iDev: Strong Democracy in Mali

During GYPA's June Uganda Immersion, in a discussion between American and Ugandan youth leaders, I overheard one very bright American participant ask: 'It seems like northern Uganda and southern Uganda are completely different countries. Wouldn't it be easier to just rewrite the borders?"

I've written before that I agree with Fukuyama that 'we know relatively little about how to build strong political institutions in poor countries,' and that this project demands careful thinking and action. I think the first step is assuming that rewriting national borders will not happen in our lifetime, and if they did, many people would die.

Following that assumption, the question becomes, how does one create a sense of national unity within a country that has been divided for as long as the country has existed? Robert Pringle writes a fascinating article in Wilson Quarterly about Mali, a country where this process of national unity is taking place:

"Malians say that their history and culture have nourished interethnic tolerance. They cite a whole tool kit of conflict resolution and avoidance mechanisms. There are, for example, “joking relationships” between clans and tribes. People involved in such relationships are licensed to greet each other with jocular insults. My Tuareg research assistant liked to remind my Dogon driver that the latter’s ancestors had once been slaves of his Tuareg ancestors. The driver would joke back in kind. While it always made me a bit nervous, this traditional practice seems to relieve tensions among Malians, perhaps because it is well understood as a substitute for tribal hostility. In a more subtle way, the joking relationships are an affirmation of a broader Malian identity."

And later...

"Malians are creating a national foundation mythology. Like Americans, they are selective. We stress the Bill of Rights, not the Pullman strike or what we did to Native Americans, and we like to believe the story about the young George Washington making a clean breast of it after he chopped down his father’s cherry tree, even when we know that this appealing story was invented by an early biographer. The Malians emphasize the three Great Empires and pass lightly over their ancestors’ later complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, though they do not deny it."


"What is most important about Mali’s mythology is not whether or to what extent history is being embellished, but rather the underlying assumption that reason and creativity can maintain harmonious relations among people of different cultural backgrounds. The Malians believe that equitable, responsive government has become a national tradition in part as a response to harsh conditions."

Last week, concurrent with the publishing o this article, the Ugandan government agreed to another round of peace talks with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Juba, Sudan. It's important to keep in mind that the divisions that exist between people and tribes in Uganda are not simply the product of the 20-year long conflict with the LRA. These divisions have deeper historical roots. Uganda's political and cultural leadership should gather the moral courage to take steps to create a sense of national unity that will stop the next Joseph Kony from keeping the country divided. Perhaps, by looking at this process in Mali, Uganda can gain insight into the practical steps needed to begin the long process of national reconciliation.

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