Backgrounder: Mali’s struggle for democracy

A brief history of the country as voters head to the ballot box.

Mali election
Election workers transport voting materials in Timbuktu, Mali ahead of Sunday's vote [EPA]

The presidential elections in Mali are a vital and possibly desperate attempt to make democracy work in a fractured country. There are basic realities that call seriously into question the democratic option, even if all the alternatives look worse.

The first is it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Some 68 percent of its population of nearly 16 million are considered by the UN Human Development Report as “below the poverty line”, and the 2013 Human Development Index – taking into account such poverty indicators as illiteracy, infant mortality and life expectancy – placed Mali at 182 out of 188 countries considered, having been in the bottom seven for the few years in which the index has existed.

The second is its geographical location. With 1.2 million square kilometres, it is one of the largest countries in Africa. One-third of the territory is Sahara desert, and much of the rest savannah scrub, with less than a third having fertile soil capable of producing foodstuffs and crops such as cotton. It also suffers all the disadvantages of being landlocked, which has meant dependence on rail and road routes to the sea through neighbours, notably to Dakar in Senegal to the west and to Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire.


The third dominant factor is demography. Mali’s population is growing at an unsustainable rate of between 2.7 and 3 percent, and 62 percent of the population are under 30. More than 36 percent are considered urban, and Bamako has more than 1 million people. Some 90 percent are found in the southern part of the country, mostly south of the Niger River, the country’s lifeline, which runs through it from its source in Guinea on its way south to the Niger Delta and the Atlantic Ocean. The northern province of Kidal, despite its crucial political importance, has only 30,000 registered voters.

The fourth consideration is Mali’s unusual ethnic composition. Half are Mande (Bambara, Soninke, Malinke) who have effectively ruled the country since independence but live in the south. The Bambara language is lingua franca for 80 percent of the people. Mande has roots to the medieval Mali empire – one of the greatest in West African history – and is now subsumed into the strong nationalist feeling with which Mali has always been associated. This sentiment made it easier to operate a post-independence, one-party state under the first president Modibo Keita. It also meant the country was one of the strongest supporters of keeping the French colonial grouping of territories as the Mali Federation, an acknowledgement of the continued influence of the old empire seen in language, culture and music. Sadly, the rump of this grouping lasted only four months as an independent entity, and Mali entered independence alone in September 1960.

The appearance of Bambara domination has sometimes posed a problem for other minorities. Groups such as the Dogon, the Peulh, and the Songhai have found accommodation in the Malian polity, but the nomadic Tuareg have been permanent outsiders. Ethnic Berbers in origin from the Atlas mountains, with their own rich culture and political organisation, and best known as Sahara traders for more than 2,000 years, the Tuareg never recognised frontiers of the colonial period, and were almost permanently at war with the French. The new state of Mali tried to corral them and provoked a serious rebellion in 1963, which was brutally suppressed by the Mali army.

The military regime that overthrew Modibo Keita in 1968 made little attempt to accommodate them. Indeed, a Tuareg revolt at the end of the 1980s helped undermine the regime paving the way for the democratic revolution of March 1991. The civilian regime of President Alpha Oumar Konaré, elected in 1992, made a significant breakthrough in peace with the Tuareg, but it remained fragile. Peace initiatives were continued by Konaré’s successor Amadou Toumani Touré, universally called “ATT”, the military man who ushered in civilian rule in 1991-92. But faced with mounting signs of Tuareg dissidence, his positions looked increasingly like weakness.

Malian soldiers patrol between Gao and Kidal on July 26 [AFP]

Meanwhile, the focus was mainly on its experiment with democracy introduced in the ‘African spring’ of 1990-91 that saw dramatic political change in Mali. Much was focused on ATT whose image of a benevolent military man voluntarily handing over power to civilians gave more spine and substance to the birth of multi-party democracy than it really possessed. Mali has had one of the consistently lowest rates of voter participation in elections in all west Africa, only occasionally passing 30 percent. There are reasons for this – huge distances make administering voters difficult, not helped by a 28 percent literacy rate.

Initial enthusiasm for party formation proved increasingly lacklustre. Relics of the old single-party reappeared in the strongest party Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA ), but not with the same militancy. Significantly, neither Konaré nor Touré had strong single party backing, depending on an amorphous “presidential majority”. Thus it became easier for a political class to develop that became increasingly alienated from the wider population. In the latter years of president Touré’s rule, the government developed a reputation for corruption and cronyism.

Burgeoning population and high unemployment have created alongside the established political class a new and dangerous underclass, which meant that Captain Sanogo’s coup of March 22, 2011 met with only moderate resistance, even though, ironically, a fresh election was due in weeks, and ATT himself was standing down.

Now Mali faces a new democratic experience with heavy ambivalence about democracy. The election, pressed on the country by its international friends with France in the lead (in the wake of its military intervention of January 2013), has seen a campaign making appropriate noises of the need for change, and of national crisis. The main candidates are, however, mostly drawn from those who held high office under the 20-year civilian rule.

The frontrunner is generally perceived as Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), who was prime minister from 1994-2000, and leader of ADEMA until he broke with the party. He was also a candidate in the presidential elections of 2002 and 2007, which were won by ATT.

His main rival is Soumaila Cissé, a former finance minister, also a presidential candidate in 2002, narrowly beating IBK into second place. A third strong runner is Modibo Sidibé, another former prime minister, although with a more technocratic background. All have campaigned in Tuareg-dominated Kidal, formerly in the occupied north, despite the small number of voters there, as if to show awareness of the high stakes in this poll. But public attitudes towards the politicians still show signs of disillusionment.

An ominous sign was the withdrawal of another prominent candidate Tiebilé Dramé, mediator of the June accord with Tuareg leaders that allowed the Malian authorities and the army back into Kidal, the last provincial capital to be regained after the French intervention in January led to the reunification of the Malian state. Dramé said the poll was too hurried and “imperfect”. The pressures for holding the vote, both internal and international have, however, been too strong to resist. A new elected president may help to contain a still turbulent army, but the post-election challenges are almost overwhelming.

Kaye Whiteman is a writer on West African affairs, and for many years was Editor of West Africa magazine

Source: Al Jazeera

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