24 April 2007

Mali: A Presidential Election That Breaks With Tradition

Bamako — When Malians queue to cast ballots in presidential elections Sunday, they will be participating in a poll with a difference: for the first time ever, a woman will be amongst the candidates voters have to choose between.

Sidibé Aminata Diallo is representing the Movement for Environmental Education and Sustainable Development (Rassemblement pour l'éducation à l'environnement et au développement durable). A lecturer and specialist researcher in land management, she teaches at the Faculty of Economic Sciences and Management at the University of Bamako, Mali's capital.

"I want to develop policies that leave behind theoretical debates to deal concretely with the real problems of Malians," she told IPS, noting that while environmental degradation in Mali was serious, it had been "only marginally raised in electoral debates".

"My motivation stems from this indifference. Our development must be based on balanced ecosystems," Diallo added. "Mali will have to make important environmental choices during the next five years, taking into account the fragility of its ecosystem in the regions of the north as well as in the south."

Her priorities include halting deforestation in the vast West African country, of which large parts -- particularly in the north -- are already desert. Campaigning under the slogan 'Development must be sustainable for present and future generations', Diallo also wants to push for policies that promote renewable energy sources, research alternative ways of dealing with urban pollution -- and improve health conditions.

It's a strategy that isn't winning over everyone.

"She just wants to get herself noticed, and perhaps win a Nobel Prize for her defence of the environment," says Aliou Koné, a young, unemployed law graduate in Bamako -- possibly in reference to Kenyan politician Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts to protect human rights and the environment.

"We want concrete proposals from her on unemployment and poverty. The environment comes after all this."

Diallo may not even be able to count on a constituency that some could assume was hers for the taking: women.

For the moment, the Co-ordinated Women's Associations and NGOs of Mali (Coordination des associations et ONG féminines du Mali, CAFO) is providing her with limited support -- this after she pledged to promote women's rights if elected, in addition to working for protection of the environment.

"It's the first time in Mali that a woman is aspiring to the top office," Fatim Maïga, in charge of gender issues at CAFO, told IPS, noting that for "symbolic reasons" and because she'd taken up the challenge, Aminata Diallo deserved the support of women.

But Coulibaly Fanta Kéita, another CAFO activist, is sceptical about Diallo's chances: "Malian women, for the most part, will vote for the outgoing president, Amadou Toumani Touré, because of what he has done for women -- notably (introducing) free Caesarean deliveries, anti-retrovirals and low cost housing."

Some 10,000 people now receive anti-retroviral treatment (estimates on the website of the Joint United Nations Programme for HIV/AIDS put the number of adults infected with HIV in Mali at about 110,000). Under Touré, who hopes to return to office for a second five-year term, about 3,500 low cost housing units have been built.

Kéita forms part of a group of women that organised collections amongst women to pay Touré's election registration fee of about 20,000 dollars.

In addition to overcoming scepticism, Diallo also has to do battle with custom.

"Mali is a patriarchal society, and men take a dim view of women having positions of leadership and responsibility. (But) it's just a question of time (before) attitudes change," Alhassane Maïga, a sociologist based in Bamako, told IPS.

"Before, it was inconceivable to send girls to school. But we have today, in Mali, women managers, heads of business, ministers, and even heads of households."

Notes Ousmane Coulibaly, a politician and member of the Alliance for Democracy and Progress (Alliance pour la démocratie et le progrès), "This (Diallo's candidacy) shows the maturity of our democracy. A woman president, for me, could be a good thing."

"We must reckon with women (being part of the political process) from now on."

The Alliance is supporting Touré, even though the president is running as an independent.

Eight candidates will contest the Apr. 29 election. In the event that none wins a majority of votes in this poll, a second ballot will take place May 13 between the two candidates who obtain the highest number of votes in the first round of polling.

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