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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