Mali election campaign falls flat in Timbuktu

AFP , Friday 26 Jul 2013

Known as "The Pearl of the Desert", Timbuktu was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988 and is an ancient centre of Islamic learning and a byword for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination

The presidential poll in the fabled Malian caravan town of Timbuktu is a potent symbol of its progress since it was torn apart by armed Islamists last year -- yet the campaign is leaving most residents cold.

With 48 hours until polling opens, would-be voters have been staying away from political rallies and opting out of the nationwide conversation on who should take Mali into a more prosperous and peaceful future.

"Yes, I recognise that there are aren't many people at the different meetings of the candidates. And it is not only because of Ramadan," said activist Umar Baba Haidara, who is backing presidential frontrunner Soumaila Cisse.

Sitting among supporters of Cisse's main rival Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Mamadou Niang attempted to explain the lack of enthusiasm for the campaign.

"We are just coming out of war. We're not really in the mood, our hearts aren't in it. But I think people are going to vote," he said.

Known as "The Pearl of the Desert", Timbuktu was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988 and is an ancient centre of Islamic learning and a byword for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination.

But Islamists who occupied the town for 10 months destroyed the mausoleums of 11 saints, claiming they were blasphemous, before a French-led military offensive reclaimed the city on January 28.

Before its liberation, the once cosmopolitan town became a dusty outpost for the extremists who raped women, forced them to wear veils and whipped or stoned those who violated their version of strict Islamic law.

Rebels fleeing the advancing soldiers torched a building housing thousands of priceless manuscripts, destroying 2,000 to 3,000 documents.

Posters of 10 of the 27 candidates in Sunday's first round -- Cisse, Keita and fellow frontrunners Modibo Sidibe and Dramane Dembele are the most ubiquitous -- vie for the attention of 25,000 potential voters.

Near the central Independence Square three rooms in a public building serve as the regional headquarters for CENI, the election commission that is among three agencies responsible for the smooth running of the vote.

"The distribution rate for voter cards is satisfactory for the moment," regional commission president Ibrahim Sissoko told AFP.

But he had barely finished his sentence when he was drowned out by young voices echoing down the corridor.

"This is a con," yelled a group of young people who realised their names have been left off the list of CENI delegates charged with observing the poll.

"I understand their disappointment. The designated representatives are paid. That's why these kids are disappointed," said Ali Diarra, a local CENI member.

Notwithstanding bust-ups over who gets to be an election observer, everything is running according to plan, according to Ousmane Coulibaly of the Ministry of Territorial Administration, also part the organising team.

"All election materials are on hand, we are confident," he said.

Beside the headquarters of CENI, Malian soldiers brandished semi-automatic rifles with the unhurried insouciance of a team of town planners clasping clipboards.

"Because of the elections, we have beefed up security, which is what you'd expect. You never know...," one said.

At the southern entrance to the city, UN peacekeepers from Burkina Faso are also part of the iron curtain enveloping Timbuktu as the city strives to protect itself from every possible angle.

Barrels painted the colours of the United Nations form a series of chicanes on the paved road, forcing pedestrians and motorists to slow down as they approach.

A Burkinabe soldier said the troops "are very careful to ensure that terrorists do not disrupt the elections".

One of the biggest fears in northern Mali, the site of several suicide bombings since the military offensive, is that residual Islamists whose infrastructure has been dismantled seize voting day as an opportunity for revenge.

The inhabitants of Timbuktu are doing their best to get used to the extra security for an election which has failed to catch fire even as temperatures rise above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) under a relentless Saharan sun.

"We're adapting to the situation. It's all about rebuilding here and we are not going to be able to do that without security," said tax official Mamadou Maiga.

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