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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.)
close this folderDossier: Africa's new democracies
View the documentAfrica's new democracies
View the documentThe patterns of transition to democracy
View the documentAfrica in search of institutional revival
View the documentThe future for the new democratic regimes
View the documentApplying the solutions of the 21st century to 10th century problems
View the documentDemocracy and structural adjustment in Africa
View the documentCommunity support for setting up and strengthening democracies
View the documentAutopsy of a Transition
View the documentA society full of tensions
View the documentA survival economy

A society full of tensions

by Souleymane DRABO

In Africa, democracy does not have the reassuring tick of a Swiss watch. In Mali, it is more like a time bomb, with the repeat button switched on. Defuse one potentially explosive situation and you could well set off another, creating an even bigger risk of social upheavel elsewhere. There are so many fires raging at the same time that the Government does not know if it should be bomb disposal expert or fireman. And it forgets to govern.

New democracy in the tropics catalyses all the frustrations built up over the years, brings them to the surface and forces them, as priorities, on the new authorities. How could it be otherwise when freedom of speech and freedom of action are being thrust upon some of the world's poorest countries, where the poverty of the vast majority is being aggravated by structural adjustment programmes which, whatever the reasons for imposing them may have been, may well do wonders for public finance but have predominantly bad effects on the everyday life of the man in the street?

Bamako goes from one march, one stoppage and one demonstration to the next. School strikes have become part of everyday life. The jobless march for bank loans and the opposition parties march for a fairer allocation of television time. Taxi-drivers attack a private radio station when they feel they have been insulted, cars are set alight by swindled members of a share scheme, and tradesmen and other economic operators down tools to force the Government to accept their demands. Even the army stops work to press its pay claims. And there is more. There is something for every taste, every cause and every class of society.

Catharsis and all the excesses that go with it seem unavoidable after years of dictatorship, but a country so badly run down cannot afford to let it last. The outside observer has the impression of a boiler perpetually about to explode. There is nothing to reassure or attract potential funders and investors, although the Government is courting them nonetheless.

Although Mali has been successful in its official transition to a democratic state, it is still a fine testing ground for all the tensions pulling the fabric of society this way and that, for all the currents and conflicting interests and for all the fires smouldering over an Africa on the road to democracy. And it is first-class terrain on which to observe the challenges awaiting new regimes when they are elected, the delicate balancing-act which governing entails in a situation of this sort and the dangers stalking all these countries forever on a knife's edge.

Here, the aftermath of bad management and the constraints of structural adjustment programmes create tension in every sensitive area of society. Youngsters, first of all, 3.5million of them (with a working population of 3.8 million and 45% of the total population under 15), find it difficult to get a place at school and even more difficult to get a job. School attendance is no more than 30% and 75% drop out of their basic education-a problem area in that it caters for 94% of school attenders and gets barely 50% of the funding, most of which it has to spend on staff.

The Government of the Third Republic and the funders have agreed to concentrate on basic education. However, Mali's Association of Pupils and Students (AEEM), the all-powerful organisation which was decisive in bringing down Moussa Traorn 1991, has a different approach altogether, not just in theory, but in action too, for only five of the points in its 26-point Memorandum have any direct bearing on basic education.

Pressure from the Association is such that more than a third of the 1993 education budget (CFAF 14.6 billion) is going into grants for secondary and higher study, which means that 6-7% of the students are getting nearly 35% of the money. This spells danger for the future, but the Association does not seem to care. If the 1992-93 academic year is still going through the upheavals which at one stage made it look as if there would be no teaching at all, it is because the schools have struck regularly in support of demands for smaller and smaller groups. The strikes in December and January, for example, which were strongly supported, were aimed at getting study grants for only a thousand high school pupils (out of a total school population of 400 000).

Fortunately for the State, other claimants are not being quite so active in putting the 'AII now at any price' slogan into practice. But pressure is still very strong and people sometimes take to the streets - notably the Association of Volunteer Pensioners and the Association of Retrenched Workers i. These names speak for themselves. Volunteer pensioners are the (virtually always consenting) victims of the civil service paring-down operations in which 4500 staff agreed to swap the safe but not very nourishing bosom of the State for a severance grant of between CFAF 1.7 and 4 million and go their own way. In practice, alas, there has often been no crock of gold at the end of the rainbow and the whole thing has ended in disaster.

But failure does not crush these volunteer pensioners. They have turned on the State with accusations of its failure to support them vis-is the banks, for the banks' opinion is that most of them are not creditworthy enough to qualify for loans for their projects (only 33 out of 800 loan applications have been approved). So tempers are rising and the volunteer pensioners are back on the streets, just as they were in December, besieging the Council of Ministers although they have been unable to halt the retirement programme which, if what the Finance Minister said at the 1993 budget vote is anything to go by, means 2300 more job losses.

The retrenched workers are less vociferous, yet they too have their problems. These are the people, more than 3000 of them, who were laid off when public firms closed down and State companies went private and they are now seeking either the redundancy benefits (which have been divided up 'scientifically' to give them a theoretical guarantee of re-assignment) or another job.

This second possibility, another job, is a matter of complete chance with the public sector on a drastic diet and the private sector slow to take over because there are no viable markets, businessmen, capital or anything else. The pool of labour, swollen with the retrenched and the pensioned-off and each year's batch of school leavers, is impossible to reduce. More than half the 12000 job-seekers registered in 1991 were between 20 and 30 years of age and 37% held at least a school-leaving certificate. baccalaureate. At the same time, the job supply was 36% down on the previous year and only 8% of the applicants were placed. It is true that 1991 was a disastrous year for the Malian economy, but the Labour Office itself, which analyses fluctuations in this sector, admits that the imbalance in supply and demand on the labour market is a persistent phenomenon.

Things could decline further if the private sector does not take off soon. But there is an obvious malaise here too. Economic operators, hit by the events of March 1991 (directly through sacking and looting and indirectly through lost trade), have also jumped on the bandwagon of public sector orders. They have been tainted by a massive scandal over funds misappropriated from the treasury, the banks are put off by their unfortunate experiences and view them with mistrust, and they are awaiting a recovery which is slow in coming.

They too blame the State which, they claim, has not taken the proper steps to ensure recovery in line with the recommendations made by the nation's businessmen at a so called 'round table' of trade and industry.

Although the two parties seemed to diverge widely on some issues (how many measures to apply-the Chamber of Commerce said 66 and the Government 45. for example. and how much to pay in damages to looted businesses-21 billion on one side and 10 billion on the other), agreement still seemed to be in prospect, because the authorities had made a big effort on many other fronts, with such things as tax and bank arrears and fiscal and tariff reforms. So when the economic operators announced a 72-hour strike for 28 December, it seemed not so much a genuine threat as a way of extracting more concessions from the Government. But the stakes rose and a curious 'tradesmen's strike' did in fact take place, although only for 24 hours, because the organisers carefully called a halt to the action-without getting anything from the Government.

The Third Republic authorities have been forced to put up more firebreaks and keep a watchful eye on the fever mounting in every class of society. The army, now the great unknown quantity in Africa's emergent democracies, needs particular attention. Organised, equipped and coddled by authoritarian or just plain military regimes, it is finding its feet in the new social and political context of the continent. And not without trouble either, as in Zaire and Togo, or tension, as in Congo or Niger. Local details vary widely, but the basic problem is always the same-what to do with an army used to privilege and with a habit of heavily influencing if not taking a direct hand in the management of public affairs.

In Mali, the army is a problem, but there is one very unusual thing about it- the fall of Moussa Traoras hastened by a military coup but actually brought about by a popular uprising. The army which arrested Moussa Traorn 25 March 1991 had previously fired on demonstrators, killing 106 and wounding 1000, official figures claim. The soldiers were feted as heroes for what putsch leader and transition head General Amadou Toumani Toure called 'finishing off' the work of the popular insurrection but they were also suspected of trying to capitalise on the situation, put themselves in a better light and take over.

The temptation was undeniably there, and, in July 1991, only four months after the transition began, there was an attempted coup d'etat. But in fact it was soon realised that the army's claims were far from being political. They were corporatist and came from the troops rather than the officers. In April 1991, soldiers from the ranks took to the streets to protest against badly equipped barracks and came into conflict with the students. From this emerged an influential group of NCOs and soldiers, which took part in the negotiations for better living conditions in the garrisons.

The army, which was aware of its disastrous image in the eyes of the public, and felt guilty about its part in putting down the demonstrations, officially made its apologies at the National Conference. This followed its open day operation, which was designed to woo the people by bringing them face to face with a poverty felt it bore a fair share. It was aimed at the media and backed up by the high authorities of the State, which, in the heat of the moment, granted a large pay rise to the ranks and launched a national barracks renovation programme.

All this helped calm things down, but it did not completely extinguish the fire kept burning by a never-ending rebellion in the north or quell the fear of heads rolling when the case of the killings in March 1991 got to court-which it did in June and again in November 1992.

On 3 rune, the Third Republic, which had inherited this problem, went for continuity and appeasement. It prepared for the court case by setting up legal 'crash-barriers' to tighten the circle of responsibility and put the blame on those who gave the orders rather than those who pulled the triggers. This put the troops and most of the officers out of danger and the prosecution could focus on the people responsible for the country's defence at the time. Once the field of investigation had been circumscribed in this way, it stood up successfully to any challenge mounted by the defendants' lawyers-who obviously had an interest in implicating other people in the demonstrators' deaths.

This relative success was not repeated in the handling of the rebellion. There, the army was taken by surprise when the Tuaregs rose up, since it underestimated the weapons and state of preparation of the enemy. Under-equipped and ill-prepared for fighting in the desert. it met defeat after defeat and many lives were lost.

The Tamanrasset agreements (January 1991) and, above all, the National Pact (April 1992) were supposed to briny peace, but they merely contrived to turn direct confrontation into insidious guerilla warfare and disguised crime. Disconcerted by an elusive enemy which clearly had plenty of help from the population, the army began reprisals which made feelings run far higher than the rebel attacks had done.

Torn between politicians calling for negotiations at all costs and the people calling for security also at all costs, the military was in an unenviable situation, with prestige dwindling and losses mounting. Some 10 months after the National Pact was signed, the cease-fire control system is beginning to be set up. The army, still champing at the bit, is forced by both law and political authority to cope with a rebellion which has broken up into many sub-movements. These, despite the Pact, do not always respect the law or political authority.

This 'more-war-than-peace' situation in the north is very much to blame for the latent tension in the army. And not always latent either. On 26 January. NCOs and troops downed tools in the barracks in support of a 32-claim memo focusing almost entirely on compensation for the families of soldiers who had lost their lives in the north and on hefter pay and social conditions. This action. intended to last 72 hours. was patchily supported and ground to a halt 24 hours later, following bargaining led by the Defence Ministry.

An unofficial source then announced that the bulk of the troops' claims were going to be met. a move which should be eased by the fact that the biggest chapter in the national budget for 1993. ahead of education and health. is defence. The defence department's CFAF 13.9 billion has risen to CFAF 16.6 billion, with even the MPs voting to add a further 200 million to the sum proposed by the Government. Officially, however, the object of the rise is not to better the soldier's lot. It is to 'improve the human and material resources of the defence and security services'. But morale among the troops must be kept high, so it is reasonable to assume that many of their claims will be met.

This could of course cause discontent in other quarters. because the Government is also bound by a social pact which tics it to the unions and provides for various pay rises. However. the structural ad adjustment programme provides for the aggregate wage to go down by about 2.5% of the 1992 figure. with a ceiling of CFAF 41 trillion. The Government thinks that juggling retirements will enable it to meet these two conflicting demands.

The daily round of the Government of Mali and the governments of many other countries of Africa is aptly encapsulated in the challenging task of reconciling the irreconcilable and making miracles an everyday event... and of course maintaining democracy without which the impossible really would be out of the question. S.D.