Mali's bankrupt democracy: A reflection on the limits of cultural capital in politics

From the Series: Mali, March 2012

Two decades of success for Malian democracy (1991-2012) can be explained, according to many observers, by the power of the political consensus generated by former presidents Alpha Oumar Konaré and Amadou Toumani Touré [1]. Those observers claim that, above and beyond the willingness of political leaders to divide government posts among themselves, that political consensus would not have had such a positive result were it not grounded in Mali's cultural capital.

"Festival on River Niger, a modern way to celebrate Mali cultural diversity and heritage." Photo by L'Essor.

Arguing to the contrary, the lines that follow reflect on the failure of political consensus, and in particular on the wide divide between political practices (influence of external aid, corruption of the elite, oppression of the weak, marginalization of political opponents...) and the promotion of cultural traditions to serve as a foundation for democracy and social development. How and why—after twenty years of promoting a "cultural democracy"—has Mali fallen into chaos? What happened to the griots and the imams who were presented as veritable peacemakers? Why was the process of decentralization unable to put an end to the Tuareg rebellion? In the limited space available, I will limit myself to indicating six pillars of Malian democracy

  • The practice of joking relationships—or sinankuya—to ease tensions. Several conferences and awareness campaigns were organized in towns and villages to explain the place of sinankuya in the democratic game.
  • Cultural festivals or the construction of a multicultural nation. Every year, Mali organizes at least nine cultural festivals in all the different regions of the country. These are excellent opportunities for the “consensual” political class to celebrate the political stability and the interethnic cohesion of the country.
  • Religion, or an Islamic democracy? The 2004 institutionalization of the High Islamic Council, which brought together dozens of Islamic associations, enhanced the role of Islamic leaders in the political sphere.
  • The griot, or the historian of pre-colonial democracy. In national and international meetings, leaders among the griots were tasked with demonstrating the historical depth of democratic culture within Malian societies.
  • Decentralization, or the return of democracy to the village. Decentralization, or “faga ka sigi so” in Bambara—literally “returning power home”—was explained to rural communities as a copy of the structure of power in the village.
  • Finally, the Kurukan Fuga, or the constitution elaborated by thirteenth-century empire builder Sundiata Keita, is presented as a vital force for decentralized communities and other democratic institutions

Confronted with crisis, why did this rich cultural capital fail? In light of the social and political crisis, it is clear that the politics of consensus was not founded on the cultural values that had been celebrated for 20 years. The promotion of those values had not contributed anything substantial to the anchoring of democracy. That is why they have been inadequate to the dramatic situations Mali has been facing since 2012. In reality, the contradictions between the discursive return to traditions and the practical exercise of political power (that is, corruption and oppression of the weak) have led Malians to lose interest in the state (la chose publique). Consensual governments developed, on the one hand, a political consensus—which was, in fact, a strategy of cooptation and redistribution of international aid—and on the other hand, the promotion of cultural capital, which helped them to legitimate their power.

The policy of basing democracy on local cultures did not lead to the production of true citizens. Take, by way of proof, the weak level of participation in elections. In 1997, 3 of 4 electors stayed away from the polls. In 2007, less than a third of the electoral corps voted. Young people boycott the vote in the largest numbers. They are convinced that putting an envelope in a ballot box will not put an end to bad governance, corruption, embezzlement, and clientelism.

Today, Malians want modern and durable solutions to their problems. Just as cultural capital could not save Mali from its current chaos, it cannot fight the evils that democracy has created over the last two decades, notably:

  • A failed educational system
  • A dysfunctional judicial system
  • The lack of vision of political parties
  • The democratization of corruption, which touches all social categories
  • A process of decentralization which weakens many rural communities

Resolving these problems will require a transformation of political and social institutions, one that will generate new resources and ideas. One could, in that case, hope to see the end of Malian conservatism, which favors lethargy and resistance to change in all parts of the economy and the society. That is the only way that the graft of democracy and cultural values will bear fruit in Mali.

Isaie Dougnon is Professor of Anthropology at University of Bamako, Mali.


[1] This essay was originally written in French and was translated by Gregory Mann.