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Moving Mali forward

Mali was turned upside down last spring as armed groups overran the north and the military toppled the president. For some, crisis is a wake-up call, offering Malians a chance to create a new path.

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In this file photo, Malians opposing a foreign military intervention to retake Mali's Islamist-held north clash with police as they march in the streets of the capital, Bamako, Mali, earlier this fall.

Harouna Traore/AP/File

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Every year since 2001 the Festival au Desert has been held near Timbuktu, drawing musicians and listeners from around the world – until now. Next year’s event, according to its Website, is planned as a “Festival in Exile” held in stages in various other countries.

Mali, long considered an island of stability in a turbulent region, was turned upside down last spring as armed groups overran the north and a military coup toppled the democratically elected president.

Yet for some, crisis is also a wake-up call, unmasking Mali’s flaws while offering its people a chance to correct them.

“We need to recover the north,” says Moussa Mara, an accountant and district mayor in Bamako. “But what’s really at stake is how Mali might use this opportunity to move to greater democracy, civic values, justice, and prosperity.”

An early sign

An attempt at overhauling Mali last occurred in 1991, when Army officers ousted the strongman president, Moussa Traoré, and started the country on a path toward democracy.

Free elections were instituted, and a decentralization plan meant to empower ordinary citizens subdivided regions into 703 small administrative “communes” with locally elected leaders.

International donors showered Mali with loans and development aid. Tourism grew, with desert jaunts and events such as the Festival au Desert among popular attractions.

From 2002, the United States poured around $60 million into training and equipping Mali’s Army to fight Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamist militants who have increasingly used the country’s northern hinterland as a base.

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