Mali's Unlikely Democracy: Why Is One of Africa's Most Successful Democracies Taking Hold in an Impoverished Muslim Country Half-Covered in the Sand of the Sahara Desert? in Mali, the Seeds of Change Are Rooted in Tradition

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AS JOURNALIST ROBERT KAPLAN FLEW INTO BAMAKO, Mali, in 1993, he saw tin roofs appear through thick dust blowing off the presumably advancing desert. He used this image of a "dying region" to conclude his Atlantic Monthly article "The Coming Anarchy" in which he drew a connection between environmental degradation and growing disorder in the Third World, a hypothesis that certainly seemed to fit not only Mall but most of West Africa. When the article was published in February 1994, it made a considerable splash in Washington policy circles.

But even as Kaplan predicted doom, the situation on the ground in Mali did not quite fit his thesis. Yes, life was hard in this impoverished West African nation of 12 million people, and remains so. The 2005 United Nations Human Development Index, based on a combination of economic, demographic, and educational data, lists Mali as fourth from the bottom among 177 countries. Only Burkina Faso, Niger, and Sierra Leone rank lower. But despite persistent poverty and ongoing turmoil in neighboring states, in a single decade Mali has launched one of the most successful democracies in Africa. Its political record includes three democratic elections and two peaceful transitions of power, a transformation that seems nothing short of amazing.

When I served in Mali as American ambassador, from 1987 to 1990, I had never spent time in a country with such an apparent absence of political life of any kind. The military ruler, Moussa Traore, presided over a typical single-party African dictatorship. In the early years after he took over in 1968, he survived several coup attempts, but by the time I arrived everyone seemed to have given up and gone to sleep. The government controlled all print and radio news, and, at first, there was no sign of dissident activity.

Mali, along with the rest of the region, had been wracked by drought in the late 1970s and again in the mid-1980s, and the government was making a serious effort to improve an economy dominated by peasant agriculture. Although the United States' significant interests in this poor, landlocked country were solely humanitarian, American economic aid to Mali almost tripled during my tour as ambassador. But I never imagined that tradition-bound, predominately Muslim Mali might soon become something of a poster child for African democracy.

There was a clue to what was coming, if I'd recognized it. On my daily commute to the embassy through the potholed streets of Bamako, Mali's capital, my driver would listen to the seemingly endless half-song, half-chant recitals that were standard fare on the only radio station. He told me that the singers were griots, the hereditary musician-historian-entertainers of West Africa, singing about Mali's ancient history. He was a griot himself, and could explain some of the songs, often about the epic of Sunjata, the outcast-turned-hero who became the first emperor of old Mali in the 13th century. I recall wondering how people facing such a daunting present could be so preoccupied by stories from a distant past. I certainly did not envision how they might put their history to creative political use.

By the time my ambassadorial tour ended in 1990, Mali was on the cusp of momentous change. People were weary of the old dictatorship, which like many in Africa was vaguely Marxist-Leninist in organization; further, the demise of communism in the Soviet Union had destroyed whatever legitimacy such regimes still had. In March 1991, Mali's military dictator made the fatal mistake of ordering his troops to fire on students protesting in the capital, and several hundred were killed. In the wave of shocked public reaction that followed, a key military commander, Colonel Amadou Toumani Toure, joined the pro-democracy forces, and the dictatorship collapsed. Toure, better known as "ATT," promised to hand over power to an elected government. Like Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who took up arms and then returned to his fields, Toure kept his word, surprising many of his fellow Malians. …