A snapshot of Mali's forthcoming election
There is a very different atmosphere in the Malian capital, Bamako, these days. When I was here in January, things were tense: the rebels had reached the town of Konna, and the fear was that they would try to move towards the city. Now Bamako is in full election mode. The main candidates have large posters on the main roads around the city. Every so often you see campaigning vans, with loud crackling speakers, trundling through the streets. Motorcyclists proudly wear their favourite candidates' t-shirt. There is a great deal of security at the main hotels, which have been invaded by UN staff, EU observers and African Union officials who have in some cases taken entire floors. There are a staggering 27 candidates in Mali's election. One observer told me: "They may feel that running in the election could help win a Ministerial post in the new Government."
Many people are talking about some of the new faces in Malian politics, like Moussa Mara. The 38-year-old is one of the youngest hopefuls.
Dramane Dembele is also unfamiliar to many; he is a geologist with hardly any political experience. Demele has got a chance of winning the youth vote, but unfortunately for him, the electoral list is based on a census taken four years ago. That means that anyone who was younger than 18 then cannot vote now. Thousands of people who are in camps for the displaced in the north are also excluded from this election. In addition, those Malians living in places like Morocco cannot vote.
The security situation in the north is one of the biggest concerns; last week five election officials were kidnapped at gunpoint, and later released. The latest from my sources in the north is that the situation is calm. There is a peace agreement between the the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as MNLA, and the government, which allows the UN forces in. African peacekeepers have a presence in Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. I met Ibrahim AG Mohamed Assaleh, a spokesman for MNLA in a hotel lobby. He was wearing a white tuareg turban, and tinted glasses and speaks perfect French. Assaleh and other rebel figures are now based in the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. He told me "the government is not respecting the agreement". He gave me the example of an MNLA vehicle recently being fired upon by Malian forces in Kidal.
Just a few years ago the international community called Mali a beacon of democracy. But then came a coup d'etat in March 2012, and conflict in the north. If this election goes well, Mali will have access to billions of dollars in aid.
The UN hopes that by the end of the year it will have a 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission, its third-largest in the world. France will keep at least 3,000 troops in the country until the election and 1,000 afterwards.
Although security is important, a recent survey by a Malian NGO "SOS Democratie" found that the biggest issue for people is development. Malians in the north and south want roads, hospitals, schools and of course jobs.