The two sides of Mahmoud Dicko

Mali’s political situation is as tense as it’s ever been, with Covid-related economic disruptions added to an already dismal security environment, police violence against civilians, and a growing sense of public alarm at the direction the country is moving in. The man of the moment appears to be a 66-year-old imam named Mahmoud Dicko. Having organized a pair of huge street rallies in Bamako and other towns (on 5 and 19 June) calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), Dicko has emerged as the de facto leader of Mali’s political opposition–even though he’s not formally involved in politics. Facing the massive show of force mounted by Dicko and his allies, IBK has agreed to talks that might lead to some sort of power-sharing arrangement.

Nobody who has paid attention to Dicko’s lengthy involvement in Malian public affairs has been surprised to see him playing such a prominent political role today. Although trained as religious scholar, he has been working with or alongside Mali’s officially secular state since the 1980s, when he was named to AMUPI, a council of Islamic affairs created by the government. Shortly after rising to the helm of AMUPI’s successor organization, the Haut Conseil Islamique, Dicko spearheaded the opposition to progressive family legislation in 2009, mobilizing street protests and filling Bamako’s Stade du 26 Mars stadium with supporters. He and his allies succeeded in killing this legislation primarily by framing it as part of a Western attempt to undermine Malian family values. This experience demonstrated two things: that Islam had become a political force to be reckoned with in Mali, and that Dicko was an ambitious and skilled political entrepreneur.

Judging from his interviews in French-language European media, you’d be tempted to consider Dicko a religious moderate and apolitical defender of tolerance. In his recent interview with Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, one of France’s top Sahel specialists, for Politique Internationale, Dicko claimed to be all in favor of the bedrock institutions of modern liberalism, from elections to an independent judiciary. The problem, he said, is that these institutions in Mali have been subverted by bad actors–members of the country’s despised classe politique who have bent the nominally democratic process to their own selfish ends. The true cause of Mali’s multifaceted crisis, according to Dicko, is poor governance. The jihadi militants launching attacks in Mali’s northern and central regions have been primarily motivated not by religious ideology (they have only been “superficially Salafized,” in his words) but by the fundamental failure of the Malian state to keep order and provide basic services. You’d almost think Dicko had been reading the latest book by Pérouse de Montclos, which makes a very similar (and, in my view, compelling) case. In the June issue of the Paris-based La Lettre Confidentielle du Mali Dicko describes France as “a partner of Mali” and boasts of his own warm relations with Mali’s former colonial ruler.

But one thing that can be safely said about Mahmoud Dicko is that he knows how to tailor his message to his audience. When addressing Malian audiences in their own language (Dicko speaks Bambara, Fulfulde, and Songhay in addition to Arabic and French), he has often sent very different signals. In his sermons and speeches, he has propagated the myth that violent jihad in Mali was cooked up by the French as part of their sinister bid to recolonize the country (the same narrative famously recounted, in somewhat more extreme form, last November by singer Salif Keita). As hopes for a decisive resolution of the country’s northern instability have soured there has been growing demand in Mali for this story, and Dicko has not hesitated to sell it–for domestic consumption only, that is.

To me the question is not whether Dicko has political ambitions; it’s what his political ambitions are. He better than anyone understands that political Islam has become an influential player on Mali’s political stage. One could easily imagine him as a kingmaker or power behind the throne, along the same lines as the late Hassan al-Turabi in Sudan. But one could also imagine him converting his “association,” the Coordination des Mouvements, Associations, et Sympathisants (established last September), into a party and running as its candidate for president in some future election.

To be clear, I consider the criticisms that Dicko and his allies have levied against IBK as entirely legitimate. The sitting head of state has yet to demonstrate, after seven years in power, that he has a vision for Mali that is not simply “more of the same” even as conditions have steadily gone from bad to worse. IBK is a political survivor and if he had any intention of stepping down voluntarily, he would have done so by now. Moreover, the odds of populist street protests unseating him, as happened to Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré in 2014, are probably low as long as thousands of French and UN troops remain on Malian soil.

Yet public discontent is high, particularly in Bamako, and it is not hard to envision a large group of Malians deciding that they shouldn’t have to put up with IBK’s disastrous regime for another three years. They see their country falling apart all around them and they want someone to take action now. Imam Dicko probably commands more legitimacy with the Malian public than IBK these days, but we have no clear picture yet of what Dicko and his supporters would do with formal power if they held it. The opposition coalition has issued a rather vague manifesto of aspirations (e.g. “institutional reforms to guarantee free and fair elections” and “guaranteed access to public services”).

In his book Bamako Sounds, Ryan Skinner described “an in-the-mix ethics that values keeping things in play (opportunistic and provisional) in order to work them out.” Lately I find myself thinking about that line more and more. Experience has taught me not to expect dramatic resolutions to crisis in Mali. Rather, the most likely outcome is always one in which political entrepreneurs try to “keep things in play” for as long as possible, exploiting instead of banishing conditions of uncertainty. One prediction I can make is that whatever the mix of political change might be in Bamako, Mahmoud Dicko and political Islam will be in it.

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Mali’s existential threat: Jihadism, or the French?

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.

Postscript, 19 December: The French newspaper Libération has a good overview of growing anti-French sentiment in Bamako.

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The manyamagan

Editor’s note: The role of manyamagan[1] has no equivalent in Western culture.It is still carried out in several regions of our country,” wrote Aoua Keita in 1975; “it is exclusively female, very often passed down from mother to daughter and consists of helping young people in the first days or even months of their marriage.”

In 2010 I met an elderly manyamagan in Bamako. In the following excerpt of the interview she accorded me, one can sense frustrations about culture loss and transformation similar to those in my interview with a griot. One can also learn a lot about gender roles and how young Malian women entering marriage might learn the rules of femininity and appropriate wifely behavior. I’m not sure whether the manyamagan is disappearing in Bamako these days–or whether its disappearance would be something to mourn.

Being a manyamagan is all about educating the bride to give her to her husband. First for three days [prior to the wedding ceremony], and then for seven, altogether ten days.

A young woman who’s getting married knows nothing about how to treat her husband, how to treat her in-laws, how to look after children. [As manyamagan], if you see that she disrespected her husband somehow, you tell her to stop it. If you see that she spoke harshly to her husband, you tell her to stop it. You tell her that her husband is her family, that she must love him. “Your husband is a relation, you must love him. Your husband’s friends, you must never come between them. If your husband needs water for washing, you draw the water. If your husband comes with food, you cook it. If he says not to go out, you stay put. If he says not to go someplace, that he doesn’t like it, you stop.” Being a manyamagan is about those sorts of things.


Henna on the feet of a new bride

Some people don’t want a manyamagan, they say they don’t need her; they’re afraid of the expense, because if you have a manyamagan you need to support her. If there’s a young girl with you, you need to support her. So they can say they don’t need her. With some, [the nuptial chamber] lasts three days. With others it’s seven days. Whatever your means can support, that’s what you do. Back home in the Segou region, it used to be a week but now they’ve dropped that to three days to reduce the expense.

Suppose a wedding happens on a Sunday. So [from then] through Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, [the bride] doesn’t go anywhere; you bring her good food to eat. She doesn’t eat to [millet or cornmeal porridge], couscous, rice, or bread. Because if she eats them, lying in one place, they won’t digest, they’ll make her tired.[2] So when she’s done there, she’ll turn out well, she’ll be a good wife, she’ll become radiant. The manyamagan sits to watch over her and checks the food she eats. Because people may come with food to give her and the food’s not good. You can tell her not to eat it.

Nowadays anyone can become a manyamagan, but in the old days a manyamagan was a garanke [member of the leatherworking caste]. No slaves, no blacksmiths, no nobles, no Sonrai, no Bella unless the Bella was a garanke. Only a garanke could be a manyamagan. But nowadays it’s become a means to make money: those who know its meaning and those who don’t all become manyamagan. They go to weddings and we’re there, we explain to them how it’s done. Many try to make money at it.

Some [couples] don’t even provide you a place to sleep. Others, when you go they respect you; some pay you your money, others don’t. Some treat you well, it’s like you’re in your own home. But with others you have to spend your own money. There are good and bad. It’s like when you start a job, you find peace and rest. But sometimes you don’t find rest. But if it’s your work it doesn’t bother you. You’re seeking a reputation: if you do it well, people will speak highly of you, they’ll respect you. [Being a manyamagan] used to have benefits, but these days the benefits are few; people don’t have much. Before, people would give you a lot of millet, and sugar, and money. These days you might just get a tiny bit of millet, because they don’t have enough.

Nowadays the man and the woman decide to marry each other. A man says “I like this one,” but he doesn’t know her father’s behavior or her mother’s behavior, he doesn’t know her own behavior. He just likes her because she is good-looking, and says “I’ll marry her.” If they get along, fine. If they don’t get along, she doesn’t need his father, his mother or him, and she walks out. That’s changed. It used to be that you and your husband would not lay eyes on one another until the konyo [nuptial celebration]….[3] If they get along, things work out. If they don’t get along, the father has nothing to say, the mother has nothing to say, [the bride] walks out on her two feet. That’s changed. Before, weddings didn’t cost a lot of money. Now a wedding is expensive, it has no barika [strength, vigor].

It used to be that you only knew your husband once when you married, at that time brides were very young, and the grooms were very young, and that was good. But now women of 20 years haven’t married. Women of 18 years haven’t married. Some are 30 and haven’t married.[4] That means they’ve learned a lot of things, a lot of things. It’s hard to find a young bride nowadays.

When a young bride marries, at that time she doesn’t have a lot of ideas, she fears her parents, she accepts whatever they tell her. But if she gets a lot of ideas, she’s 20 or 30 years old… maybe she’ll accept what her parents say because she’s understood a lot of things. If she’s a good wife it will work out, and if she doesn’t become a good wife, it gets ruined. Brides should marry early, that’s good. If a woman marries young, that’s good. My own children married at age 14, I myself was 13. All my children married early. But nowadays there aren’t husbands, it’s hard to find them. Even if you want to marry, if you can’t find a husband how can you marry? The lack of men is a problem![5]

I’ve advised a lot of brides, and none of them has divorced. Their marriage doesn’t die as long as their husband doesn’t die. But what God has cut, no one can reattach. All things are in God’s hands.


  1. I’ve encountered multiple ways to write this Manding word using the Latin alphabet, including “magnomaka” (Diallo, 2004) and “magnamagan” (Keita, 1975). In 2009, Malian TV began airing a reality/game show with couples competing to win a dream wedding and a house; the show was called “Manyamagan” (see a 2011 episode here). I chose the latter spelling because it is easiest for English speakers to pronounce accurately.
  2. By contrast, according to Aoua Keita’s description of mid-20th century life in the town of Nara, the manyamagan would feed the bride a liquid diet expressly to weaken potential resistance. When the time came for a husband to consummate the union with his new bride, Keita wrote, the manyamagan “offered her services to the husband to master the girl in case she refused out of fear or modesty. Fear, modesty and even antipathy could come into play all at once, for often the girls only met their husbands for the first time on their wedding day” (1975, pg. 274).
  3. While it is unusual today for a bride and groom not to have met before their wedding, many marriages are still arranged in Bamako. Fully 23 of the 50 wives my research team interviewed in the city back in 2012 reported that their first marriages had been arranged for them.
  4. According to the 2012-13 Demographic and Health Survey, the average age at first marriage for females in Bamako was 19.4, and 98% of Malian women surveyed had married by the time they turned 30.
  5. See my 2012 post on the “myth of female overpopulation.” I’ve devoted a chapter of my book manuscript to Bamako’s “marriage squeeze” (a lack of eligible men) and to this myth of a naturally imbalanced sex ratio.

Related readings

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Twilight of the griot

Editor’s note: In preparing a book manuscript on marriage based on 2010-2012  fieldwork, I find some interviews that I can’t integrate into the project. I’ve decided to start posting a few of the more noteworthy ones, translated and edited, to this blog. The interview excerpted below was with a jeli (pl. jeliw), also known as a griot, in his Bamako tailor shop, back in early 2012. As with all my interviewees, I promised him anonymity, so he goes nameless here.

Outsiders, if they know about griots at all, associate them with music and praise singing, but this veteran griot was no musician. For him being a griot, as he explained, had nothing to do with music. He took his inherited role seriously and was critical of the way other griots, and society in general, had become corrupted by money. His words now read like the sad chronicle of a dying way of life (what’s known in my profession as “salvage ethnography”). He spoke quietly while projecting an almost palpable energy; this was among the most intense interviews I’ve done. Special thanks to my wife Oumou for helping me with the translation from the Bamanan language.

My family is a jeli family from Segou. We are griots of the kings of Segou who lived four hundred years ago. Our way of being griots is different from other griots. I want you to understand that. Because there are griots who will go to your house, play their ngoni and ask for you for something. We don’t do that.

Peace talks between two towns in conflict, that was our first role as griots. The second role was to facilitate agreement between two families whose children were to be married. Whenever there is a marriage, it is because of a griot. If you wanted a wife for your son, you would call us, the griots, even before you told your son.

In the past, for example, the father was the one who would find his son a girl to marry. He would call a jeli and tell him, “Go ask for the hand of this girl from her parents for this son of mine.” The griot already knew the father of the girl, her grandfather, her mother and her grandmother. So you knew the girl was good, because she was from a good family. And you wanted to have the kind of girl married into your family, so you could have good children with her.

Screen Shot 2019-05-27 at 9.32.37 AM

A jelimuso (female griot) working a Bamako wedding in 2010, clutching banknotes in both hands. My interviewee took pains to distinguish himself from this kind of griot.

Her relatives would also talk about the family that was asking for the girl’s hand. They would try to find out if the other family had good people before letting a member of their family go live with them. They started with the boy’s father and grandfather to see if there was a history of good behavior in that family. If they all agreed that there was, they would give their approval for the marriage. Or someone might say, “You know that boy’s great grandfather once stole something, so we should not let them have our daughter.” Then there won’t be a marriage.


If your father stole something or your grandfather lied about something, that would ruin the dignity of the family. If that was the case, the girl’s family with a high standard wouldn’t let their daughter marry him. But if everything checked out about you and your family, then the girl’s family would agree to the marriage. Marriage was only allowed when the couple belonged to the same social class or group. A jeli could marry another jeli or a blacksmith. A blacksmith could also marry a jeli. A noble can marry another noble. A funè can marry another funè.[1]

If the couple really love each other, the marriage will last. But very few marriages last, because here the foundation of marriage used to be your upbringing–your roots, the people you come from, like your grandfather, your father. And today that is not important for people. If you have money, a good job and you are a funè, you can marry a griot here in Bamako, but that is not in [my family’s] background. The jeliw like Kouyaté, Sissoko, Diabaté and Dembelé can marry a funè, but [my family] will not marry funèw. Today if they have money, even Fulani and blacksmiths get married.[2]

Marriage in Bamako today has more heartache than happiness. If the bride’s family asks for 250,000 francs [about US$500], I should not negotiate with them like we are bargaining, but ask with respect and dignity, since the matter is about a human being. You cannot show in any way that you are trying to set the price of a human being. That way things get easier between you and the bride’s family. And then I will need to report back to the groom’s family. I will say they asked for 250,000 francs, and then agree to 100,000 francs. Then I will deliver just the 100,000 francs, with no extra for me. I don’t expect any money from you for my service; if even you give it to me I won’t take it. I just do it for God’s sake. If I have to travel to Segou or even Kidal to deliver the kolas,[3] I won’t accept your money. But today the jeli live off marriage negotiations, as if it is a profession. That is why marriage liaisons are not strong anymore and marriages don’t last.

[In my family] we don’t want that money, but other jeliw live on that. If you call them to  negotiate for a wedding to take place, they will demand 10,000 or 20,000 francs for transport. Someone even came here and proposed 10,000 francs as a negotiation fee when his own daughter was the future bride. I couldn’t accept it–I left the room, I was so upset.

Being a jeli is really hard. Real jeliw don’t exist now. All we have today is making money. If a jeli today meets a Mr. Bagayogo, he will tell him that he is related to all Bagayogos in general; he won’t say his father’s name or his grandfather’s name, or his father’s siblings, just “Bagayogo.” That is not being a jeli, that is asking for money! If I meet him I should do it the right way, starting with his father, his grandfather, then I come down to him. In Mali there are a lot of patronyms; I can speak about 72 patronyms [4] very well. I can start speaking from now until sundown without repeating a thing, if I want to. So if everything I tell him is true, his heart will beat and he will give me some money automatically.

If I wanted to, I could close my shop right now and take you to Dabanani market and talk to the rich men, call their names and the names of their fathers and grandfathers. I assure you I would leave with 500,000 francs. But we don’t want that. This is what makes griot work complicated. The purpose of being a jeli is to serve people, to restore peace between people and countries, and people who love each other. Jeliw used to be the ones who could tell the king bad news or things he did not want to hear. Others would be afraid to say it because the king could behead them. The griot was the only one allowed to do that without any consequence. [In my family] we don’t care even if you own everything in the world. We are not going to your house to eat. But we still tell you the truth if even you don’t like it. That is the difference between us and other jeliw.



  1. A funè is a member of another hereditary social class, similar to griots but, as this interview suggests, socially distinct from them. The funè specializes in Islamic praise poetry.
  2. There are taboos against marrying across certain ethnic and caste lines. Marriage between members of the Fulani ethnic group and the numu (blacksmith) caste remains among the most strongly taboo, though such taboos have begun to weaken under the influence of Islam and modernity.
  3. Kola nuts are symbolic of marriage in Mali, and are sent by one family (through the intermediary of the griot) to another to symbolize the request for a woman’s hand in marriage.
  4. The patronym (jaamu in Bamanan) is the father’s family name, or what Americans call the “last name.” This is the name with which a family’s genealogy and reputation are associated. Bagayogo, Coulibaly, Keita, and Traoré are among the more common patronyms.

Related readings on jeliw:

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A lesson in sociability

While 2018 has been an eventful year for Mali–mostly for the wrong reasons–it’s also seen my least frequent blogging since I began in 2011. Instead of tracking the political and security situation on the ground as it goes from bad to worse, I’ve been focusing on my second book project (the one about marriage in Bamako, in gestation for far too long). I’ll have more to blog about regarding that book as the manuscript nears completion over the coming year. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a fun video posted to YouTube this week by linguist Coleman Donaldson.


This ten-minute video is the first in a series Coleman is putting together called “Na baro kè” (come chat), consisting of his encounters with everyday people. As Coleman put it to me, the series is “primarily made for learners and speakers of the language, but I’d like to believe the videos will also appeal to anyone by highlighting the voices of people and places that–through an African language–it has been my great honor to learn from for nearly the last ten years.” This is all hosted on his language-learning website An Ka Taa.

In this first episode, Coleman’s interactions are entirely in Bamako and entirely in Bambara (or “Manding” as Coleman calls it–a language category which also includes Jula and Malinke). Like a roving reporter doing “man on the street” interviews for an entertainment show, he affably poses questions about a particular topic to apparently random people and edits their responses together. The resulting video has four full layers of subtitles: two for Manding (in n’ko and IPA scripts), one for English, and one for French, the better to help language learners. The topic of episode one is vital for anybody learning Bambara for the first time: everyday greetings and why they’re important.

People in Mali, and probably throughout the region, base their first impressions of someone to a considerable extent on how well and eagerly that person partakes in verbal greetings. Greeting is a social obligation, as some of Coleman’s interviewees point out. The simple act of exchanging ritual greetings with someone can establish what kind of person he/she is, whether you share some kind of kinship connection (real or fictive), or what kind of mood he/she might be in. It helps knit society together. “Here, for us, greeting is everything. It’s what makes the social side of life a lot stronger,” one man says. It underlies mɔgɔya, the condition of being a person (see a 2013 post I wrote on this and other key cultural dynamics in Mali).

People greet not only because they’re sociable but also out of self-interest. Nobody wants to be branded disrespectful or worthless because they failed to greet someone. A greeting can affirm an existing relationship or bring a new one into being. A young man perched on a motorcycle tells Coleman that he even greets strangers “because, I might not know them at all, but maybe I’ll need them.” One can never be sure which human connection might turn out to be useful.

We in the West may see little reason to greet others very much, even at all, in our daily lives. How much time do we spend oblivious to those around us, glued to our phones, headphones isolating us from spontaneous conversation? When we do initiate an interaction with a stranger, how often do we skip any meaningful exchange of greetings and get straight to business? Even with colleagues and acquaintances we see regularly, how often do we take the trouble to inquire after their health and family?

“Greetings are indeed a crucial element in traditional Malian society,” a Malian man I’ll call Sabou wrote in an email to me after watching Coleman’s video. “So much so that even after la lifetime in the West I can’t get used to the contrast. A colleague comes into the office in the morning and goes straight to his desk without saying a word to me. In Mali this would mean that you’re no longer speaking to each other. But in the West it means ‘nothing to report.'”

Sabou also identified some less cheery aspects of Mali’s greeting rituals. They index social hierarchies, particularly around age; young people have to greet their elders and receive social validation from them. Greetings are also essential to so many interactions there in part because the formal institutions and mechanisms Westerners depend on and take for granted are largely absent in Mali. In societies like the US where individuals are more independent, one can usually count on getting service and assistance without being friendly. One barely needs to rely on one’s neighbors, and with electronic customer service, even the little smile at the checkout counter is becoming a thing of the past. But in Mali, writes Sabou, “when you need help, when you need any assistance at all in Mali, you need social relations.”

The longer I’m away from Mali, the more I miss the easy interactions with strangers, and the more I fear I’m growing disconnected from the people around me. In the West it’s easy to be unsociable. In Mali even a part-time misanthrope like me must find a way to become sociable; I don’t really have a choice in the matter. And I know that’s good for me–it’s one of the things I love best about living in Bamako.

“Whatever the reasons for it, greetings are often all you need to feel better, to feel like a member of society, to feel that you exist for others and that you belong,” Sabou writes. “I’m sure a simple ‘Hello’ would prevent a lot of suicides in the West.”

I think Sabou’s right. Mali may be coming apart at the seams, but we can still learn something from Malians about everyday sociability. Greet your neighbors. Say hello to a stranger. Resist the urge to isolate yourself. It’s a great message to end the year on.

Coleman, I’m eagerly awaiting your next episodes of “Na baro kè” in 2019.


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Three predictions about Mali’s 2018 presidential election

News from Mali just keeps getting worse.

More than five years after French soldiers ousted jihadi fighters from northern Mali and nominally restored central government sovereignty there, the country has grown even more unsafe and fractious. The peace accord signed amid great fanfare in 2015 has yet to be meaningfully implemented. A tally of incidents since 2015 recorded by Malilink shows an alarming rise in violent acts on Malian soil by national and foreign militaries, jihadi groups, secular militias and criminals — along with the associated death toll (see chart below). Most disturbing are recent ethnically motivated killings carried out by Malian troops and “self-defense militias” in the Mopti region, where the US Holocaust Memorial’s early warning project forecasts a growing risk of “mass atrocities.”

Mali violence 2015-2018

Violence in Mali (*2018 figures are for period 1 January – 30 June only)

In light of these unprecedented threats to Mali’s security and integrity, the stakes would appear to be high for the country’s presidential election, the first round of which is scheduled for 29 July. Though I’ve focused my recent research on socio-cultural issues (and have let my blogging lapse accordingly), the impending vote compels me to consider Mali’s political situation and to reflect on both the election’s likely outcome and what it means for the future.

I therefore offer three predictions.

1. Voter turnout will be dismal.

Low voter participation would conform to precedent, with Malians consistently being West Africa’s least likely voters since the 1990s. I have argued elsewhere that Mali’s weak electoral participation is a clear sign of democratic distress. Turnout for presidential elections (as measured by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) has averaged 62% of eligible West African voters but only 37% in Mali, where it peaked at 45% in 2013. The ongoing spike in violence will depress 2018’s turnout below that level, especially in the center and north.

Then there’s the problem of Mali’s darkening public mood. The latest Afrobarometer survey (conducted in February 2017) shows Malians increasingly dissatisfied with their government. Most respondents expressed little faith in the state’s capacity to reduce criminality, manage the economy, create jobs, or fight corruption. Nearly half feared becoming the victims of political intimidation or electoral violence. Although most Malians continue to see democracy as the best form of government, most also view their own government as a poor democratic example. This was true prior to the events of 2012 and is even more true today.

2. The incumbent will win.

No sitting president having ever lost an election in Mali, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (“IBK”) will almost certainly be elected to a second five-year term. While widely disliked, he enjoys the advantages of incumbency (control of state media, access to funds and patronage networks), and low voter turnout will work in his favor. Although he inspires little public confidence, it is doubtful that someone else in the field of two dozen candidates will prove any more inspiring. IBK’s established rivals (such as Soumaïla Cissé, Dramane Dembélé, and Cheick Modibo Diarra) all ran against him in 2013 and lost; the remainder are outsiders or unknowns.


Candidat à sa propre succession,” and fiddler-in-chief

A recent profile in a French magazine dubs IBK Mali’s “do-nothing king,” a bright but vain figure who sleeps in late, keeps dubious company and makes fine speeches while assiduously avoiding decisive action. He is portrayed as aloof from his government’s corruption and administrative paralysis, to say nothing of the spiraling violence in the country’s north and center. Without French troops propping things up, an adviser to Mali’s constitutional court warns the author, “everything will fall apart within two weeks.” Yet IBK keeps fiddling away like Nero as Rome burns around him, and he might even garner a majority of first-round votes, thus rendering a run-off unnecessary.

3. It won’t matter anyway.

With so many grave dangers facing the Malian nation, how can I say that this election won’t matter? Well, prediction number three is a corollary of the first two. Malians are increasingly alienated from their political elite, which has stubbornly resisted reform efforts since the country’s political crisis began in 2012. The most crucial questions — like how to curb violence, reimagine the state and foster national reconciliation — aren’t up for real discussion, and the current head of state has shown zero interest in putting them on his agenda. I keep recalling the words spoken by an unnamed Burkinabè presidential adviser to a French diplomat in 2012: “Mali can collapse, and as long as Bamako remains, they will all squabble over scraps of power in Bamako.”

Mali’s present situation offers little cause for optimism, and some analysts openly question Mali’s long-term viability. “There might not be any realistic scenario under which Malians could have a state that universally delivers basic public services and organizes collective action,” write Catriona Craven-Matthews and Pierre Englebert in an article published earlier this year. “A condition of permanent receivership with internationally provided life support might be Mali’s most likely foreseeable scenario.” In 2013 I’d have dismissed this contention as unwarranted cynicism and pessimism; these days I’m not sure one can be too cynical about the postcolonial Malian state.

It would be wonderful if none of my predictions (not to mention the “permanent receivership” scenario described above) came true. In the months before Mali’s previous presidential election, dedicated civil society activists tried to make voting count for something and many of us actually believed that Malian leaders, having peered into the abyss, might act more accountably to the public and rescue the country from impending doom.

Today’s outlook is quite different. As a recent editorial in a Bamako newspaper opined,

2018 is nothing like 2013, when no candidate needed 20 artistes [pop singers], the involvement of state services like the CMDT [state cotton company] and the mobilization of all the country’s regions to fill a Bamako stadium. In short, the five-year term that’s ending has been a missed opportunity for the people; let’s hope that 2018 doesn’t produce a definitive rupture.

Then again, with the political status quo offering only public alienation, corruption, state dysfunction, and violence, a definitive rupture might not be so bad.




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Corruption and the presidential plane

This post was written by Amadou O. Wane and A. Karim Sylla of the MaliLink Investigative Reporting Group. A longer version was published in French by Inf@Sept on 11 August.

Mali’s presidential plane has undoubtedly been the subject of controversy. If its acquisition in 2014 led to outcry, its operation could become another scandal.

The government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) acquired the Boeing 737 in March 2014 in the US, but a shell company named Mali BBJ Ltd. filed the export request with American authorities. This company was created in Aruba just two weeks earlier.

The opacity surrounding the plane’s true cost prompted the IMF to demand an audit by Mali’s Bureau du Vérificateur Général (BVG). The BVG determined the cost to be 19 billion CFA francs (roughly US$40 million), of which 1.4 billion francs were commissions and fees paid to a broker linked to IBK’s friend and French mafia figure Michel Tomi. Moreover, the BVG never received access to the plane’s operating contract. A line in Mali’s national budget has existed (under “common costs”) since 2015 to cover the contract’s expenses; since 2016, according to documents posted on the Malian Finance Ministry’s website, it has been over three billion francs per year. A structure created within Mali’s presidency, known as the Groupement Aérien Présidentiel (GAPR) and led by Col. Youssouf Diarra, is now in charge of the plane.

737 before

The 737 (note small lettering)

Mali’s president travels abroad a lot: a database maintained by MaliLink Investigative Reporting Group (MIRG) reveals the destinations and dates of his trips. One-third of them have been either private or for the swearing-in of other heads of state. These trips are costly, amounting to an estimated 10 billion francs since 2014. The president averages two trips per three-week period, leading to high maintenance costs for his plane.

In February 2016, the Boeing went to Basel, Switzerland for routine repairs. IBK had decided that the lettering of “République du Mali” on the fuselage was too small. Against the advice of AMAC Aerospace, which had the maintenance contract for the plane, the GAPR had a larger inscription painted the length of the fuselage. Apparently someone was displeased with the outcome, for the job was redone six months later; a confidential source put the total cost at 50,000 euros. This episode led us to look more closely at the plane’s maintenance expenses. The numbers speak volumes.

737 after.jpg

The same 737 with large lettering

Since late last year the maintenance contract was stripped from AMAC Aerospace and awarded to KLM UK Engineering (KLMUKE), a UK-based subsidiary of Air France Industries. Repair costs rose in some cases over 500%. For example, the Malian government pays 839 million francs for a “D-check” maintenance visit with KLMUKE, compared to 153.8 million it paid for a D-check with AMAC. Why so high? The answer might be connected to the relationship between two key players: GAPR head Youssouf Diarra and the plane’s captain, Stéphane Poncet, who reportedly manages the maintenance contract personally.

Stéphane Poncet isn’t well known in Mali, visible mainly when shaking IBK’s hand at the stairway before takeoff. Poncet began his aviation career as a steward with Air Liberté, a now-defunct French airline. He underwent flight training and eventually became a copilot in the Fokker 100, a 100-seat regional jet. A 2007 online profile described the then-35-year-old as a “former pilot with 15 years’ experience,” but it is not clear if he was ever a full-fledged pilot for a commercial airline; he would have had to begin piloting at age 20 for that implausible claim to be true. In 2005 Poncet cofounded a charter company named Air Sports France specializing in sports team travel. By 2007, the company’s best year, it recorded a turnover of roughly 300,000 euros and had contracts with Spanish and French soccer and rugby teams. Amid subsequent financial difficulties, Poncet took on other piloting contracts, notably in Azerbaijan where he qualified in the Boeing 737. He was hired to fly Mali’s presidential jet in 2014, and Air Sports France closed shop the following year.


Stéphane Poncet, at left

Following the Boeing’s initial two-year maintenance deal with a company called JetMagic, Poncet got involved in its lucrative maintenance contracts. The GAPR, under Colonel Diarra, issues these contracts and Poncet recruits contractors. Our sources indicate that behind the scenes, Poncet has considerable control over decisions. Neither Poncet nor Diarra responded to repeated requests for comment on these matters.

Why did the GAPR choose a contract far more expensive than its predecessor? Did payments take place under the table? In a perfect world the Malian justice system would investigate, but there is little probability of it looking into a structure linked to the presidency. The National Assembly should also demand answers from the government about the plane’s operating costs. It is unthinkable that a country dependent on international handouts should bear such exorbitant expense. France, the UK and the EU all have anti-corruption laws; the presence on their territory of the contractors in question offers an opportunity to make justice prevail. Mali’s citizens deserve no less.


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Mali’s proposed constitutional reform: mal-intentioned, or merely inept?

This post was written by A. Karim Sylla of the MaliLink Investigative Reporting Group.

17 June saw what may have been the largest protest march ever held in Bamako. Many tens of thousands of people–organizers claimed it was in the hundreds of thousands–turned out that Saturday in opposition to government plans to change Mali’s constitution. What was so controversial about the proposed reform?

First some context: Mali’s current constitution was drawn up after the March 1991 popular revolt that deposed the then-dictatorship. It was approved by referendum in January 1992. The constitution is largely inspired by the constitution of the French 5th Republic — multiparty democracy with both a president and a prime minister running state affairs, and a parliament to vote bills into law. The president appoints the prime minister who is approved and recalled by the parliament.

In the aftermath of the 2012 uprising in northern Mali, a political settlement dubbed l’Accord d’Alger (the Algiers Accord) was signed in June 2015. Its purpose was to provide greater autonomy to the country’s sparsely populated northern regions, put an end to the cycle of violence and bring about much-needed stability. Because Mali’s 1992 Constitution only recognizes a central government, while the accord called for devolving political and economic powers to the regions, implementing the Algiers Accord requires changing the constitution.

Since 1992, two attempts to reform the constitution failed for lack of political or popular support. They were regarded as attempted power grabs. This time around it looked different: peace in the country was at stake.

Changing Mali’s constitution is a three-step process: any revision must first be debated, possibly amended, then approved by a two-thirds majority in the parliament. The Constitutional Court must then declare the text and process lawful. The final step is a popular referendum with a simple majority.

On 20 April 2016, then-Prime Minister Modibo Keïta appointed a panel to prepare a preliminary draft revision. The panel’s tasks were to (a) accommodate the Algiers Accord and (b) correct other “shortcomings” in the current constitution, though nobody clearly defined what those shortcomings were. The panel was to report to the prime minister and the minister in charge of government reforms.

About a month later President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita issued his own decree, nullifying the prime minister’s and directly nominating members of the constitutional reform panel. He was making it clear that he fully intended to drive the process. The 13-member panel was headed by Mamadou Konaté, who subsequently became minister of justice. In addition to accommodating the Algiers Accord, Konaté publicly stated that “Individual freedom will be undoubtedly reinforced. [This] revision could be nothing short of what Malians expect. And we will not disappoint them.”

The panel was to last six months, with approval processes and the referendum taking place before the end of 2016. That didn’t happen. (Nothing in Mali really works as it is supposed to.) Ten months later, on 13 March 2017, the government finally presented a bill to the parliament. “After a quarter of a century [the Constitution] has shown shortcomings and insufficiencies that need to be corrected,” the prime minister explained in his letter to the MPs. Parliamentary debates started on 27 March. Very soon it became clear that the panel’s work was different from the introduced bill; the text in front of MPs was a rush job, containing inconsistencies, omissions and even typos.

The revision called for the establishing a Senate as a second parliamentary body. Two-thirds of senators would be elected and – controversially – the remaining third simply appointed by the president. The president would also gain the right to dismiss the prime minister and appoint the head of the constitutional court which decides on the constitutionality of laws as well as validates the winner of presidential elections. Judicial independence was forgotten along the way.

The revision would also allow changes to the constitution without a referendum – except for matters regarding the secular nature of the state, and term limitations for the president and MPs. With this new power the president and MPs could potentially make dramatic changes to the constitution–even, critics have suggested, decide against multi-party democracy.

Opposition to the revision was swift. The main argument against the proposed change stemmed from Article 118 of the constitution – which stipulates that “No reform of [the constitution] could be pursued when the territorial integrity is being undermined”.  Another argument which Malians are quite sensitive to is the broadening of presidential powers. The ability to dismiss the prime minister coupled with the existing power to dismiss parliament would presumably allow the issuing decrees at will. This would be facilitated by a more pliable constitutional court – the president would be able to nominate the head of the court whose vote, in case of ties in the nine-judge body, counts double. As mentioned above, the president is to appoint a third of senators with no restrictions whatsoever. Eliminating the High Court of the parliament (the only one able to try the president and ministers) would further tilt the balance of power toward the executive.

Confident that the reform would be approved by parliament, the government set the referendum for 9 July. The bill was debated in parliament and approved on 3 June by 111 MPs – largely surpassing the required two-thirds majority of the 147-member body. The law was sent to the Constitutional Court on 5 June.

A day later, the Court issued its ruling. Article 118 was brushed aside; the Court reasoning that no-go areas held by former rebels do not constitute a risk to the integrity of Mali’s territory since no foreign power is occupying it. The Court noted a few omissions in the new law. The president’s oath of office in the new text was missing the pledge to guarantee the independence and the integrity of the national territory; some saw it as a deliberate omission by the government. Another omission was the power to appoint ambassadors to international bodies. The Court also revealed a level of confusion between the new text, the version approved by MPs and the old text – some changes only noted differences between the final text and changes added to the original text, not the original text itself.

This created a dilemma for the government. Making these alterations would require a new vote in parliament, which means additional debate and possibly missing the 9 July deadline. Not making the change would mean violating the decision of the Court. Opposition leader Soumaila Cissé and other MPs petitioned the Court to force a new parliamentary vote. They also asked the Court to review its decision on whether Mali’s territorial integrity is currently violated. Lastly they argued that the draft law was unclear about appointed senators’ term in office as well as the new power to amend the constitution without referendum.

Meanwhile, popular opposition to the reform was growing; grass-roots movements using social media went in overdrive. As early as 8 June a group called Trop, c’est trop (“Enough is enough” in French) attempted a demonstration – it was quickly quelled by the police resulting in 10 injured protesters. Two days later, the same group attempted another protest march and was again blocked by the police. In a desperate attempt to quiet opposition to the referendum, the government resorted to restricting access to social media sites.

Opposition parties, NGOs, and a trade union joined together and formed the An tè, a banna! (“We refuse, that’s it” in Bamanan) movement. The new grouping called for the withdrawal of the new text. It then called for a protest march in Bamako on 17 June, warning that it would not abide by any prohibition by the authorities. That march brought back memories of the March 1991 revolution, making it clear that going forward would be risky for the government. The message was heard: on 21 June, the government quietly announced the referendum’s indefinite postponement. Officially, it is seeking a new decision from the Constitutional Court.

The last group to come out against the new text is an influential umbrella group representing Islamic Associations, the Collectif des Associations Musulmanes du Mali, which is now calling for its withdrawal. Their objections center around the government’s ability to amend the constitution and alter legal aspects concerning social life, such as family law, without resorting to a referendum. The association is calling for a “no” vote if the project goes ahead.

Things don’t look good for President Keita’s plans.

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How did Mali get here? (Part 5: Institutional explanations)

In this final installment of the series we consider the role of Mali’s political institutions in generating the wave of instability and political violence that has engulfed the country since 2012.

Institutionalist analysis ascribes a country’s success–or lack thereof–to the quality of its political and economic institutions. It highlights such problems as government corruption, poor public infrastructure and services, and weak rule of law as preventing stability and prosperity. Where institutions are “extractive,” they take wealth from one segment of a population to benefit another. Because states with extractive institutions have no capacity to hold powerful actors accountable to those with less power, or enforce rules and contracts that serve broad public interests (especially when doing so would threaten elite privileges), they are prone to conflict and economic stagnation (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012).

Mali’s postcolonial institutions have been extractive in many respects. The multiparty system set up in the early 1990s had no grounding in the political realities of Malian society, and most parties functioned as vehicles for personal advancement rather than political change (see Bintou Sanankoua’s analysis from 2007). State bureaucracy and public services, heavily concentrated in Bamako, were plagued by deficiencies (O. Sidibé, 2013). Yet despite grave threats to the nation since 2012, its ruling elite resisted calls for political reform and inclusive dialogue, seeking instead to restore the pre-coup order (Marchal, 2013; Bleck et al., 2016). Their exclusionary and self-serving rule perpetuated the illusion of a functional state while delivering a bare minimum of public goods, leading critics to brand the post-2012 Malian state a clever counterfeit or sham, even a “Potemkin state in the Sahel.” From an institutionalist perspective “there is little doubt that the erosion of democracy, rise of criminality, and impunity of state officials are at the very root of the Malian crisis” (Wing, 2013: 481). Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch concurs: “It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012,” she writes in a recent opinion piece. “The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government.”

Kidal, Mali 2013

Malian administrators in Kidal, 2013  (photo: ICTJ)

Why was corruption so rampant, and how is it that Mali lacked modern state institutions like effective policing, impartial courts, a professional civil service, and checks on executive power? Baudais (2015) blames the neopatrimonial practices of Mali’s ruling elite under successive regimes. These practices were partly an inheritance from French administrators: as elsewhere in the Sahel, colonial governance was authoritarian, unaccountable, clientelistic, and corrupt — characteristics amplified by Mali’s new rulers after independence (see analyses by Olivier de Sardan and Sanankoua), rendering state agencies incapable of fulfilling their duties.

This incapacity was evident in the way the Malian government dealt with donors. Budget support from foreign governments was not effectively monitored, and Malian officials were rarely punished for embezzling public funds. Mali’s ruling elite made a show of being compliant aid recipients, ensuring that aid flows continued and even increased, while finding ways to stymie bids to make the Malian state more transparent and accountable to its citizens (Bergamaschi, 2014). In fact the Malian government proved adept over the years at exploiting competing donor agendas and domesticating foreign aid priorities to serve its own political ends (Bergamaschi, 2016).

Mali arms

Captured insurgent weapons: Where did they come from? (AP photo)

Similar institutional failings undermined the nation’s armed forces. By 2012 the army was a mire of corruption and nepotism, with a top-heavy command structure estranged from the rank and file. Foreign military assistance programs, sponsored notably by the US, poured millions of dollars worth of training and equipment into structures unable to absorb them. New supplies were often stored rather than issued to troops in need, and organizational culture was “overrun by apathy,” according to a US Special Forces officer who advised Malian army units before the coup. The result was a military unable to counter militant threats or even safeguard its own assets, virtually inviting rebellion. Insurgents captured large quantities of government weapons and hardware on the battlefield and from conquered barracks; studies by the Small Arms Survey and Conflict Armament Research found the most common source of rebel arms to be raided Malian army stockpiles, not Libyan or other foreign depots.

Against the backdrop of “empirical state failure” mentioned by Bleck and Michelitch (2015), where state provision of security and public services was poor or absent, government forces were ill-suited to wage a counterinsurgency campaign aimed at winning the hearts and minds of local populations, even in areas not previously occupied by Tuareg or jihadi fighters. Filling the void left by the state, jihadi groups and ethnic militias offered protection and, for some, the opportunity to contest local power hierarchies or penetrate lucrative smuggling networks. Soldiers sent to quell insurgent activity in the Mopti region alienated local civilians with heavy-handed tactics including the detention, extortion, and abuse of civilians, further delegitimizing the Malian government (see analyses by Jézéquel, Sangaré, and Théroux-Bénoni et al.).

Where a weak or failing state is concerned, institutionalist analysis situates the primary source of instability firmly within its national boundaries, ascribing agency (and responsibility) to the nation’s population and political elite. “In the end, the country’s future will not be determined so much by MINUSMA and the international community as by Mali’s inhabitants and its leaders,” write Boeke and Tisseron (2014: 38), echoing Dufka’s statement above. Such declarations illustrate how institutionalist explanations can overlook the ways outsiders incapacitate weak states and the extent to which structural forces constrain local abilities to effect meaningful change. As Sassen (2014: 85-86) puts it, talk of failed states

leaves out many of the negative effects that key actors of the international governance system, notably the IMF and the WTO, have had on program countries. Such language represents these states’ decay as endogenous, a function of their own weaknesses and corruptions…. But it is important to remember that it often is and was the vested interests of foreign governments and firms that enabled the corruption and weakening of these states.

The brutal impact of neoliberal policies on the state, the hollowing out of the public sector and the promotion of an illusory democracy, all under the watchful eye of donors, did not merely fail to promote good governance in Mali; these exogenous factors may have unintentionally but actively subverted it, further empowering the country’s extractive rulers.


In isolation, none of the three explanatory narratives reviewed in this series (anti-imperialist, geopolitical, and institutionalist) can properly account for the crisis Mali underwent in the second decade of the 21st century. The forces that destabilized Mali took shape over a very long period. They are too complex to be understood as primarily internal or primarily external. It is true that generations of leaders in Mali made poor choices that undermined the integrity of national institutions, but it is equally true that these negative consequences were magnified by external factors beyond those leaders’ control. Mali’s destabilization must be recognized as a co-production of inside and outside forces — a composite assemblage of self-serving Malian elites, donor governments oblivious to their actions’ harmful consequences, and foreign actors pursuing their own ends. This assemblage has been taking shape since the colonial period.

Just as importantly, destabilizing forces kept tearing Mali apart well after a concerted international effort to stabilize the country began in 2013. They defied emergency measures and standardized approaches to conflict resolution precisely because they were generated not by an acute crisis but by the accumulation of deeply political tensions, injustices and grievances over decades. And since the roots of these tensions were both internal and external to Mali, their solutions will similarly require the cooperation of people in Mali, in neighboring countries, and beyond.

The future of Malian national unity and identity probably lies not in returning to its revolutionary days of the 1960s, nor in propping up the secular and highly centralized state structure inherited from colonial rule. That old order is almost certainly beyond salvaging. Neither is whatever lies ahead likely to entail ethnic homogenization, as for centuries this society has been multi-ethnic and interdependent with other lands. Instability has made the limitations of the Westphalian nation state apparent in Mali and throughout the Sahel. It may be in this part of the world that new political frameworks will emerge, flexible enough to accommodate difference and resilient enough to guarantee citizens’ basic rights and dignity.

Offline references

  • Acemoglu, Daron and James A. Robinson. 2012. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. New York: Crown Business.
  • Baudais, Virginie. 2015. Les trajectoires de l’Etat au Mali. Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Bergamaschi, Isaline. 2014. The fall of a donor darling: The role of aid in Mali’s crisis. Journal of Modern African Studies 52(3):347-378.
  • Bergamaschi, Isaline. 2016. The politics of aid and poverty reduction in Africa: A conceptual proposal and the case of Mali. Global Cooperation Research Papers 16:5-33.
  • Bleck, Jaimie and Kristin Michelitch. 2015. The 2012 crisis in Mali: Ongoing empirical state failure. African Affairs 114:1-26.
  • Boeke, Sergei and Antonin Tisseron. 2014. Mali’s long road ahead. RUSI Journal 159(5):32-40.
  • Marchal, Roland. 2013. Military (mis)adventures in Mali. African Affairs 112/448:486-497.
  • Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sidibé, Ousmane Oumarou. 2013. La déliquescence de l’etat : un accélérateur de la crise malienne ? In Doulaye Konaté, ed. Le Mali entre doutes et espoirs : Réflexions sur la Nation à l’épreuve de la crise du Nord. Bamako: Editions Tombouctou. 171-192.
  • Wing, Susanna. 2013. Mali: Politics of a crisis. African Affairs 112/448:476-485.
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How did Mali get here? (Part 4: Geopolitical explanations)

In seeking to understand the long-term sources of instability in Mali, analytical perspectives centered on geopolitics emphasize competition among states, including the Malian government, its Sahelian neighbors, and extra-regional players, in shaping events there. These perspectives pit the Malian state’s interests in controlling its territory, population, and resources against those of external actors pursuing their own agendas. This set of narratives overlaps with anti-imperialist narratives in highlighting the role of external powers and their interest in Mali’s natural resources. Foreign governments also have security and diplomatic stakes in Mali and the region. Threats posed by terrorist and criminal organizations have brought the Sahel/Sahara to the great powers’ attention since the beginning of the US “War on Terror” (Lecocq and Schrijver, 2007) and especially since 2012.

Mali is often viewed as either blessed or cursed with a valuable geographic setting as well as abundant natural resources. Historian Doulaye Konaté described Mali’s location to an interviewer as “the transition between North Africa and Africa that reaches the ocean and the forests. This gives us an important strategic position: whoever controls Mali, controls West Africa – if not the whole of Africa… that’s why this region became so coveted” (see video below from the 03:10 mark). In 2013 Issa N’Diaye linked Mali’s conflict to “the covetousness that the immense resources beneath its soil inspire among Western, notably French, multinational companies with respect to oil and uranium.” Following Serval, many scholars (e.g., Jean Batou; see also Claudot-Hawad, 2013 and Diarra, 2013) agreed that foreign competition for Mali’s minerals–particularly energy resources, but also precious metals–had fueled conflict there and throughout the region.

The truth about Mali’s strategic minerals, however, is unclear. Some scholars cast doubt on mineral wealth (e.g., Bergamaschi and Diawara, 2014; Chivvis, 2016) or other economic motives (Powell, 2016) as underlying French intervention. Mali certainly has significant gold deposits, and in the 1990s became Africa’s third-largest gold producer (though it may have recently fallen to fourth place). But these deposits are mainly in the south and west, and in any case French spending on Operation Serval in 2013 was over twice the value of all Malian gold produced that year (Notin, 2014). In the north, the extent of gold, uranium and other minerals is not known. With respect to oil, none was successfully drilled in Mali despite years of exploration up north. If deposits ever were confirmed, the cost of exploiting them would be steep and the rewards uncertain. Energy companies therefore never flocked to explore in Mali, and many of those that did gave up even before renewed instability in 2012 (see Augé, 2011 and a 2013 IMF report). Northern Mali’s hydrocarbons could simply be a mirage and external powers’ purported desire for them a red herring. Yet the mere possibility of their existence has long shaped Malian leaders’ actions on the ground.

More compelling than Mali’s supposed riches or important location in accounting for its instability are the security interests of foreign powers, both regional and global. Numerous geopolitical narratives attest that if the Sahara is no strategic heartland (Lacoste, 2011), it is a zone where real and assumed threats to various governments abounded after 9/11. Violent jihadi groups in northern Mali began as a consequence of civil war in neighboring Algeria during the 1990s and posed a determined menace to the Algerian government ever since. By kidnapping Westerners and hold them for ransom in the Sahara, they also became a Western concern even before they affiliated with Al Qaeda in 2007 (Harmon, 2014). The Malian government was slow to recognize the jihadis as a serious threat, and may even have reached an informal non-aggression pact with AQIM (see also Lasserre and Oberlé, 2013). Yet northern Mali’s 2012 occupation exposed violent jihad in the Sahara and Sahel as a major risk to the region’s relatively weak states.


European Union trainers in Koulikoro, 2017 (source: EUTM flickr)

Despite decades of Malian military cooperation with the US, Russia and other states (as well as the European Union, most recently), France became the most prominent external actor with respect to Mali’s security when it launched Operation Serval in 2013. The French government identified three short-term goals: securing Bamako and its expatriate residents, halting the jihadi insurgency, and restoring Mali’s territorial integrity (Chivvis, 2016). Of these, it was arguably successful only in achieving the first: if the complete collapse of the Malian state was averted, separatist resistance and resurgent jihadi militants kept vast areas of northern Mali outside state control. France also hoped to locate its citizens held by insurgents in the region, but Serval freed none of the seven French hostages then in captivity; two were later killed and the others rescued or released in prisoner swaps.

Long-term interests were also at stake. Uranium in neighboring Niger, a major source of the fuel for France’s nuclear reactors, was among them, as was the necessity to keep Mali from becoming a safe haven for militants who could strike at French citizens, embassies and businesses in Africa. Intervention additionally served French strategic interests to which Mali was merely incidental: it raised France’s profile on the world stage. This was among Hollande’s central goals and Mali was a convenient venue for projecting French military power, particularly given other actors’ unwillingness to deploy troops there. Serval “allowed France to demonstrate its willingness to take responsibility for dealing with global terrorism in ‘its’ area of influence,” writes Chafer (2016: 131). In the face of potential defense budget cuts, Serval showcased a robust military as vital for protecting French interests at home and abroad (Chivvis, 2016) and maintaining France’s status as a global power.

But protecting French material and symbolic interests came at a cost to Malians beset by insurgent violence, crime, and injustice in their still-fractured country. French troops came to hunt terrorists, not protect Mali’s people or restore its territorial integrity. Predictions that foreign military intervention would facilitate internal Malian dynamics of conflict resolution and stabilization proved misplaced (see a recent joint report by FIDH and AMDH). The success of Hollande’s Malian gambit has so far proven tactical but not strategic (Boeke and Schuurman, 2015): while it helped prop up the Malian government, it also added new international dimensions to an already complex situation and lacked a clear exit strategy (Powell, 2016). My conclusion is that even if geopolitical dynamics were not primarily behind Mali’s destabilization, they exacerbated the conflict already underway and further fragilized the Malian state.

Coming up in Part 5: Institutionalist explanations

Offline references

  • Augé, Benjamin. 2011. Les nouveaux enjeux pétroliers de la zone saharienne. Hérodote 142:183-205.
  • Bergamaschi, Isaline and Mahamadou Diawara. 2014. The French military intervention in Mali: Not exactly Françafrique but definitely postcolonial. In Bruno Charbonneau and Tony Chafer, eds. Peace operations in the francophone world: global governance meets post-colonialism. Abingdon: Routledge. 137-152.
  • Boeke, Sergei and Bart Schuurman. 2015. Operation “Serval”: A Strategic Analysis of the French Intervention in Mali. Journal of Strategic Studies 38(6):801-825.
  • Chafer, Tony. 2016. France in Mali: Towards a new Africa strategy? International Journal of Francophone Studies 19(2):119-140.
  • Charbonneau, Bruno and Jonathan M. Sears. 2014. Fighting for liberal peace in Mali? The limits of international military intervention. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 8(2-3):192-213.
  • Chivvis, Christopher. 2016. The French War on Al Qa’ida in Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Claudot-Hawad, Hélène. 2013. La “question touarègue”, quels enjeux ? In Michel Galy, ed. La guerre au Mali : Comprendre la crise au Sahel et au Sahara : enjeux et zones d’ombre. Paris: La Découverte. 125-147.
  • Diarra, Balla. 2013. Le conflit dans le Nord du Mali : les éclairages de l’espace en jeu. In Doulaye Konaté, ed. Le Mali : Entre doutes et espoirs. Bamako: Editions Tombouctou. 47-68.
  • Harmon, Stephen A. 2014. Terror and Insurgency in the Sahara-Sahel Region: Corruption, Contraband, Jihad and the Mali War of 2012-2013. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  • Joly, Vincent. 2013. The French Army and Malian Independence. In Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese, eds. Francophone Africa at Fifty. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 75-89.
  • Lacoste, Yves. 2011. Sahara, perspectives et illusions geopolitiques. Hérodote 142:12-41.
  • Lasserre, Isabelle and Thierry Oberlé. 2013. Notre Guerre Secrète au Mali : Les nouvelles menaces contre la France. Paris: Fayard.
  • Lecocq, Baz and Paul Schrijver. 2007. The war on terror in a haze of dust: Potholes and pitfalls on the Saharan Front. Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25(1):141-166.
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  • Powell, Nathaniel K. 2016. Battling Instability? The Recurring Logic of French Military Interventions in Africa. African Security 10(1):47-72.
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