Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Requiem for Malian Democracy (1993-2012)

             As I write this, the Sun is just coming up in my former home of Diaramana, in the erstwhile Republic of Mali. The first call to prayer has already been issued. It is hot season now, too dry to do much farm work. But the women are already busy at work, pounding away at millet to cook a simple porridge for their family’s breakfast. This year their porridge is much leaner because there is a food crisis; it might be the family’s sole meal for the day. This year’s sharp rise in grain prices is partly because last rainy season’s rains were pitiful. But the real reason grain prices are so harshly inflated is because hundreds of thousands of families have fled from the fighting in the North - food becomes rather scarce when an ethnic insurgency creates a refugee crisis and a subsistence agriculturalist population can’t farm.

            Though the Sun is just now rising, today might be the darkest day in the history of this young nation. Though it is still too soon to say for sure, today, March 22, 2012, may mark the death of Malian democracy. A group of mutinous soldiers calling themselves the NCRDRS, led by a certain Capt. Amadou Sanogo, appears to have achieved a coup d’état. In a matter of hours, the mutinous soldiers have seized the state television and radio network ORTM, wrested and looted the presidential palace, and arrested numerous government ministers.

 NCRDRS has used ORTM to  announce that they have suspended the Malian Constitution and dissolved all "state institutions" i.e. the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and - notably - the special high courts which exist specifically to try government officials for treason.

            To understand the import of these events, one must contextualize them in Mali's 51½ years as an independent state.
            Between independence in 1960 and 1991, Mali was governed by strongmen.  Modibo Keíta first ran the country as a First Wave post-colonialist state, conducted a disastrous experiment in African socialism and collectivist agriculture, and suffered humiliating losses to the Tuareg rebels. In 1968, Lt. Moussa Traoré led a military coup against Keíta and seized control of the Malian state - which he grafted and embezzled as his personal fiefdom for almost a quarter century. Traoré's one positive contribution was his system of decentralisation in which he established a federalist-style system of local governments on the level of Region, Cercle, and Commune;  they were still for the most part as corrupt as sin - but at least the corruption was local. Traoré even allowed elections in the local governments, but only one party (his) was on the ballot.  

But something profound happened in 1991, when paratrooper commander Amadou Toumani Touré in turn deposed the President of Mali. “ATT”, as he is popularly known, declared that he would organize multiparty elections in 1993, that he would not be a candidate, and that he would step down from office. And remarkably enough, Touré did exactly that.

           In 2002, Touré ran for the presidency himself as an independent candidate. Having shown that he respected republican institutions enough that he could do the unthinkable and relinquish power without a fight, ATT won election handily. The Malian people called him “le Soldat de la Democratie”; he allowed free, multiparty elections, promoted freedom of the press and political rights for women. Sure, Touré had his faults – over ten years, his administration was criticized for political cronyism; he made some major military blunders regarding the rebellion in the North, and he was famously aloof from public opinion. But ATT never rigged any elections, he never took political prisoners. He was an authentic democrat who planned to abide by  the constitutional term limits, step down again at the end of his second term, and go back to tilling his millet fields like a Malian George Washington.  

Malian democracy (1993 – 2012), as established by President Touré, has had its share of hiccups and bumps in the road. It was of course difficult to establish a democratic culture in a country where the bulk of the population lives in small villages, often quite far from the nearest polling stations. The vast majority of the population is illiterate, and only a small minority has completed a high school education. It would be an understatement to say that corruption, cronyism, and general incompetence in local government are all quite common. 

When I was working with the Office of the Mayor of the Commune, I kept on submitting typed policy proposals to the Mayor for water projects. He would look at my drafts for a few minutes, nod, and hand them back to me. "Perfect! No problems!", he would say. It took me a few months to realize that the Mayor - a guy whose job was to type up official government documents - was completely illiterate. If he didn't have a stamp with his name on it, he signed his name with an "X." It follows that Monsieur la Mairie was not very effective at typing birth certificates and marriage certificates on his typewriter. But if the majority of the population of a given Commune is illiterate, the important thing is that the people have the right to choose which among their illiterate fellow citizens gets to serve in public office - that's the beauty of democracy.

On the other hand, there are a number of outstanding public servants in Mali who are dedicated to the cause they serve. I have met with village chiefs and advisory councils who lead their communities in the daily struggle of subsistence and development. I have worked with Malian water committees who valued improving their environment and quality of life.  Most importantly, I have plenty of teachers and principals who are earnestly dedicated to teaching the next generation of Malians to be educated and capable citizens.

 Not everyone in public life is involved for altruistic reasons, there are a number of politicians who are just looking for a lucrative source of income - those are some of the outstanding problems in Malian politics. But there are some people in Malian history who have risen to the top and have demonstrated their capacity for leadership in a democratic society; namely President Amadou Toumani Touré, who planned to step down after his second term this spring. Among the candidates running for President in the elections scheduled for April 29th include Modibo Sidibé, a former Prime Minister, Sidibé Aminata Diallo, a former Minister of Education, Oumar Mariko, a member of Parliament,  Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, another former Prime Minister, former speaker of the National Assembly, and Cheick Modibo Diarra, a Malian astrophysicist who worked at NASA and Microsoft Africa.

Warts and all, the Malian experience in electoral democracy has been considerably successful.  They have conducted four presidential elections, and a fifth is scheduled for April. Especially on the level of Communal government (the equivalent of a county), much of the population personally interacts with their elected Mayor. When I lived in Diaramana, my host mother Durcas Dembele ran in the Mayoral primary, and she rode from village to village on her motorcycle stumping for votes. In the end, Durcas lost among the nine candidates on the primary ballot.

In April 2009, le Commune de Diaramana held its general elections at the primary school. People came from every village in the Commune dressed in their finest clothes to vote for their Mayor. Election Day has become a national holiday woven into the fabric of Malian society.

An independent committee of active citizens conducted the balloting process and made sure that each citizen is registered to vote in the Commune. The voters dipped their fingers in purple ink to mark their ballot. Because so few people can read, the ballot was listed by party and each party’s line was marked by its official symbol; ADEMA is a bumblebee, SADI is a lion, etc.

Each citizen casted his or her vote in privacy.

My good friend Sidiki showed off his purple ink-stained fingers. In a country where democratic self-government has only truly existed for 19 years, voting is a matter of great pride. Sidiki wouldn’t tell me whom he voted for, because the principle of confidentiality is taken so seriously.

            The great tragedy of this coup is not just that an elected President has fallen, subverting the will of the people. The tragedy is that with the declaration of the suspension of the Constitution and the dissolution of all state instutions, the NCRDRS may have permanently extinguished the fire of Malian democracy. All of these institutions of representative self-government which the Malian people have been developing for decades may have been stamped out by a new military junta.

              It is difficult enough to eke out a living farming in the parched Sahel. It is even more difficult when the heavy hand of a tyrannical government oppresses the people with extortion, bribery, graft, embezzlement, and exorbitant taxation to fund a war that many analysts say cannot be won. That is why, in order to facilitate sustainable development and improve their standard of living, the people of Mali must be able to guide their own destiny with a truly representative self-government.

The people of Mali do not have very much. They are one of the very poorest nations in the world. But one thing that they did have was democracy.
They will have it once again, insh’allah.

Ala k'aw deme.

Ala ka here caya.

Ala k'a ban pyu pyu.


Sebastien said...

I've lived in Mali for a year, and Guinea for 7. One of the things Malians were proud of was their respect of the democratic principles. This "coup" makes no sense to me... Elections were due in a month, what do these soldiers think they will achieve?

Krzysztof Odyniec said...

I was in a little village (in Douentza, in Mopti Region) during the 2002 election; it was very impressive. Each villages had an envelope of little paper squares. On each square was the name of the candidate and the party, the candidate's photo, and the photo's emblem: you didn't have to read to know which way you were voting. Speeches from at least the main parties were broadcast on the radio in Bambara and French and folks in this little village were listening.

I hope your prediction is correct, Zacstravaganza; I hope this is just a freak of excess and normalcy will come back to our Mali.

Anonymous said...

Zap, I find the stark resemblance between MALI & ( SO) MALI past democratic credentials and how those lofty credentials could be thwarted by the actions of few rogue elements.

Maliden said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeremy said...

Thank you so much for pointing out the importance of local democracy. I think that has completely been lost in the reporting. I was a PCV during the Moussa Traore regime and I can tell you the population had no say in anything at the local level. It is unfortunate how quickly Malians have forgotten how bad those days actually were.