The Malian government signed a peace agreement with some northern armed groups on Sunday but the main Tuareg rebel alliance asked for more time to consult its grassroots.
The deal, hammered out in eight months of tough negotiations in neighbouring Algeria, provides for the transfer of a raft of powers from Bamako to the north, an area the size of Texas that the rebels refer to as “Azawad”.
The Tuareg rebel alliance that includes the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad said it had asked for a “reasonable delay” for consultations before signing.
“An agreement that has not been shared with the people of the region has little chance of being implemented on the ground,” an alliance representative said.
But a spokesperson for the Algerian mediators who helped broker the agreement expressed optimism that the rebel alliance would sign soon.
“Their presence here means that they accept the agreement,” the spokesperson said, adding that the “negotiations are at an end.”
A spokesperson for the armed groups that did sign hailed the agreement as “an essential document for restoring peace and reconciliation”.
“We have undertaken to respect the spirit and the letter of it,” Harouna Toureh said.
“We will do all we can so that the agreement comes to life and allows all the peoples of the region to rediscover one and another and live together, as they did in the past, in brotherhood and solidarity.”
Militants linked to Al-Qaeda seized control of northern Mali for more than nine months until a French-led military intervention in 2013 that partly drove them from the region.
Jihadist groups were not invited to the Algiers talks.
Mali is scrambling to prevent a major Ebola epidemic after the deaths of an Islamic cleric and a nurse, as the official death toll in the worst ever epidemic of the virus passed 5 000.
The two deaths in Mali have dashed optimism that the country was free of the highly-infectious pathogen and caused alarm in the capital Bamako, where the imam was washed by mourners at a mosque after his death.
It came as the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced on Wednesday that the outbreak – almost entirely confined to west Africa – had passed a gruesome landmark, with 5 160 deaths from around 14 000 cases since Ebola emerged in Guinea in December.
The WHO and aid organisations have frequently pointed out that the real count of cases and deaths could be much higher.
In Mali, the latest country to see infections, the clinic where the imam died has been quarantined, with around 30 people trapped inside including medical staff, patients and 15 African soldiers from the United Nations mission in Mali.
The nurse who died of Ebola had treated the imam at Bamako’s Pasteur clinic.
Teams of investigators are tracing health workers, and scouring the capital and the imam’s home district in northeastern Guinea for scores of people who could have been exposed.
The deaths have raised fears of widespread contamination as they were unrelated to Mali’s only other confirmed fatality, a two-year-old girl who had also arrived from Guinea in October.
A doctor at the Pasteur clinic is thought to have contracted the virus and is under observation outside the capital, the clinic said.
A friend who visited the imam has also died of probable Ebola, the WHO said.
Traditional burial sites blamed Mali’s health ministry called for calm, as it led a huge cross-border operation to stem the contagion.
The WHO said the 70-year-old cleric, named as Goika Sekou from a village on Guinea’s porous border with Mali, fell sick and was transferred via several treatment centres to the Pasteur clinic.
Multiple lab tests were performed, the WHO said, but crucially not for Ebola, and he died of kidney failure on October 27.
He had travelled to Bamako by car with four family members – all of whom have since got sick or died at home in Guinea.
The imam’s body was transported to a mosque in Bamako for a ritual washing ceremony before being returned to Guinea for burial.
Traditional African funeral rites are considered one of the main causes of Ebola spreading, as it is transmitted through bodily fluids and those who have recently died are particularly infectious.
The nurse who died treating Sekou, identified by family as 25-year-old Saliou Diarra, was the first Malian resident to be confirmed as an Ebola victim.
70 perecent death rate The virus is estimated to have killed around 70 percent of its victims, often shutting down their organs and causing unstoppable bleeding.
Ebola emerged in Guinea in December, spreading to neighbouring Liberia and then Sierra Leone, infecting at least 13 000 people.
Cases are “still skyrocketing” in western Sierra Leone, according to the WHO, although Liberia says it has seen a drop in new cases from a daily peak of more than 500 in September to around 50.
The US military has scaled back plans for its mission in Liberia to fight the Ebola outbreak, and will deploy a maximum of 3 000 troops instead of 4 000, said General Gary Valesky, head of the American military contingent in the country.
But the move did not signal less concern about the threat posed by the epidemic, he told reporters in a telephone conference.
Britain’s foreign secretary Philip Hammond announced plans Wednesday for hundreds of Ebola treatment beds in Sierra Leone within weeks, admitting the global response had been too slow as he visited the former colony.
The Ebola outbreak has also hit the world of sport.
Morocco were stripped of the right to host the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations after insisting on a postponement.
Angola had emerged as the frontrunner to replace Morocco as eleventh hour hosts but pulled out of the running on Wednesday.
Organisers the Confederation of African Football are due to announce the replacement hosts in the next few days.
In New Zealand, police on Thursday ruled out the presence of the deadly virus in one of three mystery vials discovered in mailboxes this week.
Tests on the two other vials have not yet been completed.
The vials were contained in suspicious packages sent to the US embassy and parliament buildings in the capital Wellington and to a newspaper office in Auckland.
Meanwhile in the US, nurses demonstrated outside the White House on Wednesday saying they are woefully ill-prepared to handle an Ebola case.
They were among thousands of health care workers taking part in protests in the United States and overseas amid fears the Ebola epidemic might spread beyond west Africa.
Two nurses are among the nine confirmed Ebola cases that have been treated in the United States.
It may be just about the hottest new pop-up club in the world, but you have to look hard for the glamour. There is no red carpet and the bar has run out of beer. The decor leaves a lot to be desired: a brightly painted wall, some plastic chairs and dozens of palm trees.
Welcome to Bamako, the capital of Mali, not the most obvious choice for a star-studded club launch. Mali endured a wretched year in 2012, the northern half seized by a motley alliance of Islamists and Tuareg rebels, the president ousted in a coup and the country almost breaking in half before a French-backed government offensive turned the situation around. Northern Mali still dangles precariously between war and peace and Islamist rebels still make life uncomfortable for towns that until recently they occupied.
But inside the Maison des Jeunes – a community space cum youth hostel near the banks of the River Niger – artists including Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Idris Elba, and some of Europe and America’s brightest young producers – bop their heads in unison to the live performances taking place in a kind of defiance.
“I keep coming back to Mali, through everything that’s happened,” said Albarn. “At times it has felt odd in Bamako, with the problems in the north, but I’m just trying to personally establish dialogue with the people in this country and the music.”
“The reason we are in Mali now is because of what’s happened here in the last year,” said Ian Birrell, co-founder with Albarn of the Africa Express project.
“Malian artists are so brilliant. We wanted to come back as a form of solidarity and do the tiny bit we can do to promote the music that we love and revere.”
Albarn’s involvement with Malian music dates back to 2000, when a trip to the west African country with Oxfam led to an infatuation with its sounds that would see him record an album with Malian musicians Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate. In 2006 Albarn launched Africa Express – a joyfully chaotic series of collaborations between western and African artists, which last year led to 70 musicians taking over a chartered train.
On the second floor of a building adjacent to the courtyard, in an airy studio that has seen better days – with mint-green plaster walls and tatty floor tiling – ambient music maestro Brian Eno sits immersed, working on his laptop.
Behind him Holy Other – the enigmatic, highly-rated R&B artist whose full identity remains a secret and who is only ever seen in public wearing a black shroud – is similarly occupied, and Wire star, DJ and producer Idris Elba breezes in and out. “I’m just listening. I don’t know what to do other than sit there with my mouth wide open,” said Eno of the music being recorded by Malian artists. “I don’t feel inclined to sample and play over the top – for me it’s too complete.”
There is a deliberate spontaneity in the way Albarn likes to work with African artists; the word “chaos” is frequently used by everyone involved in Africa Express, usually spoken with a sense of pride at being involved in such an intense, cross-cultural musical frenzy.
The launch of live performances at the Maison des Jeunes coincides with the first attempt to produce an Africa Express album, as producers including Eno, Ghostpoet, Pauli the PSM from Gorillaz and Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs work out which Malian artists to collaborate with, and set about recording and producing them in new ways.
“I have never done anything like this before,” said Kankou Konyate ( 21), lead singer of Gambari, whose vocals soar out over local n’goni lute rhythms. “Since the war things have been difficult, and complicated. But this is very good.”
Albarn, who has been critical of western celebrities patronising Africa in the past, says Africa Express is all about creating a level playing field and building connections, artist to artist.
But the group are also under no illusions about the state of Mali. Eno, on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since he visited Ghana in 1980, says he is shocked by how little progress has been made.
“I was quite surprised coming here how broken the place is,” said Eno. “How the streets are terrible. The open sewers stink. It’s very disheartening in a way. But what is really strong here is social infrastructure – it’s so powerful and rich.”
Dr Mohamed Diagayeté is in an agitated state as he stands in front of stacks of green metal cases containing thousands of invaluable ancient manuscripts from the fabled medieval city of Timbuktu, northern Mali. “Bamako is the worst; it is hell,” he says in halting English.
The senior researcher of the state-run Ahmed Baba Institute is not referring to the traffic or Bamako’s urban sprawl, but its climate, particularly the humidity, along with the dust, termites and even mice that threaten this literary treasure trove smuggled out of Timbuktu last year under the noses of jihadists.
When Timbuktu, a centre of Islamic learning between the 13th and 17th centuries, fell into the hands of Tuareg separatists and Islamists last year, researchers at the institute – named after a 16th-century intellectual – feared for the safety of the 40 000 manuscripts in its possession.
In a daring act of subterfuge, the institute’s researchers spirited thousands of documents, covering subjects such as religious studies, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and music to Bamako, the capital, more than 965km away.
Metal cases were brought surreptitiously to the desert city of Timbuktu, where the documents, some dating to the ninth century, were carefully packed away. Then, over a period of months, the material – mostly written in Arabic, but also centuries-old texts in Greek, Latin, French, English and German – was smuggled out on buses, cars or pirogue boats to the south on the Niger River. Guards at the institute, drivers and boatmen were the unsung heroes in this enterprise. Some 25 000 documents were taken away from the institute between June and October last year, as well thousands of others from private homes.
It was just as well. In a fit of pique and cultural vandalism comparable to the destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, the Islamists set fire to the institute’s two libraries containing the manuscripts before the arrival of French forces. Last week, a suicide attack was carried out near the Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu, which is on the world heritage list of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
According to Drissa Traoré, head of documentation at the institute, thousands of valuable manuscripts were lost, some destroyed, others stolen.
The saved manuscripts are being stored in a nondescript, two-storey faded-rose house in an alley off a main road in the capital. The house stands near an unfinished building, there is rubbish strewn outside on the red dirt road. On a wall around the corner someone has scrawled “empire du mafia”.
The location is not publicised, and visitors are vetted by the institute’s head, Dr Abdoulkadri Maïga, who works elsewhere in a cluttered office with a small fridge by his side. He says there are about 100 000 genuine manuscripts, some owned by the institute, others privately owned by families, although some estimates put the number at 300 000. Many of the privately owned papers were also taken to Bamako.
After Maïga is satisfied, visitors are dispatched to follow a motorbike driver to the documents. The cases are piled on top of each other in a small air-conditioned room to protect them from Bamako’s humidity. Gingerly, Traoré takes out an 18th-century manuscript on jurisprudence from the top of a case. The battered leather cover is falling apart. He opens the book to reveal exquisitely delicate calligraphy. The oldest manuscript at the makeshift library in Bamako dates to the 12th century.
For Diagayeté and his colleagues, the manuscripts cannot return home fast enough. “Some of us have started to go back, but I can’t say when the manuscripts will go, but we want it to be as soon as possible,” he said.
In the meantime, the manuscripts have to be protected from Bamako’s “hellish” conditions. Researchers have begun cataloguing the documents and placing them in special brown boxes made from cardboard-like material. These boxes arrived in December, followed by the shelves on which to store them. The shelves arrived only a couple of weeks ago, so the documents have languished for months in their metal cases, hardly ideal conditions for such delicate items.
No wonder Diagayeté is exasperated. Part of his frustration is aimed at Unesco, which promised to help the institute. Its director-general, Irina Bokova, said in February that the organisation would do everything possible to safeguard and rebuild Mali’s cultural heritage, which she described as “a vital part of the country’s identity and history and fundamental for its future”.
“Its restoration and reconstruction will give the people of Mali the strength and the confidence to rebuild national unity and look to the future,” she added.
“Unesco was very, very late. Talk is easy, but action is hard,” Diagayeté said.
Three sets of metal floor-to-ceiling shelves have been assembled, and more are being put together. In the long term, there are plans to restore and digitise the manuscripts under a Unesco scheme run by Luxembourg. In the meantime, the institute is adamant that the documents should go back to Timbuktu. “Timbuktu without the manuscripts is without value, and the manuscripts without Timbuktu have no value,” Maïga said.
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 Niarela, 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 their campaign schedule at all. Most political hopefuls have concentrated on rallies in stadiums, and visiting local dignitaries and elders.
Cissé tiptoes around the fresh produce laid out on the ground 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 never occupied but its already weak economy has been crippled by the events of the past 18 months, including a military coup. The upcoming election on Sunday July 28 has been imposed on Mali by the international community despite widespread fears that the country is not ready.
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 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 11 August, 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 on a rock overlooking Bamako. She even believes she can get there without giving away the tea, sugar, T-shirts or cash that are common currency in Malian elections.
“One of the market women said ‘give me a wrap with your face on it and I’ll wear it’,” she said. “So I explained to her that there are 703 local authorities in Mali and if I give away fabric to all the women in every commune, it will cost me a billion CFA francs [£1.5m] which might be better spent on a project to help the poor. She liked that and said she would vote for me.”
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 100,000 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 United Nations force, Minusma – to secure its borders.
For that reason, Cissé’s campaign calls for “a united and strong Mali”. It is the slogan of almost all of the candidates.
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.”
Despite looking slightly out of place in her Senegalese gown and pointy shoes, Cissé seems to impress.
Mariam Coulibaly, a trader, says: “She asked us about our lives. We said we need a market building because selling vegetables on the ground is not hygienic. It is the first time I have seen someone like her come into the market. Usually the only place you see politicians is on posters.”