The Real Test of Mali? Holding a Presidential Election in July

Malians bathing in Gao
Before the French intervention in northern Mali in 2013, when Islamic extremists dominated the region, women and girls were allowed to bathe only at night, separate from men. Here, bathers in Gao on the banks of the Niger River. TANYA BINDRA

BAMAKO, Mali — Here in the capital, far from the fight against the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in the north of the country, people are still overwhelmingly supportive of the French military intervention, which began early this year to oust the jihadists. They are also still comfortable with the presence of French and African-led troops in general. To some extent, the support extends to the influx of United Nations personnel who are slowly but surely arriving in Bamako by July 1, the date the UN Security Council approved to send a peacekeeping force to Mali.

UN political officers have been arriving in the capital for a few months now, helping to prepare for the presidential elections to take place on July 28.  Support for the elections appears to be wavering, though, as evidenced by a large demonstration held in Gao in northern Mali recently. People protested that voting should not happen as long as Kidal, another major city in the north, remains under occupation of the Tuareg separatist group known as the MNLA, or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.

With news that the government of Mali is about to sign an accord with the MNLA, the last obstacle to the elections could be removed. The agreement will enable the Malian Army to retake control of Kidal, after the separatists seized it on the heels of the 2012 coup. It’s unclear how fast Mali’s army will return to Kidal, and whether it will do so gradually, as the rebels had demanded.

Some Malians are also questioning the ability of the UN peacekeepers, who will total 13,000 and include the African-led troops (abbreviated as Afisma), to actually protect civilians. One Malian in Bamako compared the situation in his country to that of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a large UN peacekeeping force has never managed to end the continuing humanitarian crisis of displacement and sexual violence there or even adequately protect the population from the violence inflicted by militias. The Congo example, the Bamako man said, gave him little reason to believe that cities in Mali, especially those in the north, like Timbuktu and Gao, would be that much safer with UN peacekeepers on the ground.

Despite Mali’s own humanitarian situation — refugees and displaced people totaling about 500,000, tremendous hunger insecurity and sporadic threats by jihadists — it’s hard to really call the situation in Mali a crisis. If anything, it is a regional crisis. In Gao, although schools reopened after the French military set up a base there last winter, attendance has been low. Many parents stopped sending their children because of fear from surprise attacks on the city by the jihadists, whom the French and Chadian armies chased out for now.

As for the displaced people who fled their homes beginning in 2011, after the first attacks by the jihadists and Tuareg rebels in the north, they are unwilling to return to their towns and cities because of the chronic instability. Food prices have risen as supply routes have been blocked or disrupted, especially after Algeria closed its borders and Arab traders that operated in the north were chased out or left in fear of reprisals. Transportation and getting around by road is always difficult in Mali, and people in general, particularly youth, are largely still unemployed.

Life throughout the country has always lingered in a state of near crisis. True, if nothing is done in the next few months to alleviate the problems, the situation may well come to a genuine point of no return in all major urban centers, including Bamako.

For now, the capital has kept up its natural verve, even as people go about their daily lives with skepticism about positive changes actually occurring. People wonder whether an election will allow Malians to express themselves or whether it will just satisfy pressure from the international community to take these basic democratic steps. Many logistical elements have not come together so far, including the registration of voters, and people who remember the general corruption and lack of transparency that mired previous elections wonder if such tensions will play a role in the one next month.

One thing is certain: Malians remain confident of their military, with taxi cabs often bearing a decal of the image of Capt. Amadou Sanogo, leader of last year’s coup d’état — even as a European Union training mission tries to reform soldiers notorious for their incompetence and no discipline. The training addresses such issues as corruption, rape and the proper treatment of prisoners by introducing elementary international humanitarian conventions and policies; for Malian soldiers, it is all new.

Will the training succeed? It awaits to be seen as elections soon take place. This event, Malians perceive, will be the country’s first test of its ability to rebuild itself as a democracy.

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