From Timbuktu, a Lesson In Making Elections Work

THREE years ago, in the famed town of Timbuktu, election officials in turbans and full-length robes counted ballots, one-by-one, by lantern light.

Despite Mali's poverty and lack of modern election equipment, the voting in April 1992 went fairly smoothly. Alpha Oumar Konare, was elected president.

Mali is among those African nations that have had a democratic, multiparty election and changed heads of state.

Mali's change didn't come without a brief struggle, however. Students and others took on the army of longtime dictator Gen. Moussa Traore in open battle in 1991. They even attacked military tanks. More than 100 people were killed; some estimates put the toll at three times that.

Civil servants were seeking pay hikes; students wanted bigger scholarships and improvements in facilities.

''People were fed up with the political dictatorship,'' says Djibril Coulibaly, a student at the National Teacher's College in the capital, Bamako. He recalled the fighting he joined on March 22, 1991. ''We were afraid. But there were so many students -- and many others joined us.''

Four days later, General Traore was arrested by Army Col. Amadou Toumani Toure, who set himself up as head of state and promised elections in a year. He missed his deadline by only a couple of months.

Despite the presence of free elections, New York-based Freedom House lists Mali as ''partially free,'' because of the ongoing uprising in the north by a nomadic Arab faction.

The risk of another military coup persists, says Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. ''We have to be vigilant,'' he said. But he adds that ''development is the best security.'' The government has begun a series of reforms aimed at beefing up the economy.

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