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Mistrust scars motivation in Mali vote

Winning hearts and minds of northern Tuareg and Arab population would be a big challenge for the next government.
Last modified: 12 Aug 2013 12:36
Many refugees have boycotted the vote in Mali amid deep mistrust towards Bamako [Mohamed Vall/Al Jazeera]

Fatma Mint Bilal is tired and dejected. 

As she sweats in the August noon sun, her gaze is constantly fixed towards the large white sheets hanging on the school wall.

She keeps moving her finger from a tiny picture to another.

Then, ID card in hand, she roams from list to list looking for her name.

If she finds it, she will know which booth to go to to cast her ballot.

Otherwise, her only other choice is to spend several hours at every single polling booth listening to names being read out.

If she is not lucky in her choice of booth, then she will never hear her name simply because she's not at the right place and her name is probably being read out somewhere else.

Hoping to 'return home'

This has been the case with hundreds of Malian refugees here at the M'Berre camp.

The same thing happened on the first round, a week before.

But more intriguing perhaps is how most of them are unable to explain why they're voting at all.

"I don't know what this means," says Fatma. " I'm doing what others are doing. People came and said let's go and vote and I'm one of them."

Then, as an after thought, she says "perhaps if we vote we may be able to return home".

Returning home is Fatma's only deep-seated wish in life.

She has no idea about the candidates and what ideologies they represent. She says she will vote for one of them once she sees their pictures, but she doesn't even know the name of her possible candidate of choice.

Fatma is an illiterate former slave from Lere. She represents one of the largest ethnic components of the population of the north.

These are people who belong with the Tuareg and the Arabs of Azawad because they speak the same language and adopt the same culture as their former masters.

But they are black and deeply feel part of Mali as a majority black African nation.

So, there's a subconscious desire on the part of Fatma and her ilk to vote for a "return home", not just in the literal sense but also in the wider historic one: rejoining the African roots in the south of the country.

Voting motivations

Mohamedna, 45, is an Arab who has also failed to vote for the same reason as Fatma's.

He knows he will cast his ballot for Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the former prime minister, but like Fatma it's not out of a clear personal conviction.

"I vote for him because many people are doing the same."

He wishes that Keita will restore peace in Mali and help everyone return home.

But "return home" for Mohamedna means something different, compared to Fatma.

"Only a small number of refugees have come to vote" says Mohamed, a Tuareg voter.

"They were thinking that the election will lead to peace, but the majority have boycotted because they believe that voting will only confirm the plan to keep Azawad as part of Mali and we will never acquire independence."

Interestingly, this prospect has been the very source of fear among Arab and Tuareg refugees. 

They believe that by participating in this election they're going to validate Mali's claims over the north and solidify the grip of the central authorities in Bamako over the allegedly oppressed population of Azawad. 

This, in their view, will weaken their autonomy prospects. 

"There is nothing for us in this." says a young Arab voter. "I'm voting because we need to be present in our area through political participation. But we know that in the future this election is not going to help the long term aspirations of our people."

Mistrust

The majority Tuareg and Arab northern Mali has been at odds with the mainly black centre of power in the south for over 60 years. 

Rebellions erupted in the region several times since Mali's independence.

But the early 2012 rebellion was the first in which the rebels managed to completely expel the Malian army from the north and declare an independent state of Azawad. But soon Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb took control of the major cities, leading to a French led invasion several months later.

Most of the north is now restored to the Malian control by force. 

But the hard part of the task is to win the hearts and minds of the northern population. 

The election of July 2013 has served as a referendum over the relationship between north and south. 

The widespread boycott among the refugees indicates a persistent level of mistrust towards Bamako.