By Ellen KnickmeyerAssociated Press
May 2, 2002
Just a year ago, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was lauding Mali's 10-year-old democracy as "a model for the rest of the world to see and focus on." Amid a chaotic and disputed presidential vote count this month, however, many were left fearing that Mali - West Africa's model - had become only the latest promising young African democracy to slide back into old, corrupt ways.
After a flashy campaign marked by helicopter barnstorming of Sahara Desert villages, governing coalition candidate Soumaila Cisse returned home to reap a surprising 99 percent to 100 percent showing in some oasis precincts around Timbuktu and beyond - in a 24-man field.
With the interior minister's wife running Cisse's election campaign - and the interior minister running the election - peaceful Mali's opposition angrily claimed fraud.
International election observers, while withholding public comment, likewise privately questioned the count, as did the nation's independent election commission.
It wasn't Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, where police used clubs and tear gas in March to drive off opposition supporters who'd waited up to three days in line to vote.
But coming just 10 years after the end of Mali's own bloody dictatorship, it was enough to dishearten many of the people who not so long ago were taking to the streets to celebrate their new, civilian rule.
"People don't trust it," said shopkeeper Abdoulaye Traore, listless in the heat of the capital, Bamako, as state radio gave only sporadic promises of vote results at some future date.
"Even if it's not an old democracy - people don't trust it," the shopkeeper said.
Final results have Cisse, the governing coalition candidate, headed into a May 12 runoff with the former military junta leader, Amadou Toumani Toure.
The Interior Ministry rejects allegations of partiality in the April 28 vote.
A decade ago, Mali - a nation built along the ancient camel caravan routes toting gold, salt and other riches - was rising on a wave of democracy sweeping across post-independence, post-Cold War Africa.
In Mali and in Benin, in Senegal and Ghana, in Zambia, South Africa and Cape Verde, long lines of voters wrought the unthinkable - largely peaceful, popular replacements of entrenched, oppressive regimes.
"It's a great feeling!" a student lining up to vote in 2001 exclaimed in Ghana. Like Ghana, Senegal joined the democratic trend late.
But by 2001, Benin, where voters had ousted a Marxist, Cold-War dictator with great fanfare in 1991, saw the same ex-dictator back in power - thanks to elections widely challenged as rigged.
Zambia, likewise, saw international observers allege vote-rigging in its December 2001 presidential election - benefitting not the old generation of dictators, but the new generation of 'democrats" who succeeded them.
Mali, early on, was considered by the West as one of the young democracies most likely to succeed. Perversely, it was Mali's very poverty that had helped make it so. Mali is one of the world's five poorest countries, despite gold lodes mined since ancient times.
Like Senegal, its neighbor in arid, overwhelmingly Islamic far West Africa, Mali was spared what Oliver Owen of the London-based Center for Democracy and Development called Africa's "curse of riches."
Unlike Sierra Leone with its diamonds, Nigeria with its oil, or Congo with its Aladdin's cave wealth of gold, diamond and copper, countries like Mali have comparatively little to tempt a ruler to hang on, Owen says.
As a result, "when the dictator was removed by popular will, there was no great stake to be made by contesting the reform," Owen said.
And so it was in Mali by 1991, when junior officers led by paratroop commander Amadou Toumani Toure toppled a bloody, 23-year dictator. They surprised many by ceding power to a civilian government 14 months later, as promised.
Western nations were quick to welcome what they soon saw as a stable, reforming democracy on a continent of coups and dictators.
They heaped billions of dollars in aid upon Mali. Help started with former colonial ruler France stepping in to underwrite the country's annual budget shortfall.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, visiting in 1999 to bestow $2 million in aid and inspect a new U.S.-trained peace force, praised it as "a pivotal state ... a very large influence for good."
Powell, making Mali his first stop on his first Africa tour last year, lauded it as "a model for the rest of the world to see and focus on, a democracy."
In a World Bank report late last year, however, outsiders got their first clear signs that things weren't really all that pretty in model Mali. World Bank analysts cited corruption they called "endemic and pernicious because of a system of political clientelism." "The revolution of 1991 was born of hope of an open, democratic society," the World Bank said.
Quoting what it said was Malians' comments to its analysts, it warned, '"If there's a revolution again, it will be because of corruption."
On a continent where voters line up for hours, or days, under hot sun to cast their ballots, only an unenthusiastic 40 percent of those eligible voted in Mali's election.
Mali saw none of Africa's fervent, round-the-clock running vote tallies by hoarse radio reporters - Africa's democratic sentinels, who keep election officials honest, whether they want to be or not.
"It's a democracy, but it's a democracy made by the people with money," said 24-year-old peanut farmer Mamarou Coulibaby, lining up to vote at a crumbling school in a dirt-road hamlet.
"It's not for the people in the village," he added.
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