This report surveys post-independence developments in the former French colony of Mali in west-central Africa. The resources for economic development available to Mali are considered, and the role of socialist planning in stifling Mali’s development is traced.
Mali is an African country that seldom appears in the Western mass media, though it is one of Africa’s larger nations geographically, with a territory of 480,000 square miles, and had by the middle 1970s a population of 5.6 million people (International Monetary Fund [IMF], 1977, pp. 106-7). A former French colony, Mali originally entered independence in 1959 as part of a “Mali Federation,” amid high hopes and grandiose plans for socialist development. A generation later, however, Mali remains mired in poverty and underdevelopment – even a degree of retrogression, as the encroachment of the Sahara Desert continues to strip away its agricultural base. As an example of failed development, Mali exemplifies the vast gap between Third World idealism and socialist rhetoric, and the harsh realities of economic development (Rangel, 1987).
If Mali seldom finds a place in our newspapers, it has a well-established place in our legends, for in the center of Mali is the fabled city of Timbuktu. A brief survey of precolonial and colonial developments will outline how this fabled place sank to become a backwater town in an impoverished and stagnated Third World country.
Timbuktu was a way-station on a major trans-desert trade route that linked North Africa (and the Mediterranean world at large) with sub-Saharan Africa (Jones, 1976, pp. 12-13). The decline of Timbuktu and of the Malian trading empires in general was due to the rise of the modern West – not through colonial exploitation, but due to the opening of alternative trade routes by Portuguese and other Western ships (Jones, 1976, pp. 13-14). The same process, at the same time, led to the decline of Venice and of the great trading cities of the Levant.
Only in the nineteenth century, long after economic competition had crippled the traditional Malian trading economy, was Mali subjected to direct colonialization at the hands of France. As with most French colonies, France made relatively little contribution to economic development, particularly when compared with the role Britain played in its colonies; a nationalist economic policy limited the freedom of local entrepreneurs (either European or African) to make investments that would provide a basis for economic development after independence (Arnold, 1979, p. 51).
By 1959 the French empire in Africa was coming unravelled, and De Gaulle’s efforts to promote a “French Union” failed to stem the tide toward independence. Mali first received partial independence as part of a Mali Federation in 1959. But the Mali Federation lasted less than two years – with only about two months of that time as a fully independent state – before splitting into the present-day nations of Mali and Senegal. As a nationalist leader of the time, Mamadou Dia, frankly admits in his book The African Nations and World Solidarity (1960, pp. 137-45), the root of the failure was that the Federation represented the ideal of a narrow elite, French in culture and revolutionary in ideology. The mass of the population was almost wholly indifferent.
The leaders of the new independent Mali launched their nation on a socialist path, as did many other leaders in the emergent Third World, for whom “capitalism” was inextricably associated with colonial rule. In drawing up a development plan, however, they faced the immense and fundamental problem of Mali’s low economic level. Seventy-eight percent of the population lived by subsistence agriculture, in village communities (Ernst, 1976, p. 18), or family farms (IMF, 1977, pp. 110-111). Only in the Niger Office, established by France in 1932, had significant effort been made to establish a commercial, large-scale agricultural sector (IMF, 1977, pp. 110-111).
A sympathetic account of Mali’s efforts toward socialist development is given by Klaus Ernst, a German socialist writer. Ernst traces the development of a socialist “Sudanese Union” from the early postwar years, and the efforts of post-independence governments to follow a socialist path (Ernst, 1976, p. 29ff). By 1966, however, these efforts had led on the economic level to scarcities of most goods, and on the political level to widespread disaffection and tensions. In response the government moved in a steadily more radical direction, particularly on a cultural level of opposition to the “essoufle” class or urban and Westernized elite. We read of miniskirted girls hauled into jail until they could clothe themselves more decently and traditionally. By 1967, Mali had launched a (distinctly mild, if “sometimes bizarre”) Cultural Revolution on a Maoist Chinese model (Jones, 1976, p. 346ff).
Economic decline continued, however, and by 1968, following a coup, the government was forced to turn to France for emergency economic assistance (Jones, 1976, p. 350). French demands were harsh in content and neo-colonialist in tone (Arnold, 1979, p. 53), and within a few months military officers had launched a second coup. The officers could not manage the economy, however, and Mali was forced into “Accommodationism” and a dismantling of state enterprises (Rothchild & Curry, 1978, pp. 115-16). By the end of the decade Mali had turned to a more pragmatic development program, funded largely by the European Development Fund and by France (IMF, 1977, p. 123). Private investment was permitted, under a program of tax incentives known as the Investment Code (IMF, 1977, p. 127).
During the years from 1967 to 1972, Mali attained a modest growth rate of 3.3 percent GNP growth per annum (IMF, 1977, p. 103). Following this time, however, the secular trend toward decertification along the fringes of the Sahara increasingly retarded growth, a problem which persists to the present day.
In general, of the experience of the 1960s and 1970s, William T. Jones (1976, pp. 392-95) makes an interesting point: looking at nations with generally similar economic and geographical situations, those nations which draw up the most modest development plans generally had the fastest actual development progress, while those which produced the most grandiose plans have shown the least actual development progress. An inverse relationship thus seems to exist between political dreams and economic performance.
What are the roots of Mali’s persisting development problems? Neocolonialism and capitalist exploitation can be ruled out at once: foreign capitalist investment in Mali is minimal. Ernst (1976, p. 11) points out a widening disparity in income levels between the industrial West and Mali and other African nations – yet he also points out that most Malians live by subsistence farming, almost entirely outside the network of Western economic relations. In a real sense, the problem facing Mali is not exploitation by the West, but lack of exploitation: that is, lack of the foreign investment that would accelerate economic development, as foreign (mainly British) investment in the United States accelerated American economic development in the nineteenth century. Even the socialist Ernst is forced to blame “colonial backwardness” and “ossified traditional community structures” (the Malians themselves) for Mali’s development shortcomings (Ernst, 1976, pp. 202).
Mali’s landlocked geography is a serious barrier to development. We have already noted that competition from sea transport led to the decline of ancient Timbuktu. Even today, sea transport offers fundamental advantages at the beginning stages of development: all it requires is harbor facilities and a few freighters, not an extensive investment in roads.
Lingering socialism has also been a bar to Mali’s economic development. Traditional Mali had a significant mercantile tradition, a tradition on which capitalist development could draw for basic entrepreneurial skills in creating small but productive private enterprises “from the bottom up.” Instead, Mali chose grand socialist development projects, which – as in other African socialist countries – generally came to nothing. In the case of Mali, as in that of Ghana and other African countries, the socialist path has led nowhere but down.