- - Thursday, April 4, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mali’s upcoming July elections will be a defining moment — to unify the country, re-establish democratic institutions and restore the West African country’s territorial integrity.

On Saturday, President Dioncounda Traore took the first step in the election process by announcing the formation of a Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission.

“This puts the elections back on track,” said Mayor Yeah Samake of Ouelessebougou, a village near the capital, Bamako, and a leading presidential candidate.

Mayor Mahamadou Toure of Bourem Sidi-Amar, a village near the northern town of Timbuktu, said, “Politically, we are moving forward.” He noted Mr. Traore’s nomination of Mohamed Salia Sokona, a former defense minister and Malian ambassador to France, to lead the commission.

The commission’s first vice chairman will be Toure Oumou Traore, a leading women’s rights advocate who heads the Association for Women’s Organizations in Mali and a member of the dominant Songhoi ethnic group in northern Mali. The second vice chairman will be customs officer Meti ag Mohamed Rhissa, a member of the minority Tuareg ethnic group.

The goal of the commission, which will include 30 community members, is to start a dialogue between the different parties to achieve national unity — leading to free, fair and transparent elections.

French President Francois Hollande has stated that he supports July’s presidential and parliamentary elections, which need to go forward as planned. He has said that French troops will stay in Mali through the end of July, so that security conditions will allow the election process to move forward.

Mr. Samake told me that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Jean-Christophe Belliard, director of Africa and Indian Ocean affairs in France’s foreign ministry, will be in Bamako on Friday to discuss the election process with government leaders.

France has agreed to help fund the elections, in conjunction with financial support from the United Nations, the United States and the European Community.

However, some analysts doubt Mali will be stable enough to hold elections that represent all ethnic groups in the country.

Mali, a country of 16 million people, has a rich cultural history filled with stories carried down from one generation to the next by griots. Most villages have such a person of knowledge, who retains information on births, deaths, marriages and other family matters.

During my recent visit to Bamako, I met Mamadou Ben Cherif Diabate, president of the Association of Traditional Communicators in Mali and a leading griot. He said the government needs to involve community and village leaders in the governing process, since there has been a lack of governance in the northern towns.

Mr. Diabate noted that when the Islamists took control of much of the northern portion of the country last year, the elected officials fled but the village leaders remained. As a result, the people place more trust in the local leaders than the government.

I also met with Imam Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, the most revered Islamic preacher in Mali, who has thousands of followers. As the leading moderate cleric, Imam Haidara has denounced the Islamists who took over the northern towns.

He also has been a strong advocate on health issues, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS, and is a proponent of road safety, encouraging the use of helmets by motorcyclists.

Imam Haidara said that “Malians needed to embrace Malians” and “need to preach peace and love, not bloodshed,” adding that the main issue in Mali stems from religious misunderstanding. He noted that some of the country’s mosques are in poor areas where people are easily lured into extremism.

The success of the upcoming commission will depend on representation by all the ethnic and religious groups, outreach to village leaders and griots, tolerant imams and other community leaders who can help unify the different factions. The July elections are an important step to achieve a government of national unity and return peace and stability to Mali.

• John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of “When the White House Calls,” and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

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