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
· 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
-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
· 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
-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
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
-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
-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
· 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