The political situation of Mali has been changed by Sunday’s launch of the campaign for its Presidential election (due on July 28th) in which 28 candidates are competing to succeed the current interim President Dioncounda Traoré, who is not taking part.

Mr Traoré, who was the head of Parliament, became President following the military coup of March 20, 2012 which had created a power vacuum in the country, and led to the occupation of the north by radical Islamist groups after Tuareg rebels there declared independence.

Several key figures of Malian politics are among the candidates, four of them former Prime Ministers, as well as the former minister and government chief negotiator with the Tuareg rebels, Tiébilé Dramé. (UPDATE: Dramé withdrew his candidacy on July 17).

There is also one female candidate: Haidara Aichata Cissé, Member of Parliament for the town of Bourem, near the northern city of Gao.

A state of emergency, which imposed a ban on public meetings and street demonstrations, was lifted on Saturday. This measure was taken in January this year following the jihadist attempt to progress further south from the north, which prompted French military intervention.

Thanks to the deployment of French and African troops, the security has improved significantly in the north, the president of the Association of Evangelical Churches’ group in Mali (AGEMPEM), Dr Youssouf Dembélé, told World Watch Monitor.

“The basic services such as water and electricity supplies are progressively being restored and there is a gradual return of administrative services in the north”, he says. “In Gao and Timbuktu, the situation is pretty calm. Very few incidents are reported.”

But the re-establishment of security in northern Mali has necessitated mass reconstruction, with many displaced people reported returning home.

“It is difficult to establish with certainty the scale of the needs. We hold a list of damages suffered by Christians but this is not exhaustive”.

–Dr Youssouf Dembélé, AGEMPEM President

For nearly a year the Islamist armed groups had imposed a strict Islamic law in the regions under their control. Intimidation, threats and mutilation became common practice. The practice of other religions was banned; churches and other places of worship were desecrated and looted as World Watch Monitor reported in February.

Thousands who fled the Islamists’ occupation and the abuses that followed had found refuge in the south of the country or in neighbouring countries such as Niger or Burkina Faso. Many Christians are among these displaced people.

Despite progress on security, they are still reluctant to return home. They are waiting to get a better picture of the situation, perhaps after the presidential election, remarks Dr Dembélé.

AGEMPEM, which is consulted in several governmental initiatives, is appealing for external support to enable the organisation to better meet the needs of the Malian population.

“It is difficult to establish with certainty the scale of the needs. We also hold a list of damages suffered by Christians but this is not exhaustive,” says Dr Dembélé.

Fundraising initiatives are organised by local churches to help those who are in need. Some international NGOs, like World Vision International, are providing aid alongside the churches’ grouping, which is also active in the field of reconciliation.

“We broadcast messages of peace and reconciliation on radio and TV. Our programs are well listened-to and we receive calls from non-Christian listeners,” Dr Dembélé says.

The past weekend has also witnessed the deployment of Malian government troops (for the first time since the partition of the country in 2012) in Kidal in the north-east, near the Algerian border.

Malian soldiers were accompanied by French and African troops to prevent a clash with Tuareg fighters, who played a key role in the Islamist rebel takeover of the north. Kidal is considered as the last stronghold of these Tuareg rebels, and the only town not yet under government control.

The deployment of Malian troops followed a Peace deal (signed on June 18 in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso), between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels, under the auspices of ECOWAS, the regional economic body.

The agreement calls for an immediate ceasefire and the return to barracks of rebel forces.

While welcoming this new political development, Dr. Dembélé adds a word of caution. “The agreement is made up by words. We must wait and see their accomplishment. If things happen as planned, they can be an outcome to the crisis,” he says.

Several candidates in the Presidential election have asked for a postponement of the vote. They cite a violation of the electoral code, which stipulates that the electoral campaign cannot be opened until the electoral lists are issued in the entire national territory. The candidates say this is not the case in the Kidal region, which is still occupied by Tuareg rebels.

The security of the ballot is to be ensured by the UN peacekeeping forces who took over from the African forces on July 1. The new UN mission (MINUSMA) is composed of 6000 troops already deployed in Mali alongside 3200 French troops.