When former Secretary of State Warren Christopher staged his long-delayed visit to Africa last October, many diplomatic eyebrows were raised as to why the small African state of Mali was on the list.
Angola and South Africa, for instance, were strategic. Ethiopia is the seat of the Organization of African Unity. Tanzania is a regional player in Central Africa. But why Mali?
The answer from Washington was that the West African country was a model in terms of its free press, fairly free elections, respect for human rights, and economic development. It had its flaws, but its economic growth of more than 5 percent and elections were deemed promising compared with the coups and warlords of nearby Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria.
"[It is] an oasis of freedom, a champion of democracy, and a close partner of the United States," Mr. Christopher said at the time.
But many analysts question that judgment. They ask whether Mali's hesitant moves toward democracy warrant the $35 million it received in development assistance from the US.
The skeptics say Mali reflects the general fragility of democratic experiments in Africa and that the aid has not trickled down to most of its 8 million citizens. Washington could have chosen a more appropriate partner, they say.
"The Americans are crazy or hypocritical sometimes. They look for a success where it is not," says Norman Aphane, a political analyst at the Africa Institute, an independent think tank in Pretoria, South Africa. "They are trying to promote Mali as in the democracy league. But Mali is politically and economically a basket case.
"I really don't know what the Americans are doing there in Mali. There is nothing except for a few mines. If they want to promote democracy there, they should open more businesses and open their eyes."
Critics such as Mr. Aphane are disturbed by flawed elections this spring and the arrest last month of 10 opposition figures after a policeman was lynched under still uncertain circumstances. "Despite five years of fairly good governance, the ground of democracy in this country is pretty shallow," says one Western diplomat. "However, democratization is a work in progress, and this one is still working at progressing."
Mali emerged from 31 years of Marxist dictatorship in 1992 with the election of President Alpha Konar. He has won plaudits from Washington for devolving more governing powers to local authorities. Also, Mali's relatively tolerant society is free of the devastating ethnic and religious strife seen in countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, and Nigeria. The US notes Mali is Africa's second-largest cotton producer and its third gold producer. Its cattle sales are doing well, and it is becoming self-sufficient in grains.
Washington says Mali was chosen as one of several African countries to receive training by Green Berets for a possible role in a pan-African peacekeeping force because it shared the US view on containing regional conflicts.
Mali officials say they must be given credit for what they have accomplished so far with such limited resources. "It's not perfect here, but it isn't bad for a first time go," says the former mayor of Tombouctou, Harber Sabane.
The opposition claims, however, that the government is not playing fair. A coalition of 18 parties boycotted legislative elections this spring, saying the voter registration list was improperly drawn up and that conditions did not exist for a fair vote. An April 13 round of balloting was annulled by the constitutional court because of irregularities.
At least 21 parties boycotted the subsequent May 11 presidential election, in which incumbent President Konar won 84 percent of the vote. His inauguration led to clashes between the opposition and security forces in the capital.
Some Western diplomats, however, characterize the opposition's tactics as obstructionism. One cited various incidents over the past year when violence led to the jailing of opposition politicians: "I think the hard-line opposition benefits from this sort of thing. By being thrown into jail, they are made into martyrs."
The true measure, all say, will be the municipal election, due in December or January.
"That will test the commitment to democracy," says one Western diplomat. "Then we will see."