Friday, May 04, 2007

Soldier of Malian Democracy wins again

The President of Mali has been re-elected for a second five year term after results announced yesterday. Amadou Toumani Toure won with 68.3% of the valid votes, avoiding the need for a run-off election. He comfortably beat his closest rival Ibrahim Boubacar Keita who could only manage to win 18.6%.

Foreign observers say the Mali vote was free and fair although opposition candidates have alleged fraud. They accused Toure’s supporters of using state assets to finance his campaign said voters' lists favoured the incumbent. Toure is now enjoying his second stint as leader having previously come to power in a military coup in 1991 before handing over power to a civilian government a year later

As expected, voter turnout was low, about 36%. In fact the turnout is an improvement on previous elections which has hovered around 20%. According to Mali’s Interior Ministry, political apathy is more prevalent in the capital Bamako than in the countryside. A German adviser to the government attributes Bamako's apathy to the fact many people are not interested in politics. Wilfried Wesch said “the political parties and the government did not do anything to promote democracy; they did not do anything to educate their people."

This malaise may be understandable as Mali is one of the world's poorest nations. Located on the southern edge of the Sahara, the landlocked Mali is the seventh largest country in Africa and twice the size of Texas. Its geography is dominated by a great river, the Niger. Mali sits at the northern apex of the curve of the 2,500 km river. The Niger is of crucial importance to the country providing irrigation for agriculture and serving as a major transportation artery.

Mali has known urban life for two thousand years. The influence of the Niger River made it a trade hub and the site of several caravan routes. Islam arrived in the 7th century spreading quickly after Mohammed’s death. It took hold in what was then the Ghana Empire (named for the emperor) which eventually gave way to the Malinke Empire. The Malinke Empire ruled for 400 years until 1645.

Inevitably the European powers took an interest in Mali. The French invaded in the 1880s and appointed a civilian governor in 1893. The locals resisted strongly but were eventually defeated after five years. Mali was subsumed into French West Africa. Like many other French colonies, it won the right to self-government with the passing of France's Fundamental Law (Loi Cadre) in 1956. It briefly formed a federation with Senegal before goings its own way with independence in 1960.

Its first leader Modibo Keita was lasted eight years before being overthrown in a bloodless military coup. A 14-member Military Committee for National Liberation (CMLN) ruled for the next six years. Moussa Traore emerged from the CMLN to take full control. He consolidated power and brutally put down challenges to his power from the military and from students unhappy with the lack of democracy. In 1991, another student rebellion gained important support from government workers. The military led by General Amadou Toumani Toure arrested Traore and established an interim government and a draft constitution.

During this phase, Toure got his nickname of the “Soldier of Malian Democracy”. A former parachute commando, he was instrumental in the push to seize power from Traore. Surprisingly he kept to his promise to organise elections. He handed over to a civilian president Alpha Oumar Konare the following year to international acclaim. He retired from the army but kept his eye on domestic politics. In 2002 Konare retired and Traore returned to power through the ballot box. His critics accuse him of lacking big political ideas, dismissing him for his focus on local development projects at the expense of grand visions. But abroad, people speak better of him "Mali has a good reputation in the international community and part of that is to his credit," said Global Insight’s Kissy Agyeman. "He is known for his simplicity. He is not one of those flamboyant African leaders," she said.

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