Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

A Scary End for Democrazy in Mali

Posted in African Politics, Mali by ruben eberlein on April 26, 2013

Read an English version of my short text on Mali published in the recent edition of Blätter des iz3w here. If you prefer German, download the original article as a pdf.

Each time political scientists in the West talked about democratisation in Africa during the last twenty years, you could bet that Mali was rated as a reformer and a good example. The country received a lot of plaudit from Western governments, the academic world and developmental organizations especially for its transition from a long period of military rule under Moussa Traore to a civil government under Alpha Konare. He became the first democratically elected president in 1992.

The coup of March 2012 terminated the Malian experiment with democracy for the time being. Dissatisfied with the hesitant reaction to the uprising of Tuareg and Islamists in the North, young officers under the leadership of Captain Amadou Sanogo disposed the President Amadou Toumani Toure. In August 2012, an interim cabinet under President Dioncounda Traore with 31 ministers officially took over, but most observers believe that the military still holds the real power.

Despite all the regalia, Mali’s democracy had and has not much in common with a parliamentarian democracy in the Western world. Politics and economy of the country were and are coined by clientelistic networks between some big men or big women and a multitude of poor and politically marginalized people. The sheer number of NGO’s and political parties cannot hide the fact that Mali is a neopatrimonial state where the logics of the formal and the informal are intimately intertwined.


Mali is  neopatrimonial state where the logics
of the formal and the informal are intimately intertwined.

So-called civil society is not a white hope, too. Journalist Charlotte Wiedemann writes about it in a study for Heinrich Böll Foundation: “Many groups in poor Mali are in fact money-raising machines in the field of development cooperation. Often, they orient themselves more on the supposed agenda of donors rather than on their own designs. Alongside this dependency from external donors you find the political instrumentalisation by internal actors: Partly NGO’s were founded directly from politicians in the past (for election campaigns or money-raising), partly leaders misused their NGO as stepping stone for political ambitions.”

Pollitics in Mali is the realm of a small elite. It should not come as a surprise, then, that most of Malians do not bother to vote in the elections which took place regularly since 1992. The voter participation of the presidential elections of 2007 amounted to slightly over 36 per cent; only 33 percent participated in the elections to the parliament in the same year.

In light of these numbers, the complete ignorance of the “international community” (which presses for fast elections in July 2013 in order to return to civilian rule) is unveiled. It is very questionable anyway which value such an election would have if hundred thousands of Malians are on the run because of the war in the North and have to take refuge with relatives in the country or in neighboring countries.

A cause for concern is the increase of ethnically charged tensions foremost in the North of the country. According to information of human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW), ethnic youth militias of Peul and Songhai descent as well as parts of the military take revenge on alleged or de facto supporters of the Islamists. This mostly concerns Tuareg and people with an Arabic background. HRW informs about the existence of lists with the names of alleged collaborators of the rebels.

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. 43 per cent of the 15.8 million inhabitants of the country were living below  the national poverty line in 2010. This is, according to information of the World Bank, an improvement when compared to 2001 (55,6 per cent), but still unacceptably high. In 2006 alphabetisation was only 26 per cent, despite the fact that 80 per cent of children visited a school. Only half of the population has access to clean drinking water.

Economically the country is dependent foremost on the export of cotton and some other rural products as well as stock farming while the mass of people practices subsistence farming. The monoculture of cotton was established by the French colonialists in order to become independent from US-American imports.

In the South and West of Mali gold is mined. The country holds the third place of gold exporters at the continent behind South Africa and Ghana. The precious metal ranks at the third place in the list of government revenue. There is a lot of speculation about the existence of other minerals – especially by conspiracy theorists with regards to the engagement of the French in the North. But for now, gold and salt in the North are the only resources worth mentioning.

Development aid is of importance for the Malian economy, too. The contribution of Official Development Assistance (ODA) is 16 per cent of the GDP; moreover, foreign NGO’s especially in the rural areas take over tasks that should be the realm of the state like education and health services. According to Wiedemann, there existed at times about 2000 NGO’s in Mali.

A really substantial democracy in Mali should be in the position to distance itself from the agenda of donors and establish a self-reliant way of development. A precondition for this is the effective involvement of the rural and urban citizens and the creation of enthusiasm for a new political project. But in times of an Islamist aggression in the North and a military engagement against the extremists, the signs for such a development are not exactly positive.

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