Mali heads into crucial presidential election
Legitimate poll would free up €3.25bn in aid promised at donor conference
People search for their names on lists that indicate where to vote, in Timbuktu yesterday. Mali will hold a presidential election tomorrow. Photograph: Joe Penney/Reuters
Mali faces the crucial test of a presidential election tomorrow, a year and a half after Tuareg rebels returning from Libya, where they fought on behalf of Col Muammar Gadafy, began planning a rebellion with the help of al-Qaeda affiliated guerrillas.
The election is also a test of France’s ability to shape events in the former colony, which it ruled from 1880 until 1960. Most of the 4,000 French troops airlifted to Mali last January remain, along with 6,000 members of a UN mission that is set to reach 12,600.
The EU has provided 100 election observers, but they will be confined to the south of the country because of continuing instability in the north.
If no candidate wins a simple majority, a second round is scheduled for August 11th. Only one of the 27 candidates is a woman.
The two leading candidates are members of Mali’s long-established political class. Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (68), known as IBK, was prime minister from 1994 until 2000, and styles himself a strong man. Soumaila Cissé (63), a former finance minister, has campaigned for liberal economic policies and promises to create half a million jobs.
Eighty per cent of Malians are Muslims who mainly practise a tolerant, Sufi-style Islam. The country is fractured between the lighter-skinned people of the north, many of whom are of Arab origin, and the darker-skinned, African south.
Tuareg rebels of the national movement for the liberation of Azawad (MNLA) allied themselves with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) in late 2011, declaring an independent state called Azawad in northern Mali. The Islamists banned music, television and immodest dress, and enforced their rule through flagellation, amputation and stoning.
In March 2012, Amadou Sanogo, a US-trained army captain, staged a coup against Mali’s elected government in the south. The US had invested heavily in the Malian army, which defected en masse to the insurgents, taking their weapons with them. Western powers stood by helplessly as more than half the country fell into the hands of Islamists.
But when 800 rebels headed towards the capital Bamako in January, French president François Hollande launched Operation Serval, named after a fierce nocturnal wildcat. Within weeks, the French gained control of the northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Had France not intervened, al-Qaeda risked securing the entire, geographically strategic country. The intervention proved popular with Malians and with France’s western allies, and prompted a brief period of popularity for Mr Hollande at home.
The advent of a legitimately elected president will free up €3.25 billion in aid promised at a donors’ conference in Brussels in May. But corruption remains a concern. “All those who have enriched themselves illegally will vomit the taxpayers’ money!” IBK said at a rally this week.
Nearly seven million of the country’s 16 million citizens are eligible to vote. Observers predict 30 per cent participation.