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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Konare - Mali's spin-master
Djenne mosque, the tallest mud building in the world
Mali's tourism atractions have prospered under Konare
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By the BBC's Joan Baxter
Bamako
line

The enormous pink building, meant to house Mali's national library, is still a hollow shell.

The huge complex is being financed by Libya's Colonel Gadaffi for a cost of several million US dollars. It cannot be opened because of structural faults the budget will not cover.

Bamako library
The multi-million dollars library remains closed
This does not stop President Alpha Oumar Konare from turning an official visit to the site - in the company of the French culture minister - into a public relations coup.

Mali's state television cameras, and more importantly, the cameras of French media travelling with their minister, zooms in on President Konare - a former archeologist - as he arrives in a modest Renault.

Any concerns about the usefulness and cost of this grandiose but flawed library project are deflected by Mr Konare's schoolboy smile as he emerges from behind the wheel.

Illusions

Malian viewers, who know their president always moves about in speeding convoys of luxury vehicles that can block traffic for hours, are decidedly unimpressed.


Mr Konare has ruled only to please the international community

Mountaga Tall
People on the street wonder aloud about the president's priorities, and this new "pink elephant", when 72% of the population live below the poverty line and cannot count on more than one meal a day.

More than half of Malians cannot read or write. Less than half the children attend school and the government claims it has no money to pay impoverished students bursaries to further their education, certainly no money for even a basic library in its one university.

But the foreign media and visitors are wowed by the theatrics of a president who despite 10 years in office is still not above driving his own car.

Alpha Oumar and wife Adam Ba Konare at Bamako airport
The Konares have hosted many foreign admirers
Once again, President Konare has lived up to his reputation as a "modest man" and "model democrat".

Ironically, that is an image that opposition leaders claim the foreign media and diplomats created.

It is also why, at the end of his second and final mandate, President Konare has been dubbed by Choguel Maiga, one of 24 candidates running in the presidential elections on 28 April, as "the merchant of illusions".

Foreign fans

Mountaga Tall, another long-time political opponent, alleges that the president has "ruled only to please the international community".

Certainly President Konare has pleased the international community.

Opening ceremony in Bamako
Konare brought the African Nations Cup to Mali
One UN official describes him as a "visionary" and some diplomats privately admit they are sorry to see him go, despite the constitution that limits a president to two terms.

Diplomats and UN representatives praise him for putting to an end to six years of rebellion by the Tuareg people in Mali's desert north.

They applaud his efforts to end the illegal traffic of small arms in West Africa and to speed up regional integration during his two years as head of the Economic Community of West Africa (Ecowas).

Under President Konare, civil servants have been paid on time, Mali has kept up payments on its $3.3 billion debt and adhered to structural reforms - decentralisation and privatisation.

Largely thanks to cotton and gold, the Malian economy grew at about 5% between 1996 and 1998. Since then, it has stagnated.

'Systemic corruption'

And at the end of 10 years of democracy under Konare, Mali still ranks fifth from the bottom of Unicef's human development scale for 193 countries.

A recent World Bank study on corruption in Mali over the past decade contradicts much of the political and economic praise from the outside.

The report says corruption in Mali is "systemic and pernicious".

South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, with AOK
Konare has good international connections
It notes that laws to punish economic crimes with harsh penal sentences have been abolished under Mr Konare.

It describes Mali's democracy as a system in which the ruling party buys political support and votes, with high-level posts or with lucrative government contracts - many not tendered.

This report has made campaigning delicate for some of Mr Konare's would-be successors. Some of the front-running candidates were part of Mr Konare's inner circle for years, notably former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and former Finance Minister Soumaila Cissť.

Even political opponents have muted their criticism in their election campaigning.

One candidate, who boycotted the 1997 elections and then spent three months in prison, says: "We just want him to go. So we want to assure him that no one will bear a grudge or prosecute him for what he has done during his time in power".

But others do not mince their words. In a recent BBC interview, internationally acclaimed Malian musician, Salif Keita said he "hated" Mr Konare and described him as "the worst president Mali ever had".

This echoes complaints by student groups, opposition parties and trade unions that Konare used manipulation and intrigue to split and silence pressure groups in the country.

Selling Mali

The majority of Malians, however, are more ambivalent.

Mountaga Tall, Almamy Sylla, Choguel Maiga
Konare has prominent critics at home
Many are grateful to President Konare for bringing them the African Cup of Nations this year, ignoring the price tag of about $200 million for a 3-week sporting event in favour of the glory and publicity the tournament brought their country.

There is widespread criticism on the streets of Mr Konare's predilection for expensive monuments, the growing poverty, opacity in public finances and for the crisis that has all gripped Mali's education system throughout his decade in office.

There is also recognition that despite its poverty, as a democracy the country has earned international recognition for its relative peace and stability, culture and glorious history.

All this, because the greatest legacy of President Alpha Oumar Konare may turn out to be his genius in selling not only himself but also his country to the rest of the world.

See also:

21 Nov 01 | Africa
Mali bows to anti-reform protests
22 Nov 00 | Africa
Mali's monumental folly?
16 Feb 00 | Africa
Economist named as new Mali PM
19 Oct 99 | Africa
Albright praises Malian democracy
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