BAMAKO, Mali – French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged Mali on Friday to stick to a July date for its upcoming presidential election, stressing that the poll is a crucial step in restoring constitutional order following last year's coup.
The date is considered unrealistic by many country watchers because the northern half of Mali remains insecure, with remnants of an al-Qaida cell still active despite a three-month-old, French-led military intervention aimed at uprooting the extremists. But during a stop in Mali's capital, Fabius stressed that the elections are necessary and that the country should not delay them.
"The desire to hold the election by the given date is unanimous, and that date is in the month of July," Fabius told reporters at a press conference on Friday.
Foreign Affairs Minister Tieman Coulibaly said France had promised to provide Mali with the human resources it needs to carry out the election, including two, full-time election experts. The price-tag for the election is estimated to be around 149 billion West African francs ($295 million), according to a confidential planning document which The Associated Press was allowed to see.
Late Thursday, Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, Mali's minister in charge of organizing the election, said the country already had the budget needed to organize the poll. Besides the problem of holding the poll in the insecure north, critics point out that hundreds of thousands of Malians are currently displaced, living in refugee camps in four neighboring nations, making it unclear how to carry out voter registration.
Coulibaly said on Friday that they plan to work with the U.N. refugee agency in order to create a system to allow people to vote inside the refugee camps, if they are unwilling or unable to return to Mali.
An official involved in the planning of the election who could not be named because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter said that it is logistically impossible to hold the election by July.
"There are lots of things missing that we need in order to hold a presidential election. To start with, the company that needs to be contracted to create the voter ID cards has not even been chosen yet. Secondly, the minister of territorial administration who is in charge of overseeing the election has presented a budget that is different from the one presented by the minister of finance to organize the poll — just to say, it's a real mess right now," the official said. "The Malians are trying to show (to the French) that they want the elections to be held, but there is not a single, palpable thing that they are doing to make this happen."
The once-democratic nation of Mali fell into turmoil last year, following a military coup in Bamako, the capital which has long struggled to maintain control over the nation's distant north, an area as large as Afghanistan. The coup created a power vacuum which allowed fighters loyal to al-Qaida to invade the north, where they set to work creating their version of an Islamic emirate, with seats in Timbuktu, and in the two other provincial capitals in the north, Gao and Kidal.
France launched a military operation Jan. 11 after being asked to intervene by the country's interim president. French and Malian soldiers have succeeded in liberating the three main towns in the north. But the vast, empty rural areas in between the towns remain largely ungoverned and Malian security officials say the jihadists have simply disguised themselves as nomads and melted into the scenery.
Over the weekend, fighters claiming allegiance to al-Qaida's African wing led a series of suicide attacks on the northern city of Timbuktu. In a bold raid indicating that the extremists remain entrenched and able to strike, the jihadists succeeded in infiltrating not just the town, but also the main military base, forcing the French to scramble fighter jets over the city.
Also on Friday, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb released a statement on its newly-opened Twitter account denying France's claim of having killed senior commander Abou Zeid. After weeks of DNA testing, French officials last month said he had been killed during a fierce firefight in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. The Algerian national is one of two leading commanders in the Sahara, and is known to be holding several French hostages.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb said the news of his death was a "lie" invented by France.
"We promise the French President Hollande dark days in North and West Muslim Africa at the hands of the knights of Islam ... who are determined to liberate Muslim Africa from the French Crusader occupation and restore the lofty glory of their forefathers under the banner of Islam," the statement said as translated by Washington-based SITE Intelligence.
Rukmini Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal.
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi
Baba Ahmed can be reached at www.twitter.com/babahmed1