How France lost Mali… and the Sahel

“The French military, suffused with colonial ideology and stuck in obsolete schemas of the ‘War on Terror,’ is incapable of correctly analyzing the situation. Caught between French decision-makers unwilling to lose face and African leaders shirking their responsibilities, it is multiplying mistakes and abuses.”

Thus reads a passage (like all passages quoted here, it’s my translation from the original French) at the beginning of Le Mirage Sahélien by French journalist Rémi Carayol. Having covered the Sahel region for over a decade, the author has a clear vantage point on France’s military intervention there. While the early chapters focus on the French government’s dishonest justifications of Operation Serval (2013-2014), the book’s most valuable contribution is its analysis of the many flaws that condemned Operation Barkhane (2014-2022) to failure.

Of these, three hold special prominence. The first is the rigidity with which French politicians and military commanders alike framed the operation (initially in Mali, and then throughout the region) within the logic of the “global war on terror.” Buying into the twin discourses of counterterrorist doctrine and the “clash of civilizations,” policymakers in Paris and commanders on the ground wound up getting entangled in their very own forever war against a poorly understood enemy.

The Sahel’s “terrorists,” Carayol contends, are “largely a fantasy, the reflection of French elites’ buried anxieties and desires.” Combatants in jihadi groups like JNIM or EIGS are driven less by religious ideology than by local agendas and grievances. Yet French leaders persist in seeing them as bent on the destruction of French civilization and values. Crowding out nuance and any possibility of negotiation, this perspective has ensured the primacy of military over political considerations throughout the French policy apparatus in the region. Sensitive matters such as the schedule of Mali’s 2013 elections came to be dictated not by conditions on the ground in Mali, nor even by the French foreign ministry, but by defense planners in Paris. With France’s civilian politicians failing to ask hard questions of their military counterparts, the French armed forces doubled down on their losing strategy, escalating the use of armed drones throughout the Sahel and replicating the Pentagon’s “lawn-mowing” counterterrorism approach in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A second and arguably more important flaw consists of the neocolonial reflexes that have pervaded France’s actions in Africa since well before 2013. These reflexes have been apparent at every level of the policy apparatus. At the bottom, Carayol documents many French officers’ troubling and uncritical obsession with their forces’ colonial history. “While it is long past, the ‘blessed’ time of the colonies remains firmly rooted in officers’ memories,” he writes. In the middle, he exposes the veneer of multilateralism which French officials have used to mask their own political and military over-investment in the region: the G5 Sahel, Task Force Takuba, the EU Training Mission, even the UN response to Mali’s crisis all bear French policymakers’ imprint. At the top, Carayol lambastes French presidents’ tone-deaf public statements and their imperious treatment of their African peers.

While its critique of French policy is blistering, this book also shuns the common myths of French master plans to loot the Sahel’s minerals, destabilize its governments, or occupy its territory ad infinitum. It would be more accurate to say that France has no master plan: under two different presidents, it has stumbled blindly from crisis to crisis in the region. From Carayol’s perspective, neocolonialism lies less in France’s motives than in its enduring assumptions. In lieu of a long-term strategy, this book documents a series of ad hoc decisions made by a succession of civilian politicians and military commanders whose instincts were tainted by ethnocentrism and paternalism, sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit. The author describes French officials’ overarching error as believing “that they could help to rebuild a state using their own timetable, largely defined by military objectives, and their own conception of res publica–a secular, centralized state with representative democracy–without taking into account the political dynamics, socioeconomic shocks, cultural realities, and especially Malians’ expectations.”

So if French officials weren’t after Mali’s natural resources, what were they after? In a word, relevance–which brings us to the third major flaw of French intervention in the Sahel. For years, Carayol writes, “France has been obsessed with the risk of being ‘downgraded’ in the community of nations and is doing everything to ‘keep its place’ as a ‘great power.’” Deploying troops to Mali in 2013 demonstrated that France could still project power and play a role in managing conflicts around the globe. This demonstration seemed to justify France’s contested permanent seat on the UN Security Council, re-legitimized the French military in the eyes of foreign governments and French parliamentarians, and headed off severe cuts to defense spending. (In 2016, I wrote that initial French accounts of Operation Serval similarly tried to use the deployment to make the case that France and its military mattered in the global order.) They didn’t intervene in Mali because they had to but because they could. Partner governments and international organizations deferred to what they perceived as France’s incontestable “expertise” in its former colonies. One can hope, particularly given the events of the past year, that such deference won’t be forthcoming in the future.

A toxic combination of ideological inflexibility, colonial impulses, and ulterior political motives emanating from Paris gradually turned public opinion against French troops and French policies in the Sahel. These internal contradictions, not Russian disinformation, doomed Barkhane and prompted military rulers and ordinary citizens alike to reject continued French presence in their countries–Mali in 2022, Burkina Faso in 2023. To Carayol, France’s war against terrorism will never be winnable, even in its latest revision. Since Barkhane’s official end and the transfer of French bases from Mali to Niger last year, France’s military operations in the Sahel have continued with no sign that French leaders have learned from past mistakes. Until they do, all we can expect from their efforts is more drone strikes, more insecurity, and more public backlash.

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Who’s getting Mali’s gold?

For the past few years, Mali’s industrial gold production (as reported by the Malian government in various press outlets) has been trending upward:

Industrial gold production in Mali (tonnes)

This is surely good news: add rising production levels to the climbing value of gold on world markets and you have a growing benefit to the Malian economy and the Malian treasury. Mali has become Africa’s third-largest gold producer and is ranked sixteenth globally. Gold is by far Mali’s most valuable export, accounting for some three-quarters of official export earnings in 2019.

“Industrial production” of Malian gold comes from large mines operated by transnational firms like Barrick, Randgold, or Resolute. These companies invest massive capital to extract ore from the ground, usually from huge open pits. Together, they account for the vast majority of Mali’s annual gold production. “Artisanal gold production,” which has consistently shown up in government estimates as a paltry six tonnes per year, has been a sideshow in which desperate, pick- and shovel-wielding local men scratch around for anything too insignificant for the big players.

Or at least that’s what I used to think. But what if industrial production is actually the sideshow in Mali’s gold exports?

The above report by France 24 shows that a great deal more gold comes out of Mali than those official production figures suggest. Much of Mali’s artisanal gold is smuggled out of the country, while at the same time Mali has also become a transshipment point for gold smuggled from neighboring states (Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone…). This clandestine activity turns out to have been an open secret since the early 2000s, and its scale can be glimpsed even in official trade figures.

Consider the statistics on the UN Comtrade Database, which reveal enormous disparities between the amount of gold the Malian government has reported exporting and the amount reported as imported by authorities of the United Arab Emirates (which has become a leading and controversial destination of African gold). In 2019, the most recent year with figures from both countries, Mali claimed to export just over half a tonne of gold to the UAE, while the UAE reported nearly 81 tonnes of imported Malian gold. To put that figure in perspective, that disparity amounts to more than Mali’s industrial gold production that year (about 65 tonnes). That extra gold was worth over US$3 billion at 2019 values, none of which wound up in Malian state coffers. And the Mali-UAE gold trade is ramping up: in 2021 (a year for which Mali has not yet reported figures in the database), Emirati officials reported a whopping 174 tonnes of gold from Mali, nearly triple the amount of Malian industrial production that year.

According to a 2019 Reuters report, many other African countries share this problem of wide gaps between the gold exports they register and the imports logged in Dubai. But Mali’s gap seems to be the widest:

Source: Reuters

(Authorities in gold-importing countries have reported a wide range of numbers. Switzerland, the second biggest importer of Malian gold according to Mali government figures, shows almost no disparity between Malian exports and Swiss imports in the Comtrade database. South Africa, destination of $1.3 billion worth of Malian gold in 2019 alone as reported by Mali, has reported no Malian gold imports to the database since 2002! Meanwhile, France has been a marginal player, importing a cumulative 2.2 tonnes between 1994 and 2019.)

Wait, if Mali’s artisanal production is only six tonnes per year, where is all that additional gold coming from? Those estimates of artisanal production must be way off: Reuters estimated in 2016 that artisanal gold accounted for not a tenth but a third of Mali’s national production, and cautioned that the actual share could be even greater. The France 24 estimate puts it closer to half of Malian production, or about 60 tonnes, which is ten times the government’s guess. Those 174 tonnes of gold the Emiratis reported in 2021 had a declared value of $7.3 billion. Unregistered exports at anything near those levels constitute a huge amount of capital flight, taking place under the noses of Malian authorities. If the central government were able to collect its three-percent export tax on all that gold, it would gain hundreds of millions of dollars to spend every year on defense or social programs.

Apart from its contribution to the state treasury, gold production doesn’t contribute much to Mali’s formal economy. It recruits most of its skilled workers abroad, generates little employment locally, and in general confers few benefits. Artisanal mining at least creates jobs in the communities where it takes place (an estimated three million such jobs in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire), though many are held by immigrants from neighboring countries. As long as the state doesn’t regulate or tax artisanal mining properly, this sector represents an enormous loss to the national economy. Supporting a strong and effective Malian state means supporting measures to monitor artisanal gold production and tax its exports, as well as to regulate the labor and environmental conditions at artisanal mines.

Finally there’s the problem of who’s profiting from those artisanal mines. In the France 24 report above, aerial footage of one artisanal mine in the Gao region makes the point that artisanal mining does not necessarily mean “small-scale” or unorganized. The site in question, replete with heavy equipment, has been completely outside Malian government control for years, and both separatist rebels and jihadi groups have been taking a cut of its revenue.

Mali’s industrial producers are by no means off the hook. Reports by Mali’s Verificateur Général in recent years have uncovered financial irregularities in the operations of the big mining firms, and the Malian government has announced plans to audit the mining sector. But all those irregularities add up to a few million dollars in any given year–a paltry sum, considering all that gold that’s vanishing from the country. Concentrating on fixing the irregularities in the industrial mining sector while ignoring the hemorrhaging of national wealth from artisanal gold would be like closing the window on the barn while leaving the barn door wide open.

Postscript, January 2023: I have published an expanded article on this topic in the winter issue of MERIP.

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The mirage of Malian democracy

Today marks 33 years since Mali embarked on its transition from single-party authoritarian rule to multiparty democracy. Many of us observing events in the country have presumed that throughout its two decades of multiparty, democratic rule beginning in the early 1990s, the Malian state commanded unprecedented political legitimacy. We believed that Malian people generally saw the elected regimes of Presidents Alpha Oumar Konaré (1992-2002) and Amadou Toumani Touré (2002-2012), despite their obvious flaws, as far more legitimate than their single-party predecessors had been. And we saw the military coup that ousted Touré, almost exactly a decade ago, as a sudden calamity ushering in a profound political crisis for the country.

But what if Malians have, for the most part, never seen their postcolonial state as legitimate? What if the Malian state has been suffering not from a post-2012 “crisis” of political legitimacy but instead from a chronic failure to generate legitimacy, a failure dating back to French colonial rule? What if, moreover, most of us have never adequately understood what “legitimacy” means, or how to measure it? These are among the provocative questions raised in anthropologist Dorothea Schulz’s latest book, Political Legitimacy in Postcolonial Mali.

I have tremendous admiration for Schulz and her research which, beginning in the late 1980s, has ranged across Mali’s western, southern, and central regions, in locales from Kayes to San. Her output, touching on everything from griot praise to media to gender to Islamic reformism, has been prolific and immensely valuable to my own scholarly work. (A search of her name on Google Scholar finds dozens of journal articles, at at least four previous books; these works make her the most frequently appearing author in the bibliography of my forthcoming book on marriage and gender in contemporary Mali.)

Political Legitimacy in Postcolonial Mali is not for casual readers. It is a challenging, theoretically rich work of ethnography. In attempting to define legitimacy and understand how it is constructed, the book undertakes a sophisticated exploration of political philosophy and theories of the African state. It faults quite a few Western scholars (myself included) for overlooking the nuances of Malian political thought, and for too readily believing Malian political elites when they spoke to us about their country’s experiment with pluralism. Peasant farmers in Kita, Schulz shows, were always highly suspicious of those elites, and for good reason. From the early 1990s onward, the Malian state may have changed its outward form from authoritarianism to formal democracy, but it remained a fundamentally extractive entity. True pluralism was never on the elites’ agenda.

Schulz unpacks her rural informants’ perceptions of modern politics (politiki, in Bambara). They tended to contrast politiki with fanga, the exercise of power associated with an unspecified precolonial political order “to which they attributed a greater stability and continuity,” she writes in the first chapter. Modern politics has come to be quite poorly viewed during the decades since independence. Peasants see the state as a neglectful father, and modern politics is the name for that father’s neglect. “Politiki stands for a disrupted social order,” Schulz asserts, “in which the family head no longer ensures family continuity by nurturing his children in exchange for their labour.” While politicians in this postcolonial order claim to act for the public interest using the rules of legality and bureaucratic procedure, people understand them to be serving their own personal interests.

Viewed through the eyes of these peasants, the trajectory of the Malian state during the 1990s and early 2000s is not an upward climb toward greater accountability and effectiveness. It is one of decreasing central authority, heightened uncertainty about where power actually resided, and ultimately the intensification of local conflicts (over access to land, resources, and power) and the multiplication of contenders for authority. The government in Bamako has “lost its teeth,” they conclude, amid bungled, donor-driven attempts to decentralize its authority and increasing corruption by the educated elites ostensibly in charge of state “reform.” Well before the 2012 coup, rural dwellers were utterly disenchanted with democracy’s broken promises.

I particularly appreciated Schulz’s chapter on Islamic renewal and the challenge it poses to state secularism in Mali. Her primary focus here is not Mahmoud Dicko, whose Islamist politics have gotten plenty of attention from Western journalists, but the charismatic preacher Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara and his movement’s softer brand of Islamism. Haïdara’s Sufi-oriented message has resonated with a great many Malians (see Andre Chappatte’s 2018 article), and while he claims not to be political, Schulz points out that he becomes political whenever he contrasts himself to Mali’s politicians–which he often does.

Schulz’s book makes a compelling case for the need to understand and engage with local constructions of politics and legitimacy. Despite its limitations (an overreliance on the perspectives of senior males, and a complete omission of relevant survey data–most notably the Afrobarometer surveys), it offers a bracing, far-reaching analysis of Mali’s postcolonial state. It could very well change how you think about politics.

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Betting big on sovereignty

In ordering French troops to quit Malian soil “without delay,” Mali’s transitional authorities are making a high-stakes wager.

Their bet seems to be that whatever price the evacuation of Operation Barkhane imposes on Malians in the short term, it will be more than offset by the free hand the government will gain to set its own security policy and control its own territory. This is a risky bet, and the challenges ahead are many.

Without accompaniment (or interference, depending on your perspective) by French and other foreign troops, Malian soldiers must quell the jihadi insurgency ravaging the country’s northern and central regions. Given a free hand and Russian support, perhaps they can force the jihadis to the bargaining table. The Malian government has mulled such talks for years but France always opposed them (falling back on the “no negotiating with terrorists” mantra). If and when negotiations happen, Mali’s 62-year-old doctrine of state secularism could become a bargaining chip: establishing Islamic law is the jihadis’ top demand. Are Malian politicians willing to put laïcité on the table?

At the time time, the government must begin the long-delayed overhaul of state institutions and map out an eventual return to civilian rule. Ordinary Malians have little faith in Mali’s previous, nominally democratic system to deliver anything but more of the same – corruption, lack of opportunity, and rising inequality.

This process of refondation must also entail addressing demands by restive Tuareg groups. Since the Algiers Accord was signed in 2015, there’s been very little progress in resolving longstanding disagreements over the concentration of state power and how best to represent Tuareg communities (particularly the trouble-making, high-status clans) within the national political framework. This deadlock was the subject of a recent meeting in Rome.

Economically speaking, the Malian government may need to find new partners abroad. 50% of its budget has been funded by donors, largely the European Union and EU member states. If these donors curtail or reduce their aid, as some have already done, will any others (perhaps emerging partners like Turkey and Iran) step in to fill the void? Or will Malian authorities seek a new business model less dependent on foreign largess?

The last several months have been incredibly eventful in Mali and the region (see timeline above). I could scarcely have imagined this series of developments just a year and a half ago (Mali expelled whose ambassador? Mali kicked out whose military force?). After a series of coups and a dramatic rebalancing of international alliances throughout West Africa, the international liberal project of market-driven policy reforms and democratic elections is looking like it’s on life support, a victim partly of the low ebb in Franco-African relations and partly of its own contradictions. If the liberalism project dies, what might replace it?

These are all daunting challenges, even without mentioning looming threats from climate change, food insecurity, or demographic pressure. The most hopeful sign, however, is that Mali’s transitional authorities seem to have found a new national narrative to replace the “good pupil of liberalism” narrative that fell apart a decade ago. Undoubtedly, Mali lost the plot under the late President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. There was no compelling story to unite the population or mobilize public support. Standing up to France and the “international community” (the US, EU, UN, ECOWAS, and other pillars of the liberal post-Cold War order) has become a huge source of pride for many in Mali, not to mention elsewhere. “The Mali that can say no,” that sacrifices old exploitative alliances in hopes of securing more equitable ones, projects a renewed sense of national purpose. It prompts its citizens to consider the sacrifices they can make in turn.

It has been inspiring to watch Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop tell this story on Mali’s behalf to the world. Where most of his predecessors maintained low profiles, he has chosen to take his government’s case about the necessity of asserting sovereignty to a global audience. Not content with frequenting the usual media outlets (RFI, France 24) alone, he recently gave an extended interview to Al Jazeera (English and Arabic). He struck an effective balance between diplomatic restraint and passionate defense of his government’s plans.

These are dangerous but heady times. Previously all-but-unthinkable prospects are beginning to materialize. Could Mali abandon the CFA Franc zone (as it did once before, during the 1960s)? If it does, will other West African states follow its lead? What would it mean for the Malian government to forge relations with governments of the Global North (including the French government) on equitable terms — with respect for national sovereignty as the first imperative, and with Mali being more than a theater where superpowers demonstrate their political and military clout, or a laboratory for European armies to test their counter-insurgency tactics?

Perhaps this new phase of Franco-African relations and its prospects for transformation will prove short-lived. Perhaps hopes for a new postcolonial dispensation are unrealistic. But I, for one, fervently hope that Mali’s gamble for sovereignty pays off.

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Making Mali great again?

Or, The Mali that can say “No”

A dramatic shift has been taking shape in Mali, and two recent events suggest that it is now irreversible.

One: the massive rallies in Bamako and dozens of other cities and towns throughout the country (as well as in the Malian diaspora) on Friday, 14 January. The last gatherings this large helped precipitate a coup and led to the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (who died today at age 76). This time, however, the motive was different. These gatherings were officially a display of national unity in the face of ECOWAS economic sanctions. Unofficially, they underscored broad public support for Mali’s transitional government (echoing polls late last year)–and showed that a great many Malians are fed up with France, the UN, and ECOWAS. Watching untold thousands of fellow citizens joining together, many rally participants said that they’d never been prouder of their country.

Bamako, Place de l’Indépendance, 14 January 2022 (RFI photo)

Two: the day after the rallies, Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga gave an interview on Malian state television. In the course of 80 free-flowing minutes, he listed the priorities for his transitional government, framing them as demands that “the people” had expressed (notably through the recent Assises Nationales de la Refondation):

  • Restoring security
  • Fighting corruption and impunity
  • Establishing the infrastructure necessary to make elections transparent and credible
  • Reforming national laws and institutions
  • Implementing the peace accord “in a smart way” (i.e., without partitioning the country)

If this list is unremarkable (who could oppose any of these priorities?), Maïga’s populist tone was more significant: he evoked “the people” constantly, and in a way that I haven’t heard a Malian official do since the previous junta in 2012. It was a textbook display of populism marked by three primary fixations.

First, past greatness. “Mali is a land of dignity. It is a land with a long history. It is a land in which Africa recognizes itself,” Maïga said. Resistance to outside interference is a major part of that history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to the prime minister, it took French military forces 38 years to complete their conquest of the territory that eventually became Mali–far longer than they needed to conquer other parts of the continent. “We are not a people that can be made into vassals, that can be enslaved by proxy–and that is what is happening today,” Maïga stated. After independence, Mali became a pillar of regional cooperation, helping establish ECOWAS itself in 1975 (“ECOWAS was born in Mali,” he claimed).

Second, in contrast to this glorious history, present grievance and national humiliation. “Today we’ve become the sick man, the laughingstock of the region,” Maïga lamented to his interviewer. Describing his government’s negotiations with ECOWAS, he claimed that Mali had been constantly disrespected and treated “like a less-than-nothing.” He made repeated references to the humiliation he said Mali’s people had been subjected to.

Third, threats posed by external forces. Maïga characterized the crisis and conflict that Mali has endured for the past 10 years as something “imposed on us.” And he was far more direct than any previous Malian leader in identifying France as the primary culprit. After Maïga referred to ECOWAS as a puppet of a certain non-African power, the interviewer prodded him to be more specific. The prime minister went on to accuse France of inciting Tuareg separatists against Mali, and of using the fight against terrorism as a pretext to destabilize the country and its government. This is the real aim of ECOWAS sanctions, he claimed: “When we look closely, we see that the goal of these sanctions is the destabilization of the Malian state. There is no doubt.”

Allegations of French recolonization loomed large in the interview. Around the 48 minute mark, Maïga cited a book by French journalist Laurent Larcher. “This will send a chill down your spine,” he said before paraphrasing a French general: “We came here 100 years ago. We left 60 years ago. We have come back for 100 years,” the general supposedly told his troops in 2016. “Draw your own conclusions,” the prime minister said.

Chilling words, indeed–only the actual quote doesn’t read quite as the prime minister remembered. In Au Nom de la France ? Les Non-Dits de Notre Diplomatie (2018), Larcher records General Patrick Brethous, Operation Barkhane’s commander, as saying, “We came 100 years ago, and we left 50 years ago. They [Africans] called us back two years ago. We are back here, with them and behind them, for a while [pour un moment]!”

I used to have arguments with people (mostly Malians) about this sort of thing. I would have built upon Maïga’s misquotation to contend that France lacked the sinister intent that they attributed to it. I repeatedly made similar arguments over the years on this blog.

After last week’s rallies, however, I don’t see the point of such arguments anymore. It matters little whether the general said “pour 100 ans” or “pour un moment” (or even “pour longtemps,” as Brethous reportedly said on another occasion). Outcomes outweigh intentions: France has had troops in Mali for nine years now, and things keep getting worse. Prime Minister Maïga makes some dubious assertions, but as he evokes the sort of conspiracies that his predecessors avoided talking about in public, a lot of Malians appear to be backing him. France having lost the information war in Mali, as I pointed out recently, I don’t see how it can become a trusted partner. It’s hard to imagine a Malian leader ever again allowing (let alone inviting) France to take a major role in Mali–whether in military, political, or economic affairs. That era is over, and few Malians will regret its passing.

Map source: José Luengo-Cabrera

For nearly a decade, Maïga noted, insecurity has ratcheted up in Mali despite the international community’s presence–or perhaps, he implied, because of it. Without exactly denying rumors about Wagner Group mercenaries, he cast his government’s Russia embrace pragmatically: “I don’t care if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice,” he said, quoting Deng Xiaoping.

I doubt that Russian cats will prove good mouse-catchers in Mali. But what if real sovereignty means the freedom to make one’s own mistakes, and to say “No” to whomever one wishes?

Postscript, 17 January: Statistician Sidiki Guindo surveyed 1345 Bamako residents between 14 and 16 January on their attitudes toward Mali’s transitional government, ECOWAS sanctions, France, Russia, and many other questions. Download the full results:

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Cherchez la France: Mali’s complex postcolonial identity

There’s an old French expression cherchez la femme–literally, “look for the woman.” In the 1850s, novelist Alexandre Dumas used this phrase to convey his sense that whatever tensions or conflicts arose between people, somewhere at the root of them would be a woman. It’s subsequently become something of a literary cliche in multiple languages, particularly in detective fiction–a rather sexist counterpart to the more recent dramatic and journalistic adage, “follow the money.” Such phrases’ reductionist perspective suggests that however complex a situation might appear, it really boils down to a single underlying cause. In the 1930s, during fieldwork among the cattle-herding Nuer people of southern Sudan, British anthropologist E. E. Evans Pritchard adapted the phrase cherchez la vache, describing it as “the best advice that can be given to those whose duty is to understand a Nuer’s behaviour.”

As a shortcut to understanding Mali’s affairs of state and political discourse in 2021, I humbly propose cherchez la France. Allow me to explain.

When Prime Minister Choguel Maïga addressed the UN General Assembly in September and protested what he described as France’s decision to abandon Mali to its own devices, he was engaging in a time-tested strategy of tracing Mali’s woes to the actions of its former colonizer.

PM Maïga

When, earlier this month, Prime Minister Maïga accused France of “training terrorists” in northern Mali, it was a noteworthy statement mainly because Malian officials have rarely expressed such accusations in public. But Maïga was merely repeating what ordinary Malians as well as public figures like singer Salif Keita have been saying for years.

As I wrote following Keita’s widely circulated remarks two years ago, the idea that “there are no jihadists in the north” and that France is behind the region’s insecurity is no fringe belief in Bamako. You hear it again and again among the city’s residents, from educated and uneducated people, from men and women, from Muslim ideologues and ardent secularists.

Since I first lived in Mali during the late the 1990s I have been aware of a strong current of critique toward France in local discourse. Malians at the time had many bad memories of colonial rule, and they widely resented increasing crackdowns on African immigrants in France. Keita’s hit 1995 song “Nou pas bouger,” which is still frequently played on some Bamako radio stations, asks why white people are welcome in Africa but Africans aren’t welcome in the whites’ home countries.

One should not mistake such critiques with a general dislike of France or of French people. French expats continue to live in Bamako unmolested. Members of Mali’s elite continue to embrace the French language, educate their children in French schools, and seek treatment in French hospitals. Most Bamakois have a relative or at least know someone who lives in France, and many depend on those migrants’ economic remittances. During the 1998 World Cup, I was quite surprised to find that nearly all of the Malians I knew (I was living in Sikasso at the time) were rooting for France against Brazil in the final; South-South solidarity seemed to count for little.

But Malians’ relationship with their one-time colonial master is nothing if not complex. During the 2002 World Cup, the same guys who had cheered les Bleus and their World Cup triumph rejoiced in France’s first-round loss to Senegal and early elimination (without scoring a single goal!) from the tournament. Malians might admire French values and envy French standards of living, but they still take some pleasure now and again in watching the humbling of a mighty world power. As they did when the US military hastily abandoned Afghanistan several weeks ago–albeit with some concern that Mali might see similar chaos.

Yes, Bamako residents cheered the arrival of French troops on their soil in 2013. But today, as revealed in a recent opinion poll, they have very negative views of French policy toward Mali and toward the continuing foreign military presence in their country. Over cups of tea in their neighborhood grins, on social media, and on radio phone-in programs, Bamakois are highly critical of Operation Barkhane, which many view as part of a sinister French plot to partition their country and steal its natural resources. Rumors fly about covert French support for the jihadists and the hated Tuareg rebels. The goal of French military intervention, one Malian man recently wrote on the Malilink forum, was “Mali’s balkanization so as to grab the country’s mineral and energy resources to benefit the West in general and France in particular.” Views like his have always been present in Malian public opinion, but they used to be in the minority. Nowadays, I suspect that they are held by a majority–or, at least, by a majority of those with the loudest voices. Espousing them has become a matter of national pride.

For years I have challenged such theories directed against France and that amorphous entity known as the “international community.” These theories play too loose with the facts: I have seen no evidence that France is profiting from mineral extraction in Mali, nor that it has any interest in seeing Mali destabilized and made ungovernable. At the same time, I understand why those theories persist. The French army’s unilateral decision in early 2013 to bar Malian security forces from the town of Kidal may have seemed justified to French officers and civilian officials, who feared a massacre of civilians if Malian soldiers retook the stronghold of Tuareg separatism. But let’s recognize the long-term costs of that decision: a country that remains divided, an insurgency that continues to grow, and an unprecedented degree of Malian suspicion toward French motives in the region.

Is President Macron sincere in his promises to scale back French military presence in Mali? Whatever happens, we should expect French airstrikes to continue in the country, and French boots to remain on the ground even if in smaller numbers. But the state of Franco-Malian relations is as bad as I’ve ever seen, and I would not be surprised if Malians continued to perceive French manipulation at work in their country long after the last foreign troops had left. In Bamako, anyway, the public has increasingly united around perspectives that used to be considered extreme–a dynamic we might call “oppositional conformity.” Cherchez la France only became a powerful tendency because of one fact: France lost the information war in Mali a long time ago.

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Bamako’s mood: good for Goïta, bad for France…

Pollster Sidiki Guindo has just unveiled results from a phone survey of 1144 Bamako residents conducted between September 30 and October 3 (see full results here).

The results will surely warm the heart of Mali’s president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, because they show strong support for him and his interim government. Over 87 percent of Bamakois surveyed claim to be satisfied with the management of the country under Goïta’s administration–almost evenly split between “very satisfied” and “somewhat satisfied.” And 91 percent of those surveyed said that they have favorable opinions of the colonel himself.

More good news for Col. Goïta: nearly four out of five Bamakois surveyed support extending Mali’s political transition, which would mean delaying the elections for a new civilian government that had been anticipated for February 2022. Goïta’s prime minister (who has a 77 percent approval rating in this survey) and allies have been making noises about such an extension for several weeks now. Two-thirds of survey respondents in favor of a delay said that the transition should be extended by a year or more.

The numbers tell two very different stories

On the Malian government’s efforts to hire mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor, 78 percent of Bamakois express support. After removing the 14 percent of people in the sample who’d never heard of Wagner, the percentage of support for bringing in these mercenaries exceeds 90 percent. And 90 percent express favorable views of Russia in general.

By contrast, Bamakois are highly wary of France: 91 percent have unfavorable views of Mali’s former colonial power, and 90 percent have unfavorable views of Operation Barkhane.

Given these results, one could reasonably expect Wagner’s men to receive a warm welcome in Mali. But it’s worth remembering that opinions in Bamako frequently diverge from those in the provinces. Notably, there has consistently been far more public support for Barkhane in Gao, where the force actually operates, than in the capital city, 1000 km away.

Moreover, the Malian government’s negotiations with Wagner could just be a way to extract concessions from France (as Alex Thurston argues convincingly). I’ve written before about high levels of public support for Russia in Bamako–levels with which Guindo’s latest poll is fully consistent. Pro-Russia demonstrators have again taken to the city’s streets in recent weeks. But it remains quite plausible that Col. Goïta and his regime have been loudly talking about hiring Russian mercenaries not because they actually intend to do so, but as a strategy of extraversion. Mali’s overtures to Wagner have been highly unsettling to officials in Paris and throughout the European Union, whose policies have been predicated on a speedy return to civilian rule.

This Goïta fellow is starting to look like a savvy political operator. But can he actually keep his country from falling apart?

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A la recherche de l’avenir de Bamako : Un manifeste ethnographique

Au risque de paraître trop hâtif ou empressé, je voudrais aborder maintenant [le sujet] la question de mes prochaines recherches à Bamako. Le manuscrit de livre tiré de mes recherches passées reste bloqué pour le moment ; j’ai commencé ces recherches en 2010, à une époque où les Bamakois fêtaient Barack Obama et le djihadisme semblait très loin. Pour avoir passé à ce jour 20 pourcent de ma vie à étudier le mariage bamakois, j’ai hâte de tourner la page afin d’aborder un nouveau projet.

Même si je ne peux pas prévoir le thème d’un tel projet, je fais les promesses suivantes auxquelles je compte rester redevable.

1. Mes recherches se focaliseront sur Bamako.

Bamako reste non seulement la principale ville malienne mais aussi une des villes aux taux de croissance les plus élevés du monde. Son dynamisme démographique, économique, et social sans précédent exige par conséquent des études approfondies. Malgré les incertitudes, je persisterai à faire des mes enquêtes sur le terrain à Bamako autant que je suis capable. Ca, je le dois à mes connaissances bamakoises. En plus, à mon âge ce n’est pas facile de  tout recommencer ailleurs (car le temps investi ne se récupèrera pas)….

2. Mes recherches seront collaboratives.

En tant que doctorant j’ai appris à mener les recherches ethnographiques en solo, [ce qui constitue] un véritable rite de passage pour les anthropologues. Hormis une brève étude postdoctorale sous la direction de deux collègues, je n’ai jamais fait partie d’une équipe de chercheurs. Avec le temps, j’ai compris le compromis méthodologique de l’ethnologue seul : s’il jouit pleinement de la flexibilité et de l’indépendance, il porte aussi des lourds fardeaux. Ainsi, coopérer étroitement avec d’autres chercheurs génère davantage des contacts, des savoirs approfondis, et des révisions plus développées soigneuses de son œuvre en gestation. J’espère m’engager dans des collaborations à travers les disciplines et les frontières nationales. Les recherches faites ailleurs dans la région du Sahel, impliquant des anthropologues comme Sten Hagberg et Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, m’offrent des modèles à suivre pour un tel projet.

3. Mes recherches seront participatives.

Pas mal de recherches dans les sciences sociales se montrent “extractives” : le chercheur étranger arrive à Bamako par exemple ; il ramasse ses données et repart sans laisser d’effet positif sur les gens qui ont participé à ses enquêtes. Après l’analyse de ses découvertes, il ne les présente généralement pas dans la communauté où il a travaillé, dont une bonne partie d’habitants ne savent pas lire ses publications, surtout celles en anglais). Même s’il le fait, peu de gens seraient capables d’apprécier son objet. Malheureusement, bon nombre de mes recherches précédentes ont suivi ce modèle.

À l’opposé, il y a une autre approche, celle de la co-recherche, dans laquelle les chercheurs collaborent avec les membres de la communauté où ils mènent leurs enquêtes pour identifier ensemble le problème ou la question à étudier. Au lieu de “l’engagement technocratique” du scientifique traditionnel, les co-recherches mettent l’accent sur l’engagement démocratique. J’ignore si les doctorants pratiquent cette alternative aujourd’hui, mais moi, personnellement, je l’aurais bien apprécié il y a 20 ans.

4. Mes recherches se pencheront sur des problèmes lourds dans la vie quotidienne bamakoise.

Ce dernier volet de mon manifeste est la suite logique des précédents ; il concerne le défi d’identifier le thème de mes recherches dans l’avenir. Comme doctorant et puis comme universitaire, j’ai bénéficié d’une liberté considérable pour étudier ce qui m’intéressait. Je ne devais convaincre que quelques gardiens (les directeurs de mon comité doctoral, les financeurs des recherches) de l’importance de mon sujet et je pouvais l’étudier, même si celui-ci ne portait pas sur des problèmes sociaux.

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“Non non, nous ne pouvons que décrire le monde ; c’est VOUS qui devrez le sauver !”

J’étais d’abord intéressé par les questions comme la migration et le mariage–surtout la polygamie urbaine moderne–donc mes enquêtes et mes écrits ont porté sur ces sujets. Pourtant mes connaissances bamakoises n’ont pas tellement partagé mon intérêt pour ces sujets. Pendant un enquête préliminaire en 2010, un étudiant m’a interpellé lors d’une discussion focus group : N’y avait-il pas, a-t-il demandé, des questions plus importantes à examiner à Bamako, comme la mauvaise gouvernance, la corruption, le système scolaire dégradé? L’interpellation de ce jeune m’a hanté l’esprit 18 mois plus tard, quand ces mêmes problèmes ont contribué au quasi-effondrement de la république. Et si, je me demandais, mes recherches seraient plus axées sur des questions qui préoccupent les Bamakois eux-mêmes ?

Il n’y a aucune pénurie de telles questions dans la capitale malienne–de la pollution du fleuve Niger à la surconsommation d’eau, de la gestion des déchets aux conflits fonciers. Mon défi, c’est d’aborder les recherches d’une telle question à travers l’approche collaborative et participative que j’ai évoquée plus haut. C’est mon but pour les mois et les années à venir. 

Si vous vous intéressez à une telle collaboration, je vous prie de me contacter.

[Cet article de blog a initialement été publié en anglais. La caricature ci-haut vient du document “Action Research for Sustainability”, 2015]

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Looking for Bamako’s future: An ethnographic manifesto

It is probably premature of me, perhaps even somewhat rash, to choose this time to write about my next research project in Bamako. After all, the book manuscript stemming from my current project (on the city’s changing contours of marriage and gender relations) has languished for months in review purgatory. I began fieldwork for that project way back in 2010, a time when Barack Obama was all the rage among Bamakois and Al Qaeda seemed an incredibly remote threat. I have now spent over 20% of my lifespan studying marriage in Bamako, and as eager as I am to turn the page on this project, its publication prospects are hazy.

But, like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” I have come to the realization that I if I am ever to move on from something, I first have to let it go. The following manifesto is my bid to do that.

While I cannot yet foresee what my research will focus on, I am making the following four-part pledge, and I want you to hold me to it.

1. My research focus will remain on Bamako.

Bamako remains not only Mali’s largest city but one of the fastest-growing cities on the planet. Its unprecedented demographic, economic, and social dynamics call out for further study. As uncertain as it might be for an American to commit to working there in the long term, I will persist in conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Bamako for as long as I am able. I owe it to the Bamakois I’ve gotten to know over the years. And, let’s be honest, at my age it’s not easy to start over someplace else. (Perhaps this is my own personal “sunk cost fallacy.”)

2. My research will be collaborative.

In graduate school I learned to conduct solo ethnographic research; this is a true rite of passage for cultural anthropologists. Apart from a one-year postdoc under the supervision of two senior colleagues, I have never been part of a team of researchers. Over the years, I’ve come to understand the primary trade-off of “lone ethnographer” methodology: while it maximizes flexibility and independence, it also poses unnecessary burdens on the researcher. Working interdependently with other researchers can generate more connections, better insights, and more thorough review of my research while it’s underway. I hope to engage in collaborations across scholarly disciplines and national boundaries. Ongoing projects elsewhere in the region involving anthropologists like Sten Hagberg and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan offer models for such collaborative research.

3. My research will be participatory.

A lot of social science research is “extractive”: when you’re a foreign researcher in a place like Bamako, you go in, gather your data, and leave without much positive impact on the people who agree to share their experiences and ideas with you. After you’ve finished analyzing your findings, you generally don’t present them to people of the community you worked in (most can’t read your publications), and even if you did, they might not see the point of it. Too much of my own past research has conformed to this model.

But there is an alternative approach, called “co-research,” in which researchers work with members of the community where they do their research to determine the problem or question to examine. Instead of the scholar’s customary “technocratic engagement” with the host community, co-research stresses democratic engagement. I don’t know if students are learning about this alternative in anthropology graduate programs these days; I certainly wish that I had learned about it 20 years ago.

4. My research will study pressing problems in the lives of Bamako residents.

This final plank of my manifesto follows from the preceding ones, and relates to the challenge of determining my future research focus. First as a graduate student and then as a tenure-track professor, I have enjoyed considerable freedom to study whatever I wanted. As long as I was able to convince various gatekeepers (my graduate advisors, grant funders) of the significance of my chosen topic, I could study whatever I wanted. It didn’t have to be oriented toward solving problems or informing policy.

Image taken from

I was most curious about issues like migration and marriage–particularly polygamy in its modern urban form–so that’s what I studied and wrote about. But the Bamakois I knew didn’t often share these priorities. During preliminary fieldwork in 2010, a university student participating in one focus group discussion about marriage challenged me: Weren’t there, he asked pointedly, more important issues to study in Bamako–bad governance, corruption, the dysfunctional education system? I didn’t think about it much at the time, but that young man’s question haunted me a year and a half later when the very problems he named helped bring Mali to the brink of collapse, where it remains today. I began wishing that my research had been more oriented toward problems that people in Bamako cared about.

There’s no shortage of worthwhile issues to study in Mali’s biggest city, from river pollution to water consumption, from waste management to land tenure. The challenge will be to come to a research project through the collaborative, participatory approach sketched out above. This is the challenge I have set for myself in the months and years ahead.

My first step will be to write a version of this post in French and share it with my Malian colleagues. If you’re interested in joining such a collaboration, please reach out to me.

[The cartoon above is taken from a 2015 document entitled “Action Research for Sustainability.”]

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Le taximan bamakois: A tribute

To give you a rough idea of the importance of taxis to my life whenever I’m in Bamako, let me offer one number. In the field notes written during my last research trip–a three-week visit to conclude a decade-long study of urban marriage and polygamy trends–the word “taxi” appears 28 times. That’s more often than the name of my wife who accompanied me, more often than “marriage” or “polygamy,” and nearly as often as “Bamako.”

I didn’t always spend so much time in taxis. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I got around Bamako mainly on public transportation (SOTRAMA, sometimes bâché), which was and remains far cheaper. Then two things changed. First, I landed a faculty position with a reliable salary, and soon certain luxuries became “necessities.” Second, I started visiting Mali with my wife and children, and taxis made more sense.

I’ve since grown accustomed to hailing Bamako’s taxicabs and developed deep respect for the men who drive them. (I’ve read about Bamakoises in the job but never met one.) They do a demanding job with skill and panache.

Driving a cab is nowhere for the faint of heart, least of all in crowded cities like Bamako. It takes boldness for a taxi driver to insert his vehicle into narrow spaces in busy traffic, to thread a path safely between slow-moving pushcarts and tricycle taxis on both sides, swerving onto the shoulder when the need arises, holding his own against swarms of motorcyclists and corrupt policemen.

Being a Bamako cabbie also takes encyclopedic knowledge of the streets and neighborhoods of a city home to over three million people. This knowledge is normally acquired, mind you, without recourse to GPS, Waze, maps, or even street names (which exist only for main thoroughfares like Avenue Al Quds, better known as Kulikoro sira or “Koulikoro road”). I have yet to see a Bamako cabbie consult a map or digital device to check his route. Drivers’ understanding of urban space is relational, based on landmarks and a keen awareness of how their city’s many spatial pieces fit together.

In setting out, therefore, you must tell your driver the name of your destination neighborhood, then one or more reference points (e.g. “Just past the Shell station” or “Before you get to the Gendarmerie”). Given such minimal information, most drivers know immediately where to go. Should the need arise, you can always call up someone at your destination and hand your phone to the driver for further explanation.

But it’s not enough to know the route: a good cabbie can predict the fastest route, and that depends on time of day and day of the week. Any taximan worth his fare knows that traffic jams will form around municipal government offices on Sundays, for instance, because that’s where and when many weddings take place. He plots his route accordingly–again, without checking his phone. He knows when certain roads and bridges switch from one-way to two-way traffic and back (to accommodate weekday rush hours). He knows shortcuts down residential streets that bypass clogged avenues.

Along with raw distance and dynamic traffic patterns, a good cabbie must know the condition of the roadways themselves. Driving one kilometer down a badly potholed laterite street might cost him more, in travel time and vehicle wear, than driving two kilometers down a more circuitous but smoother route.

Since Bamako taxis lack meters, you have to agree on a fare at the outset. In calculating the amount, a driver needs to process all the variables mentioned above, plus the odds of picking up more passengers after (sometimes while) bringing you to your destination. He must also estimate your ability to pay his proposed fare. The mathematical and psychological profiling skills required are astoundingly complex. I won’t even mention the mechanical prowess needed to keep a beat-up sedan going day after day after day.

Perhaps a cabbie’s greatest asset, though, is sociability, and I’ve found Bamako taxi drivers extraordinarily outgoing. Every cab ride is an opportunity to learn something about the city and its inhabitants. Among the cabbies I’ve chatted up over the years, one named Lassine spent eight days adrift in a small boat trying to reach the Canary Islands. Near the university one day in 2010, I hailed a taxi driven by Bakary, a former long-haul trucker married to three wives; two years later, after I had made regular trips in his battered yellow Mercedes 190D over two fieldwork stints, he helped me recruit a focus group of polygamous husbands whose input was key to my forthcoming book. Bakary is retired now, but we’re still in touch.

I got a ride in 2020 from Samba, who spoke of his passion for American country music and waxed poetic about Don Williams, whose CD he’d lost and sorely missed. “When Don sings, you can hear all the pain in his voice,” Samba said. (Me: Does he mean the Texan who topped the 1980 pop charts with the sappy ballad “I Believe in You“? I resolved to bring Samba some Sturgill Simpson on my next visit. Talk about singing one’s pain!)

There must be unpleasant cabbies in the city, I just can’t recall meeting any–and I usually recall such things. So if you can speak some French or Bambara, if you are not barred by your employer from riding in taxis for security reasons (sorry, US embassy personnel!), and if you’re looking for a Bamako taximan, I can put you in touch with a few good ones.

(Don’t let the expense put you off: by comparison to transportation in most cities around the world, Bamako taxis are cheap. A trip across town, e.g. from Sotuba to Heremakono, cost me 5000 CFA francs in 2020, or about US$10. Always ask the driver in advance if he can make change. As for material comfort, well, you get what you pay forsee backseat view below.)

Got a good Bamako taxi story? Please leave it in the comments section below.

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