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Mali: Democracy, Islam, Cooperation - 2004-07-23

Vast. United by history and a common struggle for survival. Diverse yet not divisive. Overwhelmingly Islamic. This and more is Mali.

Nearly eleven million people inhabit this constitutional republic the size of South Africa, contrasted by arid open spaces to the north near Algeria and Mauritania, and the savannah of the semi-tropics to the south along the border with Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso. They’ve shared this land for a long time, as All journalist Abdoulaye Dukule notes.

“The first kingdoms in Mali were created 1200 years ago and since then, there has been a mixture of cultures, languages and religions. They have a culture, they have a past together – through all these centuries.”

Mali’s ethnic groups, primarily the Manding, Fulani, Mianka, Songhai, and to the north the Tuareg, have learned over time that cooperation among them is essential. Lucy Colvin Phillips, with the Washington-based development group International Business Initiative, reflects on how this has helped to ensure peace and progress.

“If you have a problem," she says, "you try to get help working it out rather than 'duking' it out. When there is a problem between major groups, there’s always mediation. If there’s a problem, people will try to solve it.”

Because natural resources have always been sparse in Mali, regional trading became significant more than a thousand years ago, with the city of Timbuktu a West African crossroads as well as an Islamic center.

France took full control of Mali in 1898, and it became part of the French Soudan colony that encompassed much of West Africa. A 1958 French constitutional change gave Mali full internal autonomy. Then, in 1960, the Republic of Mali was declared.

In 1968, a military coup installed Moussa Traore as president. He was removed in 1991 by General Amadou Toumani Toure. Extraordinarily, instead of keeping power for himself, he launched free elections in 1992 that restored a fully civilian government under President Alpha Oumar Konare. Former U.S. ambassador to Mali Robert Pringle says Mr. Toure’s relinquishing power reflects an essential part of Malian society.

“The Malians have always seen themselves as the heirs to a great tradition which included many examples of good governance - at least, societies that were civil.”

Another former U.S. ambassador, Princeton Lyman, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the return to a civilian government laid a lasting foundation. “They did establish a multi-party democracy in 1992 which has continued to operate since then," adding "and that’s a credit to the Malian people.”

Mali’s constitution specifically prohibits political parties based on ethnicity, a wise move that has prevented the strife that has wracked numerous other countries.

After serving the constitutional limit of two five-year terms, President Konare stepped aside. All’s Abdoulaye Dukule says the 2002 presidential election had a respected name on the ballot. “Toumani Toure said, 'Yeah, I want to run for president.' They just gave it back to him. They thought he deserved it.”

With Mali’s government stable and democratic, economic development has become a top priority to address the country’s significant poverty. Mali is listed by the U.S. State Department as one of the world’s ten poorest countries, with a per-capita income of about $250.

While Mali has long been a major producer of cotton, former U.S. ambassador Robert Pringle underscores the importance of diversifying Mali’s economic base. He tells VOA "They need not to be so dependent on an agricultural base. Agricultural exports are very difficult in large part because of subsidies mostly western nations put on their own production of things like cotton.”

Washington-based International Business Initiative’s Lucy Colvin Phillips identifies two other areas of potential growth. “Mali," she says "has a really good opportunity in gold mining, which is developing rapidly now. The other is tourism. Mali is a fantastic tourist destination.”

Ms. Phillips says another important step for Mali is to become fully involved with regional cooperation structures, such as ECOWAS, using its central location in West Africa to regain its historic position as a trade crossroads.

However Mali chooses to expand its society and economy, history shows that these issues will be resolved through consensus and cooperation, a bringing together of peoples rather than factional division. Former U.S. ambassador Princeton Lyman says that’s a vital lesson for all West African nations, as well as other countries, to learn and live by.