Can Cyber-Activism Strengthen Mali's Democracy?

Why you should care

The future of Mali’s fledging democracy is at stake. 

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Khadidia Maïga was frustrated by how Google searches of her country tended to throw out keywords like “terrorism,” “poverty” and “deprivation.” But she decided she wasn’t going to just sit back and criticize her country’s increasingly dysfunctional systems responsible for those word associations.

So, she helped create an online platform called Transformons le Mali (Let’s Transform Mali) that calls for ideas from the public and then processes them into a comprehensive plan for change. She and her friends, she says, have long discussed what kind of country they want to live in, and what needs to be done. Now they’re doing it.

And they’re not alone. Using the power of the internet, a new breed of cyber-activists is emerging in Mali, trying to connect citizens and urge them to move beyond living-room criticism into actual action for change. At their heart, these initiatives are about upturning a political culture that is disconnected from Mali’s citizens and a social culture of apathy born out of disillusionment.

We know that there’s another Mali, with young talent and the drive to turn our country into the Mali we’re dreaming about.

Khadidia Maïga, cofounder, Transformons le Mali

The 2012 crisis was what pushed Fatouma Harber, a Timbuktu-based teacher and blogger, toward activism too. On her blog, Facebook page and Twitter account, she takes on Islamist forces she views as imposing an alien version of the religion on a city that for centuries has been a center of moderate Islamic teachings and science. And Transformons le Mali is planning to unveil a roadmap of action in June, a month before Mali’s presidential elections.

For Ousmane Maïga, who was born in Mali, has lived in New York and now shuffles between France and the country of his birth, the turning points were an armed rebellion and a coup — both in 2012 — that shook the nation to its core. The coup, which threatened to reverse Mali’s limited gains since its transition to democracy in 1991, left Ousmane and his friends feeling helpless. So, they devised and launched kouloubametre.com, a website and a discussion tool that tracks the current president’s election promises and the status of their implementation.

“We know that there’s another Mali, with young talent and the drive to turn our country into the Mali we’re dreaming about,” says Khadidia.

Almost everyone in this vast West African nation — the size of Alaska, Texas and Michigan combined — has a smartphone, so the emergence of cyber-activism isn’t surprising. But these initiatives aren’t limited to the country’s borders. They strive to include the vast diaspora — an estimated 1.2 million Malians live in France alone.

That diaspora connection is important. At the time of the 2012 coup, most of them weren’t in the country. “We had no say in the matter,” Ousmane recalls. That won’t happen again with others in the diaspora, if kouloubametre.com has its way. To overcome the challenge that many cannot read, write or express themselves in French, the official language, Ousmane and her colleagues send people apps on their smartphones that allow them to contribute ideas in any language.

For Harber, having her say online is critical, for the future of her city. ”I have to represent my city, as an integral part of Mali with its inclusive culture that others have been trying to take away from us,” she says. But she has also started a platform called Sankoré Labs that serves an incubator, a co-working space and a digital training school, all rolled into one. As a young girl, she found her family background and culture nourished her talents. She wants Sankoré Labs to play that role too. It’s a place “for the young,” she says, “where they can work, receive training in how to navigate the digital world and regain a sense of self-value.”

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Benin Mylene Flicka, a cyber-activist from Benin and founder of the website IrawoTalents.com, speaks with Cheikh Fall, a cyber-activist from Mali and senior manager in a large group of Senegalese media, at a café in Paris in 2016.

Source ALAIN JOCARD/Getty

Will any of this work? These movements are emerging in a political context marked by a “very large” gap between citizens and politicians, says Baba Dakono, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, an Africa-wide research organization that looks into terrorism, justice and governance. “There is no space for debate,” he says. Mali has tried multiple experiments since adopting democracy, says Dakono. It has had citizens’ action and reflection circles. But leaders ultimately succumbed to political gamesmanship and lost the trust of citizens, he adds.

For the new digital initiatives to succeed, they need to “bridge that gap,” says Dakono. “They can do this by becoming wellsprings of ideas,” he says. “And by remaining independent.”

That’s what Transformons le Mali is trying to do. So far, the website has received around 200 ideas on subjects such as health care, agriculture, security, education, culture and identity. To avoid just being a receptacle of ideas, the group is working in thematic teams, each processing ideas related to a sector. A Transformation Plan for Mali, based on this work, will be unveiled publicly in June, says Mamadou Camara, the project’s coordinator. They will also share the plan with “all candidates and we’ll get them to pledge to carry it out if they get elected,” says Camara.

Won’t this pull them into exactly the kind of political game Dakono is warning against? Maybe. But the urgency of Mali’s predicament is such that the activists and their supporters worry more about the inevitable failure that comes from doing nothing. “We seem to be stuck with a political class that is incapable, some even say unwilling, to do anything about the crisis we’re in,” says Ousmane. “And so — it’s up to us.”

That urgency appears to be resonating. Sirandou Diawara is a young Franco-Malian architect who has embraced the new movement. “We’re in a time of crisis, and we must come up with solutions,” she says. She’s trying to figure out how best she can contribute, professionally and personally.

These disparate activities are only loosely connected, with limited contact with each other. But they’re part of a wider emergence of digital change agents across West Africa nations, who regularly meet — a conclave has been planned in Ouagadougou in June.

The movement may be spreading, but Malian cyber-activists are clear. They’re only starting out, and their journey is long. Khadidia Maïga mulls what it will take for her to feel content. That will be when Mali’s youth start acting on their own. “We’re a catalyst,” she says. “All we want to do is to change minds.”

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