Mali elections: hasty or much-needed shot in the arm?

Cross-posted from GlobalPost.

BAMAKO, Mali — Malian voters will head to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election meant to press the restart button on what was until last year considered a democratic model in West Africa.

Twenty-seven candidates are vying to lead the country out of its darkest chapter in recent memory. A coup d’état in March 2012 saw the country’s long-serving president deposed five weeks before elections set to choose his successor, as the country’s vast north fell to Al Qaeda-linked rebels.

Only an eleventh-hour intervention by former colonial power France in January spared the rest of the country a similar fate.

In a frantic three-week campaign period, candidates have crisscrossed the country, staging rallies before thousands of supporters.

The capital Bamako is saturated with billboards and flyers bearing the candidates’ faces and slogans. The interim government declared Friday a national holiday to boost distribution rates of the biometric identification, or NINA, cards required to vote.

But less than 24 hours before polls open Sunday morning, the prospects of a credible and inclusive election remain in question.

The timing of the election has been fast-tracked under intense pressure from international donors, namely France. About $4 billion of aid money is blocked until an elected government takes power.

The race to organize the poll has produced countless logistical headaches. The government only started distributing NINA cards to Mali’s more than 6.8 million registered voters a month ago.

Over 500,000 Malians remain displaced after the turmoil in the north — either internally or abroad — according to the latest UN figures. Reports suggest that only a tiny fraction of them will be able to vote.

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Young observers get ready for Mali’s election

Cross-posted from Al Jazeera English.

Bamako, Mali – Inside a sparsely decorated second-floor office in Mali’s capital, half a dozen young activists sit around a wooden table, a tangle of laptop chargers radiating from a power strip in the middle, and clusters of spreadsheets ringing the perimeter. The volunteers field calls in French, Bambara, Songhai and Fulani, as Malians from across the country phone in to ask how to obtain their voter identification cards and where their polling station are. Some ask who to vote for.

Mali’s much-anticipated presidential election is set for Sunday and the logistical preparations have proved a heavy lift. The government only started distributing the biometric identification, or NINA, cards required to vote in late June. Election officials were not able to enter the flashpoint northern city of Kidal until less than two weeks ago.

The young volunteers are members of SOS Démocratie, a civil society organisation started earlier this year with the goal of engaging Mali’s citizens in the democratic process. In its three months of existence, the organisation has led an ambitious campaign of town hall discussions throughout Mali. It has also set up a website – modeled on the Ushahidi platform – which mapped reports of violence after Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election. Malians can use the site to flag irregularities like alleged fraud or voter intimidation. Despite concerns about the credibility of the vote in Mali, only 15 complaints have been registered in the last month.

Watching over the controlled chaos inside the war room is Coumba Bah Traoré, the group’s founder. Until last year, Traoré, 40, had never been directly involved in politics. But the coup d’état of March 22, 2012, when mid-ranking officers led a mutiny over the army’s faltering campaign against Tuareg separatists in the north and then overthrew Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Touré, was a blunt wake-up call.

“I used to say that I am a ‘reborn citizen’ because prior to the 2012 events I wasn’t really involved politically,” explains Traoré, who spent about a decade in the United States, where she received a master’s in food science from Cornell University. The coup, she says, “was like a hammer being hit on our heads.

“Before the coup, it was the rebellion. That started, and when they started slaughtering our soldiers, we really knew there was a problem.”

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Swapping land for peace in war-torn Ivory Coast

Cross posted from GlobalPost.

ZIAGLO, Ivory Coast — The village of Ziaglo in western Ivory Coast is about as quaint as a town comes.

Lazy dirt trails wind their way through thickets of tall unkempt grass. The deputy chief rides around on a blue bicycle in flowing blue and white striped pajamas.

But if you look a little closer, signs of Ziaglo’s tortured past are just below the surface: cinder block houses are still riddled with bullets. Anything less sturdy was completely destroyed.

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