Malians vote in model election for Africa

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The Independent Online

It is one of the world's poorest countries and lies at the heart of a region often marred by vote rigging and polling day violence, but as Malians await the results of yesterday's election - their fourth free ballot in 15 years - the former French colony is quickly emerging as a democratic model for Africa.

A steady trickle of voters began lining up early yesterday morning at polling stations in Bamako, the Mali capital, and throughout the vast West African state, which stretches from the windswept dunes of the Saharan north to the fertile cotton fields that lie beside the River Niger in the south.

Soldiers guarded voting centres and early balloting was reported to be calm and orderly, in stark contrast to the bloody chaos that beset elections in Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria, earlier this month.

Most voters predicted an easy re-election victory for former coup leader, President Amadou Toumani Touré, known as "The Soldier of Malian Democracy" by his supporters after he saved the country from decades of dictatorship.

Speaking to reporters after voting in central Bamako, Mr Touré, who faced competition from seven other candidates, was quick to affirm that elections would be free and fair.

"My wish is for a turnout which reflects our democratic culture," he said as supporters mobbed him chanting "ATT", the initials by which is he popularly known.

Many of those queuing in the 40C heat might have found time to cast their minds back to a very different Mali.

After gaining independence from France in 1960, the country slid into dictatorship and, from 1968, President Moussa Traoré ruled with an iron fist.

But his reign ended in 1991 when, outraged by the killing of more than 100 pro-democracy demonstrators by state security forces, Mr Touré, then a General in the Malian army, led a coup to topple the dictator. The following year, Mr Touré handed the reigns to an elected president, Alpha Oumar Konaré, who won international praise for carrying out economic reform and consolidating democracy. Mr Touré has continued the process since his return to politics at elections held in 2002.

Whether Mali can act as a beacon for democracy in the rest of Africa remains to be seen, but one thing the country has already exported to the continent, and beyond, is its vibrant music.

Since 1996, when 3,000 guns were publicly burned to signify a reconciliation between Tuareg rebels in the north, thousands of musicians have gathered every year at The Festival of the Desert, held in Essakane, a Saharan oasis just two hours from the fabled city of Timbuktu.

The festival has quickly gained international recognition as a showcase for the best of Malian music. Tinariwen, a Tuareg rebel band who were forced to perform underground before the 1991 coup, are now the darlings of the Mali music scene and have toured the world since they were spotted at the festival in 2001.

Back in Bamako, many of Mali's 6.9 million voters queued into the evening to escape the heat of the day. Polls closed at six o'clock but results could take days to be released. If no candidate wins an absolute majority, the top two will compete in a run-off in two weeks.

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