Pro-Democracy Activists Recall Motives for Move Against Dictator

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LIKE a modern battalion of Davids, Malian students armed with stones and Molotov cocktails battled Army tanks in this dusty capital last March to overthrow a dictator.

Mothers parading boldly in protest of the treatment of their children were fired upon by the Army. About 60 people fleeing the violence ducked into a downtown store, only to be locked in and burned to death by government forces.

But the Davids won: Goliath was toppled.

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Almost a year after the coup against President Moussa Traore, Malian students, civilian politicians, and military leaders as well as diplomats and foreign analysts, are optimistic that democracy can work in Mali. They cite a deep longing for freedom among many Malians after years of stifling dictatorship.

Students interviewed about their part in the riots last March say they first began marching in late 1990 to get more financial aid and improved conditions in the schools.

Some lawyers, doctors, and other professionals marched for an end to restrictions on political parties and political activities by students. Trade unionists backing multiparty politics staged a 48-hour strike to demand higher pay.

Encouraged by pro-democracy moves in other parts of Africa and in Europe, the students moved from marches to confrontations, burning government buildings and property belonging to friends of the president.

"People wanted Moussa [Traore] to go," says Sega Diallo, an English student at the National Teachers College.

Student Aisha Ba describes the pro-democracy protest in an essay: "In the morning, we met one another in front of different schools with our weapons consisting of stones, gasoline, matches, and sand and proceeded to the places to be destroyed.... This event was like a civil war ... in order to live a better life."

Selif Keita, chairman of the English Students Club, recalls the event: "I saw many tanks, coming from every side, shooting people, and I saw some people on the ground, injured. And those who tried to bring the injured people to the hospital were also attacked."

With elections nearing, Mr. Keita outlines student demands for the new government:

* Free lodging for secondary and university boarding students.

* A broader university curriculum (including Marxism).

* Creation of more schools. "Some students meet under trees" in rural areas, he says.

* Government employment for the jobless.

But others are skeptical about how much the government can accomplish in a country that is one of the poorest in Africa, where average per capita income is only $260 a year.

For democracy to work in Mali, "there has to be a change of mentality," says longtime Traore critic Ibrahim Keita. The new political leaders must decentralize authority and allow people to make more decisions about their own lives, he says.

Decentralizing authority could boost Mali's economic progress, says Louis Brenner, an expert on Mali at the School of Oriental and African studies at the University of London. "But it's going to be a very difficult period of time of transition."

A European diplomat in Bamako, Mali's capital, notes that unlike some African countries, Mali does not suffer from flagrant tribal tensions. Mali's move toward democracy, he says, is "one of the African experiments that has the possibility to succeed."

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