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Economic Woes Shake Mali's Democracy

High prices and low wages put Mali at risk of military coup

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AFRICAN democracy is being tested in this dusty capital near the Sahara desert.

Public dissatisfaction is growing over how little the democratic government of Mali, one of Africa's poorest nations, has been able to deliver since it was elected two years ago.

Almost everyone is suffering from inflation and poverty. Commodities are sparse, and the prices of imported goods have doubled. University and secondary school students, who helped topple a military regime in 1991, are striking for greater financial aid; some of the more militant ones burned the houses of several government supporters last month. Civil servants are calling for 50 percent pay increases.

Some diplomats and opposition politicians say Mali risks a military coup.

Typical of other poor African nations that have switched from dictatorships to elected governments in recent years, Mali is experiencing what a Western diplomat here calls the consequences of ``overblown expectations of democracy.''

``Life was supposed to get better; it's gotten worse,'' the diplomat says.

Mali switched to democracy in 1991, when violent demonstrations by Malian university and secondary school students demanding more financial aid helped topple the 23-year military regime of Gen. Moussa Traore. An interim military government gave way to a civilian, Alpha Oumar Konare, who was elected president in 1992.

The severest blow to the economy, and perhaps the government, came in January, when France devalued the currency used in Mali and 13 other former French colonies.

The move has especially hurt the unemployed and urban workers, fueling anger. Even before the devaluation, the annual per capita income was only $280. Critics blame the government for not preparing the public for the devaluation, which was anticipated.

``I've tried everywhere [to find a job],'' says Draman Samake, a jobless Malian who could not afford to buy a sewing machine after his tailoring apprenticeship ended last year.

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