Here in Bamako we’re in waiting mode while negotiations drag on over who will be the country’s president during the transition period to new elections. The CNRDRE junta’s recent call for a “national convention” on the matter appears to have fallen flat, and even its bid to convoke a closed-door meeting of diplomats has been called off, in part due to U.S. unwillingness to legitimize the junta by engaging with it. We understand that several prominent members of Bamako’s diplomatic community met at the U.S. embassy here on Thursday, shortly before the CNRDRE’s gathering was supposed to take place. It has also come to light that the junta has begun issuing diplomatic passports, signed by junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, to some of its members. Refusing to grant a visa to an applicant bearing one such document, officials at the local French consulate pointed out that only Mali’s minister of foreign affairs can authorize Malian diplomatic passports.
In another sign of the junta’s growing importance on the national stage, one of Mali’s most senior religious figures, the Chérif of Nioro, paid a private visit to Captain Sanogo on Thursday. The Chérif, head of the Hamalliyya brotherhood, is a man whose word carries a great deal of weight in this region. This was no mere social call; the Chérif does not make the 350-km trip from Nioro to Kati lightly. We’ve heard some speculation that he came to persuade Sanogo not to provoke the wrath of the international community, to avoid persisting in his opposition to a renewed mandate for current interim president Dioncounda Traoré, and not to seek the presidency himself. If this was indeed the Chérif’s mission, some expect that he could succeed where ECOWAS, UN and other emissaries failed. Others think former president Moussa Traoré could serve that role. But given the junta’s obstinacy so far, these could simply be false hopes.
Lately I’ve noticed a recurring pattern of rumors alleging that shadowy forces have been trying to provoke an uprising against the junta. One rumor interprets the panic that swept Bamako on May 2, when students reportedly heard that Hammadoun Traoré, wounded two days before, had died. These reports were untrue, and many now say they were circulated by unnamed politicians linked to the ancien régime of deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré. The goal, by this interpretation, was to get students into the streets, where they would be fired upon by hidden mercenaries (hired by the politicians), thus unleashing a mass uprising that would topple the junta.
This rumor is often paired with a second one concerning an event that took place 21 years ago: the popular uprising that ousted President Moussa Traoré from power. While Traoré was later tried and convicted for having ordered his troops to fire on unarmed protesters, killing over 300, the rumor circulating now is that mercenaries (perhaps sent by the French) actually did the shooting.
When one group in a conflict poses as partisans of the other side, either to infiltrate or discredit its enemies, this is called a “false flag” operation. Stories of false flags abound in Mali these days. Speaking to the BBC, for example, a Tuareg member of the MNLA rebel movement alleges that the human right abuses — killing, raping and looting — of which his group has been frequently accused over the past two months have in fact been perpetrated by non-rebels flying the MNLA flag on their vehicles. (This is the only false flag story I’ve come across here that involves actual flags.)
According to popular imagination here, politics is a surreal, contorted web of lies. Nothing is what it appears to be, and the real motivations for events are always hidden from view. This imagination feeds into the widespread mistrust, even hatred, of politicians at several levels of society. So extreme is this antipathy that rumors circulated in early February, several days after dozens of Malian soldiers were massacred at Aguel Hoc, that President Touré had actually ordered the massacre — i.e., that the rebellion itself was Touré’s own false-flag operation. (The thinking here was that by inciting a civil war, Touré would be able to remain in office after his constitutional mandate expired this year.) One recurring story is that Malian troops recovered a satellite phone from Tuareg rebels and that the most recent call had been received from Touré. In early February, these rumors helped fuel protests in Kati and Bamako against Touré’s rule, foreshadowing the mutiny that would drive him from power several weeks later.
If you’ve followed this blog for very long, you know it’s my nature to be skeptical, and as a social scientist I find this disposition suits me well in my work. Conspiracy theories most often turn out to be unfounded; not all flags are false; sometimes things are merely what they appear to be. (This isn’t a statement I often articulate to my Malian friends, most of whom would find it hopelessly naive.) While the rumors themselves are interesting analytically, they are also a big part of Mali’s current problem: when a population lacks education and critical insight, it is vulnerable to all kinds of misinformation. The coup in March could not have taken place in an atmosphere where ordinary citizens refused to believe rumors.
“The truth will come out eventually,” people keep repeating. “History will judge.” (Sanogo himself has said this many times, referring to the crimes allegedly committed by Touré and his government.) But that’s the sad thing — the truth may never come out. Instead of cutting through the layers of rumor and innuendo, we’ll just get new layers added on top. Malians will remain in the thrall of the wildest forms of speculation about their leaders’ actions and intentions. None of which can be good for democracy.