Malians educating Malians ahead of elections

On Sunday, Malians will go to the polls for the first time since a military coup deposed elected President Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012. As international media have abundtly reported, there are serious concerns over Mali’s ability to hold elections related to security and logistics. But for the long-term future of Mali, the legitimacy of the future president is an equally important topic.

The campaign has been marked by stadium speeches, monuments plastered with posters and stickers, moto processions of youth activists, and ubiquitous billboards, radio and TV spots. None of this is new in Mali. While it’s easy to get caught up in election fanfare, it’s important to remember that many of the large parties mobilize both voters and activists with large amounts of money. And with 27 of them, there has been a lot of noise during the last few weeks.

While Mali’s democracy was often celebrated by the international community as a model for the region, many Malians living in the country look at the past 20 years and see poor governance and a series of predatory politicians. Even though political parties have maintained their networks of support in post-coup Mali, political activism, unaligned with any particular party or candidate, has been on the rise. Groups such as Sofas de la République and artists like Amkoullel have urged Malians to participate in the country’s political life to avoid another crisis similar to the one seen last year.

One like-minded association of Malian activists, SOS Democracy, has been particularly active over the past several months. Started by Coumba Bah Traore, a Malian woman who did not give much thought to Malian politics until the coup, SOS Democracy has three primary objectives: to raise voter turnout, which until now has never exceeded 40% in Mali; to educate voters on their choices; and to hold both the Malian government and the candidates accountable to the Malian people.

Training volunteers on the NINA cards

Young Malians are a majority among the association’s members. Some of them have been politically active before joining the association – members of political parties are allowed to join but partisan ideology is not – while others are getting involved in Mali’s political life for the first time. School teachers, NGO workers, students, a few civil servants, office workers and unemployed make up the bulk of the group. There are no salaries and no fleet of cars, everything is volunteer based.

For the past several months, the group has been touring the country, holding town hall style meetings to discuss democracy – what it is, what it has looked like in Mali, what it could look like – and to engage potential voters on the issues that are most important to them. In addition to this traveling campaign, SOS Democracy has collaborated with Malian director Kalilou Tirera, renowned actor Issiaka Kane, and the Yeredon dance and theater troupe to produce a short comedy sketch encouraging Malians to vote. The message is simple yet crucial: vote because you believe in a candidate’s vision, not because the candidate is handing out t-shirts and bags of sugar.

The third and most recent component of SOS Democracy’s efforts is a collaboration with JokkoLabs, a co-working space that has a presence in Dakar, Bamako and Ouagadougou, to facilitate pre-election info hotlines and the implementation of Ushahidi, a crowd mapping platform that allows citizens to report election and campaign incidents by SMS or through the web.

Between the traveling campaign of town hall meetings and the info hotlines, SOS Democracy has learned a lot about the issues that preoccupy Malian voters. If you have been following media coverage of Mali over the past year, you would likely conclude that security, territorial integrity and national reconciliation are at the top of the list. This would be an easy assumption to make “given Mali’s traumas of the last 18 months”, as Bruce Whitehouse notes. But what most Malian voters are primarily concerned with are infrastructure development, unemployment and the cost of living.

Banconi Performance of the comedy sketch by Yeredon in the Banconi neighborhood of Bamako

In addition to those concerns, discussion revolving around the definition of democracy has been a common feature of the town hall meetings, a topic where opinions differ. Decentralization also came up often, particularly in areas that felt marginalized. Participants often stressed that true democracy should empower actors on a local level as they are the only ones that really understand their concerns. Another topic that often emerged was dissatisfaction with possible candidates. Why vote when you don’t think any of the candidates can do the job? It turned out that many people were unaware of the fact that a blank vote counts, or that if 50% of the ballots are blank ballots, the election is annulled and rescheduled.

SOS Democracy has also found in both the discussions at the town hall meetings and in calls to the info hotline, that many Malians have questions about how to vote. These questions have been compounded by the introduction of the new NINA (national identification number) voter card. The hotline received nearly 5,000 calls since it went live a month ago and 45% concern the NINA card in one way or another (for full data on the hotline, see JokkoLabs open data project).

More concerning than the general confusion, however, is the fact that some voters can’t find their name on the list at their polling center, and thus cannot pick up their voter card. Internally displaced Malians are unable to retrieve their voting cards unless they return to the town of residence that they were reported to live in during the last census (2009), and Malians who are now of voting age, but were not at the time of the census, are simply left off the the voter list entirely.

Banconi Town hall meeting in the Banconi neighborhood of Bamako

These complications represent serious challenges to the work of SOS Democracy. It is difficult to encourage participation in the election while knowing there are potential voters that have been disenfranchised as a result of the hasty timeline determined under international pressure, France’s in particular, and backed by some among Mali’s political class. The election timeline has also made it difficult for groups like SOS Democracy to engage Mali’s northern populations. Security is an ongoing issue and many towns are still waiting for residents to return.

It is unfortunate that international actors, including the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, have declared that we should accept the results of Mali’s election even if the election is “imperfect”. By overlooking the consequences of rushed elections, as Andrew Lebovich notes, the international community “is sending the signal that the process and appearance of democracy and representative voting is what matters, rather than good governance”. Sure, there are many indications that voter turnout in tomorrow’s election could be higher than ever. But when we look at the final numbers, we should remember that there were likely a large number of eligible voters that wanted to participate but simply could not.

* Top image by Joe Penney.

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