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.