Mali: A good example of African democracy
Thomas Cromwell

One of the poorest countries on the earth, Mali was once the home of kings and the destination of adventurers seeking gold. Even in recent history, gold was Mali’s primary export, and with recent investments in mining the precious metal, Mali will once more become a major exporter. Today, Mali is the number three producer of gold in Africa, after South Africa and Ghana.

But gold is not king in Mali today. Cotton is king. It is the number one export and almost one third of Mali’s 12 million people depend on cotton for their livelihood, making the industry a national priority. Mali exports some 600,000 tons of cotton a year, which earns over 50 percent of all export revenue for the country. Mali is the leading cotton exporter on the continent.

Which is why Mali, together with several other West African countries with significant cotton industries, has been active in seeking to get subsidies removed from cotton production in the United States, where cotton supports only 23,000 farmers today, and is hardly a strategic industry. Mali, Benin, Burkino Faso and Chad have formed a West African group, C4, which negotiates together.

“Everyone agrees that subsidies distort markets,” said Mali’s tall ambassador to Washington, Abdoulaye Diop. And in the case of Africa, they make US-grown cotton less expensive than African cotton.

The group has made some headway. At the recent Hong Kong meeting of the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round of negotiations, which are focused on agricultural subsidies, the United States agreed to end export subsidies for its cotton production. “We have the beginning of an understanding,” said the ambassador of the negotiations.

Washington has agreed in principle to end all subsidies by 2013, but wants cotton subsidies to be eliminated as part of a wider World Trade Organization agreement on ending agricultural subsidies worldwide. These subsidies have been a key sticking point between the developing and the developed countries, and were the main reason for the failure of the WTO summit in Cancun.

For many poor countries, like Mali, agriculture is a matter of survival, whereas for the United States, Europe and Japan agriculture plays a small role in the economy (although agricultural subsidies play a big role in domestic politics). The impact of coddling your farmers at home can be dramatic for international markets. For cotton, it means that American cotton has been cheaper than African cotton, although the real costs of production are far higher in the United States than anywhere in Africa.

The West Africans have argued that if subsidies for US farmers were removed that increased sales of African cotton would more than compensate for the aid Washington provides them, $35 million a year in the case of Mali.

In the meantime, Mali has been emerging as a model African democracy. Currently chairman of the 127-member Community of Democracies group, first initiated by President Bill Clinton in 2000, Bamako will next year host the periodic ministerial conference of CD, a first for Africa. Previous summits have been held in Warsaw, Seoul and Santiago. The Bamako summit will focus on the relationship between democracy and development.

Ambassador Diop commented on the situation in northwestern Mali where Tuareg tribespeople have recently been stirring the fires of regional resentment. He said that after the last clash with the Tuaregs in the early 90s, an agreement was made in 1992 that recognized the justice in developing all regions of Mali equally while treating all groups as equals. He said that investments in the north since that time have been “huge.” 

“We all have to work through the established institutions,” he said. “We will not accept that a small group of army deserters can blackmail the rest of the country.” He added: “With Mali’s vibrant democracy, no one needs to take weapons to make himself understood.”  The ambassador said that peace has been restored to the regional capital, Kidal.

The size of Texas and California combined, with much of the terrain desert, and with some 30 ethnic groups and diverse languages, Mali is no easy place to govern. The solution worked out in 1992 was built on “very deep decentralization,” the ambassador said.

It has been suggested that some elements of the Tuareg community, who represent just six percent of the population, were creating trouble because of the possibility of oil being discovered in the Kidal area. But, “nothing has been discovered yet,” the ambassador said, although indications are promising. 

Part of the strategy Mali is pursuing now is to develop more industries domestically related to its natural resources, rather than to export commodities without value added. Currently it processes only one percent of the cotton it grows. It wants to increase that figure to 25 percent. It has 16 million head of cattle, seven million sheep and six million goats, but wants to do meat processing and packaging, make leather products, etc, rather than just exporting livestock. It lacks the refrigerated storage and transport equipment, not to mention the good roads needed to develop a real meat exporting industry, and lacks the skilled managers it needs to develop other export industries.

Its democratic reforms have caught the attention of Washington, and in 2004 Mali qualified for Millennium Challenge funding. Since then it has been working with the Millennium Challenge Corporation on which projects to fund. Most likely these will be a refurbishment of the airport at Bamako, the creation of an industrial park and the irrigation of 15,000 hectares, to increase agricultural potential, with funds due to begin flowing at the end of this year.  

Biography of Abdoulaye Diop

Mr. Abdoulaye Diop is a professional diplomat.

From 2000 to 2003, Mr. Diop acted as the diplomatic adviser to President Alpha Oumar Konaré and President Amadou Toumani Touré. He played an active role, working closely with the President, at a period of time when Mali assumed the chairmanship of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and the WAEMU (West African Economic and Monetary Union) (2000-2001) at the same time, which boosted the sub-regional integration process. He also monitored the initiatives taken for the creation of the African Union in which Mali played a very active role.

In the same position, Ambassador Diop has been member of several national delegations that attended regional and international conferences to discuss issues such as regional integration, economic development, peace and security.  He also had the privilege of overseeing Mali’s participation in the Security Council of the United Nations in 2000 and 2001.

In the same period of time, Mr. Diop was very active in the NEPAD process in which he was deputized by the President to be a member of the Steering Committee.

Prior to being the diplomatic adviser to the President, Mr. Diop acted as the advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of political and diplomatic issues (1999 – 2000).

He held the position of Counselor at the Mali Embassy in Belgium and was in charge of multilateral cooperation issues (1998 - 1999). He actively took part in the negotiations between the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) States and the European Union with regard to the Partnership Agreement for Development signed in Cotonou in 2000.

Prior to that position, he spent several years at the Direction of International Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in charge of implementing and monitoring the European Development Fund’s financial programs in Mali. As such, he participated in the negotiations and the signature of several agreements between Mali and the European Commission.

Mr. Diop worked as an Intern in 1988 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was recruited by the same department in 1990.

Mr. Diop is holder of a MA degree in International Relations from the Paris International Institute of Public Administration, a MA degree in Diplomacy and Management of International Organizations from the University of Paris XI and a BA in Diplomacy from the National School of Administration of Algeria.

Ambassador Diop was born in Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) on September 17, 1965. He is married and father of 4 children.