Thousands of UN troops kept the peace on Sunday as Mali went to the polls in an election that many hope will mark a fresh start after a rebellion in the north, a military coup and an Islamist uprising that led to French troops invading in January. Early indications were of a record turnout in much of the country, where voters were choosing from 27 presidential candidates – all pledging to restore peace. “We are all still recovering from the war in the north. These elections are not perfect, but we have to vote now to restore some calm to our country,” said Ibrahim Sory, a resident in the capital, Bamako, who queued up early in the morning to cast his vote. In Kidal in the far north, where an uneasy peace prevails after the Tuareg separatist group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) allowed in UN troops, voters braved the presence of heavily armed soldiers to cast ballots.
There were renewed security concerns in the region after the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), one of the al-Qaida-linked groups that seized part of the north, said they planned to attack polling stations, according to the Nouakchott Information Agency, a Mauritanian website used by the jihadists to post messages.
One voter in Kidal said she had been threatened for participating in the poll. “I know only of the nation of Mali, and that’s why I came to vote,” Fatina Walet Alitine, a member of the Tuareg ethnic group, told AP. “The [MNLA] don’t like this. They told us not to vote. They told me that if I vote, they will break my arms. So I said, ‘Well, then you better break my arms.'”
Kidal residents said Tuareg youths took to the streets of the desert town on Thursday to target black Africans – firing shots and burning vehicles. Calm was briefly restored after UN peacekeepers made some arrests, but violence resumed on Friday.
Tensions between black Africans and Tuareg separatists – who have regularly instigated uprisings demanding their own state in the Sahara desert since Mali obtained independence from France – are at the root of recent events in the west African country.