On July 28, Malians will head to the polls for the country's first election since an ill-fated military putsch overthrew the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012. But while the vote is intended to mark Mali's return to democratic rule -- and thereby unlock billions in development aid put on hold because of the coup -- it is actually more of an end than a beginning. After six months of operations aimed at routing extremists from the country's north, France is in need of an exit strategy, and elections -- however rushed -- will have to suffice.
But Mali is clearly not ready for elections. With security still tenuous in much of the country, refugees struggling to register to vote, and the rainy season in full swing, the July 28 contest is threatening to be a literal wash. What's more, these problems disproportionately impact northern Mali. And given that the fraught north-south relationship is what led to the current crisis, the rushed timetable for these elections will only deepen the country's woes.
Mali's March 2012 coup, which took place just five weeks before presidential elections were due to be held, plunged the country into chaos from which it has not fully emerged. Lauched by Army Capt. Amadou Sanogo, ostensibly because of the previous government's failure to deal with the Tuareg uprising in the north of the country, the coup had the ironic result of exacerbating the problem it was meant to solve. Sanogo's coup increased insecurity, and led directly to the fall of Mali's three northernmost provinces -- Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu -- to violent, Islamist extremist groups, including one related to al Qaeda. Having at first partnered with the Islamists, the Tuareg secessionists soon found themselves forced out of the picture.
Meanwhile, in Bamako, Sanogo handed power to an interim, civilian president, who begrudgingly welcomed a French intervention in January once it became clear that the Islamists' southward push might possibly threaten Bamako. Following its intially successful rout of extremists from major population centers in the north, France is now in the process of handing off to a U.N.-sponsored mission. But far from suffering defeat, the extremists have merely melted away into the desert. As a result, most major urban centers -- including Timbuktu and Gao -- remain subject to a continuing insurgency.
Against this backdrop, the primary concern for the upcoming elections is security. Militant Islamists have been retaliating against international forces with increasingly frequent suicide attacks and roadside bombs. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), meanwhile, has lost many of its senior leaders, but remains a potent threat. Likewise, other Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) have suffered losses, but are still active in the north.
One bright spot for Malian authorities was the signing on June 18 of the Ouagadougou Accords in neighbouring Burkina Faso. The accords, agreed to by the Malian government and the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which had sought an independent state in northern Mali, removed a major obstacle to peaceful elections. Reversing their previous objection to a national poll -- and commitment to preventing government forces from entering the region -- the MNLA has now pledged to allow the election to take place in its stronghold of Kidal. Still, the kidnapping of six election officials by the MNLA on July 20 raises obvious questions about the group's intentions, as well as the ability of French and U.N.-sponsored forces to impose order in the north. (The hostages have all since been freed.)
Another major concern is the current lack of either an up-to-date voting register or a reliable network that can guarantee distribution of ballot papers nationwide. To compound these problems, in a well-intentioned but flawed attempt to make elections less open to fraud, biometric ID cards are being introduced to Mali for the first time this year.
The biometric cards come with a unique national identification number (or NINA) that makes voting more secure. Produced by the French firm Safran Morpho, the new technology may work, but the cards still need to be distributed among registered voters -- and time is running out. The contract for drawing up and distributing ballot papers was only awarded in April, while the NINA cards just arrived in Bamako in June. The start date for nationwide distribution was June 28, exactly one month before Election Day. (In 2008, Bangladesh, a much smaller country that affords easier access to its admittedly much larger population, allowed 90 days for distribution of a similar card.)
Mali's minister for territorial administration, Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, has insisted that the country will be ready for the election, but his colleagues in the national electoral commission beg to differ. On June 27, the head of the electoral commission, Mamadou Diamountani, warned that production and distribution of NINA cards was "way behind schedule," adding that it will be "very difficult to stick to the date of July 28."
Adding to the logistical nightmare is the fact that more than a year's worth of fighting has left much of Mali's northern population scattered about the country in refugee camps. Some officials have trumpeted the fact that displaced Malians will not have to return to their hometowns to vote -- which they would if they felt it was safe -- but can re-register anywhere in the country. This might be relatively straightforward in Bamako, but for the estimated 500,000 internally displaced persons living in far flung camps -- many of whom have lost all forms of identification -- the process will undoubtedly be more complicated. Refugees currently residing in neighbouring countries present a whole other problem.
According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) about 175,000 Malians fled to neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. The UNHCR is aiding registration efforts in all three countries, but it nonetheless remains a formidable task that Bamako is not likely to complete in time. (According to the UNHCR, only 38 NINA cards had reached Burkina Faso, where more than 49,000 Malians have taken refuge, as of July 23.) The vast majority of refugees and internally displaced persons, moreover, are from northern Mali, which adds weight to concerns of the upcoming election's legitimacy.
Even inside Mali, there are serious questions about whether or not an election is logistically feasible in the northern half of the country. Communications there, where inadequate roads make hard work of any journey, are tenuous at the best of times. But this week's election will be held in the midst of the rainy season, which started in June. As result, many of the already poor roads will be washed away or made otherwise impassable, impacting both would-be voters and election officials trying to get ballot papers to polling stations.
For farmers, who make up about two thirds of the population in the north, moreover, the late July rains mark a vital period in the agricultural calendar -- one that they are not likely to miss in order to vote for a government both far away and mistrusted. Finally, as if the rains and the refugee problems weren't enough, election day falls smack in the middle of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when fasting during daylight hours is also sure to further reduce voter turnout.
So why the rush? The determination to hold elections on July 28 is not being pushed in Bamako nearly as forcefully as it is overseas. In Mali, the agenda of international donors is proving to be more important than facts on the ground. France, which currently has 4,000 troops on the ground, is in as much of a hurry to get out as it was to get in -- nevermind that the only people who want the French to leave are the French. But a full handover of operations to the U.N.-sponsored force that assumed command earlier this month could easily backfire. An increase in violence after the French leave will see the government of François Hollande taking the blame, and could force Paris to send in the legionnaires once more.
The U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission (MINUSMA) only began deloying on July 1, meaning that its ability to secure the northern part of the country remains very much in question. A heightened insurgency in Nigeria, meanwhile, has prompted Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to scale back his country's involvement in the U.N. effort by withdrawing one 850-troop battalion.
Nonetheless, elections form the central pillar of the international community's exit strategy. By conferring legitimacy on a new government, the vote will allow Paris to declare mission accomplished and head home. It will also allow the United States to restart aid deliveries. Unlike the recent ouster of President Mohamed Morsy in Egypt -- which U.S. officials declined to label a "coup" -- Mali's 2012 putsch triggered the halt of U.S. aid in accordance with laws designed to restrict financial dealings with governments that seize power by force.
The resumption of development assistance -- along with the appearance of the U.N. troops -- will hopefully convince the thousands of farmers that have fled northern Mali to return. If they do not, and crops are not planted this season, there will be the additional problem of a food crisis next year. But aid and blue helmets are no substitute for election results that are widely accepted as legitimate. Since 1992, Malian elections have consistently had the lowest turnout of any country in West or Sahelian Africa, with no vote achieving even a 40 percent turnout. Low turnout does not automatically make an election undemocratic, but in the case of Mali it is likely to cast significant doubt on the results. Limited participation is a nationwide phenomenon, but is most acute in the north -- which has long had strained relations with Bamako. Today, distrust of the government is almost an article of faith in the north.
When Malians head to the polls on July 28, many will either choose not to vote or be unable to do so. That the election has the blessing of the international community will be of little consolation to them. And with the government's bid to build public trust already on shaky ground, what message does this send to Malians?