Ca va chauffer

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.

France has urged its citizens in Mali to leave, while also making clear that French troops will not be deployed to Mali. It’s unclear how much longer American citizens will be able to remain.

Ca va chauffer. We can only hope that the rains will come early this year.

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13 Responses to Ca va chauffer

  1. sallyjmclean
    sjm says:

    Thanks for this – don’t stop. Well…stay safe. Hope it’s possible to do both. Poor Mali 🙁

  2. Greg Flatt says:

    Ca va chauffer de! O ye tien ye. Allah ka Mali deme ka nye soro herela, kuy!
    With the population (and the whole world for that matter) already feeling the pinch of higher food and fuel prices before the coup, I can only imagine the hardship that these sanctions will inflict on the Malian people. It could very easily transform the southern half of Mali into a powder keg.

    I’m not sure this is its proper usage, but the following Bambara proverb comes to mind – “Bamanan ko, ‘sogo kumunen koko bo man bon'”. Literally meaning: “It doesn’t take much salt to season soured (cured) meat.” The translation really doesn’t do it justice, but the meaning (as I understand it) is something like “it doesn’t take much to piss-off / rile-up / trigger a reaction from someone who has already been hurt”. If a Malian could please give me a better description / definition of this saying, I’d greatly appreciate it. In this extremely troubling situation, I find myself trying to find some comfort in the wisdom and humor of the few Bambara proverbs I can remember. Bruce, I can only imagine that some excellent proverbs are being uttered in Mali right now in specific reference to the current state of affairs. Have you picked up on any?

    • wymco – Writing my life and save it for my kids. Want to know about me? I am just one of the losers.
      youssoufj says:

      You are so right Greg about the meaning. So impressing and well thought.

  3. mkevane – Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
    mkevane says:


    I hope you and family are well. Must be hard to have an evacuation looming, and have to cope with daily life, and take the time to sympathize with friends who, if it really get chaud, will have to stay behind.

    One point: “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.”

    Actually it is more ironic, because Thomas Sankara himself came to power with Blaise in 1983 in a coup. The two had been in some complex political manoeuvrings within the army and political elite; Sankara was prime minister when he was imprisoned in 1983. Blaise, his paratrooper commando buddy (they were both Captains, like Sanogo) led his troops from the garrison in Po to Ouaga, and liberated Sankara (along with Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Lingani). The foursome held power until 1987, when, in a predictable end, there was a big shootout in the Couseil d’Entente and Blaise’s men ended up on top. Sankara and a dozen others were killed. Lingani and Zongo were subsequently executed some years later.

    Blaise then transitioned in 1991 to an ATT-style managed democracy where he stays in the background, but he has not been able to figure out a transition. Nobody knows really who keeps the clique in power exactly… mostly it is because the opposition is so incoherent (though machinations of Blaise are likely big cause of that, though hard to verify)…. and they almost fell in a similar incident in February 2011 when army mutinies led the Presidential Guard itself to mutiny! It would have been an earlier accidental coup. Fortunately for Burkina the soldiers didn’t have a leader like Sanogo who said, “Hey let’s just do it.” Although there is still some tiny possibility that most Malians won’t rue the day of the accidental coup, I see that chance as infinitesimal. The ironies multiply, of course, because Blaise and Sankara were famously best friends in their army days, and because Sankara, a very inspiring person, had pretty much alienated all major holders of power in Burkina by the time he was killed.

    Blaise Compaore and foreign minister (and also former military guy- but I think in the national police) Djibril Bassolet have by many accounts been effective mediators, in Togo and Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire and earlier Tuareg unrest, and Bassolet had a lot of experience in Darfur as the AU mediator.

    • brucewhitehouse
      brucewhitehouse says:

      I agree that Sankara, like most martyrs, attained his revered status largely because of the way he died, rather than what he actually accomplished while in power. People forget what an ineffective leader he was. But he makes a great symbol.

  4. Allan says:

    Thank you for your observations and comments.

  5. Kerry Andras says:

    Thanks for your updates. One question – I haven’t heard anything about Peace Corps Mali… Do you know if they have they been evacuated? Just curious about PCM, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be there as a PCV right now.

    • brucewhitehouse
      brucewhitehouse says:

      Funny you should ask – I just ran into a bunch of PCVs who’ve been evacuated from the Mopti region, and they are getting ready to leave the country. PCVs from other regions (Segou, Koulikoro, Sikasso, Kayes) are being brought into Bamako shortly, no word yet on whether they will also have to leave.

      Were you posted to the Sikasso region in 2000, by chance? Your name rings a bell.

  6. justaboutsweden
    Une libanaise à Bko says:

    I’m a Lebanese girl living in Bamako and I’m not leaving ,I know that the situation will be very hard for a while regarding the Embargo but I know that everything will go well soon 🙂

  7. Mathilde says:

    Certes, votre point de vue est celui de l’anthropologue. Cependant à défaut de posséder des pouvoirs divinatoires, les scientifiques devraient chérir la profondeur dans leurs propos ainsi que la capacité d’aller au-delà des apparences. En matière de bouc émissaire, les vôtres semblent en l’occurrence tout désignés. Encore merci pour un blog somme toute fort romanesque.

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