Mali Villagers Bargain With Votes

MUSIC blares over a microphone as men wearing painted wooden masks fringed with long, hairlike, frayed rope dance inside the circle formed by a crowd of excited villagers. Election banners hang from mud walls. And a presidential candidate wearing yellow slippers, a full-length golden Malian robe, and sunglasses waits to give his speech.

The age of multiparty democracy has reached this village of some 1,300 in southwestern Mali, and residents like Nessa Kamara are expecting something tangible from it.

"This village needs a maternity center, a better road, and a mill to grind grain," says Mrs. Kamara. "Multiparty politics gives people what they want," she says, expressing the kind of hope candidates must deal with.

African villagers have always talked about their needs, but now many feel they have a bargaining tool: their votes.

Votes didn't count much when elections were rigged and Mali, like many other African countries, had only one party and one candidate - a dictator.

But as multiparty democratic elections become more common, candidates are going where the majority of votes are: the villages.

According to the World Bank, two out of every three people in sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas. In Mali, 80 percent of the people are rural dwellers.

Recently, Malian presidential candidate Demba Diallo, a long-time human-rights activist, brought his two-car convoy to this village close to the capital, Bamako.

In March 1991, after the government failed to heed months of mounting calls for democratic reforms and pay and scholarship hikes, students and other citizens protested with stones and Molotov cocktails. As the army and police opened fire on the crowds, at least 150 to 300 people, mostly civilians, were killed. On March 26, 1991, a group of Malian officers led by Lt. Col. Amadou Toumani Toure arrested long-time Malian dictator Moussa Traore.

Colonel Toure promised free elections within a year. Municipal elections were held earlier this year; runoffs for national legislative assembly seats were held March 8. Presidential elections are scheduled for April 12.

After greeting a local Muslim leader, Mr. Diallo walks along a winding dirt path bordered by thatch-roofed, mud-brick huts to the village square, an open area where Lassa has laid on its finest: chairs for the important visitors, a microphone, and dancers. At first only children and a few adults are on hand. But the crowd grows as the music and dancing begins.

On the edge of the crowd, Baba Coulibaly, a nurse who works in Bamako but lives in Lassa, is eager to describe the village's needs.

Lassa needs a maternity clinic, he explains, because "some women give birth before arriving at the hospital in Bamako." And, he says, "The road is so steep ... many transporters are afraid to come here." Built decades ago when Mali was a French colony, the road, paved in some places, is badly deteriorated.

Mr. Coulibaly lists other needs: The three classrooms here, built with United States government funds, are now overcrowded, he says. Women spend hours walking to get water, because one well is no longer enough to meet the village needs. And a health center would be much appreciated.

"Our concern is that since independence we haven't benefited much," Coulibaly says. "The politicians have promised us a lot, but actions are rare. That's what really bothers us. We're poor. We don't have enough money to meet our own needs."

Asked what Lassa got during the 23, single-party, dictatorial years of Lieutenant Traore, another villager says, "Three soccer balls." But the arrival of multiparty politics in Mali has rekindled hopes for the future, as well as some confusion over just what the change is all about.

For example, voting instructions, in French, have been posted on some mud walls in the village. But they're of little help: Only two out of 10 Malians can read. Voicing an admission at least some others are probably reluctant to make, Wassa Keita, a mother of three, says, "I don't understand what 'multiparty' and 'democracy' are."

But she, too, knows exactly what the village needs. "There's not enough to eat. And in the dry season there's no water. And we live in the dark: no electricity," she says. Asked what changes have come already to this village during the year Mali has been a multiparty state, resident Kamara says: "We can freely express ourselves."

But beyond this much-valued freedom of speech, are any tangible benefits likely from multiparty politics?

Sitting outside his house here with friends, Ossman Cesse, a cook who works in Bamako, says, "Things can't change all at once. The money [in the government treasury] is zero."

Nevertheless, in his speech here, Diallo did promise Lassa a better road and a maternity clinic. A candidate from another party had earlier promised both improvements, as well as a health center. Only candidate Alfa Omar Konare, a man with a strong chance of winning the presidency, promises Malians little. In Bamako, Mr. Konare told the Monitor that the country is broke, and that all he can promise is "good management."

But as Coulibaly stands on a rise overlooking his village, he shares a parting hope with his visitors. "Democracy should bring us something," he says.

How well Africa's new crop of democratically elected leaders do in meeting such hopes - or convincing people to be patient - may determine how long they, and even some African democracies, survive.

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