Bamako, Mali - Inside a sparsely decorated second-floor office in Mali’s capital, half a dozen young activists sit around a wooden table, a tangle of laptop chargers radiating from a power strip in the middle, and clusters of spreadsheets ringing the perimeter. The volunteers field calls in French, Bambara, Songhai and Fulani, as Malians from across the country phone in to ask how to obtain their voter identification cards and where their polling station are. Some ask who to vote for.
Mali’s much-anticipated presidential election is set for Sunday and the logistical preparations have proved a heavy lift. The government only started distributing the biometric identification, or NINA, cards required to vote in late June. Election officials were not able to enter the flashpoint northern city of Kidal until less than two weeks ago.
The young volunteers are members of SOS Démocratie, a civil society organisation started earlier this year with the goal of engaging Mali’s citizens in the democratic process. In its three months of existence, the organisation has led an ambitious campaign of town hall discussions throughout Mali. It has also set up a website - modeled on the Ushahidi platform - which mapped reports of violence after Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election. Malians can use the site to flag irregularities like alleged fraud or voter intimidation. Despite concerns about the credibility of the vote in Mali, only 15 complaints have been registered in the last month.
Watching over the controlled chaos inside the war room is Coumba Bah Traoré, the group’s founder. Until last year, Traoré, 40, had never been directly involved in politics. But the coup d’état of March 22, 2012, when mid-ranking officers led a mutiny over the army’s faltering campaign against Tuareg separatists in the north and then overthrew Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Touré, was a blunt wake-up call.
"I used to say that I am a ‘reborn citizen’ because prior to the 2012 events I wasn’t really involved politically," explains Traoré, who spent about a decade in the United States, where she received a master's in food science from Cornell University. The coup, she says, "was like a hammer being hit on our heads.
"Before the coup, it was the rebellion. That started, and when they started slaughtering our soldiers, we really knew there was a problem."
The political upheaval in the south only compounded the army’s struggles in the north. By April, rebel forces had chased the Malian army from most of the country’s north.
Traoré says her anger grew as she observed the behaviour of Mali’s political leaders. The newly-installed military government led a brutal crackdown against members and suspected supporters of the former government. On the day of the coup, soldiers came to her neighborhood hunting for a minister.
There’s been a widespread perception in Mali that the political system is not intended to protect the benefits of ordinary people
"They beat one of the security guards in my community because he would not tell them where the minister lives," she recalls. "He did not tell them because we didn’t have any minister in our community. They thought that we were hiding him."
Meanwhile, the now-former president Touré fled to Senegal with his entire family. "He didn’t even leave his dog behind," she says. "But we citizens - some of whom voted for him- he didn’t care about us."
For Traoré, and millions of others, the coup and its aftermath laid bare the rot that had infested Malian politics in the two decades since another coup d’état brought democracy to the country. In that time, the country was touted by the international community as a model for the region. Touré, after 10 years in power, still basked in the glow of his status as a "soldier of democracy" for his leading role in the 1991 overthrow of Mali’s dictator of 23 years, Moussa Traoré.
But corruption thrived under the democratically-elected administrations of Touré and his predecessor, Alpha Oumar Konaré. Public officials allegedly embezzled tens of millions of dollars. Mali remained one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 182 out of 187 in the UN’s 2013 Human Development Index.
Its citizens replied with apathy. Voter turnout in Mali’s four presidential elections since 1992 has never gone above 40 percent. In the last presidential election, in 2007, it was 36 percent.
"There’s been a widespread perception in Mali that the political system is not intended to protect the benefits of ordinary people," says Bruce Whitehouse, a Mali expert at Lehigh University. "It’s a game for the elite to play, and the only people who get involved in it - including voting- tend to be people with some kind of expectation of patronage."
|Youth activists are trying to engage Malians in the political process [Aaron Ross/Al Jazeera]
Civil society withered alongside the credibility of many public institutions. Like the political opposition, it found itself co-opted by Touré’s so-called consensus politics. The policy was ostensibly aimed at fostering cooperation among rival groups by bringing them into his governing coalition. In reality, critics say it served to neutralise any counterweight to Touré’s rule.
During Mali’s democratisation in the early 1990s, explains Badié Hima, the resident director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Mali, civil society was instrumental. "But they let themselves fall asleep in the global consensus," he laments.
SOS is Traoré’s bid to revive Mali’s civil society - one that she says empowers young people with fresh ideas. Last year, she says, she began to attend any and all political and civic meetings. She found that the structures of the political system had replicated themselves within these organisations.
"The people who were leading were all part of the old system - 70 years old, 50 years old and up," Traoré says. "They were always the ones talking, giving directions, sharing ideas. But the assembly was mostly the youth."
SOS has tried to buck the trend. Its operations are directed by a coordinating committee of 12 young people, and it has partnered with a Bamako-based theatre troupe, which performs a comedic skit to open the town hall meetings that the organisation has now staged in every region of the country except Kidal. At those meetings, SOS asks local residents to write down the questions they want their politicians to answer. Traoré dreams of posing those questions to the final two candidates in a debate before the expected runoff set for August 11.
The group has shown a flare too for finding creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. For example, candidates have long bought votes, especially from the poor, with money or food or clothing. In response, SOS decided to skip any moralising.
“We tell them: if you still want to take the money, take it,”says Traoré. “Because it’s going to be difficult to get apart from old habits. It takes time. So take the T-shirt and tea. But know that in the voting booth, you can do whatever you want and nobody can come and say anything.”
She also takes the long view about the coming election, which many observers have criticised as rushed, coming only six months after military intervention by French forces to dislodge fighters from the north. Traoré has little patience for such handwringing. The presidential election, after all, is only a first step.
“We need to reach a critical level of people who understand the stakes of a nation, who decide to get engaged, who seek information, who seek public knowledge”, she says, adding, “Until we have that, it’s never going to change.”