and extremely potholed pavements to get there. During the rainy season, flooding renders the dirt track from Douentza to Timbuktu nearly impassable.

Since French and Malian forces took back control of the city from militant Jihadists in late January, electricity has been running only five hours a day, from 7 pm to midnight, provided by aid organizations and not the Malian government. Economic activity grinds to a halt during daytime hours, when scorching temperatures reach 45° C (113° F) at midday and not a fan moves among the 70,000 residents. Drinking water becomes like drinking tea without the tea bags, but that doesn’t matter much to the population of Timbuktu, the vast majority of which is currently fasting for Ramadan.

There were many problems on election day and in the run-up to it. Many people couldn’t find their polling stations due to an arcane registration system imposed by organizational time constraints. One candidate, Tiebelé Drame, dropped out of the race because of the myriad problems, and commented that the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, had become the election organizer. But despite the many obstacles, Malians flocked to the polls and set a new record for voter participation (granted the previous high of 40% was a relatively low threshold to beat). Across the country people displayed a real enthusiasm to take an active part in Mali’s politics, a marked change from the time before the coup d’état and rebel takeover of the northern two-thirds in 2012.

Timbuktu residents enjoyed 36 hours of straight electricity on the day of the polls and the morning after. In a memorable scene for me, poll workers broke their day-long fasts, normally done with family and friends, while counting ballots.

The crucial role of former colonial power and Jihadi-ousters France in organizing the elections in such a short time frame was not lost on Abdoulaye Sidi Sacko, a businessman in Timbuktu.

“France colonized us, France supported the rebels at first, and France saved us from them in the end. These elections are being organized by France. Everything is because of France,” Sacko said. “But that doesn’t bother me because I love France,” he added.

Mali will choose between two former ministers, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known as IBK, and Soumaila Cisse, in the second round run-off vote on Sunday. At stake is the future of a war-torn nation and the billions of dollars of aid pledged by European donors to rebuild it. While many Malians are hopeful that the elections will give a boost to the economy and lasting stability, some are skeptical that the culture of state corruption and abuse of aid money may resume where it left off in 2012.

“There are organizations who are supposedly helping rural women (in Timbuktu) earn an income, but we haven’t seen anything,” said Djimarey Yacouba, 35, who scrapes out a living selling liters of petrol to passing motorcyclists for a profit of 50 West African francs (U.S. $0.10) a bottle on the city outskirts.

Yacouba did not have high hopes for the incoming administration. “Our country is too poor. After the election, we will still be poor,” she said.

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Since French and Malian forces took back control of the city from militant Jihadists in late January, electricity has been running only five hours a day, from 7 pm to midnight, provided by aid organizations and not the Malian government. Economic activity grinds to a halt during daytime hours, when scorching temperatures reach 45° C (113° F) at midday and not a fan moves among the 70,000 residents.

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