Mali heads to the polls Sunday for a presidential election that many hope will mark the beginning of the end to more than 18 months of crisis. A lot has gone wrong since January 2012. There was a separatist Tuareg rebellion, a military coup, an Islamist occupation of the north, and a French-led military intervention that is now being transformed into a massive U.N. mission to stabilize the country. Campaigning wraps up Friday for the country's 27 presidential hopefuls.
"A strong Mali; a new Mali; Mali above all; Mali, our pride; the Mali of our ambitions." - the 27 candidates have all been singing pretty much the same tune, pledging to reconcile the country, rebuild and root out corruption. Mali has never fallen so low, they say, and it must never happen again.
The two top challengers are longtime fixtures on Mali's political scene: former prime minister and current National Assembly deputy from Bamako Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and a technocrat from Timbuktu, Soumaila Cisse.
Keita was the longtime opponent of the president ousted by the coup in March 2012. His track record of fierce nationalism and tough talk have won him points with voters.
Keita was the first candidate to campaign in the northern rebel stronghold of Kidal, which will vote Sunday despite ongoing tensions.
"Mali needs to come back together," he told voters. "The fabric of our society has been torn apart. Mali needs to return to the state of brotherhood and solidarity that it has always been. This is what I wish for Mali, and, God willing, it is what I will do."
His top rival, Soumaila Cisse, was a government minister in the 1990's who then ran the West African Monetary Union for seven years. Supporters say they trust his experience and management skills.
In a possible run-off, Cisse could have the support of the two other top candidates, or vice versa. They include ex-prime minister and longtime government heavyweight, Modibo Sidibe, and a relative unknown, Dramane Dembele, who is backed by Mali's largest political party.
Among the other first-time candidates getting some traction are the lone female candidate, Aichata Chada Haidara, and the mayor of Bamako's Commune IV district, Moussa Mara.
"This country's problems come from bad leadership and bad governance," Mara remarked. "How do we make it so that the next leader does what he promises, that he involves and informs citizens? So that the citizen, instead of being just a spectator, becomes an actor in the building of this country? This is how we will develop Mali."
Mara, at just 38 years old, is one of the youngest candidates -- a not unpopular trait as the country clamors for a fresh start.
"In this country, we need to promote youth leadership," he said. "We need to work in truth and transparency. We need to learn to respect public wealth and rise above personal interests."
Mali had just a few short months to prepare for this crucial election, and authorities confess that a few corners had to be cut.
Errors on the voter list mean that tens of thousands of registered voters will not be able to vote Sunday. Issues surrounding the distribution of nearly 7 million biometric voter cards have already sparked rumblings of fraud and irregularities.
If no candidate wins a clear majority, the two top-scoring candidates will head to a runoff on August 11.
Nick Loomis and Amadou Maiga contributed reporting from Bamako.