KIDAL, Mali (AP) — This desert town and the surrounding region house just 0.5 percent of the people who registered to vote in Mali's presidential election, a number likely to have little impact on the race's outcome. Yet experts say the future of Mali is likely going to be decided by how this region that has been at the epicenter of multiple rebellions handles Sunday's poll.
Many fear that if rebels in the north, whose flag still flies here, disrupt the ballot or pressure large numbers of people not to vote, Mali's election will be robbed of its needed legitimacy, laying the seeds for another rebellion.
The ballot is being held here even though representatives of the Malian state, including the army and the governor, were only able to return to Kidal three weeks ago, their access blocked by fighters from a Tuareg separatist movement which invaded, and briefly held, Mali's northern half last year.
Election workers who travelled to the province to deliver voter ID cards were kidnapped by the rebels and held overnight last week. And one of the only candidates to make a campaign stop in Kidal was nearly prevented from landing when separatists invaded the runway, aggressively blocking the plane's descent. They later pelted the parked aircraft with rocks.
"You could turn the whole thing around and say that the whole election is about Kidal," says School of Oriental and African Studies scholar Jeremy Keenan, who has been studying the Tuaregs since 1964. "Even though their numbers are minuscule, they are the only people that matter when push comes to shove."
The region of Kidal is a vast expanse of mostly deserted space, spanning an area larger than the state of Iowa in Mali's northeastern quadrant. Inside are just 35,393 registered voters out of 6.8 million total, according to data from the country's election commission. That's no more than one voter for every two square miles.
For this tiny percentage of the electorate, hundreds of Malian and United Nations troops have been sent here to try to secure the vote, bellying the region's outsized importance. They have instituted procedures which recall Afghanistan, including metal detectors and bag checks at polling stations, as well as checkpoints necklaced by sandbags and razor wire.
"Everything is in play for us to hold a bad election," said one of the 28 candidates on the ballot, Tiebile Drame, who dropped out last week citing the deeply problematic status of Kidal as well as the massive technical glitches in the voter roll. "Kidal's vote is not just something symbolic. It's imminently political. ...We will have failed to emerge from this crisis if the election is botched."
Mali weathered uprisings four times in the past half-century by Tuareg separatists who consider the country's north their birthright, including in 1962, in 1990, in 2006 and in 2012. One of three regions in the north, Kidal has particular significance; all four of the rebellions either began in Kidal, or were led by fighters from here.
Last year's uprising started like all the others, with grievances over the marginalization of the lighter-skinned Tuaregs in the north by the black ethnic groups who control the government in the south. After seizing a string of smaller towns, they succeeded in entering and briefly holding the three provincial capitals in the north, declaring the birth of their new Tuareg nation.
The conflict was catapulted to a new level when a veteran Tuareg leader and Kidal native joined forces with al-Qaida's army in the region. Together they overpowered the separatists, seizing the territory they had just conquered, and turning it into their version of an Islamic caliphate.
At the same time, Malian soldiers angered at the government's inept handling of the rebellion, overthrew the democratically elected president in a March 2012 coup, heightening the security crisis.
As the rebels pushed south, French forces launched a military campaign in January to help Mali flush out the extremists, though they stopped short of removing the very separatist rebels in Kidal who had started the conflict.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or NMLA, has ruled Kidal as if it was its own mini-state since February, refusing to allow the Malian military in, and squatting in the city's administrative offices.
After intense international wrangling, they signed an accord in June, agreeing to allow the return of authorities and to garrison their fighters ahead of the election. Only they chose to garrison them in the very buildings that are supposed to serve as the seat of the provincial government.
The governor, Adama Kamissoko, sleeps in a concrete shell instead of the relative elegance of the Governor's Mansion.
"It's true that the governor's residence is a symbol. But what we are all focused on is the election. We can prepare for the election in any number of buildings," he said just 48 hours before the vote. "If my country asked me to come here and live under a tent, I would do it. The priority is the vote."
The rebels in Kidal say the governor better get used to his makeshift accommodation. The NMLA's communications officer in Kidal, Mazou Toure, happily showed reporters the Governor's Mansion, which he calls "le bureau du president," the president's office. By "President" he means the NMLA president.
They meet every morning in a salon decorated with faux leather couches, holding their daily briefings. Nearby are more Malian buildings which house the rebel police and rebel army.
He scoffed at the accord signed by his superiors at the NMLA last month, which paved the way for the army and the governor to return.
"We said what people wanted to hear. We signed what they wanted us to sign," Toure said. "We agreed in the short-term to abandon the idea of independence, but we have definitely not renounced it in the long term. ... We're allergic to the Malian flag."
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Kidal, Mali.