GAO, Mali (AFP) – An ancient capital of West Africa’s Songhai empire, the Malian city of Gao was for centuries a bustling trade centre for Tuareg nomads taking lucrative camel caravans of gold, salt and dates across the Sahara desert.
These days, visitors are unlikely to find much business being done, the dusty tree-lined avenues emptied of many of the mud-brick shops which thrived before Islamist invaders occupied the city last year.
“Still no electricity, no banks, no government — Gao is living in a prehistoric age,” sighs a resident.
Gao will join the rest of the country in electing a president on Sunday, and it is in northern Mali’s largest city that the new head of state will have perhaps the heaviest workload.
The city of around 90,000 people on the banks of the Niger river, 320 kilometres (200 miles) southeast of Timbuktu, fell to Tuareg rebels last year along with the