Thursday, 26 July 2007

Democracy in Mali: the president and the prostitute

The second round of parliamentary elections in Mali was completed at the weekend (22nd July 2007). The ADP coalition supporting Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) was always the favourite to win and in the end they took 128 seats out of 147 in the national assembly. Since ATT was re-elected president for a second five-year term in May, the casual observer may be forgiven for assuming that the Malian population are happy with his style of leadership and that, clearly, he has their support to go forward with the neo-liberal programme of economic reform imposed by western donors.

Let’s look beneath the surface, because this also occurs in other countries. While Mali is perceived to be one of the most stable democracies in the African continent, it is also right at the bottom of the UN’s human development index. Despite a raft of donor-driven institutional reforms, life has not improved for the majority of her citizens. This is one good reason why the turnout for the national elections was low - as in bye-elections over the last year or so - indicating disillusionment with politics in general. Overall the turnout was estimated at 33% but this figure hides the disastrous lack of engagement of citizens in the capital (12%) and the relatively high engagement in some rural areas (up to 50% or more in a country where the literacy rate is around 25%).

Gender equality has made no progress whatsoever in the past 5 years. In fact, it looks as if it might be reversed. In the outgoing assembly, women deputies counted for a bare 10% or 14 out of 147 seats with 5 women ministers (18%). This year for the first time there was a woman presidential candidate Aminata SidibĂ© who entered the race late and was only able to draw on the support of a network of Malian women working in the non-governmental sector. In the parliamentary elections there were 227 women candidates out of 1,408 and none of them were elected in the first round, leaving only 26 to save Mali’s honour in the second round. Predictions that the number of female deputies would be halved in the new assembly were found to be too pessimistic: 14 women were finally elected.

This is not because women don’t want to be involved in politics. They have campaigned vigorously, in a cross-party coalition for the introduction of 30% quotas on the candidate lists (which are put forward by the different political parties) and even managed to get a bill discussed in the national assembly last August, in preparation for this year’s elections. After a stormy debate, the bill was thrown out by a majority of the legislature – but as they are almost all men, this is hardly surprising.

And while male commentators continue to claim that women are not politically competent or confident enough to run a successful campaign, women themselves complain that the main factor is economic inequality. Those candidates that have money to bribe the electorate will win. The vast majority of women in Mali are economically dependent and anyway women don’t play that game. Possibly one reason why men are against more women in government is that “their presence would bring scruples back into public life and rehabilitate politics in the eyes of citizens for whom ‘democracy’ has become devalued.” (Bintou Sanankoua secretary general of the network of African women ministers and parliamentarians and former deputy in Mali). Indeed, the ombudsman’s report for 2006 revealed that 103 billion West African francs (more than £103 billion) had been ‘lost’ that year through government corruption in Mali.

Coalition politics

The problem is that Mali exemplifies open democracy gone wild, but only for men of course. There was a total of 154 political parties contesting the 2007 elections, the same scenario as in 2002, when ATT formed a coalition government. For the 2007 elections, the ADP (the alliance for development and progress) comprised over thirty political parties and numerous other civil society organisations. In different constituencies different coalitions joined together to form other coalitions as seemed expedient in order to present the most attractive lists. This form of coalition politics is entirely cynical and has nothing to with political principle, according to Nina Walet Intalou, councillor in the northern-most constituency of Kidal and deputy chair of the independent state watchdog for local government.

In other words there is no viable opposition. As another friend there commented, the strongest candidate standing against ATT was Ibrahim Boubacar Keita - who had just been working with ATT as a minister for 5 years in government (sound familiar to British readers?): how can he be seen as a serious political opponent? Although I’m not generally in favour of the combative male two-party oppositional political paradigm, I have to agree with Nina Walet that it at least means representatives attempt to have some kind of position. The situation is also a disadvantage for ATT, because as leader he has to please everyone in the coalition. Realistically, he has to go along with corruption. And as for social justice, well, for example, he allegedly supported the women’s quota bill himself but was not able to push it through. Yet it seems he certainly had all the civil servants in his pocket come election time.

So, the long and the short of it is that the citizens of Mali don’t bother voting because – despite the plethora of apparent options - there isn’t really any choice. And, in the same vein, journalists are free to say what they like about ATT and the government because that’s not going to make any difference either.

Freedom of the press

However, there was a little fuss in June when a secondary school teacher was arrested for disrespect to the president, along with five journalists - which led Reporters without Borders to query Mali’s status as one of the few African countries to field a free press. Believe it or not I actually met this young man who used to drive up on a moped to visit his cousin Mboye, the housekeeper in the Bamako courtyard where I lived for 3 months. In his first year of teaching, Bassirou Minta had taken advice from an older colleague on essay themes that had been used before. He then gave his students an assignment to write on moral corruption in relation to an imaginary president and his mistress. The press got hold of this, thanks to a helpful parent. Minta was fined, jailed and barred from teaching; the journalists were also fined and had suspended sentences for publishing articles on the matter. The public were barred from the trial on the grounds it was a ‘sex case’.

On 21 June, a crowd of around 200 journalists marched in the capital in front of the office of the Justice Minister to demand the release of their colleagues (as reported by the International Federation of Journalists) Security forces violently broke up the protest and fired tear gas at the journalists, badly injuring Ibrahim Famakan Coulibaly, the president of the Malian Journalists' Association and the West African Journalists' Association.

But the story was nothing to do with politics - or was it? Firstly, the woman in the story was ‘a student and economic prostitute’. It is so much taken for granted in Mali that young women will sell their favours to older wealthy and more powerful men. It is only when the girl falls pregnant, as here, that there is an issue to debate - one of the dilemmas being should the president marry his mistress and recognise his child - which in fact he is forced to do when the girl comes into a cabinet meeting to plead her case.

Apparently ATT is well known for his extra-marital liaisons and his long line of natural-born children. A lot of people think ‘a big man’ like him should have disregarded the story in the press instead of over-reacting. As the journalist who first published the story puts it: “the link is clear between moral corruption at the grassroots and the role model at the very top which has created it.” Seydina Oumar Diarra continues: “We allow young girls from our own families and villages to be pimped - in a society where money has become the only sign of success.”

Meanwhile Mali’s new poverty reduction strategy depends on money from the US-based Millennium Challenge Corporation. The MCC currently uses 16 objective indicators of social, political, and economic performance to determine a country’s eligibility for support – including combating corruption. The aid invested is expected to deliver a return, namely, improvements in the lives of the poor. Mali’s plans are to upgrade the airport at Bamako which will advantage private and foreign companies. In addition, rural development will include parcelling out land to what another journalist (Ousmane Sow, writing in Les Echos 22 November 2006) calls ‘Sunday farmers from Bamako.’ Instead of the people benefiting from the great green river Niger, their water and electricity supplies are controlled by outside entreprise - and GM crops are being introduced by the US under a new agricultural project.

So, that’s democracy in Mali. Who’s the prostitute in the story? And where’s the moral outrage? A government committee is complaining that not enough people went online to cast their vote for Timbouctou to become classed as one of the seven wonders of the world. Never mind, two young Maliennes have been voted in to the final round of the regonal Miss Sahel competition. Let’s get things in proportion.

Afterthought: The women’s platform

The women’s cross-party coalition in Mali held a round-table in January 2007 to develop a women’s platform for future increase in political participation . I hope they get the support they need to move this forward for the 2009 local elections. At that level, another women’s platform already exists : the labour-saving multi-purpose machine run on battery power which performs a range of tasks normally allotted to women, lightening their physical load and freeing up time – to become involved in politics. If every community in Mali had one of these, we might begin to see real progress in democracy and development.

Read more

See an earlier post on the same theme: The Boys Club Rules OK

Pamela Mhlanga discusses the 50.50 gender protocol in southern Africa

My original essay on Mali: everyone's favourite destination, 2006

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