BAMAKO, Mali — It's hard to mistake Bamako for the capital of anything but one of the world's poorest countries. A handful of austere towers disrupts the monotony of this resolutely low-rise city sprawling along the flood plains of the Niger River. Its streets are dusty and potholed, lined with open sewers and clogged with traffic.
There are fragments of weathered beauty amid the crumbling buildings and tree-lined avenues -- and when night falls, the city bursts into irrepressible life, even during these difficult times. However, it doesn't make Mali's poverty any easier to ignore.
Less obvious was the precarious state of Mali's democracy, before its government suddenly came crashing down in March 2012. The combined pressure of a rebellion in the north and a poorly planned military coup in the south caused the country's institutions to collapse like a house of cards. As political turmoil gripped Bamako, Islamist radicals annexed the north -- until a French-led military intervention this January scattered them into the desert. Today, Mali's internal demons have transformed it into the latest theater in the seemingly endless war on terror.
turned out to be far weaker than it appeared, its fragility cloaked in the
trappings of a stable democracy. Outside forces played a role in the country's
deterioration; most notably, the fall of Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi's
regime benefited both rebels and jihadists, who eagerly scooped up the regime's arms
stockpiles on the black market. But the roots of the deterioration are deep in Mali itself -- in its
two decades of corruption, mismanagement, poor governance, nepotism, and sham
With the French government claiming that it will withdraw its troops within weeks, Mali soon faces the prospect of assuming a larger responsibility for its own security. European and African powers met in Brussels this week to develop a "road map" for the country's future, which reaffirmed the government's aim of holding elections by July 31. But Mali's return to democratic rule will not solve all its problems; in fact, it could simply reproduce the untenable order that existed before the coup. If Mali has any hope of achieving long-term stability, it begins with fixing its broken political system.
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"Our democracy was a facade," explained Issa Ndiaye, a philosophy professor and former education minister, when I met him for a lunchtime coffee in one of Bamako's smarter neighborhoods in January. "The state was already collapsed before the rebellion and the coup."
It's not hard to see his point. After street protests and a military coup ended the 23-year reign of Gen. Moussa Traoré in 1991, Mali held elections with clockwork regularity -- but it was more a carousel for the country's power brokers than a genuine competition. Lt. Col. Amadou Toumani Touré led the ouster of Traoré and backed Alpha Oumar Konaré for the presidency, an office he served for two terms. Konaré then handed the presidency back to Touré, who went on to win elections in 2002 and 2007.
Each election saw foreign observers turn out in large numbers to sign off on polls, despite the fact that they were regularly disputed and marred by allegations of rigging and corruption. Elections were mistaken for democracy.
"The international community is partly to blame. They promoted Mali's democracy when they knew it was not really democracy," Ndiaye said. "The foreign diplomats knew what was going on but said nothing."
Malians themselves showed meager enthusiasm for their fledgling democracy. In the four elections since 1991, voter turnout never exceeded 38 percent.
At the same time, corruption flourished. Touré himself provided a huge opening for graft when, facing the latest in a series of Tuareg rebellions, he signed a peace deal in 2006 that effectively removed the army from the north. As a result, the desert became even more of a Wild West economy, where just about anything was for sale: people (whether Western hostages or West-bound migrants), contraband cigarettes, Moroccan hashish, diesel, guns, and cocaine.
Politically connected Malians eagerly jumped into this new black market. In a recent paper, researcher Wolfram Lacher concluded, "nowhere in the region were state institutions more implicated in organized crime than in northern Mali."
And nowhere was this clearer than in the burgeoning drug trade, whereby South American cocaine was channeled to its European users by way of West African intermediaries. It took an accident to reveal the Malian elite's complicity in this trade: In November 2009, a Boeing 727 filled with cocaine flew from Venezuela to the town of Gao in northern Mali -- where it crashed in the desert. A recent investigation by Le Monde Diplomatique implicated Touré's close allies in the cocaine business, alongside army and intelligence officers and northern parliamentarians.