Cherchez la France: Mali’s complex postcolonial identity

There’s an old French expression cherchez la femme–literally, “look for the woman.” In the 1850s, novelist Alexandre Dumas used this phrase to convey his sense that whatever tensions or conflicts arose between people, somewhere at the root of them would be a woman. It’s subsequently become something of a literary cliche in multiple languages, particularly in detective fiction–a rather sexist counterpart to the more recent dramatic and journalistic adage, “follow the money.” Such phrases’ reductionist perspective suggests that however complex a situation might appear, it really boils down to a single underlying cause. In the 1930s, during fieldwork among the cattle-herding Nuer people of southern Sudan, British anthropologist E. E. Evans Pritchard adapted the phrase cherchez la vache, describing it as “the best advice that can be given to those whose duty is to understand a Nuer’s behaviour.”

As a shortcut to understanding Mali’s affairs of state and political discourse in 2021, I humbly propose cherchez la France. Allow me to explain.

When Prime Minister Choguel Maïga addressed the UN General Assembly in September and protested what he described as France’s decision to abandon Mali to its own devices, he was engaging in a time-tested strategy of tracing Mali’s woes to the actions of its former colonizer.

PM Maïga

When, earlier this month, Prime Minister Maïga accused France of “training terrorists” in northern Mali, it was a noteworthy statement mainly because Malian officials have rarely expressed such accusations in public. But Maïga was merely repeating what ordinary Malians as well as public figures like singer Salif Keita have been saying for years.

As I wrote following Keita’s widely circulated remarks two years ago, the idea that “there are no jihadists in the north” and that France is behind the region’s insecurity is no fringe belief in Bamako. You hear it again and again among the city’s residents, from educated and uneducated people, from men and women, from Muslim ideologues and ardent secularists.

Since I first lived in Mali during the late the 1990s I have been aware of a strong current of critique toward France in local discourse. Malians at the time had many bad memories of colonial rule, and they widely resented increasing crackdowns on African immigrants in France. Keita’s hit 1995 song “Nou pas bouger,” which is still frequently played on some Bamako radio stations, asks why white people are welcome in Africa but Africans aren’t welcome in the whites’ home countries.

One should not mistake such critiques with a general dislike of France or of French people. French expats continue to live in Bamako unmolested. Members of Mali’s elite continue to embrace the French language, educate their children in French schools, and seek treatment in French hospitals. Most Bamakois have a relative or at least know someone who lives in France, and many depend on those migrants’ economic remittances. During the 1998 World Cup, I was quite surprised to find that nearly all of the Malians I knew (I was living in Sikasso at the time) were rooting for France against Brazil in the final; South-South solidarity seemed to count for little.

But Malians’ relationship with their one-time colonial master is nothing if not complex. During the 2002 World Cup, the same guys who had cheered les Bleus and their World Cup triumph rejoiced in France’s first-round loss to Senegal and early elimination (without scoring a single goal!) from the tournament. Malians might admire French values and envy French standards of living, but they still take some pleasure now and again in watching the humbling of a mighty world power. As they did when the US military hastily abandoned Afghanistan several weeks ago–albeit with some concern that Mali might see similar chaos.

Yes, Bamako residents cheered the arrival of French troops on their soil in 2013. But today, as revealed in a recent opinion poll, they have very negative views of French policy toward Mali and toward the continuing foreign military presence in their country. Over cups of tea in their neighborhood grins, on social media, and on radio phone-in programs, Bamakois are highly critical of Operation Barkhane, which many view as part of a sinister French plot to partition their country and steal its natural resources. Rumors fly about covert French support for the jihadists and the hated Tuareg rebels. The goal of French military intervention, one Malian man recently wrote on the Malilink forum, was “Mali’s balkanization so as to grab the country’s mineral and energy resources to benefit the West in general and France in particular.” Views like his have always been present in Malian public opinion, but they used to be in the minority. Nowadays, I suspect that they are held by a majority–or, at least, by a majority of those with the loudest voices. Espousing them has become a matter of national pride.

For years I have challenged such theories directed against France and that amorphous entity known as the “international community.” These theories play too loose with the facts: I have seen no evidence that France is profiting from mineral extraction in Mali, nor that it has any interest in seeing Mali destabilized and made ungovernable. At the same time, I understand why those theories persist. The French army’s unilateral decision in early 2013 to bar Malian security forces from the town of Kidal may have seemed justified to French officers and civilian officials, who feared a massacre of civilians if Malian soldiers retook the stronghold of Tuareg separatism. But let’s recognize the long-term costs of that decision: a country that remains divided, an insurgency that continues to grow, and an unprecedented degree of Malian suspicion toward French motives in the region.

Is President Macron sincere in his promises to scale back French military presence in Mali? Whatever happens, we should expect French airstrikes to continue in the country, and French boots to remain on the ground even if in smaller numbers. But the state of Franco-Malian relations is as bad as I’ve ever seen, and I would not be surprised if Malians continued to perceive French manipulation at work in their country long after the last foreign troops had left. In Bamako, anyway, the public has increasingly united around perspectives that used to be considered extreme–a dynamic we might call “oppositional conformity.” Cherchez la France only became a powerful tendency because of one fact: France lost the information war in Mali a long time ago.

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Bamako’s mood: good for Goïta, bad for France…

Pollster Sidiki Guindo has just unveiled results from a phone survey of 1144 Bamako residents conducted between September 30 and October 3 (see full results here).

The results will surely warm the heart of Mali’s president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, because they show strong support for him and his interim government. Over 87 percent of Bamakois surveyed claim to be satisfied with the management of the country under Goïta’s administration–almost evenly split between “very satisfied” and “somewhat satisfied.” And 91 percent of those surveyed said that they have favorable opinions of the colonel himself.

More good news for Col. Goïta: nearly four out of five Bamakois surveyed support extending Mali’s political transition, which would mean delaying the elections for a new civilian government that had been anticipated for February 2022. Goïta’s prime minister (who has a 77 percent approval rating in this survey) and allies have been making noises about such an extension for several weeks now. Two-thirds of survey respondents in favor of a delay said that the transition should be extended by a year or more.

The numbers tell two very different stories

On the Malian government’s efforts to hire mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor, 78 percent of Bamakois express support. After removing the 14 percent of people in the sample who’d never heard of Wagner, the percentage of support for bringing in these mercenaries exceeds 90 percent. And 90 percent express favorable views of Russia in general.

By contrast, Bamakois are highly wary of France: 91 percent have unfavorable views of Mali’s former colonial power, and 90 percent have unfavorable views of Operation Barkhane.

Given these results, one could reasonably expect Wagner’s men to receive a warm welcome in Mali. But it’s worth remembering that opinions in Bamako frequently diverge from those in the provinces. Notably, there has consistently been far more public support for Barkhane in Gao, where the force actually operates, than in the capital city, 1000 km away.

Moreover, the Malian government’s negotiations with Wagner could just be a way to extract concessions from France (as Alex Thurston argues convincingly). I’ve written before about high levels of public support for Russia in Bamako–levels with which Guindo’s latest poll is fully consistent. Pro-Russia demonstrators have again taken to the city’s streets in recent weeks. But it remains quite plausible that Col. Goïta and his regime have been loudly talking about hiring Russian mercenaries not because they actually intend to do so, but as a strategy of extraversion. Mali’s overtures to Wagner have been highly unsettling to officials in Paris and throughout the European Union, whose policies have been predicated on a speedy return to civilian rule.

This Goïta fellow is starting to look like a savvy political operator. But can he actually keep his country from falling apart?

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A la recherche de l’avenir de Bamako : Un manifeste ethnographique

Au risque de paraître trop hâtif ou empressé, je voudrais aborder maintenant [le sujet] la question de mes prochaines recherches à Bamako. Le manuscrit de livre tiré de mes recherches passées reste bloqué pour le moment ; j’ai commencé ces recherches en 2010, à une époque où les Bamakois fêtaient Barack Obama et le djihadisme semblait très loin. Pour avoir passé à ce jour 20 pourcent de ma vie à étudier le mariage bamakois, j’ai hâte de tourner la page afin d’aborder un nouveau projet.

Même si je ne peux pas prévoir le thème d’un tel projet, je fais les promesses suivantes auxquelles je compte rester redevable.

1. Mes recherches se focaliseront sur Bamako.

Bamako reste non seulement la principale ville malienne mais aussi une des villes aux taux de croissance les plus élevés du monde. Son dynamisme démographique, économique, et social sans précédent exige par conséquent des études approfondies. Malgré les incertitudes, je persisterai à faire des mes enquêtes sur le terrain à Bamako autant que je suis capable. Ca, je le dois à mes connaissances bamakoises. En plus, à mon âge ce n’est pas facile de  tout recommencer ailleurs (car le temps investi ne se récupèrera pas)….

2. Mes recherches seront collaboratives.

En tant que doctorant j’ai appris à mener les recherches ethnographiques en solo, [ce qui constitue] un véritable rite de passage pour les anthropologues. Hormis une brève étude postdoctorale sous la direction de deux collègues, je n’ai jamais fait partie d’une équipe de chercheurs. Avec le temps, j’ai compris le compromis méthodologique de l’ethnologue seul : s’il jouit pleinement de la flexibilité et de l’indépendance, il porte aussi des lourds fardeaux. Ainsi, coopérer étroitement avec d’autres chercheurs génère davantage des contacts, des savoirs approfondis, et des révisions plus développées soigneuses de son œuvre en gestation. J’espère m’engager dans des collaborations à travers les disciplines et les frontières nationales. Les recherches faites ailleurs dans la région du Sahel, impliquant des anthropologues comme Sten Hagberg et Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, m’offrent des modèles à suivre pour un tel projet.

3. Mes recherches seront participatives.

Pas mal de recherches dans les sciences sociales se montrent “extractives” : le chercheur étranger arrive à Bamako par exemple ; il ramasse ses données et repart sans laisser d’effet positif sur les gens qui ont participé à ses enquêtes. Après l’analyse de ses découvertes, il ne les présente généralement pas dans la communauté où il a travaillé, dont une bonne partie d’habitants ne savent pas lire ses publications, surtout celles en anglais). Même s’il le fait, peu de gens seraient capables d’apprécier son objet. Malheureusement, bon nombre de mes recherches précédentes ont suivi ce modèle.

À l’opposé, il y a une autre approche, celle de la co-recherche, dans laquelle les chercheurs collaborent avec les membres de la communauté où ils mènent leurs enquêtes pour identifier ensemble le problème ou la question à étudier. Au lieu de “l’engagement technocratique” du scientifique traditionnel, les co-recherches mettent l’accent sur l’engagement démocratique. J’ignore si les doctorants pratiquent cette alternative aujourd’hui, mais moi, personnellement, je l’aurais bien apprécié il y a 20 ans.

4. Mes recherches se pencheront sur des problèmes lourds dans la vie quotidienne bamakoise.

Ce dernier volet de mon manifeste est la suite logique des précédents ; il concerne le défi d’identifier le thème de mes recherches dans l’avenir. Comme doctorant et puis comme universitaire, j’ai bénéficié d’une liberté considérable pour étudier ce qui m’intéressait. Je ne devais convaincre que quelques gardiens (les directeurs de mon comité doctoral, les financeurs des recherches) de l’importance de mon sujet et je pouvais l’étudier, même si celui-ci ne portait pas sur des problèmes sociaux.

Image taken from
“Non non, nous ne pouvons que décrire le monde ; c’est VOUS qui devrez le sauver !”

J’étais d’abord intéressé par les questions comme la migration et le mariage–surtout la polygamie urbaine moderne–donc mes enquêtes et mes écrits ont porté sur ces sujets. Pourtant mes connaissances bamakoises n’ont pas tellement partagé mon intérêt pour ces sujets. Pendant un enquête préliminaire en 2010, un étudiant m’a interpellé lors d’une discussion focus group : N’y avait-il pas, a-t-il demandé, des questions plus importantes à examiner à Bamako, comme la mauvaise gouvernance, la corruption, le système scolaire dégradé? L’interpellation de ce jeune m’a hanté l’esprit 18 mois plus tard, quand ces mêmes problèmes ont contribué au quasi-effondrement de la république. Et si, je me demandais, mes recherches seraient plus axées sur des questions qui préoccupent les Bamakois eux-mêmes ?

Il n’y a aucune pénurie de telles questions dans la capitale malienne–de la pollution du fleuve Niger à la surconsommation d’eau, de la gestion des déchets aux conflits fonciers. Mon défi, c’est d’aborder les recherches d’une telle question à travers l’approche collaborative et participative que j’ai évoquée plus haut. C’est mon but pour les mois et les années à venir. 

Si vous vous intéressez à une telle collaboration, je vous prie de me contacter.

[Cet article de blog a initialement été publié en anglais. La caricature ci-haut vient du document “Action Research for Sustainability”, 2015]

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Looking for Bamako’s future: An ethnographic manifesto

It is probably premature of me, perhaps even somewhat rash, to choose this time to write about my next research project in Bamako. After all, the book manuscript stemming from my current project (on the city’s changing contours of marriage and gender relations) has languished for months in review purgatory. I began fieldwork for that project way back in 2010, a time when Barack Obama was all the rage among Bamakois and Al Qaeda seemed an incredibly remote threat. I have now spent over 20% of my lifespan studying marriage in Bamako, and as eager as I am to turn the page on this project, its publication prospects are hazy.

But, like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” I have come to the realization that I if I am ever to move on from something, I first have to let it go. The following manifesto is my bid to do that.

While I cannot yet foresee what my research will focus on, I am making the following four-part pledge, and I want you to hold me to it.

1. My research focus will remain on Bamako.

Bamako remains not only Mali’s largest city but one of the fastest-growing cities on the planet. Its unprecedented demographic, economic, and social dynamics call out for further study. As uncertain as it might be for an American to commit to working there in the long term, I will persist in conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Bamako for as long as I am able. I owe it to the Bamakois I’ve gotten to know over the years. And, let’s be honest, at my age it’s not easy to start over someplace else. (Perhaps this is my own personal “sunk cost fallacy.”)

2. My research will be collaborative.

In graduate school I learned to conduct solo ethnographic research; this is a true rite of passage for cultural anthropologists. Apart from a one-year postdoc under the supervision of two senior colleagues, I have never been part of a team of researchers. Over the years, I’ve come to understand the primary trade-off of “lone ethnographer” methodology: while it maximizes flexibility and independence, it also poses unnecessary burdens on the researcher. Working interdependently with other researchers can generate more connections, better insights, and more thorough review of my research while it’s underway. I hope to engage in collaborations across scholarly disciplines and national boundaries. Ongoing projects elsewhere in the region involving anthropologists like Sten Hagberg and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan offer models for such collaborative research.

3. My research will be participatory.

A lot of social science research is “extractive”: when you’re a foreign researcher in a place like Bamako, you go in, gather your data, and leave without much positive impact on the people who agree to share their experiences and ideas with you. After you’ve finished analyzing your findings, you generally don’t present them to people of the community you worked in (most can’t read your publications), and even if you did, they might not see the point of it. Too much of my own past research has conformed to this model.

But there is an alternative approach, called “co-research,” in which researchers work with members of the community where they do their research to determine the problem or question to examine. Instead of the scholar’s customary “technocratic engagement” with the host community, co-research stresses democratic engagement. I don’t know if students are learning about this alternative in anthropology graduate programs these days; I certainly wish that I had learned about it 20 years ago.

4. My research will study pressing problems in the lives of Bamako residents.

This final plank of my manifesto follows from the preceding ones, and relates to the challenge of determining my future research focus. First as a graduate student and then as a tenure-track professor, I have enjoyed considerable freedom to study whatever I wanted. As long as I was able to convince various gatekeepers (my graduate advisors, grant funders) of the significance of my chosen topic, I could study whatever I wanted. It didn’t have to be oriented toward solving problems or informing policy.

Image taken from

I was most curious about issues like migration and marriage–particularly polygamy in its modern urban form–so that’s what I studied and wrote about. But the Bamakois I knew didn’t often share these priorities. During preliminary fieldwork in 2010, a university student participating in one focus group discussion about marriage challenged me: Weren’t there, he asked pointedly, more important issues to study in Bamako–bad governance, corruption, the dysfunctional education system? I didn’t think about it much at the time, but that young man’s question haunted me a year and a half later when the very problems he named helped bring Mali to the brink of collapse, where it remains today. I began wishing that my research had been more oriented toward problems that people in Bamako cared about.

There’s no shortage of worthwhile issues to study in Mali’s biggest city, from river pollution to water consumption, from waste management to land tenure. The challenge will be to come to a research project through the collaborative, participatory approach sketched out above. This is the challenge I have set for myself in the months and years ahead.

My first step will be to write a version of this post in French and share it with my Malian colleagues. If you’re interested in joining such a collaboration, please reach out to me.

[The cartoon above is taken from a 2015 document entitled “Action Research for Sustainability.”]

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Le taximan bamakois: A tribute

To give you a rough idea of the importance of taxis to my life whenever I’m in Bamako, let me offer one number. In the field notes written during my last research trip–a three-week visit to conclude a decade-long study of urban marriage and polygamy trends–the word “taxi” appears 28 times. That’s more often than the name of my wife who accompanied me, more often than “marriage” or “polygamy,” and nearly as often as “Bamako.”

I didn’t always spend so much time in taxis. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I got around Bamako mainly on public transportation (SOTRAMA, sometimes bâché), which was and remains far cheaper. Then two things changed. First, I landed a faculty position with a reliable salary, and soon certain luxuries became “necessities.” Second, I started visiting Mali with my wife and children, and taxis made more sense.

I’ve since grown accustomed to hailing Bamako’s taxicabs and developed deep respect for the men who drive them. (I’ve read about Bamakoises in the job but never met one.) They do a demanding job with skill and panache.

Driving a cab is nowhere for the faint of heart, least of all in crowded cities like Bamako. It takes boldness for a taxi driver to insert his vehicle into narrow spaces in busy traffic, to thread a path safely between slow-moving pushcarts and tricycle taxis on both sides, swerving onto the shoulder when the need arises, holding his own against swarms of motorcyclists and corrupt policemen.

Being a Bamako cabbie also takes encyclopedic knowledge of the streets and neighborhoods of a city home to over three million people. This knowledge is normally acquired, mind you, without recourse to GPS, Waze, maps, or even street names (which exist only for main thoroughfares like Avenue Al Quds, better known as Kulikoro sira or “Koulikoro road”). I have yet to see a Bamako cabbie consult a map or digital device to check his route. Drivers’ understanding of urban space is relational, based on landmarks and a keen awareness of how their city’s many spatial pieces fit together.

In setting out, therefore, you must tell your driver the name of your destination neighborhood, then one or more reference points (e.g. “Just past the Shell station” or “Before you get to the Gendarmerie”). Given such minimal information, most drivers know immediately where to go. Should the need arise, you can always call up someone at your destination and hand your phone to the driver for further explanation.

But it’s not enough to know the route: a good cabbie can predict the fastest route, and that depends on time of day and day of the week. Any taximan worth his fare knows that traffic jams will form around municipal government offices on Sundays, for instance, because that’s where and when many weddings take place. He plots his route accordingly–again, without checking his phone. He knows when certain roads and bridges switch from one-way to two-way traffic and back (to accommodate weekday rush hours). He knows shortcuts down residential streets that bypass clogged avenues.

Along with raw distance and dynamic traffic patterns, a good cabbie must know the condition of the roadways themselves. Driving one kilometer down a badly potholed laterite street might cost him more, in travel time and vehicle wear, than driving two kilometers down a more circuitous but smoother route.

Since Bamako taxis lack meters, you have to agree on a fare at the outset. In calculating the amount, a driver needs to process all the variables mentioned above, plus the odds of picking up more passengers after (sometimes while) bringing you to your destination. He must also estimate your ability to pay his proposed fare. The mathematical and psychological profiling skills required are astoundingly complex. I won’t even mention the mechanical prowess needed to keep a beat-up sedan going day after day after day.

Perhaps a cabbie’s greatest asset, though, is sociability, and I’ve found Bamako taxi drivers extraordinarily outgoing. Every cab ride is an opportunity to learn something about the city and its inhabitants. Among the cabbies I’ve chatted up over the years, one named Lassine spent eight days adrift in a small boat trying to reach the Canary Islands. Near the university one day in 2010, I hailed a taxi driven by Bakary, a former long-haul trucker married to three wives; two years later, after I had made regular trips in his battered yellow Mercedes 190D over two fieldwork stints, he helped me recruit a focus group of polygamous husbands whose input was key to my forthcoming book. Bakary is retired now, but we’re still in touch.

I got a ride in 2020 from Samba, who spoke of his passion for American country music and waxed poetic about Don Williams, whose CD he’d lost and sorely missed. “When Don sings, you can hear all the pain in his voice,” Samba said. (Me: Does he mean the Texan who topped the 1980 pop charts with the sappy ballad “I Believe in You“? I resolved to bring Samba some Sturgill Simpson on my next visit. Talk about singing one’s pain!)

There must be unpleasant cabbies in the city, I just can’t recall meeting any–and I usually recall such things. So if you can speak some French or Bambara, if you are not barred by your employer from riding in taxis for security reasons (sorry, US embassy personnel!), and if you’re looking for a Bamako taximan, I can put you in touch with a few good ones.

(Don’t let the expense put you off: by comparison to transportation in most cities around the world, Bamako taxis are cheap. A trip across town, e.g. from Sotuba to Heremakono, cost me 5000 CFA francs in 2020, or about US$10. Always ask the driver in advance if he can make change. As for material comfort, well, you get what you pay forsee backseat view below.)

Got a good Bamako taxi story? Please leave it in the comments section below.

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Exploring risk and resilience in rural Mali

The year’s most notable book of Mali-focused research is, to my mind, Camilla Toulmin’s Land, Investment, and Migration: Thirty-Five Years of Village Life in Mali. Based on the author’s fieldwork in the community of Dlonguebougou (central Segou region, north of the Niger River), the book studies how villagers have adapted since the early 1980s to increasingly uncertain livelihoods.

What I admire most about Land, Investment, and Migration is its combination of the best aspects of old-school (i.e., pre-1980s) ethnography with the best aspects of more recent social science scholarship.

Like classic ethnographers, the author undertakes a holistic overview of village life, incorporating regional and village history, community and household politics, economy and farming systems, energy and water extraction, land use, marriage patterns, and mobility. Toulmin has clearly bucked the trend of scholars knowing more and more about fewer and fewer things. Her expansive longitudinal perspective on village life is invaluable.

At the same time, her book avoids old-school ethnography’s limitations by depicting Dlonguebougou’s social organization and culture as subject to dramatic change over time and situated within larger structures of power. It inscribes the villagers’ struggles within dramas playing out in Mali and the entire Sahel region.

From Land, Investment, and Migration, courtesy of Camilla Toulmin

Toulmin surveys many types of risk confronting village households, and I will focus on three broad categories. The first pertains to the effects of climate change, a central topic of her research. Like many other communities in the Sahel, Dlonguebougou is dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and thus has been at the mercy of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. “No other region of the world has experienced such a magnitude of rainfall change in the 20th century,” Toulmin states (p. 56), providing data to illustrate (see Figure 3.4 below). Since 1982 alone the village has seen a three- to four-fold increase in major storms, meaning that more rainfall has been concentrated into fewer, more intense downpours. As one farmer told her in 2014,

The rain which came in the old days was a lot more useful to the crops. When the rain fell, the moisture would last for a week, but now after a couple of days, the soil is dry. It’s the way the rainfall comes which is really different, rather than the total amount. (p. 60)

Farming in the area has had to adapt. The chart below, which I generated from data in Toulmin’s Table 3.2, tells a tale of extensification: every year, villagers have put more and more land under the plow just to keep their harvest from shrinking. The share of village land being farmed rose from 1.5% in 1952 to 21.7% in 2016. Fields close to Dlonguebougou (the pair of bars in the middle of the chart) have been depleted as fallow cycles have contracted, forcing households to clear and cultivate new fields ever farther into the bush. Land scarcity, never perceived as a problem in the 1980s, has now become acute.

Which brings us to the next risk category, demographic growth. Dlonguebougou’s population has tripled over the course of the author’s research, from 534 inhabitants in 1980 to 1589 in 2016. Thus, even though millet harvests didn’t change significantly during that period, the per-capita share of the harvest declined precipitously–from 502 kg to 183 kg. For some households this means eating less, but most have diversified their activities to incorporate new sources of nutrition and income. Available land cannot, on its own, sustain the growing population.

Falling infant and child mortality explains much of this growth, fueling a baby boom leading to both larger households and a fragmentation of households over time (see Figure 5.3 below). Even for Mali and other West African societies, Dlonguebougou’s households are extremely large (average size in 2016 was 33, up from 18 in 1980), and are one means of spreading risk. The resident farming population is augmented by a further 800 people who come seeking land to cultivate around the village during the rainy season, many of them displaced from massive irrigated agriculture projects 30 km or even farther away.

The villagers’ increasing uncertainty about their future access to land brings us to a third category of risk, relations with the state. This is not a new problem: Toulmin recounts a 1980 visit to the chef d’arrondissement (the highest representative of the central state at the local level) whom she found forcing the village chiefs in his district to wait outside his house in the brutal sun, merely to demonstrate his power over them. He had kept them there for five days. Such officials in postcolonial Mali inherited their roles from French colonial administration and retained much of the latter’s arbitrary, brutal style of commandement.

Nowadays the Malian state’s deficiencies tend to manifest as ambiguity over land tenure, a problem intensified by the introduction of elected local governments in the late 1990s and actively encouraged by the administrative bureaucracy. Land grabs by foreign companies and the donor-driven push to expand large-scale irrigation projects have generated many landless farmers in the region, some of whom come to villages like Dlonguebougou in search of fields to cultivate. And since 2012, of course, rampant insecurity has afflicted central Mali as government security forces have demonstrated their incapacity to protect local populations–when those security forces aren’t themselves causing the insecurity.

Not all the news from Dlonguebougou is discouraging. Villagers have proven quite resilient in adjusting their livelihood strategies to the various constraints they have faced. As crop yields for millet have dropped, many farmers have begun growing sesame, mainly as a cash crop. Their long-standing migration networks have become more extensive, reaching well beyond West Africa, and more inclusive, as young women have joined young men in spending time as migrant workers outside the village. (See Figure 7.3 at right, showing the activity and destination of each of the village’s 23 male migrants in 2017.) The most popular destination is Bamako, where some settle permanently. This diversification of risk-management strategies has paid off, overall: Toulmin shows that materially, Dlonguebougou households are better off today than they were in the 1980s.

Unlike a lot of anthropologists these days, Toulmin doesn’t shy away from producing research that’s relevant to policy. That’s probably because she’s actually — gasp — an economist, one who does actual fieldwork! She concludes her book with a discussion of future trends and suggestions to make government- and donor-led initiatives better at building resilience at the household and village levels–not just in Dlonguebougou or the Segou region, but throughout Mali and beyond.

Land, Investment, and Migration shows that the challenges to life and prosperity in the Sahel are daunting. But it also gives one hope that they can be met. Painstaking research like Toulmin’s will be indispensable for anyone–aid workers, civil servants and politicians–who is rising to meet these challenges.

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A message to my people: Can we halt America’s tribalization?

I wrote this opinion piece for US newspapers but couldn’t find an editor willing to run it. The intended subtitle was “When African civil wars foreshadow our present heart of darkness.” While US politics isn’t a subject I would normally post about on this blog, in these perilous times one finds an audience where one can.

Whenever a conflict breaks out in Africa, Americans hear it described in tribal terms: two tribes (or, for the more progressive-minded, “ethnic groups”) are supposedly fighting each other due to some ancient enmity. “What kind of people slaughter whole villages?” we wonder; “Surely we are nothing like them.”

Amid the darkening of our public mood this year, I keep thinking about the outbreak of war in the African societies where I have lived and worked. I have also come to recognize that Americans, my own people, are not so different from Africans. We too have become tribal.

It’s hard for most human beings to commit unprovoked acts of violence against strangers. To do so we must be armed with two convictions. First that those strangers are fundamentally unlike us, members of an enemy camp whose fates are not bound up with our own. Second, that those strangers are plotting to strip us of something vital–our liberties, our identity, our security, our very lives. With these convictions, people can even take preemptive action against innocents; their twisted perception leads them to see aggression as self-defense.

In short, before we can be made to hate or kill those on “the other side,” we must be made to fear them. Tribalization actually requires neither cultural difference nor deep-rooted, pre-existing antagonisms between groups. It requires political leaders willing to exaggerate and exploit any schisms, even to fabricate them, to strengthen their grip on power.

23 years ago in the Republic of Congo, a former president named Denis Sassou-Nguesso, having lost a previous vote, did not trust the electoral system to favor him in the approaching election. His private militia went to war with the incumbent president’s troops. In the fighting, over 100,000 Congolese were displaced and tens of thousands, mostly civilians, killed–an enormous loss for a country of under three million people.

Brazzaville, Congo, 1997: Sassou-Nguesso’s private militiamen

A chemistry professor and writer named Emmanuel Dongala and his family fled the fighting, barely escaping with their lives. After taking refuge in the US, Dongala wrote the novel Johnny Mad Dog depicting a nameless African country torn apart from within.

Like Dongala himself, the characters in Johnny Mad Dog hadn’t grown up in a tribal society: until the civil war, they were cosmopolitan city dwellers caring nothing for their elders’ ethnic or regional distinctions. “Most of us had no tribe or village,” one recalls. But after politicians vying for power sow rumors of their opponents’ efforts to attack ordinary citizens and hijack elections, everyone must choose sides. Once people of supposedly different origins are pitted against each other, violence spirals out of control and the tribalization process is complete.

Many characters in Johnny Mad Dog see through their leaders’ fear-mongering and recognize the war for what it is: “It isn’t the tribes who are killing each other,” one woman protests, “it’s the politicians who are killing us.” But when divisive rhetoric sweeps up enough people, violence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Denis Sassou-Nguesso was adept at the tribalization game. Since winning Congo’s civil war in 1997 he has presided over an autocratic regime stocked with his own relatives and intolerant of dissent. The Congolese populace remains split into ethnic factions.

Could America mirror Congo’s descent into violence and authoritarian rule? Could our communities become segregated along political battle lines? Absolutely, if we fail to recognize the danger of our present moment. Partisan media and public officials have stoked the fires of tribalization through incendiary rhetoric and talk of shadowy conspiracies. Their power rests on the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded movie house and face no consequences.

Jackson, Georgia, 2017: American III% militiamen in their tribal gear

Like the Congolese, awash in weapons and media-fueled paranoia, we have been primed to believe the worst about our compatriots who do not share our political allegiances–in short, to see them as members of an enemy camp. This could doom our democracy. American journalists who cover foreign wars have pointed out that American right-wing militia leaders are using the same tribal framing devices as Congolese warlords.

“One thing that I learned overseas covering civil wars is that the first step down that path is convincing yourself that the other side is bent on your destruction, convincing yourself that they do not have good intentions, that the arguments that you have with your neighbors are not political alone, that they’re also existential,” correspondent Mike Giglio recently said on “Fresh Air”. “And, you know, I only moved back to America a few years ago. And I was just really struck by the fact that that is how people in America are portraying the political divide right now.”

The war drums are not only beating on the right. “I see a civil war right around the corner,” said Antifa activist Michael Forest Reinoehl after shooting a right-wing demonstrator to death in Portland before he himself was killed by police on September 3.

If America is to defy Reinoehl’s dire prediction, citizens of all persuasions must recognize and resist the process of ideological tribalization instigated by reckless leaders. We must reject talk, including our president’s, of nefarious plots to subvert the people’s will. This talk only empowers cynical politicians; our only way forward is for American voters to spurn candidates who resort to it.

Words must have consequences: we must call out incitements to violence and baseless accusations undermining the integrity of our democratic process. Understanding that our fates are indeed bound together, we must cool our own overheated rhetoric. And when going to polls, protests, or public facilities where ballots are being counted, we must leave our guns at home. As soon as we arm ourselves and head to any such space, we cannot be the response to a potential problem; we become that problem.

Curbing reckless speech and keeping our public gatherings peaceful can’t magically resolve Americans’ political differences. But by arresting our slide into tribalization, we can honor our democratic heritage by addressing our differences without hurting or killing each other.

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In search of Mali’s Russia connection

If you follow press coverage of public events in Mali, particularly street demonstrations, you may have noticed a pattern over the last few years: alongside expressions of anti-French sentiment, which I’ve written about extensively on this blog, are frequently expressions of pro-Russia sentiment. Below are a few examples of photos taken at demonstrations held at Bamako’s Place de l’Indépendance over the past month.

A banner at a Bamako rally on 21 August:
“Down with France and ECOWAS / Thanks Dicko / Thanks Malian Army”
(Note the smaller sign at left supporting Mali’s ties to Russia; AP photo)
“Group of Malian Patriots: Thanks China and Russia for their support of Mali!” (Deutsche Welle photo)
Screen cap from Horon TV video of 21 August rally:
“We need Russia”/”There is no ethnic war, no rebels in Mali. It’s France and her mercenaries killing Malians.”
Demonstration, 8 September :
“Support for the army / Long live Russia and China / ECOWAS and France get out” (AFP photo)

It’s hard to know what to make of these signs. Does a broad base of support for Russia exist among Malians? Among Bamakois more specifically? Or are pro-Russia demonstrators just more likely to show up and get photographed at marches?

Well, if pollster Sidiki Guindo’s work is as reliable as in the past, Russia these days would appear to be the most popular foreign power among Bamakois. In a survey conducted immediately after the events that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) from power on 18 August, Guindo and his team found that 88% of Bamako respondents had a favorable view of Russia–much higher than for the USA, ECOWAS, or France, though just a touch above favorable views of China.

21-23 August 2020 phone survey of 925 Bamako residents: “Do you have a favorable opinion of…”

What explains such strong support for Russia in this part of the world?

One likely factor is that a generation of Mali’s top secondary school graduates were sent for university training in the Soviet Union. It is quite common to meet Malians who studied film making in Moscow, forestry in Voronezh, law in Tashkent, or food science in Odessa. (Full disclosure: I’m married to one of them.) Most of these students received full scholarships. Between 1962 and 1993, according to research by Tatiana Smirnova and Ophélie Rillon, some 2500 Malians received Soviet degrees–which must be a huge portion of all Malian university graduates during that period. (Still others attended universities in Soviet satellite states like Poland or East Germany.) But in the 1990s with the Cold War over, that pipeline began to dry up as first Soviet and then Russian funding for scholarships diminished, and living conditions for African students in Russia deteriorated.

(My wife’s scholarship from the USSR came at the tail end of the Soviet period: it was awarded to her in 1990 and fortunately kept funding her through the completion of her masters degree in 1996, even though the USSR broke up in late 1991 and her university subsequently transformed into a Ukrainian institution.)

Africans still study in Russia today, which claims to provide 15,000 state-funded spots annually to foreign students. Training so many Malian and other African university students was something of a soft power triumph for the USSR. To this day, many of Mali’s high-ranking civil servants and leaders of industry have fond memories of their Soviet student years, and much of that goodwill has carried over to Russia.

The guys brandishing pro-Russia signs in this year’s Bamako protests, however, are too young even to remember the Soviet Union. They clearly belong to a different category of Malian russophiles. And some of them are organized.

The Groupe des Patriotes du Mali (GPM) was formed at least three years ago. It has a very active Facebook page, created in early 2017. Its content has been equal parts pro-Russia and anti-France. The GPM organized one demonstration in January 2020 demanding the departure of foreign troops from Malian soil and burning French flags, and its members and their signs have a knack for showing up in press photos of subsequent demonstrations against IBK and in support of the junta (see above).

Mouvement Panafricain rally, January 2020

Despite the GPM’s media savvy, however, I don’t see the organization as a mass movement. Its following is modest: most of the videos on its Facebook page received dozens or hundreds of views, not thousands. It is also entirely possible that the group receives funding from the Russian embassy in Bamako to keep it afloat.

But the GPM has clearly tapped into a vein of pro-Russia public opinion in Bamako, and perhaps in Mali more broadly, which I suspect would still exist in the absence of external support. In other words, even if the GPM turned out to be an “astroturf” organization, it’s feeding on real grassroots support. With respect to Operation Barkhane, the GPM’s message is similar to those broadcast through official and semi-official Russian channels, which have been highly critical of French military intervention in Mali. (Never mind that the French wouldn’t have been able to fly their armored vehicles in without chartered Russian cargo planes!)

In addition to scholarships and other soft-power programs, the Russians have pursued closer military ties with Mali in recent years. Russia has been Mali’s top arms supplier for the past decade. (This assertion contradicts a recent DW article on the subject, which supposedly drew its data from the same SIPRI source I used.) A bilateral military cooperation agreement was promised in 2016 and signed last year with IBK’s government. Most recently, Mali acquired two Mi-35 attack helicopters from Russia.

So I would not make too much of the fact that two of the junta leaders recently returned from military training in Russia. This doesn’t imply that Russia was behind their takeover any more than Colonel Assimi Goita’s US training implies a US backing. Friendly bilateral relations between Russia and Mali go back a long time, even if they became less prominent for a decade or two after the end of the Cold War. These relations have clearly translated into enduring public support for Russia in Bamako. And all indications are that Mali-Russia ties will deepen in the future.

Postscript, 2 June 2021: In the wake of the latest coup in Bamako and Macron’s threats to withdraw French troops from Mali, the pro-Russia voices are again being raised. Are they trying to send a message to Russia? To France?

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“Hands off my junta!”

Or, Why the international community should show post-IBK Mali some love

The parallels between this week’s events in Bamako and those of March 2012 keep coming. On top of the fact that both began as mutinies at the Soundiata Keita military camp in Kati, and led to the forced departure of sitting presidents, we’ve also seen revelations this week that the officers who carried out this week’s action (and who have been calling themselves the Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (National Committee for the Salvation of the People, CNSP) were trained by Russia. And the United States.

(Just as in 2012, it’s vital not to be distracted by such details: as Denis Tull has reminded us, most Malian military officers have received foreign training, often in multiple countries. The sometimes implicit, sometimes overt suggestion accompanying these revelations is that foreign governments somehow fomented these officers’ actions. I think it’s safer to assume that soldiers in Mali are capable, like people everywhere else, of taking initiatives without foreign prompting or assistance, and that they did so on this occasion.)

Two more close parallels, on which I want to concentrate here, have been the international response and the reaction in Bamako to that response. The international response occurs in three phases.

Phase 1: Issue expressions of concern while trying to clarify the situation. What exactly happened–was it a mutiny? Was it a coup? The US government is apparently still trying to resolve this question. Calling it a coup would require cutting off all aid. This is what the US ultimately did in 2012. (By contrast, it chose to turn a blind eye the following year when the Egyptian army deposed President Mohamed Morsi.)

Phase 2 requires condemnations and calls for a return to civilian rule. France, apparently caught off-guard by the situation, has done this without explicitly asking for IBK’s return. ECOWAS on the other hand has drawn a hard line demanding that IBK be immediately restored to office. President Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire has been advocating a particularly tough response, at least according to the francophone press–just as he did last time.

Alassane Ouattara and IBK in Bamako last month (photo: France 24)

We are now in Phase 3: punishment. Mali has been suspended from regional bodies (ECOWAS and the African Union); its borders with other ECOWAS states have supposedly been sealed and financial flows to the country cut off. During this phase in 2012, I heard from many Bamakois that these measures were all for show: as I wrote at the time, few took the ECOWAS “embargo” seriously, and it was lifted after only a few days.

By going through these phases, Western leaders might be guided by lofty principles: officially, at least, they want to protect the democratic process and state institutions their governments’ aid programs have spent so long trying to build up. African leaders might share these principles but they also have more pressing concerns: they don’t want the officers in their own restive security forces getting any ideas. Ouattara is in an especially vulnerable position in this regard: Cote d’Ivoire has seen many mutinies in recent years.

Malians recognize the self-serving rhetoric and double standards at play here. Some of them (including in one Tweet from an account supposedly linked to the CNSP) have observed that when Ivorian troops ousted President Henri Konan Bédié in 1999, Ouattara himself–then an opposition leader–welcomed it as “not a coup d’état, but a popular revolution supported by all Ivorians.”

So Malians have good reason to be wary of high-minded calls for a quick return to democracy in their country, particularly since few were satisfied with the state of Mali’s supposed democracy to begin with. International sanctions and heavy-handed intervention will only strengthen their support for military rule, as I believe they did in 2012. Bamakois took to the streets repeatedly back then to demonstrate their opposition to ECOWAS.

Of the many hand-lettered placards I recall these demonstrators brandishing, the one that stood out most read “Touche pas ma junte“–best translated as “Hands off my junta.” I can imagine similar placards appearing this time. As they were in 2012, Malian social media is full of accusations that ECOWAS is acting as a French stooge in this affair.

Understandably, the international community cannot be seen to encourage coups. Yet its attempts to reverse this week’s events in Mali risk doing more harm than good. What to do?

I propose this: the world’s governing bodies will decide collectively that what occurred in Bamako on 18 August 2020 was not a coup. No, it was a group of military officers applying, let’s call them “enhanced resignation techniques,” to a sitting president. They thereby accelerated a departure from office that, let’s be honest, would almost certainly have come about before the end of his term one way or another, even if these officers hadn’t intervened. And no blood was apparently spilled, which is quite an improvement over Mali’s previous episodes of forced regime change. So we will call what happened an enhanced, non-violent resignation event.

Sure, it’s doublespeak, but it’s the kind of doublespeak the international community is accustomed to. And maybe adopting it will allow their governments to curtail the punishment phase of their response, thereby allowing Malians to get on with the process of what my previous post referred to as a “hard reset”–that is, deciding together how to redesign their political system and ultimately how to break out of this cycle of poor governance and military intervention.

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Taking it to the streets

Yes, Mali’s 2020 coup looked a lot like the previous one eight years ago. Frustration had been mounting, both among the general public and among the military. The army had been taking too many casualties up north. Troops in the Kati barracks finally mutinied and drove into Bamako, where they occupied the national broadcasting service and took over administrative buildings. Waiting once again for the new junta to make its late-night television debut gave me a chilling sense of déjà vu.

Meet the new bosses…

Much was different, too. For one thing, this time the putchistes managed to arrest the sitting president and force him to announce the dissolution of parliament and his resignation from office before the TV cameras. For another, the five officers who then appeared on screen projected a much calmer demeanor than Captain Sanogo and his unruly band of troops in 2012, and they seem to be more highly ranked. The new junta’s spokesman, Colonel Ismael Wagué, rattled off a list of grievances quite similar to those rattled off eight years ago, and announced the usual post-coup measures (closure of borders, a curfew, etc.).

But where Sanogo was always wary of foreign governments and their mediation, Wagué asked international forces–including MINUSMA and Barkhane–to “remain our partners for stability and the restoration of security.” And he called for “the efficient application of the Algiers Peace Accord.” Many of the protestors thronging Bamako’s streets over the past several weeks to demand President Keita’s resignation see this accord as treasonous, and think UN and French troops are part of the problem in Mali, not part of the solution. So Col. Wagué’s statement was remarkable–even if he didn’t mean it, he was at least diplomatic enough to pay lip service to Mali’s foreign “partners.”

ECOWAS is talking up sanctions again, and foreign governments are issuing rote condemnations and calling for a return to constitutional order. But mark my words: this genie won’t go back in the bottle. Keita’s rule was disastrous for the country, and very few Malians would welcome his return to power. He will not be allowed to come back to the presidential palace–not for the remaining three years of his term of office, not for a three-month transitional government, not even to clean out his desk. Consider him gone. And his son Karim too.

In March 2012 I wrote about the difficulty of sticking to an institutional pathway to political change when the institutions of the state have been hijacked by the people in charge. People in Western countries have not experienced this difficulty for a long time. With notable exceptions, they have been relatively well served by their constitutions, courts, and elections over many years.

This is why, even if they despise Donald Trump (whose presidency has been possibly as ruinous for the US as Keita’s was for Mali), most Americans are willing to wait until the next election to see him driven from power. But in Mali, the institutions of the state have only worked to reinforce the power and privilege of those at the top. The ruling elite put on a good show of inclusive governance, but their commitment to democratic values was hollow.

I don’t think I appreciated this fact adequately in 2012. I saw the junta’s civilian supporters (COPAM and MP22) as dead-enders, and dismissed their critiques of Mali’s democratic system as cynical. But after seven years of Keita’s presidency, I understand their position. A hard reset is necessary in Mali–the institutions of its third republic (1992-2020) will not serve the country anymore. Perhaps they never have; perhaps the system’s checks and balances existed only on paper.

What do you do when you can’t trust the legislature or the courts to rein in an executive intent on concentrating its own power and looting public resources? What do you do when the electoral apparatus is set up to ensure that incumbents never lose? You go into the streets, where the Sovereign People can make their collective voices heard.

“When a head of state fails in his obligations (by various constitutional violations) and the People, angered, rise up, all will bow down before them,” wrote Amadou Aliou N’Diaye in June as street protests were ramping up in Bamako. “The President of the Republic, the Constitution, the institutions… legality itself must bow down before their legitimacy.”

This Amadou Aliou N’Diaye is no activist or rabble-rouser. He is a former head of Mali’s supreme court.

Perhaps the streets are the only functioning institution left in Mali these days–the place where ordinary citizens can still hold their leaders accountable. I understand why so many in Bamako took to the streets to demand their president’s removal from office, and why the army eventually stepped in on their side.

But I do not celebrate these events. As Greg Mann has pointed out, a military coup is not the same thing as a popular revolution, even if it resembles or coincides with one. So here’s hoping that a fourth republic, or whatever comes next for Malians, will be better–fairer, more inclusive, and less venal—than what came before.

And here’s hoping that Americans won’t have to take to the streets to make their voices heard come November.

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