Give Mali’s elections a 90-day breather

Last month, the government of Mali decreed that the first round of the country’s presidential elections would be held on 28 July, with a second round scheduled for 11 August in the event that no candidate receives an outright majority of votes in the first round. The regime of Interim President Dioncounda Traoré has been making a show of getting ready for the vote, publicizing a three-week period of renewed registration for displaced voters earlier this month, and taking delivery of new biometric ID cards Mali’s roughly seven million voters will need to cast their ballots. And the recently signed Ouagadougou Accords cleared up one major stumbling block, allowing the vote to be conducted in the Kidal region in the country’s far north, where rebels had formerly vowed not to allow the government to organize elections on territory they controlled.

An example of Mali’s new biometric ID cards

And Mali is not wanting for presidential candidates. So far, about two dozen have announced their intentions to run, only a handful of them “serious contenders” with a chance of garnering more than a few thousand votes. Today, 28 June, is the last day for Malians to register as candidates officially. It’s also exactly 30 days before the scheduled first round of voting.

Let’s cut to the chase: Mali will not be prepared for elections 30 days from now. If the vote isn’t delayed, all signs point to an electoral shambles that could spark yet another crisis.

Yesterday Mamadou Diamountani, head of the country’s national electoral commission, went public with his misgivings about meeting the 28 July deadline. He described  production of those new biometric IDs as “way behind schedule.” Though Diamoutani didn’t say so in as many words, getting these cards to millions of Malians simply can’t be done in a month. Distributing voter IDs in Bangladesh took 90 days, and that’s in a country with a more capable state infrastructure and a significantly smaller area than Mali. What happens when a million or more Malian citizens are denied access to the polls because their cards haven’t reached them yet? What about the hundreds of thousands of Malians displaced by conflict? “I have said it before and I will say it now: It will be very difficult to stick to the date of July 28,” Diamoutani told The Associated Press today. [For those unfamiliar with the way Malians talk, this is code for "It will be impossible to stick to the date."]

Mamadou Diamoutani, head of Mali's Commission électorale nationale et indépendante

Mamadou Diamoutani, head of Mali’s Commission électorale nationale et indépendante

Diamoutani’s reservations are widely shared within the Malian government, but the July date is dictated by Mali’s donors — especially France — who have their own agendas, and thus far appear oblivious to facts on the ground. They continue to insist on a 28 July vote.

The July timeline was always unrealistic, as I wrote in March and April. When it comes to organizing this poll, Kidal (where the electoral process has yet to begin) and its tiny populace may be the least of Mali’s problems. Government administrators are still largely absent from formerly rebel-held areas of northern Mali. By late July the region’s rainy season, which is getting off to a late start, will (God willing) be in full swing; this will keep most of the country’s rural inhabitants, two-thirds of the population, out in their fields, and will make transporting electoral materials and workers in remote areas extremely difficult. The date set for the first round of voting also happens to fall within the fasting month of Ramadan, threatening to reduce voter turnout even further.

“Yes, the country does need a presidential election,” Gilles Yabi of the International Crisis Group recently told VOA. “But if they mess this up, if there is weak voter participation and if there is a part of the country, the South, that votes and a part, the North, that does not really vote, then that will not help Mali come out of this crisis and deal with its deeper issues of governance.” Yabi’s organization has called on Malian officials “to consider delaying the process” by “no more than three months” to allow the completion of voter ID distribution, the return of Malian administrators to former conflict zones, and enable those internally displaced and those living in refugee camps to participate in the vote.

If donors don’t allow President Traoré’s administration to delay the date, a vote probably will still be conducted on 28 July. But it won’t lead to a government that Malians feel will defend their interests over the interests of foreign governments and corporations. It won’t put an end to the inertia that’s been gripping the Malian state since well before the 2012 rebellion and coup. It won’t provide a mandate for the new regime to enter into difficult post-election talks with Tuareg rebels. “The vote will be legal, but it won’t be legitimate,” as Professor Issa N’Diaye put it to VOA. In short, it won’t resolve any of the problems it’s supposed to.

There’s still time for the U.S. and French governments, who have been driving Mali’s electoral process, to let the Malians push their elections back to a more sensible date in October. By then, many (though not all) of the natural and man-made obstacles to a well-conducted, representative vote will be out of the way.

People like Professor N’Diaye believe that France and the U.S. don’t want to see Mali succeed; they see the great powers as bent on destabilizing Mali to gain control of its natural resources. This viewpoint, which is widespread among Malian intellectuals, is one I really don’t share. But should it come to pass that Mali heads into ill-prepared elections at the insistence of the great powers to suit their own timetable, the predictions of N’Diaye and his camp may very well come true, and Mali’s new government will have been set up for failure. When that happens, it won’t matter to Malians whether the great powers’ intentions at the time were benevolent or malevolent. They’ll just know that their country was further divided by something the wealthy countries could have prevented, but didn’t.

Postscript, 8 July: Candidate Tiébilé Dramé has filed suit with Mali’s high court to postpone the election, arguing that the condition of voter rolls in the Kidal region violates the constitution’s provisions for the organizing of elections and denies Malian citizens their right to vote. Calls for postponement have also come from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and the Washington PostThus far, however, neither the French nor the Malian government has shown any willingness to deviate from the officially scheduled election date.

Postscript 2, 16 July: The right-wing Heritage Foundation has now jumped on the “delay the vote in Mali” bandwagon. Perhaps it’s time I reconsider my position….

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23 Responses to Give Mali’s elections a 90-day breather

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  2. Abdul says:

    Thank you Bruce for your comprehensive and thorough analysis. You may have heard the mighty France rejecting any postponement of the election day. The question is : Is this election a set-up ? Maybe. France is giving good grounds to those who believe that their intervention in Mali is just a part of a broad conspiracy scheme. They should listen to the voices of wisdom.
    But besides all the risks you have pointed out, there is mother nature : a good rainy day on July 28th and everything is over !

  3. Good article Bruce. It may not be that US and France “want” Mali to fail, just that they don’t care as their interests are well served by instability in the region. Their number one priority is the resources. Inter-governmental aid and a military presence are the two means of securing control of the resources. Just like Afghanistan, the more Mali appears a failed state, the more reason for a military presence on the ground. Forcing early elections is not about creating stability in Mali or providing a legitimate base from which to discuss Mali’s much needed constitutional debate, but about making sure France and the US have the two means of control in place through a weak and manipulable government and a destabilised and divided country.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I’m afraid I don’t see how a destabilized Sahel serves French or US interests. I just don’t buy the argument that France (for instance) wants to maintain a costly military mission in Mali for years on end. Every French official I’ve spoken with wants to pull those troops out as quickly as possible. I have yet to see proof that those resources people keep talking about (oil? gas? uranium?) would be profitable to extract, or even that they exist in large amounts on Malian territory. It’s one thing to say that the great powers don’t want to see a state powerful enough to challenge their interests emerge in the region; it’s another thing to say that the great powers want to keep the region in chaos. The former kind of makes sense to me. The latter does not.

      • Lovely says:

        Throwing the region into chaos, ensures no state powerful enough to challenge the great powers interests can arise. Hence the latter is only what comes before the former and if one makes sense to you, so should the other, as well as what Malian intellectuals claim. What makes you more knowledgeable than collective Malian intelligence about what matters to Malians?

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        For one thing, it’s highly problematic to assume that the conventional wisdom that prevails among a subset of Malian intellectuals (many of them trained in Soviet universities) represents “collective Malian intelligence.” Conventional wisdom is prone to error anywhere, including in Mali, as I wrote a few months ago. For another, let’s recognize that “throwing the region into chaos” imposes great costs as well as potential strategic benefits for a power like France: yes, it makes the Malian government dependent on the French military, but it also generates refugees, increases demand for humanitarian aid, and jeopardizes millions of dollars of private investment, much of it French. Yes, there are powerful interests that make money from conflict, but there are many more powerful interests that can’t make money as long as bullets are flying, populations are displaced, etc. Unless you’re in the arms business, peace pays big-time.

    • Abdul says:

      Constitutional debate for what ? If it’s for any autonomy for Kidal, forget about it. We will oppose that with all our strenght and as long as it will take. Why the touareg separatists are not asking their own countries to Libya, Algeria where Berbers are discriminated ? Because there, the governements are not as foolish as the malian rulers.

      I don’t need to remind you that the region of Kidal is inhabited with only 67 000 souls, less than 0.5% of malian population. Most of them are not light-skinned . You should understand that the dream of an ethnic nomadic country in the land of Mali will never come true.

      We don’t have a touareg problem in Mali. We have a problem of a spoiled small group of separatists

  4. Mohamed Al Behl says:

    Mali has always had an issue of weak voter turnout. This time will be no different. The change that must be made is in the government, the constitutional court and the laws that govern the way elections are held. Postpone the date and it will only postpone change. Even in 10 years Mali will not be ready unless the core principles of elections are changed. I encourage the western world and writers alike to stop making this their agenda and instead focus on what an every day Malian wants. Elections and a legitimate government. Unless you are currently in Mali, have closely observed the atmosphere, there is no room to speculate.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      “I encourage the western world and writers alike to stop making this their agenda and instead focus on what an every day Malian wants.” Sorry, I’m confused — what’s the “this” you’re referring to? And how does Mali get a legitimate government? Through an ill-prepared vote that most Malians can’t participate in? Please elaborate on exactly what you’re advocating here.

      • Mohamed Al Behl says:

        I guess when it comes down to it, provide an actual solution rather than a commentary. Waiting 90 more days is not a valid option because it postpones a legitimate government that can actually make decisions. Case in point is the MNLA. No long-term decision possible because no legitimate government. So I guess what I am advocating is for individuals like yourself to stop pretending you know what Malians want because you stayed here for 1-2 years and come actively observe the climate and circumstances here. Then you have a foot to stand on.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Mali has been without a legitimate government for 15 months now (even longer, in the view of many Malians I know). So answer me this: Why do you believe that 90 more days of the same would do irreparable damage to the country? What about all the practical obstacles (distribution of NINA cards, absence of govt. administration from northern regions) to conducting a vote in July? What solution do you propose for those? I’m glad we are discussing these questions. We could discuss claims to authority instead — and by the way, mine are based on a lot longer than 1-2 years in Mali — but I think it’s more productive to discuss the issues that really matter and, as you’ve begun to do here, possible solutions.

      • Abdul says:

        The updating of the electorate list which ended Juin 25th has been ill-conducted. Huge number of people have not been able to find their name on this list because it was ill -sorted out. Furthermore, young folks which reached the age of voting in 2013 are not enrolled. And up to now finding the NINA card is a real hurdle race for many individuals.

        How can one speak about a legitimate President when a huge number of people desiring to cast their vote are denied their rights to do so ? What is behind the decision to go for the election on July 28th being aware of all this mess ?

        Forcing the election for July responds to France own agenda. I guess the “long term decision” Mohamed is talking about is just for the benefit of the separist group MNLA. It seems that France is going to enforce the deal it signed with the rebelles group well before the conflit : getting back its hostages in compensation for an autonomy for Kidal. That is the only thing that urges François Hollande to push for the election by July 28th. In doing that he plants the wrong seeds for all the Sahelian region. The outcome could be awfull.

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  6. Mike Berbiglia says:

    Bruce,
    I just wanted to compliment you on the tact you’ve shown in responding to these questions. PS: Great article, I look forward to see how the elections play out, and what it means for Mali.
    Cheers

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I bet your real name is Matt Pandamiglia

      • Mike Berbiglia says:

        Har har!
        I wish; I pictured an Italian Panda bear!

        A serious question though:
        If the head of the electoral commission is pretty clearly saying that the current timelines won’t be met, and the interim government has publicly stated it intends to go ahead with the elections, which ‘side’ has more clout when it comes to election day? Will it simply be an extremely botched election? Or will the interim governement *actually* have to see the tea leaves and push for a delay?

        I’m very curious as to what impact inneffective elections will have on the likelihood of a degraded civil discourse in Mali in the long term, and how this may increase the possibility of another coup…

  7. Thanks for the article! I’m equally concerned and have been expressing reservations left and right ever since these precipitated elections were announced. The main parameters that concern me are:

    a) The biometric process itself, if I understand how voting will occur, is dangerously flawed. Some prints were taken of full hands with ink and paper and then scanned and others a finger at a time with a digital scanner, and then all assembled in a database from which these “biometric” ID’s were generated. I work with colleagues who implement fingerprint recognition in the context of infants for vaccines, and have implemented two biometric timecard systems here in Mali, one for a distribution company and another for a factory. At the distribution company, warehouse workers and drivers were mostly non-recognizable no matter how many times I rescanned their prints. At the factory, most of the people on the production floor were unrecognizable. In both cases, those rejected worked with their hands, and were by inference lower income earners. Unless the original scans and technology used at the voting stations to recognize an individual are based on infrasound scans or other sub-dermal technology (there were not), we’re going to see a high rejection rate for people who work with their hands, who tend to be “poorer”. That said, if one has to be scanned and real time recognized against their existing ID record at a voting booth to be able to vote, the very technology as implemented un-democratic in that it favors by probability of vote acceptance, those who do not work with their hands, or are economically more advantaged. If on the other hand, presenting a Biometric ID is good enough to vote, this won’t be an issue, but then the whole biometric concept itself is a joke since anyone can take anyone’s ID — photos aren’t an exact verifier.

    b) Fingerprinting took place 3 years ago for anyone over 18 at the time, and without a new biometric ID, you can’t vote. That means that people who are constitutionally eligible to vote (over 18), but are 18,19, and 20 will not be allowed to vote. Historically, it’s the students in Mali who have been the most passionate about political reform, and they are the ones who march and organize rallies etc. That’s in the ballpark a million constitutionally eligible voters, in a demographic that tends towards passionate activism, who will not be allowed to vote — again very un-democratic.

    c) ID’s hit Bamako last weekend (at least that’s when friends started getting them) and even here, they aren’t being distributed fast enough. I don’t know about other urban centers throughout the country, but I suspect that when all is said and done at the time of voting, that ID distribution coverage will be least in the north — and that’s assuming that the original fingerprinting done there 3 years ago reached out sufficiently to truly capture the over 18 population (unlikely due to population spread and nomadic migration patterns). The implication here is that northerners will be disadvantaged as a result of logistical circumstance in terms of being empowered to vote at the upcoming elections. More than ever in light of everything that has happened over the past couple of years, northerners need to be able to vote.

    There’s obviously a lot that I don’t know or understand about the upcoming electoral process, but I see the above factors as serious, and potentially threatening to country stability if elections are held on this precipitated schedule. While a delay could help with ( c ) and potentially with ( b ) if re-registration for 18-20 year olds was allowed, it won’t fix ( a ) if the intention is to use fingerprints at voting booths in combination with “biometric” ID cards to validate a voter prior to accepting his/her input. The wildcard is of course, that perhaps the Malian people regardless of demographic, are so tired of the instability that they’ll just make do to restore the semblance of normalcy and get back to business as usual, and let all this slide in the spirit of “moving on”. My hope is of course, that my assessment of all three factors is grossly uninformed, and that measures have been taken to ensure that these concerns are mitigated.

  8. Kate says:

    In DC, there have been major issues with the NINA card distribution process. Many who registered here for the cards have not received them, and have been told “we sent the file to Bamako, but Bamako messed up the data”. There is apparently no recourse or provisional voting measure established. Just, sorry, we lost you, no vote.

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