Mali is a hard sell: it’s big, it’s fractured, and it used to be French. Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. After all, it’s the site of perhaps the world’s biggest unfolding humanitarian crisis, as well as for years being one of Africa’s most celebrated, yet illusory, democracies.

As we know, when it comes to Africa, governments and the media have very selective vision as to what registers and what does not. Photographs of starving children were useful for a while but they’ve now lost their shock value. Rambling articles are most often incomprehensible and laden with acronyms, dates and unpronounceable names. With Mali, however, it seems that hardly an eyebrow has been raised.

In a nutshell

Looking at a map, harsh border lines crisscross the African continent; Mali sprawls across West Africa, looking like a clock face missing 9-12 and with a straightened edge from 3-6. For years, the government has struggled to control the North of the country; London is closer to Poland than the Malian capital Bamako is to the country’s northernmost towns. At one point, televisions were actively distributed so people could watch parades and hear the national anthem, with the hope of invoking a sense of nationalism.

After rumbling discontent, a Northern rebellion led to the declaration of an independent state – Azawad – and the Malian President, Toumani Toure, was deposed in a military coup for a perceived failure to deal with the issue. This came about a month before scheduled elections and despite the military handing over to a civilian interim government, there is significant turmoil. To round it off, the rebellion was in the midst of huge food insecurity for about three million people, and itself caused the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands.

With respect to Mali, the UK has few vested interests, few development commitments and little journalistic presence.

All as it seems?

For years, Mali has been seen as a model of democratic governance, held up as a beacon of what is possible. The events of the last two months have shattered that illusion.

Regardless of how willing leaders have been to step aside when their time in office is over, this fact is overshadowed by low voter turnout which has dithered around 30% for some time. The vast majority of people are subjects, rather than citizens. As Richard, a Bamako-based academic, told me in 2011,

“there are two Malis: the official Mali and the real Mali. The official Mali is public functions and presidential work. The real Mali is 99% of the population. We can’t drive a democracy which is controlled by the favoured.”

Some of the biggest problems have their roots in cripplingly low literacy rates. Figures suggest that literacy in any language hovers around 24%, with French-language literacy dropping to near 10%. Not being able to read is generally considered to be somewhat of a problem. Not least when you want to achieve in education, help your child with homework, understand instructions on medicine, interpret road signs, process administrative documents, and find information about political candidates in newspapers, leaflets and on billboards.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of information sources are in French anyway; French is the language of the elite, and there is a real political incentive to keep it that way. Aside from radio, people have few sources from which to obtain information, to discover, question, analyse, contrast and compare. (Imagine the UK run by a government of Cliquese-speakers and all public information being disseminated in Cliquese – a little irksome).

This is before any consideration is paid to the time needed to vote in the first instance; there is a real cost in leaving work and family, especially given the distances often involved in travelling to polling stations. More significantly, for many people, and especially those who are not literate, the concept of a paper-based voting system is entirely foreign. After all, there seems to be a strong link between literacy and democracy, suggesting that before the former is improved, the latter cannot remain anything but an illusion. As Boubacar, head of Koulikoro-based NGO, Coordination Régionale des actions des ONGs, put it,

“literacy increases the ability to access information, increases comprehension of local issues and political systems and therefore leads to better participation and a better democracy.”

Juggling work and family is a daily concern

Rural villages receive visits from local politicians during electoral campaigns: suited men who wave carrots of literacy programmes, educational initiatives, and sweeping reform. There is no stick, for it disappears with the very politician who brought false promises. Deprived of the information necessary to make an informed choice, disenfranchised by those who go on to ‘represent’ them, people are shut out from a democratic system that is anything but democratic.

What all this means is that whilst all of the right lights were flashing, keeping a smile on the face of both government officials and Western donors, there have for some time been significant problems with the largely hidden components. Thus when the components kick back and rebellion sparks up, the lights go out, attracting the attention of the wider world. Or so you would expect.

Lights out

In the space of a week, Mali went from a blazing floodlight of democracy to a faulty fairy light, but the light show itself was extinguished by the media-concocted African darkness. As mentioned, we have few vested interests but our charities are now there working, and a sense of humanity that intermittently flickers might have made an appearance in this instance.

After all, I am sure that there are a host of researchers salivating at the thought of heading out when things have calmed a little, picking over the bones of famine and political collapse and publishing their findings with a cannily concocted metaphor for a title: ‘Light show to fright show: the death of democracy’ perhaps. Yet that is fairly irrelevant now.

So why should we care?

People are dying, but that happens all of the time. Perhaps what is more concerning is that the media has turned somewhat of a blind eye to it all. Worryingly, it is often the biggest troubles that occur outside of the gaze of the camera. Perhaps given that Mali has been headlined as somewhat of a success story, it would be somewhat counterproductive to a good governance agenda if it is suddenly shown to be falling apart at the seams; people may begin to question how long an illusion has been perpetuated. Perhaps.

In all probability, it is another case where we do not have huge involvement, we do not speak the language, we do not want to cover the story, but I want to find a reason that would make people care. Clearly, I feel that we should. Perhaps a start would be to nudge people to feed ‘Mali’ into Google or tweet a Mali related tweet. The more people talking about Mali can only be good for people finding out about Mali.

Maybe that way we will hear something when the lights come back on.