Majority of Malians who fled war in the north fail to receive voters’ cards, leaving them without a voice in Sunday’s polls
The vast majority of the half a million people who have fled the war in northern Mali will be excluded from voting in Sunday’s presidential election.
The polls are being held to replace a transitional regime so that up to $4bn ( 2.6bn) in international aid can be released to an accountable and representative government.
Large portions of the northern population will, however, have no voice in the process, even though they bore the brunt when separatist and Islamist rebels swept across Mali, and France intervened militarily this year.
According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, fewer than 300 voters’ cards have been distributed among the 173,000 Malians living in camps in neighbouring Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Algeria. Least well-served, according to the agency, are 50,000 refugees in Burkina Faso, where only 38 voters’ cards have arrived.
“The number of voters’ cards delivered is meaningless, given that 20,000 refugees claimed to have registered and 11,000 of them were identified in the electoral database,” UNHCR’s acting head in Mali, S bastien Apatita, said. “A great number of the estimated 353,000 Malians who are displaced within the country are facing the same problem because their voters’ cards have been delivered to the localities where they registered in 2009 or 2010.”
Apatita said he had put the UNHCR’s concerns to Colonel Moussa Coulibaly Sinko, the minister for territorial administration, who is organising the election. “We know that both refugees and internally displaced people are eager to take part. I went to the minister looking to discuss some solutions. But the issue is highly sensitive and the minister quoted the electoral law, which says no one can vote without a voter’s card. The minister said he would release more teams into the field to try to locate missing cards. But in the time left, all we can hope for is a miracle,” he said.
The ministry spokesman, Gamer Dicko, said 82% of Mali’s 6.8 million voters’ cards – known by the acronym Nina (num ro d’identit nationale) – had been collected since distribution began three weeks ago. He said the ministry would set up polling stations in refugee camps and it had done all it could to encourage displaced people to apply to transfer to polling stations in the areas where they currently live.
“We used television and radio advertisements and even traditional methods like griottes to encourage the displaced people. When a figure is given of 300,000 refugees, it includes children, who cannot vote, and people who may be 18 but who do not want to vote,” Dicko said.
But interviews with displaced people and aid workers supporting them suggest there is enormous interest in the presidential election, which may go to a second round on 11 August if there is no outright winner on Sunday.
The elections have been presented to Malians as a way of starting afresh after 20 years of misrule and corruption, which has left the vast expanses of the north of Mali underdeveloped and prey to illicit trades, including smuggling and hostage-taking.
Mali has an estimated population of 16 million, and is among the world’s five poorest countries, ranking 182 of 186 countries in the UN human development index. Children spend an average of two years in school and illiteracy among women has risen to 90%. Northern regions have been the scene of successive rebellions by the Tuareg people. Tuaregs and other northerners comprise a large proportion of those who will not be able to cast votes.
Guitarist Nasser Maiga, 25, has been living with relatives in Bamako since March last year, when he fled Gao after hearing that Islamist guerillas were carrying out house-to-house searches to punish musicians whose output they considered anti-Muslim. He said: “This election ought to be important for us, but I will not be able to vote. It is a big disappointment.”
His friend, Songhai musician Mdas, from Timbuktu, said he would be able to vote. “The government gave us a month to transfer our paperwork, and with various certified documents I managed to get my Nina card transferred to Bamako. But it was a complicated process and it did not work for everyone,” Mdas said.
Fadou Tour , a housewife from Goundam, near Timbuktu, has been living in a cousin’s garden in Bamako since April last year. “My sister is up there so I asked her to get my card in the hopes she could send it to me. She went last Sunday but they could not find it. Everyone in Bamako seems to be planning to vote so I am very disappointed.
Several aid workers confirmed the lack of voters’ cards among displaced people. One, in S gou, south-central Mali, said: “The displaced people have gone to great lengths to get their cards. Those who have the funds have sent a family member to their place of origin to collect everyone’s cards and bring them back. But travel is expensive. Buying food is the displaced people’s priority. I would say only about 15% of the displaced people I know have their cards now.”
A UN diplomat who wished to remain anonymous said the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people from the north risked dividing Mali politically. “The fact that displaced people and refugees will not be able to vote will play into the hands of separatists who do not recognise the Malian state. In the worst-case scenario, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad will be able to claim that a low voting rate in the north is proof that the region does not recognise the Malian state.”