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Life after Islamists still a grind in Mali's Gao

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    Supporters of Mali election candidate Dramane Dembele stick up posters on July 25, 2013 in Gao. Gao will join the rest of the country in electing a president on Sunday, and it is in northern Mali's largest city that the new head of state will have perhaps the heaviest workload.AFP

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    People travel in a taxi in Gao on July 25, 2013. Gao will join the rest of the country in electing a president on Sunday, and it is in northern Mali's largest city that the new head of state will have perhaps the heaviest workload.AFP

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    People pass by an electoral poster for Mali leader and presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on July 25, 2013 in Gao. Gao will join the rest of the country in electing a president on Sunday, and it is in northern Mali's largest city that the new head of state will have perhaps the heaviest workload.AFP

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    Malian people travel by boat on the Niger river on April 4, 2013 in Gao. Gao will join the rest of the country in electing a president on Sunday, and it is in northern Mali's largest city that the new head of state will have perhaps the heaviest workload.AFP

An ancient capital of West Africa's Songhai empire, the Malian city of Gao was for centuries a bustling trade centre for Tuareg nomads taking lucrative camel caravans of gold, salt and dates across the Sahara desert.

These days, visitors are unlikely to find much business being done, the dusty tree-lined avenues emptied of many of the mud-brick shops which thrived before Islamist invaders occupied the city last year.

"Still no electricity, no banks, no government -- Gao is living in a prehistoric age," sighs a resident.

Gao will join the rest of the country in electing a president on Sunday, and it is in northern Mali's largest city that the new head of state will have perhaps the heaviest workload.

The city of around 90,000 people on the banks of the Niger river, 320 kilometres (200 miles) southeast of Timbuktu, fell to Tuareg rebels last year along with the rest of the northern desert area comprising about 60 percent of Mali.

But they lost control to Al Qaeda-linked radicals who imposed a brutal version of Islamic law, carrying out amputations and executions before Mali's former colonial ruler France sent in troops in January and took back the cities of the north.

A United Nations stabilisation mission has largely replaced the French military and a post-election roadmap for peace is in place.

Yet the people of Gao have little reason for optimism.

In the gloom of a town hall typing pool, secretaries working for the local government strain to see their work as they bend over old-fashioned typewriters.

Electricity is something of a prized commodity, with each neighbourhood getting power for just a few hours a day.

Ravaged by conflict, the riverside town hall is emblematic of the battle faced by ordinary inhabitants to return to something like normality.

The building has undergone a partial revamp but "remains paralysed" due to a lack of essential fixtures and fittings, deputy mayor Aboubacar Toure told AFP.

The grinding cogs of local government, which seized up altogether during the occupation, are only just beginning to turn again.

"At least 80 percent of the officials in the region who fled on the arrival of the jihadists are not back yet," the deputy said.

Those who are in place -- the odd teacher, forestry agent or water management official -- are largely natives of the region.

There is no visible police presence on the streets, where Malian security forces patrol, backed by French and UN troops.

All is not hopeless, however, insists local government officer Zakaria Dicko.

"In a few months, we have managed to restore some archives destroyed by armed groups and we have established birth certificates for children born during the occupation," he said.

But while the municipal authorities have managed to restart some functions, money -- or the lack of it -- is impeding any serious progress.

"The mayor can no longer collect taxes from traders. They say they have been ruined by the crisis and have not yet recovered," deputy mayor Toure added.

In downtown "Washington" market, traders explain that they simply cannot afford to contribute to the rebuilding of their city.

"Business is not doing well, so we will not pay anything," says Alhassane, a grocer.

Leaning against the counter of his clothing store, Elhadj Dramane awaits customers who will probably never arrive.

He says he will vote on Sunday in the hope that the election will "change the game -- end injustice, corruption and embezzlement".

"If there is no change after, then the war against the jihadists will have been for nothing," he says.

Access to safe drinking water has also become a major problem in a city where, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the volume available decreased by 60 percent in the weeks after the conflict.

Fatimata, a young mother with her baby on her back, says she often has to re-supply from the cholera-ridden Niger river, "with all the risks of diseases that brings, especially since clinics lack essential medicines".

Gao relies on the wet season to nourish stocks of rice, one of the main staples for its inhabitants, and the lack of rain during July has piled on the pain for a population facing a daily struggle to survive.

"The rice fields that stretch along the river for several kilometres are drying out. This is a sign of bad harvests," said Ali, a boatman.

Poverty may be more deeply ingrained since the occupation, but the privations suffered by the people of Gao are not new, says Idrissa Haman, a former NGO worker, now unemployed.

His aspirations for the new regime in Bamako are simply "that the new president also thinks of us, as all the development efforts of previous governments were concentrated in the southern areas of the country".