Miracle in Mali
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.
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 Mali 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.
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Robert Pringle, a historian and retired foreign service officer, served as U.S. ambassador to Mali from 1987 to 1990. He is the author of three books on Southeast Asian history, most recently A Short History of Bali—Indonesia’s Hindu Realm (2004).more from this author >>