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African Democracy, Country-Style
Following City-Bred Example, Rural Mali Prepares to Elect Local Councils

By James Rupert
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 30, 1999; A08

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."

In Ivory Coast, where local governments were established in rural areas several years ago, the reform "has not shifted much political power away from the central government," which remains dominated by the political party that long held a monopoly on power there, said Honore Guie, a law professor and democracy activist. "The real change is economic," he said. "Localities now are able to borrow money . . . [and] even seek international aid" to help fund locally designed development projects.

Mali's new communes will need to be aggressive in asserting their powers against the bureaucrats who previously wielded them, Diawara and others say. And they will need administrative help. Sy's task force is seeking candidates for about 700 town managers' jobs who are educated in "administration, law, economics, finance, teaching or other social sciences."

The new local governments "will be the best thing" in furthering democracy, said Mahmat Sangana, an unemployed truck driver who waited out the midday heat one day last week on a shaded porch in Timbuktu. But many people "still don't understand what a commune is," he said.

Mali's democratic evolution, under President Alpha Oumar Konare, has been in some respects stalled since 1997, when poorly run legislative elections caused a split between Konare's ruling party -- the Alliance for Democracy in Mali -- and a bloc of opposition groups. The opposition bloc withdrew from further elections, and Konare and his party scored lopsided victories. The hard-line opposition later rejected the government's legitimacy.

"Conflict between the two sides has crystallized," creating "a certain paralysis" in politics, said Ibrahim Traore, editor of a Bamako newspaper, Le Republicain.

Traore said Mali's progress toward democracy may be threatened not only by the standoff, but also by the great power held by the ruling party.

"I am a Konare supporter, but [his party] has the reflexes of a monopoly political party," he said. Malian and foreign analysts say Konare's party has been trying to grab all the power it can, notably by controlling all appointed posts.

Traore and others said the coming elections are breaking down the refusal of opposition hard-liners to contest for power against the ruling party. "Whoever misses this will miss an important change, and a chance to have a voice," Traore said. In a sprawling, diverse country such as Mali -- whose many ethnic groups include the northern Tuaregs, left, and the southern Dogons, right -- establishing democracy at the local level is a pivotal step toward ensuring the popular embrace of political reforms, analysts say. Alpha Oumar Konare saw his regime's legitimacy challenged after confused elections in 1997.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company