World Social Forum puts Africa up front /

Round tables issue Bamako Appeal /

By John Catalinotto

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February 1, 2006--For those people who know Mali's capital Bamako has only a handful of large buildings — some government offices, the luxury hotel at 15 stories, the international bank and the great mosque — it may have been a surprise that this city was picked for the African session of 2006's Polycentric World Social Forum (WSF).

But Mali has a rich history that reminds people of the high point of African civilization before the slave trade decimated the continent. In the early 14th century, Mali was the leading power in an empire bigger than medieval Europe, on the trading route from the Middle East to the African Gold Coast.

On that route was the legendary city of Timbuktu, located in the dry region of northern Mali known as the Sahel, on the edge of the Sahara desert. It is said that Mali's 14th century ruler Mansa (or Kankan) Moussa once traveled to Mecca with an entourage of 60,000 retainers, each carrying a bar of gold. He gave away so much gold in Cairo that his generosity collapsed the medieval market for that precious metal.

Landlocked and extremely poor, Mali still produces and exports gold, along with cotton. These two products account for 80 percent of Mali’s exports. Mali’s 480,000 square miles are almost twice that of Texas, but only 4 percent is arable, mostly in the inland delta of the mighty Niger River, which starts in the mountains of neighboring Guinea and flows northeast until it turns southwest through Niger and Nigeria and empties into Nigeria’s oil fields in the Gulf of Guinea.

Over a million of Mali's 12.5 million people inhabit the capital, Bamako, a city of tree-lined streets with small wooden buildings and the feel of a giant village. Many Malians live in crushing poverty at a survival level, statistically about the same rate as Bolivia, and 10 percent of the population are nomadic, mostly Touaregs in the North.

Mali’s infant mortality rate is over 100 per thousand live births. The adult literacy rate is under 50 percent.

But anyone walking across the Bridge of Martyrs from the south to the north side of the Niger will see a beehive of population and traffic, with most people still looking well, riding mopeds and driving old cars at a density familiar in any modern city. Continue through the blocks- long market toward the large mosque and people are mostly walking through the busy narrow crowded streets of the capital, women dressed in colorful attractive clothing and men standing tall. Everyone is selling and some buying on these streets, mostly cheap manufactured goods from all over the world.

Mali had a progressive government when it won independence from the French Empire in 1960, but it is now ensnared like most of Francophone Africa in French neo-colonialism. Mali's currency, the CFA, is locked into the Euro, like that of Bahamas or Ecuador is to the dollar. The few real jobs are in government services, on a railroad now facing privatization or in the gold mines, but 80 percent of the people live off the land, and cotton prices are so low on the world market that imperialist agribusiness is wiping out the local producers.

Africa front and center

The organizers of the World Social Forum chose this city host the African session of its 2006 gathering from Jan. 19-23. Malian activists organized, with a minimal infrastructure, a series of 600 meetings over those days in the universities, the congress buildings, the museums and conference centers of Bamako. According to these intrepid organizers, including former Minister of Culture Aminata Dramane Traore, some 15- 20,000 people, mostly from Francophone Africa and including many from the farming villages, attended the Bamako WSF.

For the first time in the five years of the WSF’s existence, the issues of Africa were at its center. According to Malian organizer Mamadou Goita, "We had over 300 people from the rural areas of Mali alone, while another 8,000 came from neighboring countries. All of them participated in the forum and enriched the discussions. This has never happened before."

At the opening demonstration Jan. 19, thousands of people marched through Bamako’s streets to the National Stadium, demanding fair trade policies, no privatization of the railroad, an end to subsidies to imperialist agribusiness, freedom for the Western Sahara and an end to the debt.

For the people of Africa, who for the first time had the opportunity to discuss their day-to-day problems before the world, the forum meant a chance to raise some of the most basic demands. Fair trade for agricultural products with an end to subsidies for imperialist agribusiness, development of industry in Africa, fair treatment of immigrants in Europe, protection of the environment of the poor countries, an end to the crushing debt burden were all put on the agenda.

On Jan. 23, a group of international guests from Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Sweden, Belgium and the U.S. stopped at a local restaurant near the train station. As we left, some young Malian men implored us to bring the message back to the WSF and to the world that "All we want is work. We would prefer to stay here and work. Or we will come to Europe and work."

This train station was at one end of the railroad from Dakar, Senegal, to Bamako that was the scene of an historic 10-month-long strike in 1947-1948 that played a big role in the region’s struggle for independence from France. Senegalese author and filmmaker Sembene Ousmane brought the story of this strike to the world in literary form by in his novel, "God's Bits of Wood." At the WSF, Malians brought as a major issue the attempt to privatize the railroad and its sale to a Canadian-based transnational corporation.

A fate worse than debt

Because the media has hyped the alleged commitment to cancel debt of the poorest countries through the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, people may think the debt problem has been substantially relieved. In reality, this initiative has achieved little.

Throughout the 1990s and in the 21st century, the major imperialist powers have used the leverage of the crushing debt to enforce through the International Monetary Fund what is known as “neo-liberal” policies on the indebted countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Without IMF approval, the countries can’t get the new credit they need to function in the world economy.

The changed demanded is that African governments cut trade barriers that protect local producers, denationalize industry, cut government spending on health care, education and food subsidies, and open their markets, which keeps their economies as sources of cheap raw materials and cheap labor for transnational corporations and continued interest to banks. In 1999, for example, the HIPC countries repaid $1,680 million more than they received in the form of new loans.

As a result of World Bank and IMF policies, average incomes in Africa have declined, and the continent’s poverty has increased. These policies are still imposed on the HIPC countries that received debt relief, which includes Mali. In Guinea and Zimbabwe, the inability to service foreign debts has only caused the Fund, the World Bank and Western countries to freeze all aid, causing the economic situation to deteriorate.

In general in Africa, around $80 billion is needed to guarantee the provision of basic medical care, primary education and drinking water for the world's poorest population, said delegates from the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, they said, the poorest nations in the South had to payoff more than $300 billion in debt to developed countries.

What is really needed is unconditional cancellation of debt and reparations for the enormous wealth that has been stolen from Africa in the last five centuries.

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