Alpha Oumar Konare: Getting Back to Work

Mali’s former president, Alpha Oumar Konare, credited with boosting his country’s meager economy and fostering its democratic processes, has been elected chairman of the recently formed African Union. Konare has his work cut out for him in a continent facing formidable problems including war, poverty, disease, and terrorism.

The fifth of 14 children born to a schoolteacher in western Mali, Konare, 57, left home for Poland in the 1970s, to earn a doctorate at Warsaw University. After returning to Mali, he served as the country’s sports and culture minister then as a university professor of history and archaeology. He married and had three sons and one daughter.

In 1989, Konare became an outspoken critic of the country’s military dictatorship, launching an opposition newspaper that pressed for the adoption of a multiparty political system. Within three years, the country’s longtime dictator was toppled, elections were held, and Konare won the post of president. He was re-elected in 1997. Notably, he stepped aside in 2002 when his term ended, graciously passing the post to his elected successor—and thereby becoming the first democratically elected leader in Mali’s history to relinquish power to another democratically elected leader.

Though out of office, Konare vowed  not to leave the public eye. On July 10, he made good on his promise. After the only other candidate, Côte d’Ivoire’s Amara Essy, withdrew his application, Konare was easily elected chairman of the African Union with the backing of 35 of the 45 countries voting.

According to news accounts, several dominant African countries, South Africa and Nigeria among them, believed that the African Union, created to replace the Organization for African Unity, would benefit from the leadership of a former head of state such as Konare, who could lend legitimacy to the new organization.

As president of Mali, Konare was known as a pan-Africanist who implemented economic reforms supported by the donor community and helped resolve a rebellion in his country’s north. He is also credited with protecting Mali’s archaeological, cultural, and academic histories, with curbing the spread of illegal small arms in Africa, and with bringing information technology to Mali.

In his role as chairman of the African Union, new challenges await. Konare will soon move to Ethiopia, where the organization is headquartered.