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Friday, 18 February, 2000, 18:42 GMT
Mali's National Complaints Day

One day a year greviances can be aired by anyone

By Crossing Continents presenter Tim Whewell

The master of ceremonies called out the next name, and the TV cameras wheeled round to pick out the gaunt old man descending to the podium.

It was Wadiane Ongoiba's 15 minutes of fame - a chance for the illiterate 73-year-old farmer to speak directly to his country's rulers.

Common complaints
Land disputes
Failure to pay pensions
Boring TV programmes
Bad roads
Police harassment
"Mr Prime Minister," his petition began, "I have the honour to inform you that we are lost. We have been dispossessed of our fields, and we no longer know where to turn..."

The prime minister and his cabinet leaned forward in their seats. Behind them were intimidating ranks of generals, senior judges, foreign ambassadors.

Yet Wadiane and the succession of other landless peasants, cattle herders, soldiers and minor civil servants who addressed them appeared completely at ease in the limelight.

They had arrived in Mali's capital, Bamako, on foot, by donkey, or in battered old buses, for National Complaints Day - an experiment in practical democracy pioneered by this vast landlocked state in the centre of West Africa.

On one day a year, any citizen can take his problems to the very top - and the government promises to try and fix them.

Beacon of democracy

The event owes much to the traditions of the great medieval empire of Mali, whose rulers relied on direct contact with their subjects to balance the power of corrupt courtiers.

Even 73-year-old illiterate farmer Wadiane Ongoiba can complain
But National Complaints Day in its modern form was invented just six years ago after a popular uprising overthrew decades of military dictatorship.

Mali is at the bottom of every index of human development - the fourth poorest country in the world, with the highest birth rate and the highest level of infant mortality.

Life expectancy is 48 and only one in three children receive any schooling.

Yet National Complaints Day is one of the institutions that has turned Mali into what the American secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, calls a "beacon of democracy".

Democracy as a concept is not something that interests Wadiane Ongoiba.

Wadiene's nephew appeared on television to read out the complaint
A member of the highly conservative Dogon tribe, he has lived his whole life in a remote village without piped water, electricity, or any school or clinic.

When asked what changes he has seen, he does not mention the end of French colonialism in 1960 or the toppling of the military regime in 1991.

What he remembers is the succession of droughts that have regularly destroyed his family's livelihood, particularly those of the early 1970s.

Fertile land

It is because of the uncertainty of the rains and the steady advance of the Sahara that access to fertile land is such an explosive issue in Mali - and it was a dispute over land that led Wadiane, after years of inconclusive court cases, to approach the prime minister on National Complaints Day.

A field Wadiane believes is his, is also claimed by the farmers of a neighbouring village.

Villagers make their way to the disputed field
Judges have ruled first one way, then the other - and currently both sides are barred from using the land.

Wadiane believes he is losing out because the rival village supports one of the most powerful men in the country, the chairman of the National Assembly.

"Look behind you!" he told the prime minister in his letter. "You think we live calmly like other Malians. In fact, we can't sleep at night."

Land disputes are one of the commonest problems dealt with on Complaints Day, but there are many others.

Few complainants get satisfaction on the spot, but there is a government commission charged with solving the problems raised.

Many Malians believe it is all a sham.

The country's human rights association says the event has become "morose and monotonous", with most complaints never adequately dealt with.

Unique event

But Catherine Choquet, head of the international jury which monitors the government's performance, is more upbeat.

She says Complaints Day is still a unique event - ordinary citizens would never dare to be so outspoken in other West African countries, and it is remarkable that no-one in Mali has ever suffered for making a complaint.

Wadiane Ongoiba, at least, was very pleased with his long trip to the capital.

The justice minister's words were a little unclear, but appeared to imply that a ruling in Wadiane's favour should be implemented.

Back in his village, the old man said, there would be celebrations.

"When a man gives his word he must stand by it. If he says it, he does it. Especially having pronounced himself in our favour in front of a national and international assembly."

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19 Oct 99 |  Africa
Albright praises Malian democracy
18 Oct 99 |  Africa
Several reported killed in Mali fighting
29 Sep 99 |  Africa
Africa's Franc Zone - a tale of two regions

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