[I am delighted to share today’s guest post, which comes from Dr. Leonardo A. Villalón of the University of Florida. As his biography attests, he has been a leading expert on the Sahel for over twenty years. He has also been a generous mentor to other scholars, including me. He writes from Mali to share some impressions and findings regarding the upcoming elections. As always, readers’ comments and reactions are welcome. – Alex]
The comments below were written on 20 July during a visit to Bamako in the midst of the presidential electoral campaign. The observations are impressionistic, based on conversations and interviews with a range of actors, but necessarily limited primarily to people from what is known locally as “la classe politique.” No doubt sentiments on the street and in the popular neighborhoods are somewhat different.
Bamako is plastered with campaign posters and billboards. Even the huge iconic hippopotamus statue at a major roundabout in the center of town is covered in posters for competing candidates. With 27 contenders—one dropped out a couple of days ago—in the first round of presidential elections scheduled for Sunday 28 July, the entire city seems to be caught up in the elections, on the surface at least.
As many analysts have reported, there is no shortage of reasons to worry about the process, and lots of well-founded trepidation about what could go wrong in the aftermath of these elections. But at the same time it is very clear that many Malians have a real sense of hope that the nightmare that began with the coup of 22 March 2012, and led to the occupation of the country’s northern half, first by Tuareg separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and then by the assorted jihadist groups who displaced them, just might be drawing to an end. The French intervention in January 2013, enthusiastically welcomed at the time, has lost much of its luster, particularly over France’s handling of the MNLA in the remote northern region of Kidal. But complaints are muted and there is still a general sense that the French intervention is what opened the door to a way out of what many describe as the “black hole” into which the country had fallen.
Most importantly, the intervention seems to have marginalized the military actors who led the coup. Following a ceremony last month to mark a “reconciliation” between two competing branches of the military, the coup leader, Amadou Haya Sanogo, formally asked the country’s forgiveness for what he had launched. His gesture is read cynically—and almost certainly correctly—as being motivated by fear of what might await him after the transition, given that he has clearly lost control or even any real influence.
The candidates include three former prime ministers, a number of other well-known figures from Malian politics, and some newcomers, including one woman. Many local analysts insist the election is wide open, but if any candidate seems to many to be the front-runner it is Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known as IBK. His campaign plays on his image as a strong and decisive leader, forged in his time as prime minister in the 1990s, and portrays him as the one man capable of reestablishing order and authority. Many think it likely that he will be among the top two in the first round, who will then go to a runoff two weeks later, on 11 August. His weakness, however, is that his popularity is not matched by the degree of party organization demonstrated by some of the others.
It is still very much an open question as to which other candidates could make it to the runoff. Speculation turns around several, including Soumaïla Cissé (a former minister and president of the West African Economic and Monetary Union—UEMOA); Modibo Sidibé (a former prime minister), Dramane Dembélé (candidate of the one-time dominant ADEMA party), or perhaps Cheick Modibo Diarra (former head of Microsoft Africa, who served for a time as prime minister in the interim government). In any case, it seems unlikely that with such a large field anyone could win outright in the first round, and there thus seems certain to be an extremely intense period of political maneuvering and horse-trading to secure endorsements by the losing candidates in the two weeks between the first and second rounds. And if IBK is not in the top two, some worry about whether his followers—or even IBK himself—will accept the results.
The scheduled date for the elections has been controversial, and in the lead-up many suggested that the timing would be impossible. Indeed, the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced shortly before the opening of the campaign that it would be extremely difficult to stick to the date. The International Crisis Group and other observers also called for a postponement. But the “international community”—code words for the French, with American backing, and UN blessing—made it clear that there would be no going back on the date. The issue is now moot. As one African Union expert working with the CENI puts it: “We don’t talk about that anymore.” The campaign is on and elections will be held, and importantly it will be with seemingly very wide popular support. In conversations with Malians from the political class, people acknowledge the difficulties and imperfections in organization, but no one has doubts about the fact that they will happen on the scheduled date. The dominant sentiment is that there is an urgent need to move forward to get out of the current situation, that elections thus need to happen as soon as possible, and that any delay would only make matters worse. The withdrawal of one presidential candidate on 17 July, over what he claimed was inadequate preparation, certainly reflects some anxiety, but both the other candidates and the broader public have shrugged their shoulders, and gone on with the campaign.
There is strong sentiment among Malians that they are an occupied country. “We are under tutelage” (sous tutelle) says the president of the NGO Network to Support the Electoral Process in Mali (APEM); indeed he goes further, “we are once again colonized.” In addition to the UN patrols that occasionally circulate in the city, all the major hotels in the city are full to capacity with technical assistants and specialists of all sorts who have come to supervise and observe the transition. The large Nord-Sud hotel has been rented in its entirety for the next two years by the French military, which has taken over managing it. And the towering Hotel de l’Amitié has been completely booked by the United Nations. The hint of resentment among Malian actors about the large number of outside experts adds to the sense of urgency to carry out the elections, and to restore a constitutionally elected government.
The material preparation for the elections has also been a major source of concern. Indeed, in the buildup to the elections that were to have been held in 2012, before the coup intervened, the issue of the electoral lists and voter identification remained highly problematic and unresolved. With the goal of moving forward with elections now, an amendment to the electoral code on 21 May 2013 prescribed a revised system that has been widely accepted. Based on a general census of the population that had been carried out in 2009 for the purpose of establishing a biometric civil registry (including photos and fingerprints), national identity cards have been produced, and will serve as voting cards. This census was significantly better than any previous effort in Mali to identify voters.
One unsolvable problem is that, given the timing of the census, the list does not include people who turned 18—the legal voting age—this year. But no one seems particularly concerned about that fact. The resulting “Cartes NINA” (for Numéro d’Identité National) are being distributed across the country, and while there is variation in some regions, the general trend suggests very broad popular mobilization to collect the cards; in some areas the figure is already as high as 80%. In Bamako, kids circulate among the traffic selling plastic badge-holders like those used for nametags at conferences, which they hawk as “Carte NINA protectors.” Some people are wearing them. Voters will be allowed to retrieve their cards until the eve of election day. One lingering concern is that the cards do not indicate the actual voting place for each voter, but the electoral administration insists lists will be published in advance, and has additionally instituted innovative systems for find a polling site via free text messaging. There is good reason to think that we might actually witness the highest voting turnout in Mali’s history with this election. Historically turnout has been extremely low, even by regional standards.
The major source of concern which all acknowledge is what will happen in the remote northeastern region of Kidal, the MNLA stronghold and an area where the French presence has complicated the return of the state, and hence the organization of the elections. There are conflicting reports about the extent to which the logistics are in place for the elections to go forward. And there are many fears that there will be violent efforts to disrupt the process on election day. It is true, as people quickly point out, that Kidal represents a very small portion of the electorate, and it is in addition the region where turnout has always been the lowest. Whatever happens in the region on election day will thus not determine the outcome of the elections—results will be declared regardless of what happens in Kidal—but the perception of whether the region took part in the process will very much shape the enormity of the task facing the new president in trying to rebuild national unity. The political stakes in the region are thus very high, and there is a huge symbolic importance to whether the elections go smoothly there. That is very hard to predict. While TV coverage of the campaign in the past few days showed Tuareg youth greeting a candidate with cries of “Mali! Mali!”, violent clashes in Kidal between Tuareg and other residents allegedly left one person dead, and the situation is clearly tense. News sources on 20 July announced that five election workers had been detained in Tessalit, in the far north, in an apparent effort to disrupt the process.
The other major issue at stake in this election, and one that provokes unease and some evident discomfort among many, is the issue of religion. Mali is a deeply religious country, some 95% Muslim. Over the twenty years of Mali’s democratic experimentation the role of religion in the public sphere of an officially secular state had been a source of controversy and some tension. The massive mobilization of religious forces in opposition to a proposed family law in 2009, forcing the president to back down, was widely read as an indication of the rising power of religious actors. In this context the intrusion of religious actors into the electoral campaign has raised significant worries. While this is not really unprecedented, it certainly has never reached the scale it seems to have attained in this campaign.
At the same time, the religious sphere itself seems to be divided on both the extent and the role it should play in the process. A network of Muslim associations calling itself “SABATI 2012” [for more on SABATI 2012 see here - Alex] has organized to promote candidates reflecting Muslim values in the campaign, and has declared that it will make an official endorsement of a candidate. With the support of the president of the High Islamic Council of Mali, Mahmoud Dicko (often described as a “Wahhabi”) and his somewhat unlikely alliance with the Sufi shaykh of Nioro du Sahel, the group met recently to discuss an endorsement. It is widely understood that the preferred candidate of many in the Muslim religious community is IBK, but no official endorsement has yet been made. And the subsequent discussions of an endorsement in mosques produced tensions, and even some violence. There is no common Islamic front, therefore, and the religious figure in the country with the broadest popular following, Shaykh Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, has clearly indicated he will not endorse any candidate. Various candidates, nevertheless, have begun to make religious appeals in their campaign speeches. And Soumaïla Cissé’s campaign has put up a large billboard near the Islamic Cultural Center in Bamako announcing his support for promoting “Islamic finance.” Many factors will determine whether the electoral process will translate into greater religious influence in post-transition politics in Mali, but the door is certainly open to that possibility.
On Saturday 20 July 2013 the APEM Network held a press conference to present and discuss the report (French) of the “pre-electoral observation” mission they had carried out, in all regions of the country, from 1 June to 20 July. The report focused on five issues: 1. The elaboration of the electoral lists; 2. The distribution of the NINA cards; 3. The filing and validation of candidacies; 4. The conduct of the electoral campaign at mid-point; and, 5. The logistics of getting the electoral materials in place. In each area the report discussed the state of affairs, and in each noted some number of problems or issues, mostly minor. The overall conclusion of the report is that the elections are on schedule to take place as planned, across the country. Imperfections are there, the APEM officers noted in their comments, but they are limited, and they are not such as to favor one candidate over another. The press conference ended with the projection of some photos of one persistent flaw APEM had noticed: Bamako is plastered with campaign posters, many of them placed illegally.
In the soul-searching mood that characterizes many discussions with Malian intellectuals about the country’s current state, one keen observer told me: “These elections are only a bandage on an open wound. They cannot themselves heal the problems in Mali, but they may at least allow some protection from further infections while the wound heals.” But the wound is deep, and it may take a long time and much more substantial remedies before it can really heal.