I have tremendous admiration for Salif Keita, who for decades has reigned as the Malian singer best known to Western ears. His recordings, concerts, and activism have made him famous all over the world. With a career dating back to the 1960s, the man has an incredible backstory. Having released what he calls his final album earlier this year, this eminence grise is spending his twilight years in Bamako helping Mali’s young artists.
And, as of now, making political statements.
In this short recording, Keita addresses Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as “IBK,” and no relation to him). In familiar but respectful language–the singer addresses his president in Manding as kɔ̀rɔ, “elder brother”–he says he’s not seeking money or power, he’s just a Malian who loves his country. “But you know well,” he tells IBK, “that Macron, France, is sending people to kill Malians. It’s not the jihadists at all. They’re spreading false rumors about jihad, but there are no jihadists in the north. France is paying people to wreak havoc, to kill Malians. The cream of our youth is being killed.” Keita implores IBK to stop conspiring with the French and to put Mali’s welfare ahead of his own. He adds darkly that it would be better for IBK to leave power of his own accord than to be chased from power.
The notion that Mali’s grave and gathering insecurity stems not from militant jihadists but from French neocolonialism is not some fringe conspiracy theory in Mali. It’s been around in different forms for years, propagated for example by Muslim leaders with their own agendas. Mahmoud Dicko, the longstanding figurehead of Malian political Islam, blamed violence in the country’s central and northern regions earlier this year on “invisible, obscure forces that are planning to destabilize the entire subregion” (see video below).
Mali’s intellectuals have made similar interpretations of recent events. Professor Isaa N’diaye, a lion of Mali’s nationalist left, has raised the possibility that massacres of entire villages in the Mopti region–acts framed in the international media as perpetrated by local militias fueled by ethnic antagonism–were actually carried out by “foreign mercenaries.” The foreign mercenary is a recurring bogeyman in the Malian political imagination, and N’diaye’s analysis fits into a long history of anti-colonialist discourse in the Malian press and intelligentsia.
As brazen attacks against Malian army garrisons in the north have multiplied (most recently in Indelimane, in the Menaka region, where over 50 government troops are believed killed in a strike claimed by an ISIS affiliate), interpretations like these have become increasingly generalized among Malians, from Muslim activists to members of the francophone elite to ordinary people. Street demonstrations in Bamako and Sévaré have denounced France’s alleged role in stoking the deadly violence and called on Barkhane, the French military force in the region, to leave–along with UN peacekeepers and troops of the regional G5 Sahel security force.
As an anthropologist, I feel a certain duty to shore up my own anti-colonialist credentials. I am no supporter of France’s self-interested policies in Africa. Mali and its neighbors would be better off today if they had never been colonized. Successive French regimes have certainly contributed to the Sahel’s problems over the past several years, most notably through their involvement in ousting Qaddafi in 2011, then their decision to destroy armed jihadists in Mali while ignoring (and, occasionally, partnering with) armed separatists in the country.
Yet the argument that Mali has no jihadist problem, that all its woes stem from imperialist interference, and that the country would be just fine if France would only leave it in peace (see Mahmoud Dicko’s interview above), strikes me as a refusal to confront the internal problems that have sapped the Malian state since independence nearly six decades ago and have pushed a growing segment of its population into open revolt. As long as Mali’s intellectuals, religious leaders, and artists continue to frame their country’s crisis as purely or even primarily exogenous, this crisis will persist.
Denial, the saying goes, ain’t just a river in Egypt. These days it flows through Mali from end to end. And it finds confluence with a current of public frustration and despair the likes of which the country has not seen since 2012–the last time a Malian president was chased from power.