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close this bookThe Courier N° 138 - March - April 1993 Dossier: Africa's New Democracies - Country Reports : Jamaica - Zambia (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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View the documentAlpha Konaré , President of Mali

Alpha Konaré , President of Mali

'You need time to learn about democracy'

It took three days of bloodshed and revolt for the people to overturn a dictatorship of 23 years. It took a national conference two weeks to give vent to all the pent-up frustration and adopt the basic texts of a State to be governed by the rule of law. It took 15 months of transition to organise the elections. And, when the elections were over, a soldier handed over power to a civilian, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Those, briefly, are the facts of the Malian move to democracy which arouses so much admiration and envy in countries such as Zaire and Togo, where the democratic process has ground to a halt.

It is two years since the fall of the Moussa Traoregime and a few weeks since the former leader was sentenced to death for his part in the killings in March 1991. Where is the young democracy now ? Mali's new President, Alpha Oumar Konaranswered The Courier's question in a consciously didactic style, betraying the fact that, not so long ago, he was teaching history in the classroom.

· Mr President, the elections have taken place as planned, and the institutions are there. Does this mean that the people have really understood what democracy is all about?

-Mali was able to hold multi-party elections for the first time in 1991 and they were run in an orderly manner too, it should be pointed out. Everyone involved in politics knew that we had to be able to take the country into a democratic process without trouble of any kind. The institutions, the President of the Republic, the Government and the National Assembly, are there now and we won't have to wait long for the rest, the Constitutional Court that is to say, whose job is partly being done at the moment by the Supreme Court, the Economic and Social Council and the High Council of the local authorities. The people felt the wind of change for the first time when they voted in these elections because it was the first time since independence that they had had the opportunity to choose for themselves. One of the main things our people wanted after the events of March 1991 was to be able to choose, to be able to say no if they wanted to. That is their greatest achievement, but they still have to be educated in the ways of democracy, because there has been a single-party system for years. That is why we said that, after the elections and whatever our score, the management of the country had to be based on an agreement on the essential issues. Democracy needs time. It would be wrong to say that everyone who voted for us has been won over to democracy or is in fact a democrat, so there is an effort to be made to educate our people in the ways of democracy.

· Is this absence of a democratic tradition the reason behind the anarchic behaviour at the moment: in other words, people tending to confuse democracy with a licence to do whatever they like?

-It's a difficult situation and we must show some understanding, because after 25 years of single-party culture, it is a rude awakening when the authority of the State is seriously undermined and claims are made on all sides. Ironically enough, just when you hear that there is supposed to be free private enterprise and less State involvement, people from every walk of life are expecting the State to meet their demands and to do so at once. We aren't going to complain about them wanting their rights, but it is important to understand the situation the country is in and realise just what sort of effort the nation must make to achieve practical solutions. Those who really fought for democracy are also those who must set the bounds to stop any slide towards anarchy-even if this means taking time to educate people for democracy and taking time to listen to them and discuss.

· Since you took over from a regime which, as everyone knows, ended up ordering repression, isn't your room for manoeuvre rather limited ?

-Yes it is, which makes our situation difficult. The greatest danger is the temptation to set up a repressive, authoritarian State. But there is another choice - that of having confidence in the democrats, making them realise how complex the situation is and asking them, who alone made the change of system possible, to set about taking the democratic process further. Democrats must understand that it is not overthrowing a regime or organising elections that makes the system last. Now is the time for the real democratic reflex to appear in an ability to listen and in an ability to discuss things-and in the major choice we made to concentrate on setting up elections. Because if you take power and don't have elections, there is nothing to stop you giving in to every temptation, including that of believing that the course of events can always be changed by taking to the streets. At that rate, you'd never have a regime. If pressure from the street can put paid to those who got the power because of all the problems, they can do the same to the new arrivals. That is why we need a lot of tolerance and open-mindedness in our present situation.

'You achiere nothing permanent without vigilance'

· Yet politicians are forever saying that the Malians will never again agree to live in a dictatorship-which could mean that democracy is here to stay ?

- It means that there is a clear awareness of the need for democracy, although you know as well as I do that, in many countries, democracy can easily backslide. It also means-and I am quite sure about this-that we can't just do what we like in the Republic of Mali without someone objecting any more. Those days are over... although that is not to say that we won't have a completely retrograde regime tomorrow. You achieve nothing permanent without vigilance, particularly freedom.

· Talking recently about the press, you said that it was the educated writing for the educated. Isn't it much the same with democracy in Africa, particularly Mali?

-It is for all those reasons that I said that we needed time to learn democracy. Our democratic foundations will never be consolidated without the large-scale involvement of people in rural areas. They will be fragile as long as the literacy rate in the Republic of Mali is so low. Learning to read and write is an act of freedom. It is a sine qua non of greater involvement in the democratic management of affairs. The situation in this country is dramatic. We fought for democratic change, but fewer and fewer people are getting a proper schooling and that is a very serious blow to democracy. 1 agree with you that guaranteeing the democratic process means improving and extending the basic system of education. More men, women, children and old people must be able to read and write-and that is where the democrats come in. They must not believe that a minority can do what it wants, by itself, for long, because hostile forces may turn the very people who need democracy most against it.

· There is one thing you haven't mentioned and that is the need to get rapid results on the economic front, so that people can see a proper improvement in their standard of living.

-That's absolutely right, and, basically, I think, that will be decisive. Freedom is vital. Democracy is a key to development with solidarity, justice and fairness, but, if things stay as they are, with poverty mounting and justice lacking, the whole lot will topple. This month, I admit, the first Government of the Third Republic has been playing fireman, putting out lots of fires which it didn't light at a time when there are arsonists about. And there are genuine problems for which we have to find rapid answers, with the help of the people.

· Is there one special area where you hope to make rapid progress to have something tangible to show?

-Yes there is. We must put a very clear spotlight on the changeover to stringent management and the repression of fraud. There are also guarantees we could give the rural areas-we could provide access to credit, ensure better marketing of production and offer what it needs in the way of facilities to form associations and get its point of view across. What we have to do, in fact, and very soon, is change the way the country is administered. That is part of development too and it means going for regional integration and for decentralisation to involve the people more. You know as well as I do that people in the rural areas had the burden of the poll tax to bear. We have stopped that, but there is the whole burden of a petty, meddlesome and corrupt administration to bear too and it can't just be changed by decree. The people have to feel involved because they are able to take part and have some control over those who administer them.

· But there is a fine dividing line there too, because the people could feel that they don't need any discipline.

-That is the whole problem. In the misguided views of some, democracy is laisser-aller and laisser-faire, whereas, as we see it, it is the beginning of shouldering responsibility.

· Have your development partners realised that the new democratic regime needs to get rapid economic results ? And does the aid channelled into Mali reelect this ?

- I believe that our development partners have understood that the key to the country's future is the democratic process and that we need economic results if we are to strengthen it. They are already very sensitive to what we say. I think we shall be seeing changes in behaviour, even when it comes to the sort of solutions our partners put forward. Some of the solutions, to our mind, are not right and it should be possible for alternative solutions which come from us to be taken into account when it comes to, say, the process of privatisation and voluntary retirement and the education policy and employment for young people.

For example, we all agree that basic education should be provided for all. But approaches may differ. The solutions proposed so far have not led to any progress, even with the structural adjustment programmes, for it has been more a case of day-to-day management than proper medium- and long-term development options. In other words, choices are made as to how funds should be spent, but they don't really help the country's development and that is disastrous.

It takes economic results to strengthen the democratic process'

- Mr Love, the new head of the DAC, claims it is dangerous for new democracies to be over-dependent on foreign aid because it limits their room for manœuvre.

-We agree with him, which is why problems may arise with people thinking that the State has money, that the State is rich. But the State of Mali is extremely poor. You cannot set a democratic process on its way unless it is founded on a national drive and on the nation's ability to suggest alternative solutions. That is undeniable. However much good will the partners may have, at home is where it all has to start.

· At the beginning of our talk, you insisted on the institutional framework, didn't you ? Edgard Pisani, whom I think you know well, said just recently that the new democracies in Africa did not have the resources to run the institutions they were setting up. In fact he gave Mali as an example and said he was worried about it.

-There are real financial problems attached to setting up some institutions, and it would be silly to try to hide the fact. In most cases, we need a lot of foreign money to organise our elections and all democrats have to see very clearly what is involved. If tomorrow, say, you had early elections in a country in the throes of a democratic process, you would need to know who was going to pay for them. It's a question we all have to answer. For if the people you ask decline to finance your elections when you want them to, your democracy will have been taken hostage. That is why we have to do our utmost to get the extraordinary opportunity before us today under control. There is no doubt that institutions cost money, which is why you have to know how to run them with a high degree of national responsibility. I am convinced that one day, once these institutions are in place and the internal discussion among democrats develops, we will find various ways of surmounting their 'teething' troubles.

· The big problem in Africa's new democracies is that they have to run political and economic reforms at the same time. Have you come up with a recipe for this in your seven months in power?

-It's a dilemma and no mistake. There is no magic formula. Our way of settling all the questions people may be wondering about is to aim for the broadest possible basis of democrats and patriots, who can pool their resources, think together and put forward alternative policies. It involves making sure that there is unrestricted room for self-expression and freedom of enterprise. If we were to move over to a single-party system now, obviously we would very soon be saying good-bye to every possibility of finding answers to these questions. However, if there is room for more self-expression and freedom of enterprise as every day goes by, and more and more people go in for them, obviously there will be fewer problems.

'We must allow for a certain number of mistakes if we are to progress'

· But how can the opposition do its duty and criticise a government in which it is involved? And how can you encourage the emergence of leaders to ensure the alternation without which there is no true democracy ?

-That is something all democrats are careful about. You can be part of the majority without agreeing with it. In this country, political activists have to take responsibility for their ideas-this is something else we have achieved. No-one can claim he is forced to be a minister or a director under the present system. It's not true. If you don't agree with something or you don't like it, you can resign. That is another right which 26 March gave us and the people must take it seriously. When differences are basic and fundamental, there are conclusions to be drawn. But when the differences can be handled through debate, you have to know how to do it that way. Of course, there is the whole problem of majorities and oppositions. We live in a country where everyone has been affected by the single-party culture and the majority has to understand that, in a democracy, the minority has rights too. That is the strength of the system. The opposition also has to allow the majority to govern and to be judged by its results. You cannot be in opposition and govern at one and the same time. As things are in our countries at the moment, the majority and the opposition have to get together to identify the basic problems demanding a national effort and for which there are not hundreds of solutions, and put them into practice without resorting to demagogy. Otherwise, everyone will be faced with these questions in exactly the same way. The new democracy we are building will not be built by the majority in power alone. The majority and the opposition together will light the path to Mali's new democracy. That is what will guarantee that the principle of alternate governments is applied tomorrow. I am in this office today and the greatest thing I can achieve is free elections at the end of my five-year term of office. It doesn't matter if I win or lose. The essential thing is for the process to continue. The great thing for the democrats today is not to have different teams succeeding each other at unspecified intervals. It is to have the present team carrying on right to the end of its term of office and organising free elections.

· Alternation is the big test of whether democracy has taken root here, isn't it?

-Yes it is-alternation or periodic elections in the same peaceful conditions as we had a few months back. That is vital, because there are huge problems in all the countries in the region at the moment. If we are to avoid our countries breaking down and splitting along ethnic, regional or religious lines, the democrats have to realise just what their responsibilities involve. They have started a process and they must do all they can to keep it going. They must not think in terms of the victors and the vanquished, or nurture personal resentments. While the process is under way, everything should work. We all have to admit that there is a want of professionalism and the taint of the single-party system in some of our positions and I should go so far as to say that we should allow ourselves a certain number of mistakes if we are to progress. Interview by Amadou TRAOR