Terror comes to Mali’s capital, again

Why the Radisson?

Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel was a natural target for terrorists. There is just a handful of luxury hotels in Bamako, and the Radisson Blu is the only one whose name touts its Western ownership. There are no Marriotts, Best Westerns, Sofitels or other global hotel chains present there. Unlike the Hotel de l’Amitié downtown, the Radisson is not currently serving as the headquarters of the United Nations mission to Mali (slated to remain there until the end of the year), and thus is not nearly as heavily guarded. But the Radisson did have the reputation among Western expatriates as being the safest place to stay in Bamako. Several reports indicate that the attackers arrived in a vehicle with green diplomatic plates, which got them right past hotel security.

It’s worth noting that the Radisson is located in the capital’s ACI 2000 district, which also happens to be home to the U.S. Embassy and the Peace Corps office. Today’s attack may spur the U.S. government to reconsider its decision last summer to send Peace Corps Volunteers back into the field in Mali.

The Pentagon has stated that U.S. special operations forces are involved in the “hostage recovery efforts” in Bamako. This would mark a significant development, since the U.S. military has kept its distance from Mali since the 2012 coup.

Who are the attackers?

While no claims of responsibility have been reported as of this writing, there is regrettably no shortage of potential culprits operating on Malian territory these days. The likeliest suspects are the armed jihadi groups. I have adapted the paragraphs below from the introduction that I co-authored with Francesco Strazzari for the forthcoming special issue of African Security (December 2015) dedicated to Mali and northwest Africa.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is perhaps the best-known jihadist organization operating in northwest Africa and was formed by Algerian rebels who had fought in that country’s civil war and subsequently undertaken large-scale kidnapping for ransom of Europeans. The group seeks the overthrow of the Algerian government, the creation of a Saharan safe haven, and the targeting of Western interests in the region. As it pursues these goals, AQIM builds local support in its areas of operation by acting as a sort of Islamic charity and by its leaders cultivating marriage alliances with local populations. It has launched attacks in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria and collected over US$90 million in ransom payments since 2008.

An AQIM offshoot known as Al Moulathamine and led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar attacked the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria in January 2013, leading to the deaths of dozens of hostages. Seven months later Al Moulathamine united with another group, MUJAO (see below), under the name Al Mourabitoune. Last March Al Mourabitoune claimed responsibility for Bamako’s first-ever terrorist incident, an attack on a nightclub that killed five and wounded eight. In August it also claimed responsibility for attacks that killed thirteen Malian soldiers in different locations in northern Mali and on the Byblos Hotel in Sévaré, in the central Mopti region, in which four Malian soldiers and five UN workers were killed. Reportedly Al Mourabitoune rebranded itself as “Al Qaeda in West Africa later that month.

MUJAO (le Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) is another AQIM offshoot that has distinguished itself in terms of leadership and operations from its former mother organization. Its leaders espouse a borderless ideology that can mesh well with local sentiments in the region, where inhabitants may not view traffickers and other outlaw groups as a greater threat than government security forces. Reports suggest that they have been highly active in drug trafficking and that at least one of their former leaders has turned up fighting in a Malian government-backed militia group. After beginning its operations with an October 2011 kidnapping at a refugee camp in Algeria, it occupied the Malian town of Gao for several months in 2012, implementing a harsh version of shari’a law. Since its ouster from Gao in early 2013, MUJAO has carried out sporadic attacks throughout northern Mali as well as western Niger. It briefly merged with Belmokhtar’s group before splitting off again and possibly pledging loyalty to ISIS.

The group known as Ansar Dine, unlike the others, is dominated by Malian Tuareg fighters and commanders. Its leader, Iyad ag Ghali, fought for the Tuareg nationalist cause in the early 1990s. He is known in northern Mali as a canny political player, and while observers debated his motives and level of ideological commitment to jihad, his group enforced shari’a law in Timbuktu for much of 2012. Although Ansar Dine lost considerable manpower in early 2013 (with hundreds of his men defecting to a newly formed, ostensibly secular Tuareg militant group, the Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad), ag Ghali’s organization has claimed responsibility for attacks on Malian security forces, including two carried out in mid-2015 in the far south of the country near the border with Cote d’Ivoire. Ag Ghali recently released an audio recording in which he called for attacks on France, and he has already been speculated as being behind the Radisson attack. One of ag Ghali’s self-proclaimed disciples, a militant preacher reported as Amadou or Hammadoun Koufa, has also announced his own offshoot group called the Macina Liberation Movement.

What do they want?

We should be cautious about drawing direct connections between this attack and ISIS, or last week’s attacks in Paris, or the subsequent French airstrikes in Syria. Armed jihadis have been targeting French and Western interests in northwest Africa since well before the advent of the Islamic State, and as the above paragraphs show, it’s far from evident that any of these groups have solid links to ISIS. The Bamako attackers most likely identify with those who carried out the Paris attacks, but their particular motivations may also diverge: for jihadis in Mali, their main grievance is with the French military for driving them out of the territory they controlled in northern Mali three years ago.

Postscript: Reuters reports that Al Mourabitoune has claimed responsibility for the Radisson attack.

Postscript 2: Guinean music star Sekouba “Bambino” Diabaté was among those freed from the hotel after the attack. In an interview, he says he overheard attackers speaking English, “in what seemed like a Nigerian accent.”

Postscript 3, 22 November: The Macina Liberation Movement has also reportedly issued a claim of responsibility for the attack, “in reaction to the attacks by Barkhane forces which with the Malian military is targeting members of MLM and Ansar Dine.”

Postscript 4, 26 November: I’ve received word that Peace Corps Volunteers will be evacuated from Mali in the wake of the Radisson Blu attack.

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Uncomfortable truths about Mali

Laurent Bigot (RFI photo)

Some may recall a candid speech from a French diplomat in July 2012 about Mali and its neighbors. It was delivered by Laurent Bigot, then France’s top diplomat for West Africa. Bigot’s candor got him fired, but earned him a reputation for speaking uncomfortable truths. He has now penned an op-ed in Le Monde under the title “Operation Barkhane: A license to kill in the Sahel.” His analysis this time similarly pulls no punches, excoriating French and Malian officials in equal measure for their lack of vision, foolishness and duplicity. I was sufficiently impressed by Bigot’s short text to translate it here in its entirety in hopes of gaining it a wider audience.

Since France’s intervention in Mali, the defense ministry regularly congratulates itself on putting presumed terrorists “out of the fight.” The French army is carrying out the death penalty, which France abolished in 1981 and which its diplomats are trying to abolish around the world. This strange paradox stems from the lack of reflection on how to fight terrorism.

France has bought into the American concept of fighting terrorism, the infamous “war on terror,” without gauging its consequences and especially without realizing its tragic ineffectiveness. One need only look at the state of Afghanistan and Iraq to understand the extent of this strategy’s failure. A total failure. Mali is no exception to the rule. 18 months after the beginning of the French intervention, the security situation in the north is at its most precarious despite the international military presence, and the situation in Bamako is as degraded as it was on the eve of President Amadou Toumani Touré’s ouster.

Yet I am among those who consider the intervention to have been a courageous political decision by President Hollande. Unfortunately, the absence of thinking about terrorism’s causes, coupled with a troubling denial of Malian political realities, turned the military victory into a political defeat.

Fighting terrorism cannot be reduced to eliminating its alleged leaders. To execute presumed terrorists without any form of trial is to kill in the name of our values, the very act for which we justifiably reproach our adversaries. Some call it legitimate self-defense. This forgets that it’s defined in French law: a riposte must come at the moment of the aggression, otherwise it’s an act of revenge. And this is how it is perceived by local populations, because executing an alleged terrorist leader is first of all killing a father, a husband, a son or a brother. I do not forget the victims of terror but, under the rule of law, it is the duty of justice to investigate and punish. Credibly promoting the rule of law entails a non-negotiable requirement: leading by example.

The strategy of an eye for an eye masks the root of the problem: why do terrorist movements take hold in some regions and not others? With respect to northern Mali the answer is fairly simple, even if the solution is not. The failure of the state in the north and its predatory, even murderous presence (the Malian army has carried out abuses several times since independence, including recently) have created a void to be filled by armed groups, which also carry out a social mission beyond the terror they wield over local populations. While the people of northern Mali have little taste for the way of life imposed by terrorist groups, neither do they care for the presence of the Malian state as they have always known it.

This post-independence Malian state has never been a blessing for these populations. So, when they fall under the control of terrorist groups, they do what they’ve done for centuries: they adapt. They simply move from one precarious situation to another. These terrorist groups too are trying to win acceptance, by buying food staples at above-market prices, transporting the sick to the closest clinics or establishing order. Testimony confirms the security that prevailed in Gao during the reign of these groups – which obviously does not excuse any of the violence they carried out – even as French diplomacy seems unmoved by the same violence when carried out by Saudi Arabia. Maybe it’s about their buying power?

Northern Malians have, moreover, completely turned away from the political system established by the national conference in the early 1990s. Mali’s democracy once so lauded by the West has given way to the predation of special interests along the lines of what goes on in Bamako. Democracy is perceived as allowing a minority to enrich itself with full impunity and the blessing of the international community, whose hypocrisy borders on collusion. We must confront this perception to understand why a military force and the billions of euros announced at international conferences are no longer convincing to anybody on the ground.

As I emphasized, the solution is not so easy. Let us start with an ambition founded on demanding the truth. Malian authorities are primarily responsible for this enormous mess. Let us not cloud the issue; let us be exacting in our partnership with Mali. If we remain satisfied with false pretenses, the same causes will yield the same effects. I have often heard that not all truths are good to tell. The strength of a truth lies not in being silenced but in being spoken, with all the respect one accords one’s fellows. This is the terrain on which France is expected.

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How to get filthy rich in sinking Africa

When a government gets serious about fighting corruption, certain effects quickly become visible. As a New York Times article showed last week in the case of Nigeria, once President Buhari’s crackdown got underway a few months ago, the people who’d been stealing the country’s vast public wealth started behaving differently. It takes more than speeches: a head of state must initiate some investigations, high-profile arrests, and firings of high-ranking civil servants before corrupt officials start to realize that the cycle of impunity that had protected them for so long is over — or at least, as we may find in Nigeria, temporarily interrupted.

In Mali, meanwhile, nothing has yet signaled embezzlers or reassured ordinary citizens that feeding time at the government trough is over — President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s abundant 2013 campaign promises to fight graft notwithstanding. Despite a string of corruption scandals since Keita took power, nobody caught with their hands in Mali’s public till has been punished. And of course it doesn’t help that French investigators have linked Keita himself to various shady dealings and underworld figures.

Bamako’s illicit economy, fueled by money looted from state coffers, continues unabated. Far from being reined in under Keita’s rule, it appears to be undergoing a boom. I heard from one human rights investigator recently that Keita and his entourage are turning back the clock to the bad old days of impunity. Civil servants who complain about corruption or try to hold their staff accountable for it, such as police director Hamidou Kansaye, are being let go.

And some of the biggest forms of abuse are happening in the open. Earlier this month reports surfaced of a deal to sell a 3.43-hectare plot of public land in Bamako to private developers. The video below shows a panoramic view of the parcel in question; it’s the cleared area in the foreground.

Given its setting on the waterfront between the Pont Fahd and the Pont des Martyrs, it’s a prime location for development. The problem, as an article in the Bamako weekly Le Sphynx points out, is that the land was reserved for public use five years ago. The plot was meant to become the Place du Cinquantenaire, site of a new monument and park for the Malian people. This fact didn’t stop two of Keita’s cabinet ministers from approving the sale earlier this year, ostensibly to an American firm called Wipi Group for “construction of a five-star hotel and shopping mall,” according to a leaked official document (n° 2015 – 0028-MDEAF- MATD/SG dated 1 September 2015).

There’s so much that’s dubious about this transaction. By all evidence Wipi Group, owned by a Sudanese immigrant in the U.S. and registered in South Dakota, has no other holdings and lacks the capital to develop the site. How did such an unknown company secure this deal — which was never put out for a bid — in the first place? Why has a Wipi Group representative denied that his firm ever purchased this property, or any other property in Mali? Why does Mohamed Ali Bathily, one of the two ministers whose signature appears on the leaked document, now reportedly deny that the signature is actually his? Suspicions in Bamako abound that Wipi is merely a smokescreen, a stand-in for unnamed buyers likely to enjoy close ties to Mali’s head of state. But you can forgive Malians for being suspicious: over the past couple of decades they’ve seen too much of their national patrimony sold into private hands at below-market prices, after all, lining the pockets of their country’s corrupt elite.

The Wipi Group deal only illustrates a rule Malians have long understood: if you want to make a fortune in this country, you don’t have to offer the best goods or services at the lowest price. You shouldn’t try to pioneer some fantastic new product that will make people’s lives better. For that matter, you needn’t bother creating anything of value at all. Just get your hands on some public resources, buy off anyone charged with overseeing their use, and sell those resources to private buyers. In broad daylight.

Will the Place du Cinquantenaire deal go forward now that it’s come into public view? Will the government officials who (allegedly) approved this deal ever be called to account for their lack of transparency? The average Bamako resident, according to Sidiki Guindo’s latest poll, rates President Keita’s performance lowest with respect to the fight against corruption. Given the climate of cynicism fostered by Mali’s booming illicit economy, whistle-blowers and anti-corruption campaigners face an uphill battle. The same is true all over Africa, not least in Nigeria, where decades of failed crackdowns can inspire a sinking feeling. (Good luck to you, President Buhari!)

Readers may recognize this post’s title as a variation on that of Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), which recounts an unnamed protagonist’s rise from poverty to power amid the cutthroat business competition of an unnamed South Asian city. But you have to look elsewhere in this author’s work to find the passage that best resonates with the cynical opportunism now prevailing in Mali. As one particularly corrupt character in Hamid’s debut novel Moth Smoke (2000) puts it: “People are pulling their pieces out of the pie, and the pie is getting smaller, so if you love your family, you’d better take your piece now, while there’s still some left. That’s what I’m doing. And if anyone isn’t doing it, it’s because they’re locked out of the kitchen.”

Words to live by in Bamako these days. Or as Malians might put it, “Silence, on mange.”

Pie, anyone? Grab it before it’s gone.

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Writing the Afropolis

Ryan Skinner’s Bamako Sounds is undoubtedly the most intelligent book I’ve read about contemporary Bamako in general, and its music scene in particular. It’s an important work, less for what it says about a given set of musical styles than for what is says about Mali’s wider cultural landscape, about the ways Malian people today understand who they are and how they relate to each other and the rest of the world. The book’s subtitle–An Afropolitan Ethics of Malian Music–offers a clue to how Skinner approaches this landscape.

Bamako SoundsAfropolitanism is quite a young concept, only a decade in the making. Writer Taiye Selasi’s 2005 essay “Bye Bye Babar?” is generally considered its first articulation, and Selasi’s vision of the Afropolitan was subsequently criticized as shallow and elitist (e.g. by Binyavanga Wainaina, Emma Dabiri and Marta Tveit). But Skinner’s analysis follows a different Afropolitan strand, spun by historian Achille Mbembe.

Mbembe describes Afropolitanism as a form of post-nationalist, post-nativist modernity emerging in Africa’s urban spaces. He traces its meaning in a brief 2005 essay on the topic:

Awareness of the interweaving of the here and there, the presence of the elsewhere in the here and vice versa, the relativization of primary roots and memberships and the way of embracing, with full knowledge of the facts, strangeness, foreignness and remoteness, the ability to recognize one’s face in that of a foreigner and make the most of the traces of remoteness in closeness, to domesticate the unfamiliar, to work with what seem to be opposites–it is this cultural, historical and aesthetic sensitivity that underlies the term “Afropolitanism.”

Afropolitanism in Bamako, Skinner writes, draws from multiple cultural registers–ethnic tradition (mainly Mande), national discourse, the Islamic umma and the global ecumene. For the Afropolitan, these registers are not conflicting (never mind mutually exclusive) but complementary, forming a polyphony that is the backdrop and soundtrack to daily life in the city. Afropolitanism here is anything but the privilege of a jet-setting elite. For Skinner it’s “an egalitarian and creative practice of freeing oneself to present tradition in new ways” (p. 182). For rich and poor, from swanky nightclubs to the intense sociality of the SOTRAMA, Afropolitan ethics suffuse existence in Bamako.

Music is of course the author’s point of entry into this discussion. Skinner is an ethnomusicologist at Ohio State, not to mention a musician who counts kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté among his teachers. So the sonic dimensions of Bamako culture are given preeminence, in part because music is so all-encompassing in Malian society. Skinner writes that “good sound–music that stirs bodies, triggers thoughts, and incites emotions–affirms good subjectivity, audibly expressing the persistence of cultural mores and social imperatives in counterpoint with the interests, desires, and aspirations of individuals” (p. 102). His analysis of Bamako’s musical landscape ranges from “high culture” (an instrumental performance by Toumani Diabaté at the French Cultural Center) to popular vocal music (a wedding gig by Dialy Mady Cissoko, a rehearsal by Nana Soumbounou) to neighborhood rap tributes like Need One’s “Bolibana”:

Surveying this diverse landscape, Skinner takes pains to highlight the choices Bamako artists make in crafting their sounds and their presentation to others, for these choices speak to the Afropolitan ethics he seeks to map out in this book. “My attention is drawn,” he writes, “to the bargaining, improvisation, mobilizations of identity, and intersubjective revisions that characterize the ethical projects of African subjects in the world today” (p. 10).

Malian musicians’ Afropolitan tastes may be eclectic, but the reader learns that they also operate within a particular political economy characterized by constraint and uncertainty. Where most commercially available recordings are pirated and only a fortunate few artists land lucrative tours abroad, making a musical living is a tremendous challenge. In his last two chapters, Skinner outlines the postcolonial history of cultural production in Mali and shows the impact of the country’s current political turmoil on its artists. Most of us know that music was banned by the Islamist militants who controlled northern towns three years ago (subject of the documentary “They Will Have to Kill Us First“); fewer of us may be aware of how badly the state of emergency in Bamako crippled that city’s music scene in 2012 and 2013.

Even in the best of times, Skinner demonstrates, Bamakois experience urban life as an unstable mixture of conviviality and precarity, “a wild space of risk, possibility, hope, and anxiety” (p. 35) that they must navigate as best they can. Music is a vital tool with which Bamakois learn to domesticate this wild urban space, transcend it and connect with the world beyond its limits.

Bamako Sounds is a work of consummate scholarship, and this fact is at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Readers unfamiliar with Foucauldian biopolitics or Althuserrian moral subjectivity, for example, may find portions of it rough going. Yet what this book offers to any reader ready to take it on is a means of coming to terms with everyday life and cultural identity in the Afropolis, one that moves beyond sterile dualisms of modern vs. traditional and imported vs. authentic. Skinner’s take on Afropolitanism offers a fresh means of imagining “the increasingly urban, demographically young, internally diverse, widely dispersed, highly productive, intensely creative, and always already modern African World” (p. 184). As African societies become ever more urbanized and ever more oriented toward the outside world, such a perspective has never been more welcome, or more necessary.

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Keep Peace Corps out of Mali

Although I’d hoped to take a break from this blog over the summer, I’ve been watching recent events in Mali with a growing sense of alarm. Below is a list of some notable terrorist incidents in parts of Mali that were, until recently, considered “safe.” The map  shows locations of  seven incidents I have enumerated, but note that this is not an exhaustive list of terrorist activity in Mali.

Sites of terrorist attacks in central/southern Mali (numbers correspond to locations enumerated below)

Sites of terrorist attacks in central/southern Mali (numbers correspond to locations enumerated below)

  • Kayes region: In November 2012 the radical jihadi/criminal organization known as  MUJAO claims credit for kidnapping French citizen Gilbert Rodriguez Leal in Diéma (1), near the Mauritanian border. MUJAO announces Leal’s death in April 2014. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to Diéma.
  • Bamako district: On 7 March 2015 gunmen kill five people during an attack on La Terrasse nightclub in Bamako’s Hippodrome neighborhood (2). The group Al Mourabitoune, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claims responsibility. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, the bars and restaurants of Hippodrome were a frequent destination for off-duty Peace Corps Volunteers in the capital.
  • Koulikoro region: On 8 August 2015 the national gendarmerie post in Baguinéda (3), a small town located just 15 km outside the District of Bamako, is attacked by unknown assailants. According to Studio Tamani, they manage to sack the offices and burn a vehicle before escaping into the night; none has been apprehended. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to Baguinéda and its environs.
  • Sikasso region: In June 2015, gunmen on motorcycles mount separate attacks on police posts near the border with Cote d’Ivoire in Fakola (4) in the Kolondieba district and in Misseni (5) in the Kadiolo district. Islamist group Ansar Dine later claims responsibility. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to both districts.
  • Ségou region: On 1 August 2015, unknown gunmen kill two Malian soldiers and wound four in an ambush on the Diabaly-Nampala road in the Niono district. This follows a January attack on the town of Nampala (6) in which ten Malian troops died. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to the Niono district.
  • Mopti region: On 7 August 2015 attackers kill at least five civilians and four Malian soldiers at the Hotel Byblos in Sévaré (7). While Al Mourabitoune allegedly claims responsibility, some reports highlight the attackers’ links to the Macina Liberation Front, a recent offshoot of Ansar Dine. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to Sévaré, which at one time was also home to a regional Peace Corps office.

This list suggests a disturbing trend: the “bad guys” who, for the most part, once contained their nefarious activities to Mali’s unruly northern reaches–particularly the regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal–have penetrated into the rest of the country. Of Mali’s nine administrative regions plus the District of Bamako, each has now been the scene of at least one terrorist attack, and most have seen terrorist violence within the last 90 days.

The spread of this violence, directed both at military personnel and soft civilian targets, is particularly worrisome at this moment in time because the Peace Corps, the U.S. government-funded development agency, is getting ready to re-deploy Volunteers to Mali. Peace Corps had very sensibly pulled all its Volunteers out of the country in April 2012 in the wake of the army coup in Bamako and militant takeover of the north. Last year, it sent a very small number of “Peace Corps Response” volunteers to Mali for short-term service; they completed their in-country training and were sent to their posts in November 2014. Now the agency is gearing up to send a much larger number of Volunteers to posts in southern Mali.

When I heard from the Peace Corps director that this move was in the offing early last year, I thought it was prudent. In light of the recent events outlined above, however, I think the risk of Peace Corps Volunteers becoming targets of terrorist activity in Mali is unacceptably high. As the list of violent incidents grows longer, and more and more unprecedented tragedies take place, Malian security forces have not been able to keep foreigners, UN personnel, or even their own troops safe from harm. PCVs should not be sent into this environment.

I write these words with a heavy heart. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer whose service in Mali years ago is the origin of my career as an anthropologist and Africanist scholar, I wish every American who sought the opportunity could serve for two years in a peaceful, secure place like the Mali I remember. Unfortunately, as recent events illustrate, the Mali of today is no longer that place. Gone are the days when the threat of a kidnapping, shooting, or suicide bombing was unknown to Malians, or even known only to northerners. The threat is now pervasive and shows no sign of diminishing.

Thus far I have kept to myself my serious reservations about the return of PCVs to Mali. I know that Peace Corps staff and U.S. Government officials are strongly committed to the safety of Volunteers wherever they are posted, and they have always taken action to protect PCVs in Mali. Lately, however, I’ve begun to wonder: If we’ve misjudged the threat and a Volunteer is taken hostage, wounded, or killed in Mali, how could I justify this silence? There is no way I would want my own son or daughter to be exposed to the level of danger that currently prevails for Westerners throughout Mali.

We must engage with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. For me, this means recognizing the risks in Mali for what they have become. If any U.S. Government employee, PCV, trainee or trainee’s relative, or anyone living in Mali would like to weigh in on this question, I invite them to do so in the comments section below.

Postscript, 12 August: With tonight’s attack on the Sogoniko bus station in Bamako, the security situation in southern Mali edges closer to the abyss. As a PCV I spent countless hours at that station waiting for Sikasso-bound buses. Could anyone possibly make the case that Mali is a safer place for Americans today than it was in April 2012, when Peace Corps evacuated the country? Or is the primary distinction simply the fact that the U.S. supports the Malian regime now, and it didn’t back then?

Postscript 2, 26 November: I’ve received word that Peace Corps Volunteers will be evacuated from Mali in the wake of the Radisson Blu attack.

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Who wants peace in Mali?

“We should not be misled by talk of entering a time of peace. Peace is not the absence of war; it is the absence of the rumors of war, the threats of war, the preparations for war….”

– Gil Scott Heron, “Work for Peace” (1994)

Bamako, 26 May, near the Monument de l'Independance

Bamako, 26 May, near the Monument de l’Independance (photo: Maliactu)

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Bamako yesterday to urge an end to the ongoing impasse over a definitive peace deal with northern rebel groups. Malians are unquestionably weary of the conflict in the north, the latest iteration of which which has now dragged on for 42 months. Yet it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what yesterday’s demonstration was calling for, and the divergences in how this event was covered in the media suggest that the current impasse means different things to different people.

Reading the account from RFI (headline: “Mali: Demonstration of support for the Algiers accord in the capital”) we could conclude that the march was in support of the peace deal signed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) on 15 May amid great fanfare. By this account, the march was a sign of strong public backing for the accord, even though the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad or CMA, the coalition of the most important separatist rebel groups, refused to sign it. The Algeria Press Service proposes a similar reading, and quotes an organizer’s improbable estimate of 200,000 Bamakois turning out yesterday to call for peace — which, if true, would mean that more than one in ten city residents took part.

From Maliactu, though, we learn that demonstrators expressed support for IBK, whose close ties with French businessman and alleged mafia boss Michel Tomi were the subject of embarrassing revelations by the French website Mediapart last week. Maliactu describes protestors’ views that the leaks to Mediapart were part of a French campaign to weaken the Malian head of state.

Then again, Afribone reports that demonstrators directed their ire at the perceived complicity of France and the United Nations with the rebels. “Down with France, down with MINUSMA,” was one slogan they shouted, along with “France + MINUSMA = MNLA” (the MNLA being the principal separatist group within the CMA). The Afribone article also mentions that a French flag was burned. The headline in L’Indicateur du Renouveau reads “Thousands of Bamakois Say No to France and the UN.”

So what happened yesterday — a rally for peace, a demonstration of support for Mali’s embattled president, or a show of defiance toward enemies? Apparently all of the above: pacifist slogans like “No to war” and “Peace now!” came side by side with more bellicose ones like “Liberate the north!” and “Down with the CMA!” The multiplicity of participants’ messages speaks to the multiplicity of views regarding the best way forward for their country.

While I was preparing to write an analysis of the Algiers accord and its significance last week, the International Crisis Group beat me to it: their new report “Mali: An Imposed Peace?” (see the full report in French, or the executive summary in English) offers a detailed and somber assessment of the current situation. The authors are, in my view, justifiably pessimistic. “Mali is heading less toward lasting peace than toward a new phase of confrontations,” they write. Hardliners on both sides have actively tried to torpedo the peace process, and fighting has flared in recent weeks, especially around the town of Ménaka, making separatist leaders more reluctant than ever to pursue a negotiated settlement.

“Without the participation of the CMA, signing the Bamako accord will not guarantee a way out of lasting crisis,” the report concludes. “To the contrary, it could lead to a new phase of confrontations for which the two camps have prepared. This could be deadlier than last year’s. It would lead a generation of young militants, let down by the political process, toward more radical forms of engagement.” (Let’s note that the separatist base is already highly radicalized.)

Even if immense international pressure ultimately brings the CMA to sign the accord, and even if the accord is implemented — and those are two very big ifs — the provisions of the agreement are unlikely to improve governance and state institutions. As discussed in a previous Crisis Group report (published last November, also the subject of a post I wrote in January) on the talks leading up to the accord, the peace talks misdiagnosed Mali’s problem as solely a center-vs-periphery issue, overlooking deep dysfunction within the state apparatus as well as significant schisms and stratification within northern populations.

Further complicating prospects for lasting peace is Malians’ distrust toward their country’s international partners, most notably France and the UN. While I’ve written about this subject before, it’s worth underlining the degree to which this distrust has delegitimated the peace process. Rumors in recent months have alleged that shadowy foreign interests manipulated the Malian government into accepting the deal in Algiers. A good many people, and not only Malians, see the conflict and the international response to it as expressions of global imperialism, not the failings of the Malian state.

In line with such interpretations of events, the Bamako press casts an increasingly accusatory gaze at French and UN presence in northern Mali. Reports allege that France and the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission have sided with the rebels by remaining passive in the face of rebel aggression, plotting with the MNLA to disarm anti-separatist militias, arming MNLA fighters in Ménaka, and secretly drumming up support for the CMA among traditional leaders. While they amount to mere rumors, these reports have shaped public opinion: a recent poll on Maliactu shows that 88 percent of readers agree with the statement “MINUSMA supports the rebels.”

Mongi Hamdi (L), Hervé Ladsous (center), IBK (R) (photo: MINUSMA)

Mongi Hamdi (L), Hervé Ladsous (center), IBK (R) (photo: MINUSMA)

For the most part, IBK and his government have not actively contributed to the demonization of the UN in Mali. At the 15 May signing ceremony of the Algiers accord, however, IBK alluded to MINUSMA’s perceived lack of partiality, asking Hervé Ladsous, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations (also a Frenchman) to show “a little respect for our people.” The remarks won him points at home, and prompted Ladsous and MINUSMA chief Mongi Hamdi to hold a press conference the next day and deny that the UN had taken sides.

(Could there be a connection between the deterioration of the UN’s reputation in Mali and two recent and unprecedented attacks on MINUSMA personnel in Bamako, the latest of which on Monday killed a Bangladeshi peacekeeper? Impossible to say, since the perpetrators remain at large.)

In light of the above, it would be misguided to see yesterday’s massive demonstration in the streets of Mali’s capital as evidence of strong public support for the Algiers accord or the peace process in general. A vocal portion of the Malian public remains opposed to the accord’s concessions to the rebels, and suspicious of the international partners responsible for overseeing its implementation. Malians may not like war, and they may be tired of it, but this does not mean they will accept peace at any price. The conflict in northern Mali is far from being settled.

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Desperate for a way out

“A tragedy of epic proportions” — that’s how the International Organization for Migration describes what’s been happening to the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year. On the African continent, while instability and economic stagnation have driven thousands of young people to leave home, chaos in Libya has made it easier for migrants to get access to the Mediterranean coast.

Migration routes through northern Africa (source: NY Times)

Migration routes through northern Africa (source: NY Times; click map above for the full story)

Migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean (source: UNHCR)

Migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean       (source: UNHCR)

The number of people making this risky sea crossing reached an all-time high last year: by UNHCR estimates, 219000 arrived on the shores of southern Europe in 2014, ten times more than in 2012. So far this year, thousands of others have died in the attempt (3500, or one every two hours, according to figures cited in Le Monde).

What lands do they leave behind to reach these perilous shores? Their most common countries of origin are as far east as Afghanistan, and as far west as Senegal. Many are zones of current conflict, and most are located in the Muslim world. Among the origin countries of migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean in the first quarter of this year (see chart below), Mali is ranked #8. A dozen survivors from the latest shipwreck, and at least 50 dead, were Malians.

Top 10 origin countries of Mediterranean crossers in early 2015

Top 10 origin countries of Mediterranean crossers in early 2015 (source: UNHCR)

Reading about the recent drama on the Mediterranean, as Italian and Maltese sailors still searched for victims of the latest boat sinking with unknown hundreds feared drowned, I remembered a friend of mine whom I’ll call Lamine.

I met Lamine nearly four years ago in Bamako, where he was working as a security guard. Lamine had never gone to school, but had learned to speak French and even acquired a good command of English. He projected dignity despite the threadbare uniform that hung over his spare frame. He was easy to talk to and loved to joke with me in Bamanan. He flashed a warm smile whenever I saw him at work. Occasionally we would visit each other at home. After I left Mali in 2012, we kept in touch via occasional e-mails and phone calls.

In 2013 Lamine quit his job. Even after working six days a week for five years, he earned only the equivalent of $100 a month from the multinational company he worked for — not starvation wages by Malian standards, but nowhere near enough to permit him to marry and start a family. Pushing 40, he saw no prospects for advancement as a security guard and was anxious to seek his fortune elsewhere. He sold the old laptop I’d given him and invested the proceeds in a restaurant, pictured below. (I didn’t ask Lamine for the naming rights; the name was all his idea.)

Lamine's restaurant

Lamine’s restaurant in Bamako

For a while his prospects seemed to improve: he got engaged to the sister of a friend, and was happy with his new business. But he also suffered setbacks. Shortly after Lamine opened his restaurant, a thief stole his motorcycle. He couldn’t use an expensive coffee machine he’d purchased because of electricity problems. His engagement was called off at the request of his fiancee’s family, and he could not get back the bride wealth he had already paid worth more than $300.

“When I first opened my restaurant, people would come; now I can’t make 5000 francs” [~$10], he told me on the phone. Life in Bamako had become too expensive, and he was frustrated with the government’s inability to address the needs of ordinary people like himself. Kɛyɔrɔ te mɔgɔ la, bɔyɔrɔ te mɔgɔ la, he complained in Bamanan — “Nothing to do, no way out.” He got engaged to another woman, and needed another $300 for the bride wealth, plus more for the anticipated wedding expenses.

Last year he started talking about emigrating. “I want to leave because there is nothing here. I want to find another country where I can have some money. I’m tired of asking others for help,” he said. He thought about applying for a US visa. He thought about Equatorial Guinea, where he knew someone who had apparently made good money. In the end he decided on Libya, where a friend was working as a carpenter. I warned him not to go. I told him what I’d heard about political instability, armed violence and exploitation of African migrants there. None of it mattered: Lamine bought a bus ticket to Niger, and from there made his way north across the Sahara.

It was a few weeks before I heard from him again. He had joined his carpenter friend on the outskirts of Tripoli. Life wasn’t bad, he said, but there wasn’t much to do after working hours. “When we leave the workplace, we can only stay at home. There is nowhere else to spend our time. When you look at a woman, she will ask you why you’re looking at her. Women talk too much here,” he grumbled. Plus, Libyan men were always armed. One might hire you for a job, then when it’s done take out his gun and refuse to pay. Often when Lamine prayed, he told me, he asked God to grant him good luck to make it back to Bamako. But first he had to earn some money. He couldn’t return home empty-handed. “Stay safe,” I told him, realizing just how empty those words must have sounded to him.

Several weeks went by. I started reading about more and more shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea, more and more African lives snuffed out in the failed attempt to reach a European promised land. “Hello Lamine,” I texted him last weekend as footage of the search for survivors from a sunken fishing boat played on my computer monitor. “I read news about Africans who left Libya and died in the ocean. I hope U are OK. Please never get on a boat to Italy.” I got no answer.

Days passed, and I began to worry. Could Lamine’s despair over his blocked aspirations back home have led him to try the dangerous crossing into Europe? Could he have become one of the victims, another undocumented body bobbing in the waves? If he had, would anyone ever know what had happened to him?

Finally I received a text message: Lamine was still in Libya. “Hello my best friend i saw your message,” he wrote. “i’m well here and i will never try to do it.when I leve here it will be on mali thanks indeed.”

Lamine’s story illuminates a key dynamic weaving together marriage, migration, and the postcolonial Malian state. There are few good options for Malian men like him who have reaped no benefits from the state, who had no opportunity for education, who despite their industry and natural talents inhabit the margins (see Alcinda Honwana on African youth and “waithood”). To become full-fledged adults and worthy members of society, they must marry and establish their own households, but they need money to do so. Many see no hope of realizing their dreams without undertaking a dangerous journey abroad, where they imagine money will be easier to come by. Others join Islamic fundamentalist movements at home, determined to use piety to gain the respect denied them by poverty. Whoever figures out how to remove obstacles to jural adulthood for impoverished men across the Muslim world will strike a bigger blow against religious extremism than all the Predator drones the Pentagon can buy.

In some respects, Lamine has been lucky thus far. He has his health, and a modest short- term job. Inshallah, as he puts it, soon he will head south with a wallet full of dinars. Inshallah, he will not be robbed of his earnings before arriving home. Inshallah, he will be able to find a place for himself in his native land.

God willing, Lamine. Stay safe.

Postscript, 28 April: See Adam Nossiter’s story “African Leaders Are Mute, Even as their People Die at Sea” in today’s New York Times.

Postscript, 3 May: This post has been translated into French and posted on the website of the Association Malienne des Expulsés. Thanks to J-J Méric for the translation.

Also, see the opinion piece by Bamako-based journalist Alex Duval Smith entitled “Guilt-tripping Europeans won’t help drowning migrants” (The Guardian, 23 April).

Postscript, 1 July: Lamine returned home to Bamako yesterday. He’s very happy to be back. Over the phone he told me that he was afraid in the Sahara — many people died along the way — but once he got to Niger his convoy was able to travel with a French army escort, and they were safe from that point. From Niger he passed through Burkina Faso before crossing into Mali near Sikasso. He describes life in Libya as “very, very dangerous.” When I next see him in Bamako, he says, he has many stories to tell me about the place.

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What Mali’s recent past reveals about its present woes, Part 2: Of chiefs, slaves, and “paranoid nationalism”

In his recent book From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel, historian Gregory Mann describes how state sovereignty was fashioned in the Sahel following the end of colonial rule. In the previous post, we discussed his concept of “nongovernmentality” and the evolution of new sovereignties through the interaction (sometimes adversarial, often quite cooperative) between international NGOs and Sahelian governments, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. In this post, our discussion focuses on three areas of resonance between Mali’s present-day political tensions and those afflicting its accession to independence during the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when Modibo Keita’s Union Soudanaise-Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (US-RDA) was in power.

BfB: In chapter 2 you describe how the US-RDA campaigned on a platform of undermining traditional authority, with the aim of centralizing power in a secular, modern state structure. Today we’re seeing pushback against that modernist approach, and the latest peace agreement being promoted would cede some power to traditional and Islamic authorities. Former Prime Minister Soumana Sako recently accused those who drafted the agreement as mounting a “frontal assault against the Republic and an attempt to return it to the colonial order under which our People suffered so much.” Reading this section of your book, I thought “Aha, so this is where that comes from.” How strong was the perception, back in the 1960s, that traditional authority and the modern state are like matter and anti-matter? Is that even a viable metaphor?

GM: That’s a great metaphor—I don’t know if it’s one I would use in print, but I see exactly what you mean. What the US-RDA thought they were doing was pursuing an anticolonialist sort of emancipatory politics. In practice, what they ended up doing, by destroying the canton chieftaincy (the chefs de canton), they ripped out a whole middle stratum of the administration at the same they were setting forth a very ambitious, modernist set of goals. So in some sense their politics was absolutely coherent for the moment they had lived through in the 1950s and earlier, but it had unanticipated effects.

BfB: What was their primary grief with traditional authority?

Intallah Ag Attaher, amenokal (chief) of Ifoghas Tuareg from 1962-2014

GM: It was precisely that it wasn’t traditional: it was disguised as traditional [see “the invention of tradition“], but it was rapacious, it was feudal, it was anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, and lay behind systems of extreme social hierarchy and slavery of earlier decades. So their opposition to that kind of authority makes a lot of sense, it’s coherent. The irony is that the one place where the RDA didn’t break chiefly power, and explicitly chose a more ambiguous line, was with the Kel Adagh in northern Mali. The RDA acted as the colonial regime would have acted: they said, “We won’t accept this candidate, we want that person to be chief,” they manipulated the chieftaincy. They tried to reform it, to limit its capacity, but they didn’t try to take it apart or abolish it. So in fact the system of government that perdured in the Kel Adagh territory has always been distinct… right through the time of President Alpha Konaré in the 1990s, it’s always been a distinct form of government in which “traditional authority” has existed [notably in the office of the amenokal, or chief]. All this came back into play with the process of decentralization that began in the 1990s, but that too was an echo of the 1950s and 1960s: decentralization was originally an RDA project.

BfB: You write that in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, controversies concerning the persistence of slavery “made good press” in the Sahel. These controversies centered on allegations that certain Tuareg pilgrims were using the hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca] as a pretext to sell black slaves in Saudi Arabia. To what extent can we know whether this problem was real or something perceived by the nationalists of the RDA? How much do we really know about this phenomenon?

GM: It’s a great question because it’s hazy. Bruce Hall has written about it a little bit; Baz Lecocq is working on it. On the question of whether a slave trade existed and were people being sold in the Hijaz, having been brought from West Africa under cover of the pilgrimage in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Baz is more skeptical than I am, actually. Baz has done more research than I have… it seems to me like the evidence is pretty good, but that’s the RDA evidence, and it’s also the French state, the commissioners of the pilgrimage in the late ‘50s saying that this stuff is going on.

BfB: These days, you can read characterizations in the Bamako press that describe separatists as “esclavagistes.” Is this the same perception being expressed 50 years later? Has the situation not changed that much in two generations?

GM: It’s certainly a deeply rooted racial stereotype in Mali, there’s no question about that. On the one hand, many people of Tuareg origin, and many people of Mande origin can coexist quite well, but if pejoratives are going to be tossed about, that’s certainly one that’s going to be tossed. It speaks to the social hierarchies that are prevalent in the north but function much more discreetly in the south.

BfB: In chapter 2 you also mention the view articulated by the US-RDA, following the breakup of the Mali Federation in September 1960, that Senegal coveted Mali’s riches. This recalls current discourse about Mali’s “geostrategic significance” and its mineral resources. Was the idea that Senegal was coveting Mali’s wealth a sincere belief in 1960, or just the RDA’s ex-post-facto justification for the collapse of the federation? Was there something to it?

GM: I think the RDA believed it was true; I think they saw Mali as the breadbasket, the source of agricultural riches (including the pastoral riches) of Sahelian West Africa, and they thought Senegal relied on that form of wealth. Which is a very particular vision of wealth—they weren’t talking about things traded on distant markets, they were talking about primary agricultural commodities. But they firmly believed that it was the case, and they over-estimated their importance to Senegal. I think they believed it, and I think they were precisely wrong.

The untold story of Mali and OilBfB: Let’s come back to the present day, when different accounts (both from Mali and abroad) portray insecurity in northern Mali as a product of oil and gas interests or mineral interests, when many see great geostrategic stakes in Mali generally, and in the north in particular, driving the conflict. Is this a similar exaggeration of Mali’s importance to the outside world?

GM: This idea was circulating among some Western diplomats, especially in 2012 and 2013, that Mali had what they would sometimes call a “paranoid nationalism,” that Malians rejected any outside interference, especially of ECOWAS, because they were “paranoid nationalists.” But I think that historical memory in Mali would recognize the historical contingency of Malian sovereignty from the get-go, there was always this idea of being under siege. The collapse of the Mali Federation, the fact that Algeria was still at war when Mali became independent, the instabilities provoked by the French currency manipulations, especially in 1994—you’re not paranoid if you recognize a delicate situation for what it is, not something to be taken for granted.

But the question of mineral wealth in the north, and whether or not the conflict is being ginned up in various ways as a struggle over these plots for potential future exploitation of oil and gas—I always found that argument very reductive. The possibility of profitable extraction has always been more hypothetical than anything else. The actors who are most prominent (Algeria, Canada, China, Italy) have more interest in stability than in instability. And I don’t see what the supposed end game of ginning up a separatist movement would actually be for them; what would the gain be? As you’ve pointed out in your blog, it’s not like the Malian government was known for its rectitude; there are cheaper and easier ways to make a deal than to provoke a civil war. But it’s a classic way of envisioning imperialism, it goes back to Lenin, and Nkrumah modernized it with his views of neocolonialism as being fundamentally about the extraction of mineral wealth in particular. But I just think it’s very reductive.

My understanding is that the oil that might be in the north, even if it could be gotten out of that territory, isn’t even appropriate for most refineries; only the Chinese could really use most of it. We have a glut of oil production in the US, not a deficit, and prices are at a historic low, but they’ve been going down for a few years, even before the conflict had really begun. So it’s not as if this is happening in the context of a sharp scramble for a scarce resource. In fact an explosion of oil extraction technologies has brought about a glut on the market. The US interest in the Sahel is not an oil and energy interest, it seems to me, and I don’t think that of the other players is primarily oil and energy either. Algeria is its own complicated scenario, but even the Algerian interest is more about making life difficult for other people than about exploiting these plots themselves. I’ve just always been a skeptic of that argument—it’s too easy. And it makes the people of the north essentially dupes of outside powers, which is quite dismissive of a set of concerns, some of which may be legitimate and others may be overwrought, but which are nonetheless deeply felt, even if only by a small minority.

Thanks to Professor Mann for granting this interview.

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What Mali’s recent past reveals about its present woes, Part 1: The road to nongovernmentality

These days the sovereignty of the Malian state looks more hypothetical than ever. The government’s control over its northern regions ranges from tenuous to nonexistent. Kidal has been firmly under the rule of Tuareg separatists for two years, while only the presence of French and UN troops prevents Gao and Timbuktu from falling back into the hands of the jihadists who occupied them for most of 2012. In Bamako, the treasury is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and public spending is subject to audits by the International Monetary Fund.

To consider how the Malian nation-building project reached this juncture, some Empire to NGOs coverobservers might look back to previous, and ultimately unsuccessful, peace accords signed between the Malian government and northern rebels in 1992 and 2006. Others might look back to the strictures of neoliberalism that cut state budgets and sapped public faith in the Malian state from the 1980s. Historian Gregory Mann, in his new book From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel, looks back even further, to the very origins of the region’s postcolonial states in the early 1960s. Examining the policies pursued by West African founders of independence affiliated with the pan-Africanist Rassemblement Democratique Africaine party (RDA), Mann traces the erosion of state sovereignty in the Sahel through what he calls a “prehistory of neoliberal Africa” focusing on the period from the 1960s and ‘70s before neoliberalism came into vogue.

While the book has an explicitly regional focus, it keeps Mali firmly at its center as it follows the evolution of postcolonial sovereignty in the Sahel through four areas: the emergence of nationalist political elites in the late 1950s; the implementation of state migration policies in the 1960s and ‘70s; the proliferation of nongovernmental humanitarian relief organizations during the droughts of the 1970s; and the success of nongovernmental human rights organizations, particularly Amnesty International, in raising public awareness about the treatment of political prisoners.

The following is excerpted from a recent interview with Professor Mann. The second half of the interview, focusing on persistent issues of conflict from the 1960s to the present, will be posted next week.

BfB: Your book’s subtitle is “The road to nongovernmentality.” How would you define nongovernmentality?

GM: It’s a phenomenon of governmental rationality in which the functions of government around the preservation of life increasingly get taken over by nongovernmental organizations and fall outside the realm of the state’s activities. So the idea of nongovernmentality does not necessarily take as its corollary that NGOs are hyper-powerful, or all-powerful. It simply observes that many functions of government, in the Foucauldian sense of husbanding and controlling the conditions of life, slip away from the state, are eschewed by it, or are pushed onto NGOs. And it’s important not to fall into a common logical fallacy that I myself was working under for a long time, that the rise of NGO power is at the cost of state power. In many ways the one can enable the other.

BfB:  Early in the book you state that one of your aims is “to move away from a zero-sum analysis in which NGO strength is a function of state weakness.” What made you drop the zero-sum view?

GM: I think it came partly from recognizing, even early in the game—as early as 1974—[Nigerien President] Hamani Diori was reaching out to American NGOs to try to expand his sphere of influence, the number and ilk of his allies.

BfB: You write that an American NGO, Africare, was operating out of Niger’s embassy in Washington for a time. [See a short summary of this history on Africare’s website.]

JCKennedy Niger

Africare co-founder Dr. Joseph C. Kennedy in Niger in the 1970s

GM: Which is astounding, and there are fascinating links between the African-American diaspora in the US and these African governments that appear in the 1970s. They’re counter-intuitive in two ways. The first is that the governments in question are francophone and quite far from the most familiar corners of the continent for the African diaspora—we’re not talking Ghana! The second is that these are actually highly technical problems [that the NGOs are being mobilized to address] that are distant from the everyday concerns of the African diaspora in the US. Concerns around famine, pastoralism—how do people in Harlem see that in their daily lives? They see poverty in a very different way. And I think that’s why that moment fades out and is kind of forgotten, because by the mid- to late-1970s, it’s Angola, it’s Mozambique, it’s Rhodesia, there’s a much more visible narrative of white power and minority domination on the continent.

In some ways, by passing off some of its responsibilities to outside actors like NGOs, an African state can liberate itself to focus on other things. (Security of the regime, for example, might rank high.) It can focus on other kinds of politics and a narrower view of what the function of the state really is.

BfB: How do you explain the emergence of nongovernmentality?

GM: I think of nongovernmentality as a phenomenon or an effect, not as something that is intended or planned or designed. It is something that emerges over time as the functions of government, in the broadest sense, begin to escape from the state, which is no longer sovereign in many ways. In the Amnesty cases, in the most literal ways, the state is no longer sovereign over life and death of its own citizens—which Agamben, for instance, would have you think is absolutely central to the very idea of what sovereignty is. So when I began work on this I was thinking more about Agamben’s ideas of sovereignty and that actually fell out; I don’t think he’s even in the bibliography. I was originally thinking through those ideas in terms of the human rights cases. So what I mean by nongovernmentality is more a phenomenon that emerges over time that is not planned or controlled by any particular set of actors, but more the governmental rationality that characterizes modern statecraft, and the work of government more broadly slips into this sphere of what we would later call “civil society” of the non-governmental organization. And in that sense it’s removed from any kind of direct politics, which is the great complaint of many African political activists—key questions are being posed and answers being proposed outside their spheres of engagement, and that’s fundamentally anti-democratic.

BfB: Your book highlights a paradox concerning the timing of the advent of nongovernmentality and the erosion of state sovereignty in the Sahel.

GM: The argument I was trying to make is that the 1960s and ‘70s was the period when state sovereignty was valued the most highly and had the greatest weight politically. It was at that point that you see the beginning of this sort of NGO power. And usually we think of the neoliberal period in Africa as being post-Cold War, late 1980s and 1990s. But the rise of NGO power is actually in the ‘60s and ‘70s: it takes off when state sovereignty is so cherished and political leaders [in the Sahel] are so concerned about neocolonialism and anticolonialism. And they think of their sovereignty as very contingent, [not] as fixed or stable at all—as we now, even in the most dire circumstances, more or less assume that it is. (Either now you argue that all sovereignty is a charade, or you recognize that even in a situation as dire as January 2013, Malian sovereignty is still at least recognized and preserved in a formal and legal sense.)

So the people most interested in creating and forwarding Mali’s anticolonial political tradition were themselves deeply tapped into Third Worldist or Communist networks; in some senses it was those networks, especially trade union networks in the 1940s and 50s, overlapping as they did with the Communist Party and with the RDA, that opened the gate to much of the human rights politics, a completely different form of politics. That liberal human rights politics of Amnesty International in the late 1970s couldn’t be further away from RDA, trade union or French Communist Party politics of the ‘50s and ‘60s, let alone in the ‘40s which is when those guys cut their teeth.

BW: But by the 1970s, “those guys” were among the intended beneficiaries of Amnesty’s campaigns.

Ibrahima Ly

Ibrahima Ly

GM: It was the whole category of people who had been held as prisoners since the fall of the RDA regime. Some people were classic “prisoners of conscience” types, like Ibrahima Ly [author of a 1974 antigovernment tract entitled “La Farce Electorale,” imprisoned from 1974 to 1978], or Victor Sy… intellectuals who because of their speech are deemed dangerous and thrown into prison. The case of the RDA politicians is a little greyer. But Amnesty adopted all of them as cases collectively, insofar as their conditions of detention were deemed to be so inhumane. So it was a big spectrum of people who fell into that rubric.

BfB: You write that human rights campaigns had “viral effects.” What do you mean by that?

GM: This metaphor is meant to capture the idea that human rights NGOs acted in literally a viral fashion, attaching themselves to existing political networks (e.g. trade unions) in the interest of benefiting vulnerable prisoners, but in doing so they reprogrammed the cells of the hosts for their own purposes, for their own reproduction. I mean this as a very objective metaphor; it is not meant to say that human rights groups are a disease afflicting Sahelian states.

But the particular kind of activism that Amnesty represented actually vitiated other organizations, which had a particular political position, of their original objects. The issue became how the prisoners were treated, not how the society was governed or why it was that people had gone to prison in the first place. Amnesty’s activism attached itself to an existing network of activists and effectively changed its orientation, and then Amnesty exploded as an NGO from 1977 to 1978, won the Nobel peace prize, became a significant player in world politics, [and] the number of its chapters and members exploded in Europe and the US. At that moment, the kind of internationalist socialist vision that the US-RDA espoused was beginning to look outdated; it was no longer about inequality or control over the means of production, all those Marxist terms went away and in Amnesty’s vision everything became a matter of freedom of speech, freedom of dissent. Which is odd because it makes it appear that the political prisoners had been dissenting for the sake of dissent, but that wasn’t the case. “La Farce Electorale” is not Pussy Riot in a Moscow church.

The second part of this interview, appearing on March 25, will examine some of the ways discourses about Mali’s present-day instability resonate with the country’s early independence period.

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Mali’s peace negotiations: Déjà vu all over again?

[This piece originally appeared on the blog Fragile States.]

Starting in July 2014, representatives of Mali’s central government and various northern rebel factions took part in peace talks hosted in Algiers. Following the latest round in November, a draft agreement proposed unprecedented changes to the apparatus of the state and the distribution of its resources. Among its more significant provisions:

  • Replacing regional governors, currently appointed by the central government, with elected executives (article 8a).
  • Establishing regional legislatures (article 8a), along with local police forces (article 8i).
  • Creating a national senate to give an official role to Mali’s “traditional and religious notables” (article 8j).
  • Shifting 30 percent of state revenue from the national to the local level (article 16).

At the Algiers talks (RFI photo)

Although the proposal thus grants considerable power to local and regional authorities, it does not establish a federal system—something central government officials have explicitly rejected. Nor does it recognize a distinct northern polity (i.e., the territory rebels claim as “Azawad”). On the other hand, it confers some special status on the north by promoting northerners’ inclusion in state institutions (articles 8k and 8l) and creating a new Development Zone for the Regions of Northern Mali (article 8b). Could this compromise foster the reconciliation Mali needs?

Maybe—but the draft agreement also has serious deficiencies. A paper by the International Crisis Group (“Mali: Last chance in Algiers”) highlights the inadequacies of not only the document under discussion but also the process that created it. For the ICG, the draft “is a useful first step, but it offers solutions that have shown serious limitations in the past.” Many provisions of the current document were included in previous peace deals—the Tamanrasset Accord in 1991, the Pacte national in 1992, and the Algiers Accord in 2006. The question this time around is whether leaders on both sides, as well as their international partners, can avoid their predecessors’ mistakes in finalizing and implementing a peace agreement.

There are three main problems with the current peace process:

1. It reduces the conflict to a problem of center vs. periphery.

Northern separatists frame the situation in northern Mali as one of a breakaway region—“Azawad”—resisting an oppressive central government. They represent the north as suffering under indifferent southern rule. This framing is reflected in the draft agreement, which refers to northern regions’ “considerable lag in terms of socioeconomic development compared to the rest of the country.”

This claim is hard to square with available data. A 2011 household survey found that extreme poverty was lower and literacy higher in Mali’s three northernmost regions (Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal) than in the southern/central regions of Sikasso, Segou and Mopti. The north certainly has been and remains underdeveloped compared to Bamako, but not compared to the rest of the country.

While north-south inequities do exist in Mali, they must not obscure the inequities and fractures that exist within populations at the ethnic, regional, and local level. Social hierarchies, often based on ascribed status such as nobility or slave ancestry, have long marginalized large numbers of people throughout the country, while elites have hijacked the state to their own ends, pitting their client groups against one another. A northern development program created by the 1992 Pacte national, for example, was “captured by a narrow elite from the north, which negotiated its privileges to the detriment of other groups” (ICG p. 16).

The north’s internal fault lines have only intensified since the violence began in 2012 (see Oxfam 2013). In a national context where social cohesion is weak both vertically and horizontally, a fairer division of power and resources must be sought within and among communities. The draft agreement’s emphasis on rectifying north-south imbalances therefore misrepresents the problem.

2. It has excluded the voices of ordinary Malians.

Protest in Bamako against northern autonomy, September 2014 (Maliactu photo)

When the peace process began 18 months ago, it incorporated not only Malian government officials and rebel leaders, but civil society representatives as well. The government pledged to launch an inclusive national dialog through which citizens of every region could air grievances and help shape the outcome of peace talks. That process stalled, and the process morphed into two-party talks between government and rebels. Even civil society groups vetted by Malian authorities have been kept away from the negotiating table.

Subsequently, leaders of many Bamako-based civic organizations condemned their exclusion and criticized the draft agreement. A coalition of civil society associations known as Mali Te Tila (“Mali cannot be divided,” in the Bamanan language) has also assailed the proposed agreement as a prelude to Mali’s partition. While these groups have surely been antagonized by the Malian government’s failure to seek their input, they also articulate a pronounced public sentiment that shifting state power to the local level—an approach first tried in the 1990s—will only further weaken the country. Many activists in the capital, steeped in decades-old nationalist discourse, are loudly calling for a centralized, unitary state… as though Mali’s status quo ante offered a viable way forward. Meanwhile, northern community leaders whose people have the most at stake in any peace deal and who have not taken up arms are unable to make themselves heard.

3. It allows insufficient time for peace to take hold.

The parties are under considerable pressure to reach a deal quickly. “The hour of truth is approaching,” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told journalists last month. Concerned that protracted negotiations could break down amid increasing violence on the ground, his government wants a deal wrapped up by the end of January. Mounting attacks on UN peacekeepers in Mali (of whom 44 have died since the mission began in 2013) make it harder to delay an agreement.

In his December report on Mali, however, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged caution: “While mindful of the necessity to reach an agreement within a reasonable time frame,” he wrote, “I consider it equally important for the parties to be allowed sufficient time to collectively address and resolve contentious issues to ensure a truly inclusive, viable and implementable agreement.” Such caution is sensible given that northern Mali’s most durable peace during the 1990s formed when an agreement brokered by the central government was coupled by others initiated by local communities, a process that took several months (see the account in Les Liens Sociaux au Nord-Mali).

The ICG paper suggests an interim security agreement to foster the conditions necessary for a more lasting peace, and allow for the groundwork of a final agreement to be put in place. “In the face of armed clashes, it is tempting for mediators to move quickly to achieve a deal that would only guarantee security in the short term,” its authors write. “But rushing the process will not help. Time is needed to build the foundations of sustainable peace.”

Can Malian authorities and rebel groups steer clear of the pitfalls that doomed earlier peace initiatives? Can France, Algeria, the African Union, the UN and the broader international community stop history from repeating itself in the region? The answer lies less in the specific provisions of a formal peace agreement, and more in these parties’ willingness to break from exclusionary politics and to envision ways of governing that allow all inhabitants of Mali fair access to the political process. A lasting solution lies not in making sure that all sides respect the rules of the game; the solution lies in changing the game. It remains to be seen whether any of the parties represented in Mali’s peace talks have an interest in doing so.

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