Outside the region, West Africa rarely makes for good copy — except if there is a death, a protest, or some sexy hashtag.
So it makes sense that the small landlocked nation of 18 million people called Mali isn’t at the top of international news headlines.
The nation, of course, must take responsibility for its own struggles, and its own failings. From its enviable history as one of the three big West African empires that controlled trade across the Sahara, it wobbled after independence in 1960, finally splintering in 2012, as armed conflict led to rebel insurgency, leading to secession, compounded by a military coup.
By the time something that looked like order was restored by the French military in 2013, Mali had become both one of the ten poorest nations in the world (ranking 175 out of 188 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2016) as well as one of the 37 heavily indebted poor countries, depending thirstily on foreign aid.
Presidential and legislative elections held in that same year have brought a measure of stability to the nation, although its people’s lives have not gotten better in any material way – the economy is stagnant, unemployment is choking, and there is always the spectre of conflict hanging around its tired neck. It’s health and development indicators continue to be among the very worst in the world. And then there is the matter of its army of displaced persons: the war in Northern Mali forcing more than 300 000 people to become refugees in other countries, with tens of thousands as internally displaced in their own country.
But while Mali might not interest much of the world, it absolutely should interest those of us who come from the continent and especially those like me who find our homes in the beleaguered region called West Africa, often seen as a small, grand theatre for war, poor governance, and poverty.
Mali’s story is, however, a little more complicated than that flat tale. Since 2013 for instance, its democracy has been stable, with its people enthusiastically embracing freedom and openness, and its politicians largely behaving with responsibility.
Its GDP grew at a little more than 5.5% last year, and the economic potential of a nation that remains the continent’s largest gold producer, as well as the home of large reserves of other natural resource including uranium and iron ore, remains bright. It bears repeating: GDP hit an all time high of $15.29-billion in 2017.
Its presidential election, held on Sunday, therefore truly matters for its future. It also matters because it is shaping up to be a real competition.
Twenty-seven candidates ran for office with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Soumaila Cisse as the two leading candidates. And, while Keita won the last presidential run-off with 78 percent of the vote, the process this year has been free of intimidation, voter suppression or a coordinated attack on freedoms.
“For the first time since the advent of democracy in 1991, an election is organised while the incumbent president of the republic is a candidate and whose victory is not assured in advance,” Baba Dakono, a researcher from the Institute of Security Studies told Al Jazeera.
This is a good thing for West Africa. It continues a robust tradition of democratic advance that is re-writing the region’s story. First, there was the defeat of incumbency in Nigeria and Ghana, the overthrow of autocracy in Gambia, the consolidation of democracy in Liberia, the strengthening of growth in Sierra Leone, and then the continuation of peace and stability in the Republic of Benin.
Although Sunday’s vote was marred by some incidents of violence, it was largely peaceful – showing that the country’s democratic bones remain in good health, despite the obvious difficulties.
If all continues to go well, then Mali will be joining the proud ranks of West African nations making a bold march into an open and prosperous future. That is something worth paying very, very close attention to.
*Jideonwo is the founder of Joy, Inc., which is building a generation of fearless young Africans using the research on happiness and resilience. He is a World Fellow at Yale and author of the book How to Win Elections in Africa: Parallels with Donald Trump