A tale of two African cities: Bamako and Brazzaville

Post-coup situation update, Monday, April 2: Bamako continues to operate under a veneer of normality, with most businesses and schools open, and both private and state broadcasters airing their regular music and cultural programs. Nobody is fooled by appearances, however: taxi drivers say they aren’t getting much business because a lot of people are choosing to stay home, and business owners in the city center say customers are avoiding the downtown area, which is the usual scene of demonstrations. Our son’s daycare, from which we received our first indication of trouble brewing on March 21 (its early closure was announced several minutes ahead of the US Embassy’s SMS alert notification), which was open for half-days last week, decided to close last Friday “until the situation calms down.” Then we got a call from them this morning saying they are open again.

The rebellion in the north continues to gather momentum, having taken all three major northern cities (Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu) in three days. It was announced on Friday that Colonel Ag Gamou, a top Tuareg officer in the Malian army and leader of the defense of Gao, had defected to the rebels. The Malian government has sent envoys to beg the rebels for a ceasefire, though it’s not clear what incentive the rebels have to negotiate at this point. Meanwhile thousands of Bamakois met in a football stadium on Saturday for a massive prayer for peace, led by various Muslim and Christian dignitaries.

Late Saturday and early Sunday, reports emerged that the ruling CNRDRE junta was about to give in to the regional threat of sanctions, after its emissaries met in Burkina Faso with President Blaise Compaoré. Many Bamakois to whom I spoke on Sunday were optimistic that and end was in sight to Mali’s political crisis, and that a return to constitutional order could facilitate international assistance to fight the rebels. Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of the junta, announced on Malian television a “return to constitutional order” and a rehabilitation of the state institutions suspended since the coup; following this declaration, heads of state of the West African body ECOWAS, meeting in Dakar, have reportedly decided to delay the implementation of sanctions.

Several uncertainties remain, however. Captain Sanogo did not specify the timetable of this transition; while ECOWAS wants it to occur within a matter of days, the CNRDRE clearly wants to take its time in handing power back to civilians. Moreover, Sanogo’s declaration described the transition as occurring through a process of consulting with a broad spectrum of Mali’s political class (the famously undefined “forces vives” of the country), which would be at odds with the constitution he has supposedly put back in place. Most crucially, Sanogo has not addressed the question of who will preside over any transition. It seems likely that he is just playing for time, hoping to forestall potentially crushing international sanctions while continuing to run the show in Bamako for as long as possible.

Analysis: Differing responses to political tension

Over the past decade, while my work as an anthropologist has taken me to several communities in Africa, I’ve conducted most of my fieldwork in just two: Bamako, Mali and Brazzaville, Congo. These cities have certain key characteristics in common. Both are located on major waterways, not coincidentally at or near the point where a railway from the coast meets a river’s navigable section (the Niger River for Bamako, and the Congo River for Brazzaville). Both grew into cities after first becoming the administrative center for French colonizers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And both are by far the largest cities in their respective countries, the places that tend to set the example culturally and socially for the rest of the society, for better or worse. My book Migrants and Strangers in an African City, published last month, examines the flow of people from the western Sahel to Brazzaville, based on fieldwork in Mali and Congo between 2002 and 2010.

There are many dissimilarities between the Malian and Congolese capitals, however. Brazzaville was the scene of repeated and bloody civil wars throughout the 1990s, as politicians mobilized ethnic militias to support their bids for power. Civilians bore the brunt of the fighting, not merely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because militias deliberately targeted them in their campaigns of violence. Residential neighborhoods were shelled with artillery, roadblocks were put up throughout town to identify members of rival ethnic groups, and “ethnic cleansing” became the order of the day. Tens of thousands of Brazzavillois died, and hundreds of thousands fled the city.

More than a decade later, Brazzaville remains a scarred, divided town. The militias did not go away; they merely buried their weapons and melted into the rest of the population. Last month’s explosion at an army munitions dump, which was responsible for at least 282 deaths, was a sign of how the conflict lives on for city residents. People are fearful of another outbreak of fighting, and they know the potential for massive civilian casualties remains high. At the first sign of danger, Brazzavillois start heading for the exits — fleeing into the countryside, or across the Congo River to neighboring Kinshasa.

While tension is high both in Brazzaville and Bamako, the feel in the latter city is quite different than what I’ve sensed in Brazzaville. Bamako has been remarkably peaceful for most of its existence. Even while the recent coup was underway and gunfire could be heard all over town, the Bamakois around me seemed almost nonchalant. They took a few days off work, but continued to gather in small groups (grins) to socialize, drink tea and make conversation. I don’t know anyone who left town fearing violence.

The reason for this nonchalance is simple: people in southern Mali tend to expect that their leaders will settle their differences through dialogue. This doesn’t mean the dialogue will necessarily be conducted fairly, democratically, or transparently, but at least it will make any recourse to violence unnecessary. Ordinary people here normally do not have to bear the burden of their leaders’ violent quarrels. (The north and the “Tuareg question” is another matter entirely, and beyond my area of competence to analyze here.)

Congolese people do not share that expectation. Time and again, members of Congo’s “classe politique” have proven themselves willing and able to sacrifice the lives of ordinary citizens in their pursuit of power.

I’m not sure how the political situation in Mali and in Bamako will play out in the days and weeks to come. But I do share Bamakois’ general sense of confidence that whatever happens here, bloodshed on a large scale remains unlikely. Political leaders will continue to settle their differences among themselves. Mali is not Congo, nor is it Cote d’Ivoire.

What Bamakois are most worried about right now, in my view, is economic sanctions. While sanctions would ostensibly target the junta, this is where ordinary citizens will have to pay the price of their leaders’ actions.  People here know full well that Mali will be brought to its knees, economically speaking, if the borders are closed and vital imports of gasoline, diesel, and many food staples (e.g. sugar, powdered milk) cannot enter the country. They know that life will get hard if banks cannot continue to draw money from the BCEAO (the central bank of West Africa’s eight countries using the CFA franc). Whatever their feelings toward the CNRDRE — and they are growing more negative by the day — nobody here supports the imposition of sanctions.

On Friday night, four of my local friends came over for dinner. We talked about the rebellion and the coup, and they had one thing to ask of me: “Tell your people in America not to put sanctions on us!” I promised to pass the request on. Where the coup is concerned, most of us here believe the best course of action is to let Bamako’s political class sort out their differences on their own, without further destabilizing this society by applying collective punishment. Sanctions might only make the junta dig in its heels deeper and could even rally popular support — currently waning — to the coup leaders.

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3 Responses to A tale of two African cities: Bamako and Brazzaville

  1. Pingback: Burkina Faso - An Unlikely Revolt | Living History

  2. vey interesting to read your analysis from Bamako, Bruce. I share your impression of Malians assumptions that dialogue will work itself out: probably also with the MNLA, but probably not with Ansar Dine, Mujoa or AQIM, so there remains plenty to worry about in the North. And a military solution is not possible for either side: the Malian army cannot beat the Libyan army, while the Tuaregs would not be able to command support if they came south. I was glad to hear about your Brazza book (congratulations), and I will try to remember to get a copy to read! Best wishes, and greetings to our mutual friends (of whom I am sure there are many)
    – Robin Edward Poulton rpoulton@comcast.net

  3. Augustine Atiah says:

    Very good and enlightening. Thanks

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