KIDAL, Mali — The U.N. peacekeepers deployed here did their best to paint over the independence slogans emblazoned on the concrete wall surrounding one of the main polling stations in this contested city, the epicenter of last year's rebellion against Malian rule. The white paint they used wasn't thick enough though, and the slogans were still legible to the voters who lined up outside.
"Mali is the cause of our problems," said one. "Why should we remain colonized when we have all we need to be independent?" said another.
Only a timid trickle of residents in Kidal, a city at the feet of the Sahara desert, showed up to vote Sunday in Mali's first presidential election since last year's coup and subsequent rebellion, and as polls closed numerous precincts turned in ballot boxes that didn't have so much as a single vote.
Those voting in Kidal are among a minority of people in this vast province, spanning an area the size of Iowa, who recognize Mali as their legitimate ruler. And even those who chose to come with the intention of voting were often unable to cast their ballots because of the various technical glitches which have plagued the hastily-organized poll.
The vote is meant to be a new beginning for a country that was once an example of democracy in West Africa. Officials fear, however, that the legitimacy of the election will be undermined by low voter turnout, technical lapses that prevented people from voting, and the contested status of Kidal where the rebels remain in control of numerous government buildings. If the results are not accepted, they fear it could fuel a future rebellion.
Mohamed Ag Sidi squatted on the ground and tried to find his name on the voter list outside one polling booth in Kidal. The metallic door on which the list had been posted was torn down overnight by the punishing desert wind, and election officials had put the torn pieces of paper on the floor, held in place by rocks. In the rush to hold the election, the government printed voter ID cards with only the name of the voter and not the address of the polling station where they're expected to vote.
A 64-year-old woman arrived well before the opening time, and unlike many others, found her name on the list. She was assigned to Polling Station No. 3. But after traipsing across the complex, she failed to find No. 3, only No. 2 and No. 4.
"I know only of the nation of Mali, and that's why I came to vote," said the woman, Fatina Walet Alitine, a member of the Tuareg ethnic group, whose members have led four rebellions against the state in the past half-century.
She pointed to a group of young Tuareg men who were loitering inside the grounds of the polling station, all members of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, the separatist movement that launched the most recent rebellion last year, seizing and briefly holding a France-sized chunk of northern Mali, which they declared was the new Tuareg nation of Azawad.
"They told me that if I vote, they'll break my arms," she said. "So I said, 'Well, then you better break my arms.'"
The Tuareg rebellion set off a chain reaction of events which plunged this once stable country into ruin. Soldiers in the faraway capital, angered by the government's inept handling of the insurgency in the north, mutinied, overthrowing the democratically elected president in March of 2012. The country has been without a legitimate leader since then, and the election Sunday is supposed to return the nation to constitutional rule.
A total of 6.8 million people registered to vote in this nation of nearly 15 million. They are choosing from 28 candidates on the ballot, including veteran politician Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known by his initials IBK, a former prime minister as well as the ex-president of the country's parliament, as well as Soumaila Cisse, an ex-finance minister and Dramane Dembele, the candidate of the country's largest political party.
In the southern half of the country including in the capital, voter turnout appeared to be far higher, reflecting the north-south split which has bedeviled Mali since its independence from France 53 years ago. It was then that the Tuaregs, the lighter-skinned nomads of the north, petitioned their colonial ruler, asking to be granted their own territory separate from the rest of Mali. They pointed to the linguistic, cultural and racial differences which have long made them distinct from the black ethnicities that make up the Malian majority, said Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, the acting head of the NMLA rebel movement in Kidal.
"We had nothing in common with Bamako," he said, referring to Mali's capital located 950 miles (1,500 kilometers) away to the south. "And we have had nothing but problems since then."
By late afternoon as polls started to close, it was apparent that voter turnout in Kidal was dismally low. In some precincts
As the late afternoon dragged on and it became apparent that turnout was dismal, officials showed up and began pressuring poll workers sitting next to empty ballot boxes to artificially inflate turnout, said several witnesses.
In one school consisting of cement cubes for classrooms, election workers had fallen asleep, splayed on the bunks, after waiting all day for voters who never showed. In Polling Station No. 003, out of 101 registered voters, zero had shown up. A few doors down in No. 006, the president of the polling station Hamidou Djiga had started filling in the final tally sheet, circling in "0," and "0," and "0'' for the number of votes per candidate after not a single one of the 234 voters had cast a ballot. "Not one showed up," he said. "Not even a single 'Bonjour.'"
Poll worker Abdoulaye Mohamed was sitting in Polling Station No. 27, where there were zero votes for 467 registered voters, when the region's prefect arrived, he and other witnesses said.
"I was there when the prefect came in and told us to fill in 10 ballots ourselves and put it in the ballot box," said Mohamed, representative of the country's election commission. "He didn't tell us which candidate to vote for, so I think he was just embarrassed at having precincts with zero voters."
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Kidal, Mali.