Economic Woes Shake Mali's Democracy

High prices and low wages put Mali at risk of military coup

AFRICAN democracy is being tested in this dusty capital near the Sahara desert.

Public dissatisfaction is growing over how little the democratic government of Mali, one of Africa's poorest nations, has been able to deliver since it was elected two years ago.

Almost everyone is suffering from inflation and poverty. Commodities are sparse, and the prices of imported goods have doubled. University and secondary school students, who helped topple a military regime in 1991, are striking for greater financial aid; some of the more militant ones burned the houses of several government supporters last month. Civil servants are calling for 50 percent pay increases.

Some diplomats and opposition politicians say Mali risks a military coup.

Typical of other poor African nations that have switched from dictatorships to elected governments in recent years, Mali is experiencing what a Western diplomat here calls the consequences of ``overblown expectations of democracy.''

``Life was supposed to get better; it's gotten worse,'' the diplomat says.

Mali switched to democracy in 1991, when violent demonstrations by Malian university and secondary school students demanding more financial aid helped topple the 23-year military regime of Gen. Moussa Traore. An interim military government gave way to a civilian, Alpha Oumar Konare, who was elected president in 1992.

The severest blow to the economy, and perhaps the government, came in January, when France devalued the currency used in Mali and 13 other former French colonies.

The move has especially hurt the unemployed and urban workers, fueling anger. Even before the devaluation, the annual per capita income was only $280. Critics blame the government for not preparing the public for the devaluation, which was anticipated.

``I've tried everywhere [to find a job],'' says Draman Samake, a jobless Malian who could not afford to buy a sewing machine after his tailoring apprenticeship ended last year.

In an interview at the Presidential Palace, Konare admits there's a risk of a military coup. Acknowledging ``a big risk of a social explosion'' due to the multiple demands on the state's meager resources, he stresses the importance of foreign aid to Mali to help maintain democracy.

``In a new democracy, the road is never a royal one,'' Konare says. ``Democracy is a process'' that must be allowed to be ``self-correcting.''

Ousman Bagui Fofanta, a member of the local council in the city of San, says Konare is in the midst of his own ``apprenticeship'' as president. Like many Malians, he blames Konare for being indecisive and making too many unfulfilled promises, criticism Konare says is inaccurate. But he agrees with the president that the elected government should be allowed to complete its term of office without military intervention.

``Everything turns around the credibility of the state,'' says Mountaga Tall, an opposition leader and unsuccessful candidate in the 1992 elections. ``There is a rupture in confidence in government,'' he adds from the back seat of his chauffeured car, where he sits with his two young children on his way home from a political meeting.

Mr. Tall says only a national conference of all parties, unions, and other political groups can restore public confidence in the government. Some Malians long for the firmer hand of the former military regimes.

``There weren't traffic jams like this before,'' says Adama, a taxi driver here. He grumbles with obvious exaggeration as he sits in stalled traffic at a downtown intersection.

Referring to the burning of houses by students last month, Amadou, a Malian shopkeeper, says, ``Democracy does not mean anarchy. From the point of view of public security, it was better'' under the military.

Since Konare took office, the students have been pressuring him for more aid. ``We are all coming from poor families,'' says Salif Keita, who recently graduated from a teacher's training college here in Bamako.

Students in Mali cannot be taken lightly, given their record in helping topple the Traore regime. Western diplomats and some opposition politicians say public disorder such as house burnings, plus general discontent with the government, pose a security threat to the government.

A military coup is ``very possible,'' says the Western diplomat. But, he adds, ``things would have to get a lot worse.'' Many Malians, including students, are not anxious to risk the abuses of a military government, he says.

``There is a risk of a coup dtat,'' says Amidou Diabate, minister of justice in the Konare government until he resigned last month. Mr. Diabate is a member of Tall's opposition party, the National Committee for Democratic Initiative (CNID).

The presence of opposition party leaders in Konare's Cabinet stems from his ``deepest conviction that democracy does not work without an opposition,'' he says. Such a view is seldom heard in Africa.

But CNID leaders allege that the president pays little heed to opposition views. Konare says his administration's main failure is the poor job it has done explaining its programs.

He adds that his administration has been trimming ``ghost'' workers from state payrolls, decentralizing government decisionmaking to give regional offices a greater voice, and is helping develop small industries.

But so far, this appears to have offered few tangible results.

US Ambassador to Mali William H. Dameron, says ``The US government looks at Mali as a success story in West Africa ... so far'' and as a ``role model'' for democracy in the region.

He says the Malian government has to ``balance demands of poor people with [the need for] law and order, discussion, freedom of the press - democracy.'' In terms of human rights, Mali is ``on the right track,'' he adds.

Whether that is enough for most Malians remains to be seen.

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