African Democracy, Country-Style

By James Rupert
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 30, 1999

BAMAKO, Mali -- Since 1991, when the people of this arid West African land forced the overthrow of a 23-year dictatorship, they have been adapting to democratic politics -- twice choosing from a welter of parties to elect a president and legislature. But in the next two months, most Malians will be called on to do something new: elect local governments.

Outside of major cities, most Africans have never elected local governments that wield significant resources or authority. A decade after Africa began a broad movement toward democracy, Mali is one of the countries that is trying to move reforms closer to the grass roots in what political analysts say is an essential next step.

"This is the second phase of our democratization," said Ousmane Sy, who heads the Malian government's Task Force on Decentralization and Institutional Reform.

At the beginning of the 1990s, African city-dwellers rose up with strikes and demonstrations that helped force authoritarian governments to allow democracy to gain a foothold, notably by abandoning single-party regimes in favor of multi-party politics.

Nearly a decade later, African governments -- both the relatively repressive and the more democratic -- are facing popular pressure to devolve power to regions and localities.

As Nigeria, the continent's most populous state, prepares to swear in its first civilian government in 15 years, political debate there focuses on returning to a federal system that will redistribute powers hoarded by decades of military governments. During the 1990s, many of Africa's French-speaking countries -- Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso and others -- have passed laws aimed at decentralizing governmental powers.

[In Rwanda, millions of people voted for local leaders yesterday in the country's first free, nonpartisan elections since brutal ethnic killings five years ago that left a half-million people dead, news services reported. While no elections have been held for central government posts since an ethnic Tutsi-led regime took power after the 1994 genocide, officials said they hoped the local vote would foster grass roots democracy and reconciliation.]

Even in countries such as Mali, where the reforms seem relatively far-reaching, the powers of new local governments are less than those in the United States. Police forces, for example, remain firmly under central authorities. But in many cases, local governments are getting some financial independence through powers to levy taxes and fees.

Africans' efforts to decentralize political power represent, in part, a dismantling of structures introduced by the European colonialists who seized control of Africa in the 1800s. The Europeans swept aside kingdoms, empires, emirates and other forms of government, most of which were relatively decentralized, to establish authoritarian bureaucracies. Only a few cities benefited from local self-government.

Colonial rule under France "represented the greatest centralization of power" in Mali's history, said Mamadou Diawara, an anthropologist who heads a Bamako social sciences research center, Point Sud.

In the pro-democracy uprising of 1990-91 that forced out longtime dictator Moussa Traore, many Malians pressed for a shift of power. Ethnic Tuareg nomads, who fought a civil war from 1990 to '96, also demanded local autonomy.

In April and May, Mali is to replace existing districts with elected local goverments. The new councils will govern land use and run schools, health centers, transport systems and other services. "Many people are afraid of the fact that [the central government] will no longer pay for these directly," Diawara said. "They fear the state is abandoning them."

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