IN an old courtroom in this dusty West African capital at the edge of the Sahara, two lawyers in black robes vigorously argue a case. A few minutes later, the plaintiff, Nouhoum Coulibaly, pauses in a busy hallway outside the courtroom.
''The law [in Mali] is no longer for the powerful,'' he says. ''It's for everyone.'' He is suing a firm which, he says, did not pay him fully for work. His lawyer, Mamadou Boucoum, adds: ''And the judges [now] are more independent.''
Both men add that the presence of a free press since 1992, when Mali held its first democratic elections, has helped expose corruption and other problems covered up during 23 years of dictatorship.
Their tale of how democracy, a free press, and the rule of law have benefited one African nation is increasingly common across this continent which, despite much violent turmoil and desperate economic conditions, is mostly at peace.
The often-horrific conflicts of recent years -- in Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Angola, and Liberia -- may give the impression to the outside world that the whole of Africa is equally anarchic. But some seeds of democracy have been planted in Africa, with the hope that it will follow Latin America, Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia in creating politically open societies with multiparty elections.
Compared with the 1980s, the continent so far in this decade has fewer major, unresolved conflicts or cases of states collapsing. South Africa moved to a black-majority government in 1994, ending decades of apartheid. Mozambique's long civil war ended with elections last year. Namibia, Benin, Zambia, Malawi, and a few other countries have had democratic elections and changed their heads of state.
By one recent report, Africa has gained more freedom since the end of the cold war, since the countries are no longer pawns in the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In 1989, as the cold war was ending, sub-Sarahan Africa had only three ''free'' states out of 48, according to Freedom House, an independent research institute in New York. But in its January 1995 survey, Freedom House listed eight nations as ''free,'' 17 as ''partly free,'' and 22, including Zaire, as ''not free.''
Eighteen sub-Saharan African countries held competitive elections in 1994, up from three in 1989, Freedom House reports. But only eight of the 18 are considered ''free.'' The others still have a major impediment to freedom, such as ethnic strife or an insurgency.
At the same time, Africa was politically ''the most volatile region on earth,'' notes Freedom House analyst Joseph Ryan. Six of the 12 nations in the world that had major changes -- either gaining or losing freedom -- were in the region.
''The genie is out of the bottle,'' Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari said of moves toward democracy.
He finds a mental change in most of Africa, with people speaking out and demanding -- though not always getting -- political rights.
And as the fear of speaking out erodes in one country after another, the ''genie'' of free speech could only be stuffed back into the bottle with enormous force, adds Mr. Gambari.
Despite setbacks, ''democracy is making progress'' in Africa, says Gibson Kamau Kuria, a human rights lawyer in Kenya. While some democratic elections have brought new leaders in some countries, others have only increased frustrations.
Incumbents often just maneuver their way to reelection under the banner of democracy but with authoritarian methods. But even in such countries, demands for freedom are stronger and may yet result in change.
And democracy, once obtained, is not always guaranteed. In Gambia, for example, a protest march last July by the military over pay turned into a coup d'etat, forcing elected President Dawda Jawara to flee.
Unless other democratic reforms are also initiated, such as ending state control of TV stations and automatic registration of adult voters, elections remain in danger, says a leading civil rights lawyer in Kenya, Pheroze Nowrojee. Democracy also requires stronger legislatures, with opposition members free to raise questions.
''The true test [of democracy] is not which individual is in [power] but whether democratic processes are in place,'' Mr. Nowrojee says.
In some cases, the failure of losers to accept an election result can block democracy. The Western-style, ''winner-take-all'' election approach is ''sadly lacking [and] inadequate'' for Africa, says Desmond Tutu, archbishop of the Anglican Church for southern Africa.
A better model, he says, is South Africa's pre-election negotiations among major political forces that resulted in today's power-sharing government. Losing parties that passed specific thresholds in election vote counts were guaranteed a place in the new government.
Nowrojee says political conflicts in a democracy can be limited or eased by a return to a traditional form of dialogue once common in many parts of Africa. Dialogue requires good will on both sides, however. In Rwanda, where a four-month massacre killed an estimated 500,000 people last year, there was no such dialogue. Genocide was carefully planned and carried out by Hutu extremists against the minority Tutsis.
''We have lost the traditional concept of dialogue,'' a precolonial system of settling disputes between tribes by talking together, Nowrojee says. ''I'm not saying everything can be solved by dialogue, but the violence can be delayed substantially [allowing time for a negotiated settlement], and in some cases defused.''