Fears, foreigners, and falsehoods

Although the day started out on a note of calm routine, the climate in Bamako has been tense since late morning, for reasons that remain unclear. As with previous days of unrest, our first warning sign came from our son’s daycare staff: around 11:40 this morning, they phoned to tell us they’d be closing early due to “troubles in town.” (At least we got him out of the house for 3 hours today.)

When the call came I was in a taxi near the Ecole Normale Superieure (in Quartier du Fleuve), where a normally two-way street had suddenly and quite spontaneously become one-way east-bound, with both lanes moving in the same direction, albeit slowly due to heavy congestion. I heard a few shots fired near the Central Bank tower but couldn’t see where they’d come from or what caused them.

In the neighborhoods my taxi traversed, offices and many businesses (especially banks and gas stations) closed early, and a steady stream of traffic moved away from downtown. I took the precaution of phoning ahead to the various people I had to visit — in Cité du Niger, the central artisanat (artisans’ market) in Bagadadji, and the Dibida market. In each case the situation was calm. The west side of the artisanat, one of my favorite people-watching spots in town, was thick with Bamakois coming and going; there was no sign of panic or tension, despite the artisanat‘s proximity to the National Assembly, a perennial hot spot for demonstrations. When I asked what had happened downtown and why so many businesses had closed, nobody could tell me. But everyone had heard that some shapeless trouble was brewing.

This cryptic billboard has begun popping up all over town recently. Can someone identify what the letters C.A.V. (upper left) stand for?

By the time I got to Dibida around 2 p.m., many of the businesses in Dibida were also closed or about to close up early. My friend there told me that the shooting I’d heard in Quartier du Fleuve before noon was related to a foreign mercenary who had been killed.

For the last two days, the foreign mercenary has become a bogeyman in Bamako. It was late Monday night that Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of Mali’s CNRDRE military junta, blamed the unrest that had started several hours earlier on foreign mercenaries who had infiltrated the city in the service of ill-intentioned, unidentified Malians. The junta’s statement on ORTM television Tuesday morning repeated these allegations, adding that some foreigners had been captured alongside the Malian paratroopers who had attacked junta strongholds Monday evening.

Suddenly Bamakois began seeing foreign mercenaries lurking in every corner. These mercenaries most commonly are said to be from Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire.

Do these mercenaries really exist, though? I have yet to see any proof that they do. It’s certainly in Captain Sanogo’s interest to frame the current conflict as pitting Malians against outsiders, rather than pitting pro-putsch Malians against anti-putsch Malians. He knows it’s easy to manipulate fears of foreigners in a context of instability.

Although Mali is regarded as welcoming toward outsiders — rightly so, in my view — Malians are not immune to the temptation to demonize foreigners, especially foreign Africans, for the flimsiest of reasons. Bamako has seen periodic waves of hysteria around alleged “penis shrinkers” (when they touch you, your penis disappears!); as Jean-Jacques Mandel observed a few years ago, those accused are usually Hausa men from Niger. English-speaking Africans (Liberians, Sierra Leoneans and Nigerians) are frequently suspected of being con artists and thieves. In 2009 and 2010 it was men from Guinea who were most often suspected of criminal activity in Bamako.

Last week the West African regional body ECOWAS took a firm stance (and an unproductive one, I argue) against Mali’s junta, and vowed to send troops to secure Mali’s civilian transitional authorities. The tough ECOWAS position gave Captain Sanogo a convenient hook on which to hang his accusations of outside meddling in Malian affairs. The current ECOWAS chairman, Ivoirian President Alassane Dramane Ouattara, has been leading the anti-junta push, while Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré has been overseeing ECOWAS negotiations with Malian civilian and military representatives. On Monday there were rumors that ECOWAS troops had crossed into Mali’s Sikasso region — which borders on Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire — and were heading to Bamako. These rumors were false. Is it a coincidence that now the “mercenaries” in Bamako are alleged to be from Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, whose governments have suddenly become unpopular here?

Shortly before 18:00 GMT this evening, Mali’s transitional prime minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra addressed the nation on ORTM, his first such address since the fighting began Monday. He talked first in Bamanan, then in French; his spoken Bamanan is eloquent, which is one thing you could never say about ousted president Amadou Toumani Touré. Diarra spoke of an “attempt to destabilize” the country, and said that Mali’s security forces had achieved an “incomplete victory” against these destabilizing forces. He never mentioned foreigners or mercenaries, and he went out of his way to quell certain rumors: no, he said, the AEEM secretary general, wounded Monday, is not dead; no, the CNRDRE is not distributing guns to civilians; no, troops have not occupied the bridges; no, the Bamako airport is not closed. (That last came as a surprise to me, as I’ve heard from several sources that the airport was closed until May 7. Apparently it’s reopened.) Diarra called on people to remain calm, to get back to work, and not to listen to rumors.

To my mind, the foreign mercenary story is just another of these unfounded rumors until we have evidence to the contrary.

Update, 7:00 a.m. GMT, Thursday May 3: Revised estimates I’ve seen of the death toll from this week’s fighting now range between 22 and 150, with some indications that it may yet go higher.  Junta spokesmen are using the foreign mercenary angle to describe the battle that ended Tuesday as well as the ongoing “mopping up” operations both in and around the city. Eliminating mercenaries sounds better to Malian ears than eliminating red-beret paracommandos,  since the latter had been held in high esteem here; just a week ago, they were considered the heroes of the republic, the elite shock troops who would defeat the Tuareg rebels and restore dignity to the nation. Now they’re being hunted down like vermin.

Anything that happens can become fodder for mercenary hysteria. The crash of a small plane flying from Nouakchott to Bamako, piloted by a Frenchman, has been interpreted by some as evidence that foreign mercenaries are being brought into Mali.

Meanwhile, in Côte d’Ivoire, a newspaper allied with former president Laurent Gbagbo is also supporting the hypothesis of “mercenaries” sent to Bamako by President Ouattara. Using the mercenary angle allows Ouattara’s opponents at home to undermine his credentials as a peacemaker and statesman, and fits into a longstanding narrative among Gbagbo supporters arguing that Ouattara only succeeded in ousting Gbagbo from power last year with the help of foreign mercenaries. The Ouattara/mercenary hypothesis is now being picked up in the Malian press along with other manifestations of mercenary hysteria. In terms of its credibility, you can file this narrative with the penis-shrinker stories.

On the positive side, however, I can point to two promising signs on the political scene. One, interim President Dioncounda has stated that he won’t exceed the constitutionally mandated 40-day period in office, and has thereby removed one of the major sticking points in the transition process. Two, the junta is still engaging in dialogue with ECOWAS via the government of Burkina Faso, with whom a five-member CNRDRE delegation had talks Wednesday in Ouagadougou, and junta representatives continue to insist that the recent disturbances will not derail Mali’s transitional institutions.

Update, 14:00 GMT, Thursday May 3: Today has been another enforced day off for me since the daycare center is closed until Monday, May 7. The U.S. Embassy here also remains closed and an appointment I had scheduled there for the 7th has already been canceled due to the security situation.

ORTM television has broadcast a statement by Mali’s new minister of internal security, General Tiéfing Konaté. He stutters so badly, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the man; he clearly needs to find a spokesperson, at least for TV appearances. According to Konaté, yesterday’s panic in Bamako was the result of a false alarm. He says investigations have been launched into the origins of the recent incidents between military personnel as well as the deadly police assault on the university campus that occurred Monday afternoon.

Mali’s state-run newspaper L’Essor has published a fairly thorough account of those inter-military confrontations, including a few new details (e.g., no attempt to arrest airborne regiment commander Abidine Guindo preceded Monday’s actions, but a visiting delegation of junta officials was roughed up at the regiment’s Djicoroni base on Monday afternoon). A report on the Ivoirian news website koaci.com alleges that Malian PM Cheikh Modibo Diarra is frustrated by his powerlessness and apparent marginalization at the hands of the CNRDRE junta.

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39 Responses to Fears, foreigners, and falsehoods

  1. This blog really is fantastic, the quality and depth of commentary have made this my first stop on news from Bamako. Bravo.

  2. Hey Bruce, thanks as always for the news and the commentary. The foreign mercenary talk is very troubling, especially when it is intentionally broadcast. I am in Abidjan (air mali flight back to bamako canceled indefinitely) where many Gbagbo supporters are also running with the foreign mercenary line, having believed ECOWAS did something similar in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011. Some of these stories from the pro-Gbagbo press are showing up on Malian sites. A story from ivoirebusiness.net (http://www.ivoirebusiness.net/?q=node/10621), for example, was picked up on Mali Buzz. These stories often have no named sources and they are written with incredible partiality. I hope that their influence is minimal. Some very ugly scenes happened in Abidjan last year because of this kind of talk.

  3. asil8 says:

    While the PM did his best to calm fears he also asked people to report anything unusual. I disagree with adding to the xenophobia that started well before March 22. We know in other settings the chase after the bogeyman has resulted in innocent people being turned in as terrorists. I’d hate to see the tolerant Mali I know, which has welcomed refugees from all over Africa for years fundamentally change but I’m afraid it’s already too late.

  4. mali muso says:

    Thanks again for continuing to provide commentary and analysis on the situation in Bamako. As an RPCV who was stationed in BKO from 03-05, I particularly appreciate your inclusion of place names and details (like the Artisanat) which really provide context. I used to work just down the street at the Centre National de la Promotion de l’Artisanat (next to the old Sotelma building) and walked that area between the Assemble Nationale and Maison des Artisans countless times. It really is a great spot for watching people and interactions; vibrant fabric colors, the smells of spices and dried fish, the creepy animal parts in the fetish area, Sotramas weaving in and out of the never-ending traffic, parentikes expertly maneuvering their clientele on board and giving the roof a good hit (a gossi!). I loved living on that side of the river and being in the middle of all of the downtown action. Granted, I wish the “action” now was more like it was then. Hope that you will be able to return to discussing the everyday life of Bamako as soon as possible.

  5. AA says:

    I appreciate reading your stories. I get more from one of your posts than all the newspapers taken together. I wish you could post once a day. Merci

  6. Tom van Mourik says:

    Dear Bruce, from the side of town things were far from calm today. A large contingent of 4 tanks, 2 armoured amphibian vehicles (don’t really know what to call them otherwise, over 10 pick-ups with mounted mitrailleurs and many 4×4 vehicles with armed green berets left for the direction of the Kangaba road around noon. Apparently, red berets have a stronghold somewhere there. Later in the afternoon we heard a lot of gunshots from Sebenicoro to Djikoroni and the army held up a road block for some time near the “pont de woyanko”. After 17 h things calmed down and nothing has been heard since.
    Best wishes,
    Tom van Mourik from Sebenicoro

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks Tom – I heard a rumor today that Abidine Guindo (presidential guard commander, whose attempted arrest allegedly touched off the fighting on Monday) was caught somewhere near the Guinea border. Even if it’s untrue, it might indicate that pro-junta forces have been looking for Guindo and his confederates down that way.

      Armored amphibious vehicles? Did they have wheels or tracks? Did they look like this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BTR-70)? Not sure why I care but I do.

  7. cathy says:

    I hope the CAV mystery is revealed one day. I wonder who is putting up the billboards? It’s nice to see the visual arts being used to express how people are feeling.

  8. @aahshuck says:

    the airport is closed due to a problem with the control tower, which they estimate will take until the 7th to fix. this is the official message on NOTAM (notices to airmen).
    thanks for your blog Bruce.

    • @aahshuck says:

      just got further info that NOTAM has another message as of 18:34, stating that the airport has reopened. hopefully commercial flights will resume shortly.

  9. Do you know why and if Orange Ikatel is blocking SMS?

  10. @aahshuck says:

    ESF has sent out the following message:
    Airport Bamako posted the following opening notice

    Please however note that airlines must reorganize their planning to be able to resume normal operations, consequently all scheduled flights may not be available immediately.

    Finally, please note that due to our location, and because of present security concerns, our personnel may not be able to access the office at regular business hours.
    This may cause delays in answering your queries.
    We thank you for your understanding

  11. I ni baara Sekou! I remain glued to your analyses and am always eager to read your newest posts. I’m very curious to know what the feelings are about the current situation in BKO and in the north in the regional capitals, particularly Segou, Koutiala, Sikasso, Bougouni, Mopti, Kayes. Do you have any sense of this? I get the sense that the vast majority of the chaos is concentrated in BKO and in the north, of course, but clearly the whole country is being affected in one way or another. Perhaps the decentralization process has enabled the other regions (at least those that lie outside of the rebel-held north) to better weather the storm underway? I know that much of the success ousting Moussa Traore in 1991 was a result of widespread (albeit clandestine) organizing (largely by student organizations) in the regions. At that time, before the now ubiquitous cell-phones, the whole movement was largely orchestrated via hand-written letters delivered in secret by bus and truck drivers. How times have changed! phone calls, tweets, SMS messages, emails, blogs, facebook, etc.

    I can only imagine the strife in Tombouctou, Gao, and Kidal being experience by the civilian population. I have been meaning to give another call to my contacts in TBK2 and check in on them. Maybe I will get a chance to try calling them tomorrow. If and when I reach them, I will share their feelings and perspectives on this post -anonymously of course – I’d hate to jeopardize anyone’s safety. Speaking of safety, I cannot help but begin to get a bit worried about yours, given the growing popularity of your blog and the climate and fear of suspicion that seems to be growing daily, especially among those clambering to maintain and/or gain power. I certainly hope that you, Oumou, Rokia, and Zachary remain safe, sound, healthy, and as happy as possible in spite of the stressful situation. I beka tiyen min fo, a nafa ka bon kosebe, ani tiyen de ka di Alla ye. O kumana, Allah k’aw kisi kow jugumanw beh ma!

    On a separate note I have been informed that USAID has cancelled a significant number of programs and RFP contract bids. They had been holding off to do so since March in hopes that things might improve, but apparently there are not particularly optimistic right now.

    Be safe and please keep the great reports and insights coming.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      ORTM TV has shown footage of a couple of pro-junta rallies in Segou over the last month (of which there’s also been coverage in private newspapers, e.g. http://www.maliweb.net/news/nation/2012/05/03/article,64193.html), but that’s all I’ve seen from the regions, and unfortunately I don’t have enough contacts outside Bamako to get a sense of what’s going on there politically. Much public and political discourse is now concentrated on the capital, despite the humanitarian tragedy going on up north, and the “champ du pouvoir” in Bamako has been contracting even further. Someone on Malilink recently suggested that the junta is really only interested in keeping control of ORTM, the airport, and its base in Kati; as long as you don’t touch any of those places, they don’t see you as a threat.

  12. Holly L. says:

    As always things are calm where we are in Mali, which we are happy about. Saddened though by a phone call to a Malian friend in Bamako whose sister’s husband is Red Beret, (officer I think). I met him briefly several months ago. In our phone call yesterday she mentioned that he had been “caught” and taken to Kati, (she believes). Again passing on thanks for your blog, we appreciate you taking the time to report. We learn a lot more information from your reporting and the subsequent comments than we do from the mainstream media.

  13. john says:

    Well written. Bruce, what is your take on the find that PM Diarra said, PM Diarra said, “Not all the people who are trying to destabilize this country have been arrested yet,” he said. “Mercenaries are still arriving in fact.” Most folks Malian and international seem to trust what he says more than most in Malian politics currently.

    • john says:

      I don’t believe that the talk of mercenaries is false. The coup was organized by ATT and ECOWAS leaders along with red beret commander and D. Traore’s advice. This will come out in the end.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        Your theory of ECOWAS/Dioncounda collusion with the red berets is certainly plausible, and some Bamako commentators (e.g. http://www.maliweb.net/news/armee/2012/05/03/article,64198.html) are blaming Dioncounda for the ECOWAS hard line. As for the involvement of mercenaries, what evidence do we have? So far claims have come from Capt. Sanogo and the CNRDRE, with no documentary proof or even any staged confessions from supposedly captured mercenaries. Listening to CMD’s remarks in both languages, I only heard him use the vague term “kenema mogow,” people from outside (outside what? The military? Outside Bamako?). My internet connection is currently too slow for me to load the YouTube video and listen again, but I don’t recall him using the word “mercenary” yesterday. And even if he did, we still have only allegations without evidence, and we must remember that framing the problem as Mali-vs.-outsiders serves the interests of the junta. For someone who’s no fan of Capt. Sanogo, you’re quick to accept his narrative of events–or maybe you know something the rest of us don’t?

        I’m not saying mercenary involvement is beyond the realm of possibility. I’m just saying nobody’s offered proof of it yet, and lacking that I choose to remain skeptical. What’s more, I would be very surprised if ATT had any role in fomenting this week’s “counter-coup.” I think what happened was an attempt to settle scores between different army officers and their men. This is the same military, after all, whose elements regularly get into brawls with one another in Bamako whenever police arrest a gendarme, gendarmes arrest a soldier, etc. It’s entirely possible the unrest that began Monday was simply a magnified version of such accrochages, with more and heavier weapons thrown in. See an article in today’s Le Pretoire (http://www.maliweb.net/news/armee/2012/05/03/article,64187.html) for similar interpretations.

      • john says:

        I give it a few days and the truth should come out. I don’t have any special information but the reports seems to add up from my analysis that this counter coup was a botched joint effort between: D. Traore, ECOWAS, beret rouge, ATT, and perhaps some junta members close to Sanogo. Nobody nows anything for sure. Let’s wait and see how things turn out.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        Here’s a news item that supports my theory of what happened earlier this week: http://www.slateafrique.com/86723/mali-des-berets-rouges-racontent-leur-30-avril-junte-bamako

      • john says:

        Give it time Bruce. It will come out eventually. Here is a link:

        Why do you think ECOWAS backed off of Mali suddenly saying troops only deployed if Mali wants them? It’s because they were embarrassed by the counter coup failure that they were part of. I’m sure they asked Sanogo not to talk about it publicly for PR purposes of ECOWAS.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        I think Malian ISPs are still instructed to block “pro-Tuareg” sites like Toumast and kidal.info, because here in Bamako I can never load pages from either of them.

        In this part of the world, the truth has a way of never coming out. I hope that it does but I’m not optimistic; all we usually get is more layers of disinformation, falsehood and confusion. Postcolonial African history is always written with a great deal of conjecture.

        As for ECOWAS, I suspect it backed off because no government wants to commit troops to a hostile environment where they can do little good. Once it became clear that the junta wouldn’t be isolated on this issue, sending troops to Mali became militarily dangerous and politically unsound.

      • john says:

        You make an decent alternative case. Also, as you said, time may never tell as too often is the case in this region.

  14. senemali says:

    Hi Bruce,
    maybe “C.A.V.” is referring to “Coordination des associations victimes du Programme d’ajustement structurel au Mali (CAV/PAS)”, but I’m not sure if this makes sense.
    Anyway, thank you for your blog. It’s a great contribution in the jungle of information.
    Take care
    Conny (Bamako 2008-11)

  15. Bruce,
    Greetings from a fellow Carleton alum (Class of 2005)! I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts and the many nuggets of information you’ve given us on the unfolding situation on the ground. One thing that’s starting to occur to me is that ECOWAS appears to have no teeth in its dealings with the CNRDRE. Does that mean that the ECOWAS approach is not appropriate for dealing with them, that it may ultimately fall to civil society to get them to return to the barracks? I can’t get a good sense of the balance of support for/opposition to the CNRDRE, but do you think there’s a threshold the junta will cross that would get the population to apply pressure on them?

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      For now I’d say the junta still has significant popular support at least in Bamako, strong enough for it to withstand pressure from both Malian civil society and ECOWAS. Many ordinary Bamakois have zero faith not only in their political class but in their political institutions too, which in their view have never served the people’s needs. Hence the idea of throwing out the whole state apparatus and starting over from scratch is something they find appealing. Especially after the events of this week, and given that nobody here supports an ECOWAS intervention, it won’t be easy to sideline Captain Sanogo in the weeks and months to come.

      I do think, however, that there are two interrelated sources of pressure on the junta now from the population. One, Malians are starting to get the impression that junta leaders are uninterested in addressing pressing national problems, and are only concerned with shoring up their own power. Two, Malians are growing impatient with the junta’s lack of action in addressing Mali’s de facto partition. The army’s primary responsibility is to protect the nation’s territorial integrity, yet since early April it has been exclusively focused on protecting the junta and arresting its enemies. If these trends continue, the CNRDRE will find itself in trouble.

      • youssoufj says:

        Excellent points Bruce…The Malians are not sleeping and as I said before, a guy like Sanogo can not withstand the people once they are deceived by him. In ’91 people took bullets for change and they can just do it again without issue. The junta knows something: a single malian killed is nothing but killer own brother, or distant cousin…We all know each other and what link us is more important than what is dividing us today. Within a couple a days, Sanogo will not have anything to do because he has already arrested all “arrestable” guys. So he will have to find an occupation which has to be miles away from politics.
        For one I am really happy by Dionkounda’s action today in Dakar and Malians will thank him for that.

  16. Molly says:

    Hi Bruce,

    One of Cherif’s students here from this past winter. I know we’re all following your blog closely as we think about Mali and our families, and we’re grateful for your continued, thoughtful insight and your dedicated reporting!

    I don’t know if you’ve investigated the “C.A.V.” signs more, but I spoke to my host family about them, and it apparently stands for “comité action vérité” – no word yet on exactly what that means. The image “veut dire que le nord pleure et que le sud se pose des questions”. I apparently have some host family members involved in the organization, so I will try to find out more!

    Thanks again for all that you write, and stay safe!

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Hi Molly – thanks for this useful info. I will look into the C.A.V. as well. It’s really unusual for civil society groups that aren’t political parties to use outdoor advertising around here….

      BTW I met your host dad a few days before the coup at the Nat’l Assembly. We had a fascinating discussion.

      • Molly says:


        I haven’t found out much more about C.A.V., but it apparently belongs to 15 “jeunes” with their own business(es?) and it aims to help Mali through the “crisis” by working together, asking questions and finding solutions. Pretty vague, but if my family does get involved I’m sure I’ll hear more about it.

        Yes, I remember you approaching him at our final dance performance. He worked a lot but I really valued the few long conversations I was able to have with him – he has a lot of great insight to offer on a broad range of topics! I’m glad to hear you got a chance to meet him.

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