Mali holds 1st poll since coup; rebels warn voters

KIDAL, Mali (AP) — The United Nations peacekeepers deployed here did their best to paint over independence slogans emblazoned on the concrete wall surrounding one of the main polling stations in this contested city, the epicenter of last year’s rebellion against Malian rule. The white paint they used wasn’t thick enough though, and the slogans were still legible to the voters who lined up outside.

“Mali is the cause of our problems,” said one. “Why should we remain colonized when we have all we need to be independent?” said another of the dozens of slogans.

Only a timid trickle of residents in Kidal, a city at the feet of the Sahara desert, showed up to vote Sunday in Mali’s first presidential election since last year’s coup and subsequent rebellion.

Those voting in Kidal are among a minority of people in this vast province, spanning an area the size of Iowa, who recognize Mali as their legitimate ruler. And even those who chose to come with the intention of voting were often unable to cast their ballots because of the various technical glitches which have plagued the hastily-organized poll.

The vote is meant to be a new beginning for a country that was once an example of democracy in West Africa. But officials fear that the legitimacy of the election will be undermined by low voter turnout, technical lapses that prevent people from voting, and the contested status of Kidal where the rebels remain in control of numerous government buildings. The lapses, some fear, could lead to a new rebellion.

Mohamed Ag Sidi squatted on the ground and tried to find his name on the voter list outside one polling booth in Kidal. The metallic door on which the list had been posted was torn down overnight by the punishing desert wind, and election officials had put the torn pieces of paper on the floor, held in place by rocks. In the rush to hold the election, the government printed voter ID cards with only the name of the voter and not the address of the polling station where they’re expected to vote.

A 64-year-old woman arrived at the secondary school that serves as a vote bureau well before the opening time, and unlike many others, found her name on the list. She was assigned to Polling Station No. 3. But after traipsing across the complex, she failed to find No. 3, and could only find No. 2 and No. 4.

“I know only of the nation of Mali, and that’s why I came to vote,” said the woman, Fatina Walet Alitine, a member of the Tuareg ethnic group, whose members have led four rebellions against the state in the past half-century.

She pointed to a group of young Tuareg men who were loitering inside the grounds of the polling station, all members of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, the separatist movement that launched the most recent rebellion last year, seizing and briefly holding a France-sized chunk of northern Mali, which they declared was the new Tuareg nation of Azawad.

“See them?” she said. “They don’t like this. They told us not to vote. They told me that if I vote, they will break my arms. So I said, ‘Well, then you better break my arms.’”

Overnight, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the al-Qaida-linked groups which seized part of Mali’s north on the heels of the Tuareg separatists, said they planned to attack polling stations, according to the Nouakchott Information Agency, a Mauritanian website used by the jihadists to post messages.

The Tuareg rebellion set off a chain reaction of events which plunged the country into ruin. Soldiers in the faraway capital, angered by the government’s inept handling of the north, mutinied, overthrowing the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure in a March 2012 coup. The country has been without a legitimate leader since then, and the election Sunday is supposed to return the nation to constitutional rule.

A total of 6.8 million people registered to vote in this West African nation of nearly 15 million. They are choosing from 28 candidates on the ballot, including veteran politician Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known by his initials IBK, who was both a former prime minister and ex-president of the country’s parliament. Other top contenders include Soumaila Cisse, an ex-finance minister and the current head of the West African Monetary Union, as well as Dramane Dembele, the candidate of the country’s largest political party.

In the southern portions of the country including in the capital, voter turnout appeared to be far higher, reflecting the north-south split which has bedeviled Mali since its independence from France 53 years ago. It was then that the Tuaregs, the lighter-skinned nomads of the north, petitioned their colonial ruler, asking to be granted their own territory separate from the rest of Mali. They pointed to the linguistic, cultural and racial differences which have long made them different from the black ethnic groups that make up the Malian majority, said Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, the acting head of the NMLA rebel movement in Kidal.

“We had nothing in common with Bamako,” he said, referring to Mali’s capital located 950 miles (1,500 kilometers) away to the south. “We have been stepped on, we have been humiliated, we have been vexed, we have been massacred by the Malians,” Ag Rhissa said.

“Our nomadic people have lost all hope that they will ever be listened to,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Kidal, Mali.

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