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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 73-79
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Francophone Africa in Flux
Mali's Decade of Democracy
Zeric Kay Smith
Although social science has established that there is a positive relationship between democracy and economic development, democracy can prosper in the absence of wealth. Mali, one of the world's poorest countries,has remained democratic since its first multiparty elections in 1992. Although Mali's freedom from the conflict and oppression that bedevil many of its neighbors may seem remarkable, its democratic progress has found firm support in recent economic growth, social structures conducive to equality, a unique political culture, a favorable international environment, and effective political leadership. While poverty and institutional weakness still pose real threats to Mali's political future, visionary leadership, targeted international support, and ongoing vigilance on the part of Malians can reinforce its progress toward transparent, responsive, and accountable government.
Mali's early years gave little sign of its democratic potential. Following independence from France in 1960, Mali was ruled by a civilian government with strong socialist leanings. In 1968, a military coup brought to power Moussa Traoré, a young lieutenant whose corrupt leadership undermined his initial popularity and quickly eroded the military's reformist reputation.
After decades of military rule, prodemocracy agitation surged in early 1991. Students, labor unions, human rights organizations, members of the media, and other civil society groups united in opposition to Traoré's regime. These disparate groups coalesced around a common agenda for reform that included, in addition to a host of particularistic demands, an end to the single-party state dominated by the Mali People's Democratic Union (UDPM); [End Page 73] the institutionalization of multiparty politics; respect for basic human liberties like freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom from repression and torture; and an end to corruption in public office.
The UDPM responded to the pressure posed by ongoing civil protests and compounded by nascent separatism among nomadic Tuareg populations in the north with a crackdown in March 1991. Targeted at the newly formed Association of Students and Pupils of Mali (AEEM) and modeled on repressive tactics used successfully in the past, the government response provoked increasing ire among Malians. By March 22, when the military opened fire on unarmed protesters and killed hundreds, the "People's Revolution" had gained unstoppable momentum. Hundreds of thousands of Malians took to the streets to demand an end to the UDPM's unresponsive and authoritarian rule.
On March 26, after days of civil unrest and rioting, a reform-minded faction of the military led by Amadou Toumani Touré turned on the UDPM and arrested the intransigent Traoré. Although the coup brought tentative calm to the country, the threat of continued prodemocracy protests forced Touré to bring together civilian and military reformers in a government of national unity called the Transitional Committee for the Salvation of the People (CTSP). In little more than a year, the CTSP guided the country through a national conference, a constitutional referendum, and the founding elections of a newly instituted multiparty political system. 1
Both great hope and deep pessimism have colored Mali's first decade of democracy. Yet Mali has succeeded in preserving democratic institu-tions while weathering storms of social protest, political intrigue, party infighting, labor unrest, and a violent separatist movement. The 1992 presidential elections brought Alpha Oumar Konaré, a charismatic former archeology professor, and his newly formed Alliance for Democracy in Mali (Adema) to power. Adema, which united formerly clandestine poli-tical groups with reformists from the disbanded UDPM, benefited from an established organizational framework while remaining untainted by association with the corruption of the Traoré era. It secured a decisive electoral victory over dozens of new political parties competing for power. The National Congress for the Democratic Initiative (CNID), formerly allied with Adema, proved its principal rival. But the CNID won only a handful of seats in the new National Assembly and--together with the Sudanese Union-African Democratic Rally(US-RDA) and the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP)--assumed the role of a vocal, if generally powerless, political opposition.