There’s a French phrase Ca va chauffer — “It’s going to heat up” — that’s useful for so many occasions, especially in francophone Africa. It can describe the sense of an impending competition between two evenly matched rivals, such as undefeated soccer teams or contestants (for example, on a reality cooking show in Quebec named “Ca va chauffer!”). It can describe the ambiance of a popular night spot buzzing with energy, as the music builds and revelers know the evening is reaching its climax.
In Bamako at this time of year, the phrase has a quite literal application. For a month now, temperatures here have been trending inexorably upward. Consider this weather forecast for early April:
And it will only get hotter. Even in the best of times, April and May can be most unpleasant in Bamako. To make matters worse, Mali’s hot season is also the period when the supply of electricity is lowest (due to declining water levels behind hydroelectric dams at Selingue and Manantali after months of seasonal drought), at the same time that demand peaks. Which for most city residents means blackouts and sweltering nights in stuffy concrete-block houses, deprived of ceiling fans and air conditioning.
There’s another, more sinister connotation of Ca va chauffer, when it’s used to express the sense of a looming confrontation between powerful forces on the political scene, along the lines of “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” Ca va chauffer means that things are about to get ugly.
Unfortunately for Bamakois, these latter two meanings are now converging. The stage is set for a high-stakes political conflict at the height of the hot season.
Despite vaguely promising on Sunday to return Mali to its pre-coup constitution and to civilian rule, the CNRDRE junta seems to be digging in its heels. Within hours of making his supposedly conciliatory remarks, Captain Amadou Sanogo, the junta leader, stated that the CNRDRE remains in power and will play a guiding role in Mali’s transition. The fact that the Malian army is in total disarray, and that three of Mali’s eight regions have fallen to a motley coalition of Islamist and Tuareg rebels since the coup, has not phased the junta’s determination — even though its primary justification for ousting President Amadou Toumani Touré last month was the need for a firm military response to the rebellion.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), after threatening for days, finally acted on Monday afternoon, initiating, with immediate effect, a wide range of economic, financial and diplomatic sanctions against Mali. This means among other things that Mali’s borders have been sealed, and that Malian banks will no longer be able to draw cash from the BCEAO, the West African central bank. Which means in turn that fuel and cash, among other things, are about to become scarce commodities.
The ECOWAS embargo strategy, it appears, is designed to turn up the heat on the junta by making life extremely uncomfortable for Malians. Soldiers, police and civil servants will stop following orders once their salaries are no longer paid. More broadly, ordinary citizens will feel the squeeze when they cannot get gasoline for their motorcycles or diesel for their trucks. When the state-owned power utility cannot get the 16 tanker trucks of fuel it needs to run its generators every day, rolling blackouts will get longer and more frequent. Already they’re lasting up to 10 hours in various parts of Bamako. Tailors won’t be able to sew, welders won’t be able to weld, only the lucky few with generators will be able to watch television (and where will they get fuel?). Food prices will skyrocket. It isn’t hard to imagine that within a few days, Bamako’s population will be out in the streets expressing their discontent with the regime in power.
(People I knew here were generally indifferent to ECOWAS prior to the coup, but now they are becoming critical. The irony that the group’s designated mediator in the Mali crisis is Blaise Compaoré, who himself came to power in 1987 through a coup leading to the death of one of the region’s most revered leaders, Thomas Sankara, is lost on no one. For an array of critical Malian perspectives on ECOWAS and its sanctions, see this selection of responses from various political figures and this interview with activist Aminata Dramane Traoré.)
What’s the way out? There’s no easy answer. The main return-to-constitutional-rule scenario envisages President Touré being restored to office, then resigning and handing over power to his designated successor, National Assembly speaker Dioncounda Traoré. But the same constitution would then call for elections to be organized within six weeks. With the country effectively cut in two by the rebellion, holding elections will be impossible. A longer-term transition plan will be needed, one not supervised by the junta.
Ca va chauffer. We can only hope that the rains will come early this year.