False passports, false hopes, and false flags

Here in Bamako we’re in waiting mode while negotiations drag on over who will be the country’s president during the transition period to new elections. The CNRDRE junta’s recent call for a “national convention” on the matter appears to have fallen flat, and even its bid to convoke a closed-door meeting of diplomats has been called off, in part due to U.S. unwillingness to legitimize the junta by engaging with it. We understand that several prominent members of Bamako’s diplomatic community met at the U.S. embassy here on Thursday, shortly before the CNRDRE’s gathering was supposed to take place. It has also come to light that the junta has begun issuing diplomatic passports, signed by junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, to some of its members. Refusing to grant a visa to an applicant bearing one such document, officials at the local French consulate pointed out that only Mali’s minister of foreign affairs can authorize Malian diplomatic passports.

The Chérif of Nioro, in black turban, being greeted by Captain Sanogo in Kati on Thursday, May 17

In another sign of the junta’s growing importance on the national stage, one of Mali’s most senior religious figures, the Chérif of Nioro, paid a private visit to Captain Sanogo on Thursday. The Chérif, head of the Hamalliyya brotherhood, is a man whose word carries a great deal of weight in this region. This was no mere social call; the Chérif does not make the 350-km trip from Nioro to Kati lightly. We’ve heard some speculation that he came to persuade Sanogo not to provoke the wrath of the international community, to avoid persisting in his opposition to a renewed mandate for current interim president Dioncounda Traoré, and not to seek the presidency himself. If this was indeed the Chérif’s mission, some expect that he could succeed where ECOWAS, UN and other emissaries failed. Others think former president Moussa Traoré could serve that role. But given the junta’s obstinacy so far, these could simply be false hopes.

Lately I’ve noticed a recurring pattern of rumors alleging that shadowy forces have been trying to provoke an uprising against the junta. One rumor interprets the panic that swept Bamako on May 2, when students reportedly heard that Hammadoun Traoré, wounded two days before, had died. These reports were untrue, and many now say they were circulated by unnamed politicians linked to the ancien régime of deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré. The goal, by this interpretation, was to get students into the streets, where they would be fired upon by hidden mercenaries (hired by the politicians), thus unleashing a mass uprising that would topple the junta.

This rumor is often paired with a second one concerning an event that took place 21 years ago: the popular uprising that ousted President Moussa Traoré from power. While Traoré was later tried and convicted for having ordered his troops to fire on unarmed protesters, killing over 300, the rumor circulating now is that mercenaries (perhaps sent by the French) actually did the shooting.

When one group in a conflict poses as partisans of the other side, either to infiltrate or discredit its enemies, this is called a “false flag” operation. Stories of false flags abound in Mali these days. Speaking to the BBC, for example, a Tuareg member of the MNLA rebel movement alleges that the human right abuses — killing, raping and looting — of which his group has been frequently accused over the past two months have in fact been perpetrated by non-rebels flying the MNLA flag on their vehicles. (This is the only false flag story I’ve come across here that involves actual flags.)

According to popular imagination here, politics is a surreal, contorted web of lies. Nothing is what it appears to be, and the real motivations for events are always hidden from view. This imagination feeds into the widespread mistrust, even hatred, of politicians at several levels of society. So extreme is this antipathy that rumors circulated in early February, several days after dozens of Malian soldiers were massacred at Aguel Hoc, that President Touré had actually ordered the massacre — i.e., that the rebellion itself was Touré’s own false-flag operation. (The thinking here was that by inciting a civil war, Touré would be able to remain in office after his constitutional mandate expired this year.) One recurring story is that Malian troops recovered a satellite phone from Tuareg rebels and that the most recent call had been received from Touré. In early February, these rumors helped fuel protests in Kati and Bamako against Touré’s rule, foreshadowing the mutiny that would drive him from power several weeks later.

If you’ve followed this blog for very long, you know it’s my nature to be skeptical, and as a social scientist I find this disposition suits me well in my work. Conspiracy theories most often turn out to be unfounded; not all flags are false; sometimes things are merely what they appear to be. (This isn’t a statement I often articulate to my Malian friends, most of whom would find it hopelessly naive.) While the rumors themselves are interesting analytically, they are also a big part of Mali’s current problem: when a population lacks education and critical insight, it is vulnerable to all kinds of misinformation. The coup in March could not have taken place in an atmosphere where ordinary citizens refused to believe rumors.

“The truth will come out eventually,” people keep repeating. “History will judge.” (Sanogo himself has said this many times, referring to the crimes allegedly committed by Touré and his government.) But that’s the sad thing — the truth may never come out. Instead of cutting through the layers of rumor and innuendo, we’ll just get new layers added on top. Malians will remain in the thrall of the wildest forms of speculation about their leaders’ actions and intentions. None of which can be good for democracy.

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19 Responses to False passports, false hopes, and false flags

  1. jutta says:

    Sometime before the coup I heard about this story that the soldiers had found a cell phone of a rebel, and the last call made was to ATT. I was horrified when I realized how easily the average person in Mali believed this story and had no way of discerning how unlikely such a scenario is. Later I even saw it mentioned in a news article online but not by one of the major news agencies.
    Did you ever find out more about it?

  2. Gini TOURE says:

    The story related to the cellphone was true ! It was first reported by Jeune Afrique in its printed version. No need for me saying that Jeune Afrique is a news magazine I fully trust in!
    But that cellphone story is not to be understood in the sense the ennemies of Président Touré want to understand it!
    In fact, Touré has always known that the Malian army could stand the battle with the Rebels! So he was trying to reach an agreement with the rebels through negotiations . But according to the army, Touré was playing a treacherous game!
    A few days after the coup d’Etat, the junta realized only negotiations can solve the crisis in the North of Mali. Conclusion: The army is coming back to the solution Touré was trying hiddenly!
    That’s my reading of the situation!
    Best.

  3. Gini TOURE says:

    Here is the link of jeune afrique I was refering to concerning the phone story:http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/JA2673p010-013.xml0/
    Première alerte à 12 h 30. En plein Conseil des ministres au palais – nous sommes un mercredi -, le président reçoit un appel urgent du général Sadio Gassama, son ministre de la Défense, qui vient d’être expulsé à coups de pierres du camp militaire de Kati par des centaines de soldats en colère. « Monsieur le président, dit Gassama, les militaires veulent toute la lumière sur Aguelhok [localité du Nord où 70 soldats ont été massacrés par des rebelles touaregs, le 24 janvier, NDLR]. Ils réclament les armements – missiles et hélicoptères de combat – que vous aviez promis, et maintenant ils s’en prennent à vous personnellement. Ils affirment qu’ils ont récupéré sur le terrain un téléphone satellitaire des rebelles dont le dernier numéro appelé était le vôtre… »

    Lire l’article sur Jeuneafrique.com : Mali : heure par heure, le récit de la fuite d’ATT | Jeuneafrique.com – le premier site d’information et d’actualité sur l’Afrique

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Sorry to be a crank, but just because Jeune Afrique said Sadio Gassama said the soldiers said X doesn’t mean X is “true.” I’m not saying X has to be false, but let’s just say X is unconfirmed until we have more information.

      • Gini TOURE says:

        Oooh don’t be sorry to be a crank! It’s your absolute right to be sceptical about what you see and hear in Africa!!
        I have no link with “Jeune Afrique” but it’s among the magazines that are known for their credibility! They wouldn’t be reporting on something which is not true or unconfirmed! Moreover, the details on How Président Tour” was chased from the Koulouba State House were reported by “Jeune Afrique”! Then nobody disputed the “confirmedness or unconfirmedness of the story!

        Best.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        I have great respect for JA. But I also think it’s important to distinguish between a publication reporting that something happened, and the same publication reporting that somebody told somebody else that something happened. There are different levels of verifiability for each case. The sat phone incident may very well have occurred, but we have yet to see confirmation of it, jusqu’a preuve de contraire….

  4. Charis says:

    “Mali’s current problem: when a population lacks education and critical insight, it is vulnerable to all kinds of misinformation.” I agree 100%. The lack of education bit goes for the uneducated masses; the lack of critical insight bit goes for the educated ones that I have heard. I am amazed over and over again by the finger-depth of their analysis.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Right, it’s not really a question of schooled vs. unschooled, it’s a general problem concerning a broad spectrum of society. Even those with university degrees are prone to believing things they hear even in the absence of evidence to support them. Maybe what Mali needs is a good dose of liberal arts education–we’re always telling ourselves that our greatest asset in the liberal arts is critical thinking, and that more than anything is what is lacking here.

      • Charis says:

        I do agree with you, Bruce. One thing I was told when I went to the university was that a first degree is not a specialisation in whichever field you chose to study. Rather a first degree is supposed to give you the capacity to think, to inculcate in one a wide mental latitude.

        Question: how to inject that dose of liberal arts education into the educational system?

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  6. Adam says:

    As a matter of interest what specific rights would a Malian former Head of State have? I wish they would stop pandering to Sanogo.

  7. Madou Traoré says:

    Many thanks for your continuing reporting and evaluating of the situation in Bko, very helpful indeed! Concerning the lack of education and critical thinking, many may tend to think that it makes ruling the masses much easier (‘unreflecting/empty brains nod much easier in agreement’). However, in Mali and elsewhere, the huge dangers of this lack can be observed every day. Btw, conspiracy theorists don’t really need hard facts, they reason much better without them.

  8. Jim says:

    With all the mistrust, has many people suggested that Sanogo may have staged the coup on behalf of the Tuareg rebellion in the north? While the stated purpose was to empower the military to respond to the rebellion, it seems to have removed the military response to the Tuareg rebellion.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I’ve heard remarkably few conspiracy theories pertaining to the coup itself. They are many concerning the rebellion in the north, the April 30 “counter-coup,” etc. but I have yet to hear anyone speculate that there were pro-Tuareg forces behind Captain Sanogo’s “patriotic act.”

  9. Tim Herrick says:

    I concur whole-heartedly with your observation about the tendency to accept conspiracy theories as fact, and the negative consequences this seems to be producing now. But such thinking is widespread. The US is not spared, and I always felt that it was particularly prevalent among the French as well, sometimes even well-educated French people. I wonder if in fact this may be part of the French intellectual heritage/baggage?

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Here’s my thinking as an anthropologist: the most nurturing sociocultural environment for conspiracy theories is one where sorcery beliefs are widespread. Sorcery belief systems posit that nothing bad happens without being caused, directly or indirectly, by malevolent agents. This also is the essence of every conspiracy theory. Shit doesn’t just happen; bad people cause shit to happen. In Congo-Brazzaville, where I did my previous extended fieldwork, sorcery beliefs are much more prevalent and virulent than in Mali, as are conspiracy theories. (As a measure of the difference, Mali has yet to experience an epidemic of “child witches,” as far as I know, but they have become commonplace in Brazzaville not to mention Kinshasa.) I’m sure the French intellectual heritage, coupled with East Bloc/Soviet-infused political paranoia from the 1960s-1980s, doesn’t help either.

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