Cissé treads a new path in Mali

Malian MP Haidara Aissata Cissé. (AFP)

Malian MP Haidara Aissata Cissé. (AFP)

A black Mercedes pulls up in a grimy street in Bamako and the back door swings open. A satin-shoed foot emerges beneath a crisp brocade gown and steps gingerly on to the litter-strewn asphalt.

Haidara Aissata Cissé, the only woman standing for president in Mali's upcoming elections, is greeted by deafening chants of "Chato! Chato!", her nickname.

Cissé is clearly popular among the market traders in Niaréla, the old business district of Bamako where sleek office buildings, hotels and embassies stand incongruously among ragtag, low-rise stalls.

She is the only candidate to visit the area – or indeed to include walkabouts in a campaign schedule at all. Most political hopefuls have concentrated on rallies in stadiums, and on visiting dignitaries and elders.

Cissé tiptoes around the fresh produce laid out in the market stalls.

"They are so excited," she says. "They have never seen a politician come to them before."

It has been six months since France began a military intervention in its former colony to oust Islamist militants who had imposed sharia law in northern cities such as Timbuktu and Gao.

The capital, Bamako, was not occupied, but its already weak economy has been crippled by the events of the past 18 months, including a military coup. Sunday's election has been imposed on Mali by the international community despite fears that the country is not ready for it.

Cissé, a 54-year-old MP and former travel agent, is an outsider among 27 candidates for the presidency. But determined campaigning – and plenty of walkabouts – have improved her following and helped to win her the backing of all of Mali's women's groups.

If there is no outright winner on Sunday and the presidential election goes to a second round on August 11, Cissé could drive a hard bargain between run-off candidates vying for the female vote.

Despite the odds, she says she will be the next occupant of Koulouba, the head of state's palace. She even believes she can get there without giving away the tea, sugar, T-shirts or cash that are common currency in Malian elections.

In common with the other candidates, Cissé does not provide a printed manifesto. She claims it would be copied by her rivals. But she tells a rally at Koulikoro, north of Bamako: "If I am elected, I will launch a Marshall plan to create 500 000 jobs. I shall introduce a programme of excellence to reform education and training. I shall create grants of 100000 CFA francs [£128] for the poorest mothers so that they can put their children, especially girls, in school."

In a country where welfare and education have, in living memory, been the responsibility of Western aid agencies and Islamic solidarity, development issues are not vote-winners. Unicef, the United Nations children's fund, has drawn up a primer for candidates listing some of Mali's shocking statistics: 90% of women have undergone female genital mutilation; one million children are out of school; 2.2-million people defecate in the open air.

Righting those wrongs seems less of a priority for ordinary Malians than building a strong army after the country had to depend on France – and now a UN force, Minusma – to secure its borders.

Oumou Touré, president of Cafo, an umbrella organisation for Mali's women's groups, said that to do well Cissé must fight a gender-blind campaign. "Mali's crisis is the result of poor governance, which in turn is the result of a dysfunctional society. Chato must be seen as the candidate standing for equity, balance and the happiness of all men and women." – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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