Mali: Between Islamist Militancy and African Chaos

Is democracy compatible with Islam? Not likely, if one goes by Freedom House's highly respected indices for political and civil liberties.

Is democracy compatible with Islam? Not likely, if one goes by Freedom House's highly respected indices for political and civil liberties. Of the fifty-seven member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), only five qualified for classification as "free" and two of these, Guyana and Suriname, are Latin American countries. Among the remaining three fully free members of the OIC, according to Freedom in the World 2004, the highest combined average rating is enjoyed by a sub-Saharan African country-a paradox doubly enriched by the fact that the latter region is the world's other great desert for democratic politics.


The oasis in question is Mali, a sprawling West African land between the rich Niger valley and the sands of the Sahara that covers a land mass larger than California and Texas combined. By any of the conventional indicators, Mali would be expected to be either misruled by a despot, failed as a state, or regressed into sectarian religious fanaticism-or all three. That apparent contraindication to liberal politics, Islam, has been the faith of the majority of the country's inhabitants for over a millennium; 90 percent of today's eleven million Malians are Muslim, most adherents of the Sunni tradition. Malians are extremely poor-per capita income is less than $250-and poverty and freedom almost never go together. They also hail from a plethora of ethnic groups with different lifestyles-including Mande (Malinké) traders, Moorish townsmen, Peul herdsmen, Songhai farmers, Tuereg  nomads and some dozen-and-a-half other groups-and the woes that tribal conflicts have caused throughout Africa are well known. And yet, Mali boasts a thriving democratic polity, one that is simultaneously a hopeful sign as well as a full measure of the challenges that the United States faces as it seeks to promote transformative change in the two regions that will be of strategic importance in the coming years, the greater Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.


Long a center of regional commerce-the fabled city Timbuktu prospered for centuries as an entrepôt for goods coming up the Niger river from the African heartland and trans-Saharan caravans headed for the Mediterranean-Mali knew a succession of multi-ethnic empires characterized by religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Such communitarian conflicts that arose were patched up by the creation of kinship bonds between the victor and the vanquished which are still celebrated in folk songs and epic tales. This history contributed over time to the creation of a nascent national consciousness-a characteristic uncommon in both Africa and the Middle East.


After somewhat less than a century of colonial rule as the French Sudan, Mali achieved independence in 1960. Unfortunately, the country's first post-independence president, Modibo Keita, was a Marxist-Leninist theoretician and a leading advocate of what he termed "the socialist option" for Africa. While the dogmatic Keita was overthrown in 1968, his military successors, led by Lieutenant (later self-promoted to General) Moussa Traoré, maintained the one-party state he founded and aligned it with the Soviet Union. The result was, predictably, economic stagnation, famine, and general misery. In 1991, after four days of anti-government rioting, a group of seventeen military officers, led by the then-Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré, arrested president Traoré and suspended the constitution. Amazingly, before returning to their barracks a year later, the putschists organized free and peaceful elections which sent archaeologist Alpha Oumar Konaré to the presidential palace. Re-elected in 1997, Konaré stood down in 2002, respecting the two-term limit that was written into the constitution after the overthrow of the dictatorship (he was subsequently tapped to serve as the chairman of the Commission of the African Union). Konaré was succeeded by that remarkably democratic putschist, Touré, who was elected as an independent candidate with over 60 percent of the vote in a poll that international observers declared to be free and fair.


Touré, the current president of Mali, presides over a multi-party democracy, where the only restriction is a prohibition against parties based on ethnic, religious, regional, or gender lines. After his election in 2002, Touré was careful to include representatives of all the major parties in his government-a wise move given that no party held a clear majority in the National Assembly. The government has been generally respectful of the citizenry's rights-Amnesty International found no serious abuses to document in its International Report 2004. While the government controls the country's only television station, Mali boasts one of the freest media markets in the Islamic and African worlds: there are forty-two private newspapers and journals, published in French, Arabic, and local languages; of the 125 radio stations operating across the country, only one is government-owned; and a number of foreign broadcasters-including Radio France Internationale, the BBC and Voice of America-have local FM affiliates.  There is an independent judiciary and the government itself is regularly taken to task before judges operating a system of administrative courts.