Africa comes to Washington

English novelist David Lodge once observed that professional conferences have become a modern form of pilgrimage. Much like medieval pilgrims, he wrote, conference-goers today “indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement.”


Pillars of wisdom in the Africanists’ house of pilgrimage

I remembered this observation while attending last week’s annual meeting of the African Studies Association in Washington, DC. For me, though, the pleasure lies not in the travel but in the encounters with fellow participants, both in and out of formal panel presentations, roundtable discussions and special sessions. Whether sitting in a hushed meeting room in the bowels of the Marriott Wardman Park, crossing the lobby buzzing with fellow Africanists, or sharing a meal with old and new friends who study the continent’s affairs, I gain invaluable opportunities to expand my horizons at this conference. Daunting as it may be, finding myself the least-informed person in a room is both edifying and rare. (Well, it’s rare here in the US. It happens to me all the time in Mali.)

Another aspect that draws me to the African Studies meeting is that it’s attended not only by academics like me but also by federal government employees keen to share their views and acquire new insights. You might spot a USAID bureau director alongside tenured political scientists on a governance panel, or bump into an intelligence analyst in the book exhibit, or listen to a fairly high-ranking State Department official trying to predict Trump’s policy toward Africa (upshot: nobody has a clue what to expect, but nobody’s expecting much.) Such exchanges allow me to keep believing that empirical knowledge still carries value outside the ivied halls of academe. For the time being, at least.

Mali was the natural focus of my interest throughout most of the conference. I heard presentations about labor and gender during the early days of COMATEX, about diaspora-led development in a Soninké community, and about critiques of polygamy in the songs of famous jelimusow (a.k.a. “griottes”); my own presentation dealt with monogamy rates in Bamako. Meeting programs have long featured such contributions based on Mali research. What was striking this year, however, was the number of talks examining much more dire subjects, including the loss of cultural heritage in Djenné and Timbuktu, the origins of the present violence in the north, and especially the weakness of the Malian government. One scholar described Mali as having a “Potemkin state” incapable of serving its people’s needs, while another characterized efforts to enhance rule of law as futile in a country where the ruling class has no interest in being held accountable. The Malian state, to use one colleague’s analogy, was like a house with no foundation, kept standing only by donors and a self-serving elite.

Such critiques are not new and have been articulated in recent years by some of Mali’s opposition activists and junta leaders. But they sound especially alarming coming from seasoned scholarly observers who tend to be in favor of reform, not revolution. The question raised by many of the presenters I heard, implicitly or explicitly, was “Can the Malian state be saved?” I did not sense much optimism among those present, and nobody I talked to sees a leader on Bamako’s political scene capable of turning things around. Has the time come, we wondered, to question longstanding assumptions about what the state in Mali ought to look like? Perhaps a centralized, dirigiste secular state has never been what most Malians really needed.

It’s worth noting that the participants in these conversations were, like me, mostly non-Africans. Yet Malian and other West African participants, some of them having flown in just to attend the meeting, were on the same page with respect to Mali’s outlook: the future appears bleak, and big changes to the political system are long overdue. The ongoing intervention by France and the UN to prop up the existing government structure may merely delay the inevitable day of reckoning.the-vert

Listening to all this as I sat sipping the cup of mint tea I’d purchased in the hotel cafe, I noticed it was branded “Touareg green tea” by a French company. No doubt some of my Malian friends would wonder, What makes this tea “Touareg”? Don’t the region’s Arabs, Sonrai, Fulani and Bambara also drink their green gunpowder tea with mint? Why has Dammann Frères appropriated Tuareg ethnicity to sell this particular tea (which, in any case, is probably grown in China)?

But these questions only reminded me of something I did not hear expressed at this conference: the idea that Mali should be partitioned and that Tuareg and other northerners should have an independent homeland. While many Malians I know assume that the Tuareg separatist cause enjoys strong support in Western capitals, I have heard no one in US policy circles express such support in public or in private. Nor have I ever heard anyone in these circles call Mali’s present borders into question. The South Sudan example suggests that partition, even when overwhelmingly desired by the local population, doesn’t address underlying political problems and may actually exacerbate them. I suspect that the assumption most of us at the African Studies Association make is that what ails Mali is not its boundaries but the way it is governed. This assumption is shared by a great many people in Mali, as Jaimie Bleck and colleagues have recently found. And questions of governance, both in Mali and more broadly, seem to be generating increasing discussion, even among scholars and policy specialists who used to care mainly about economic growth.

My African studies pilgrimage over, I felt compelled to reflect on what I learned from my fellow pilgrims. The outlook may be grim where Mali is concerned, but I take heart in the fact that growing numbers of us see governance as central, not secondary, to problems of poverty and conflict resolution. If this emerging consensus is indeed genuine, perhaps it will help people to usher in the necessary changes–both in Bamako and in Washington.

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Changement et désespoir : lettre d’un ami américain

Mon cher Lamine,

Tu m’as demandé, une fois les résultats du scrutin présidentiel américain connus, “Comment cela a-t-il pu se produire ? Comment la démocratie la plus puissante du monde a-t-elle élu un démagogue déséquilibré à la présidence ?”

Comme beaucoup de mes compatriotes, j’ai du mal à accepter cette nouvelle réalité. Ma réponse à la victoire électorale de Donald Trump cette semaine n’était pas seulement faite de déception ou de désespoir. J’ai plutôt eu le sentiment inquiétant que mon pays ne ressemblait  pas à ce que je pensais. « Sonné », envahi par le chagrin et l’anxiété, j’ai passé quelques jours comme paralysé par la crainte, incapable d’affronter l’énormité de ce qui se passait.

Et puis, je me suis rendu compte que j’avais eu ce même sentiment dans le passé, à Bamako, en mars 2012.

Tu te souviens bien sûr que nous étions tous deux à Bamako quand les soldats en colère ont renversé le gouvernement. Humiliés par les avancées des rebelles et dégoûtés par les élus, des soldats maliens, menés par un certain Capitaine Sanogo, ont pris le contrôle de l’état et ont mis fin à ce qui était considéré comme une démocratie multi-partite imparfaite, mais en marche. Quel étonnement que presque personne ne s’y soit opposé et qu’il y ait même eu des scènes de liesse dans les rues bamakoises. Les Maliens comme toi ont toujours marqué leur soutien au processus démocratique. Même si je savais que vous n’étiez pas satisfaits de vos hommes politiques (comme tout le monde d’ailleurs), je ne comprenais pas la profondeur du mécontentement. Je supposais simplement qu’on allait tenir bon jusqu’aux élections pour attendre une amélioration.

Ce que j’ai assez vite saisi, c’est que beaucoup, sinon la majorité des Maliens, se sentaient méprisés par un gouvernement et une élite politique qui se servaient sévèrement au dépens des citoyens lambda. Tu ne pensais pas que le système, qui ne semblait produire que de la corruption, un manque d’opportunité et une inégalité croissante, pouvait faire mieux. Te souviens-tu m’avoir dit que le vote du peuple ne comptait pas, que le prochain président du Mali serait choisi par une cabale d’hommes politiques en catimini ? Pas mal d’autres Maliens considéraient leur démocratie comme illusoire aussi. Ils ne pouvaient pas dépendre des initiés du système pour régler leurs problèmes et ils ont donc jugé le coup d’état comme un choc nécessaire au système.

Lamine, durant cette année, le sentiment public ici, aux E-U, présente des points communs avec celui qui prévalait à Bamako en 2012. Nombre de mes concitoyens se sentent exclus du système politique. Troublés par les changements démographiques et économiques du pays, ainsi que par les menaces sécuritaires à l’extérieur, croyant le système truqué, ils ont préféré un pari risqué sur un “outsider” à la fausse sécurité du statu quo. Que l’on ne se “Trump” pas : nombre d’entre eux ont également été motivés par la crainte… des immigrés, des musulmans, de ceux que ne leur ressemblaient pas. Beaucoup aussi n’étaient pas prêt à voir une femme comme chef suprême des armées (même s’ils ne l’admettront jamais). Pourtant, l’unique désir partagé par tous les Trumpistes, c’était le changement–parce qu’ils ne croyaient plus à l’alternative.

 Tu voulais savoir ce à quoi on doit s’attendre avec Trump. Personnellement, je pense que son administration se montrera aussi incohérente et sa direction aussi incompétente que celles du Capitaine Sanogo. Comme Sanogo, Trump communique d’une façon brusque mais habile, et il sait bien manipuler les craintes et les soupçons de ses citoyens. Comme Sanogo, c’est un homme obsédé de lui-même et de sa grandeur. Mais également comme Sanogo, Trump n’a aucune solution pratique à proposer ; il est aveugle à ses propres limites et il guette sans cesse ses ennemis (on dit qu’il en fait une liste).

Nous connaissons bien le sort de Sanogo : son régime s’est vite perdu dans le maintien du pouvoir et la commission de crimes haineux, pour lesquels il sera jugé fin-novembre. Nous connaissons d’ailleurs le sort du Mali qui ne vit que sous perfusion de la communauté internationale. Je parie que la plupart de tes concitoyens, même ceux qui soutenait Sanogo à l’époque, regardent son règne court comme une faute tragique. Peut-être les Trumpistes regretteront-ils aussi un jour leur choix (selon David Brooks, Trump “va soit démissionner, soit se voir inculpé d’ici un an”).

Ton pays et le mien, Lamine, ont des cultures et des systèmes de gouvernement très différents. La pauvreté et la faiblesse des institutions de l’état sont certes plus graves au Mali qu’aux E-U. Mon séjour au Mali m’a appris que la démocratie est une chose très fragile. Ce scrutin présidentiel m’a appris que, du point de vue politique, les Maliens et les Américains sont beaucoup plus semblables que je ne le pensais auparavant. Pourtant, malgré ce qui s’est passé au Mali depuis 2012, et malgré ce qui s’est passé aux E-U cette semaine, j’espère que le but d’une société stable et inclusive reste à la portée de nos deux peuples. Que Dieu nous protège de ceux qui nous écarteraient de ce but.



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Despairing for change: A letter to a Malian friend

Dear Lamine,

You asked me, once the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election was apparent: How could this happen? How could the world’s most powerful democracy elect a volatile demagogue to the highest office in the land?

Like many around me, I have struggled to come to terms with this new reality. My reaction to Donald Trump’s victory this week was more than mere disappointment or even despair. It was the unsettling sense that this country was not the place I’d thought it was. Stunned, chagrined, anxious, I went through the next few days with a numb feeling of dread, trying to process the enormity of what was happening around me.

Then it dawned on me: I’ve had this feeling before. Bamako, March 2012.

Of course you remember that time–we were both there when Mali’s ruling establishment was upended by angry soldiers. Stung by recent rebel advances and disgusted with their elected leaders, Malian soldiers led by a certain Captain Sanogo took over the government and put an end to what had been considered a functioning if somewhat under-performing  multiparty democracy. It surprised me that hardly anyone in Mali tried to oppose them, and that jubilant crowds even celebrated their takeover on the streets of Bamako. Malians like you had always said you were in favor of the democratic process. I knew you were dissatisfied with your politicians (who isn’t?), but I hadn’t realized just how deep the discontent ran. I simply assumed people would hold out for improvements following the next elections.

What I soon understood was that many, perhaps even most Malians felt they had been spurned by both a government and a political elite that had callously served its own needs at ordinary citizens’ expense. You had little faith in the system to deliver anything but more of the same–corruption, lack of opportunity, and rising inequality. Remember when you told me before the coup that voting was irrelevant, that Mali’s next president would really be chosen by a clique of politicians behind closed doors? A lot of other Malians felt their democracy was a sham, too. They didn’t trust political insiders to fix it, and they saw the coup as a necessary shock to the system.

Lamine, for the past year the public mood here in the US has felt a lot like the mood in Bamako back then. A great many of my fellow Americans feel left out by their government and political system. Troubled by economic and demographic changes at home and by security threats abroad, believing that the system was rigged, they decided to take a risk on an outsider rather than stick with the status quo. Make no mistake: many of them were also motivated by fear–of immigrants, of Muslims, of people different from themselves. Many also weren’t ready to see a woman as commander in chief, even if they would never admit as much. But the one thing all Trump’s supporters seemed to desire was change, because they didn’t trust the alternative.

You wanted to know what we can expect from Trump. Personally I think his administration will prove as incoherent and his leadership as incompetent as Captain Sanogo’s did. Like Sanogo, Trump is a brusque but skilled communicator who plays expertly on the fears and suspicions of ordinary citizens. Like Sanogo, he is a man obsessed with himself and his greatness. But also like Sanogo, Trump has no practical solutions to offer, is blind to his own failings and is constantly in search of enemies (apparently he’s keeping a list).

Of course we know what happened to Sanogo: his regime quickly got carried away with ensuring its own survival and committed some heinous crimes, for which he’s set to be judged later this month. And we know what happened to Mali: the country is now on international life support. I suspect that most of your fellow citizens today, even those who supported Sanogo back then, look back on his brief period of rule as a tragic mistake. Who knows, maybe a lot of Trump supporters will feel the same way someday (David Brooks thinks Trump “will probably resign or be impeached within a year”).

Your country and mine, Lamine, have very different cultures and systems of government. Mali certainly has far greater poverty and weaker state institutions than the US. My time in Mali taught me that democracy is a very fragile thing. This election taught me that, at least politically speaking, Malians and Americans are much more alike than I used to think. But despite what’s happened to Mali since 2012, and despite what happened in the US this week, I hope the goal of a stable, inclusive society is still within reach for both our peoples. May God protect us from those who would deny that goal.

A bientôt,


Postscript, 21 November 2016: Observers who have compared Donald Trump’s popular appeal and leadership style to those of African strongmen include Kenyan writer Patrick Gathara (in November 2016) and South African satirist Trevor Noah (in October 2015) who said “Trump is basically the perfect African president.”

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Kicking the foreigners out


Paris, 24 August 1996

Amid the recent hype over Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric in the US, the anniversary of a landmark crackdown on unwanted foreigners has quietly slipped past. 20 years ago this week, police broke down the doors of the Eglise Saint-Bernard in Paris and “evacuated” the 210 undocumented migrants within, mostly West Africans. The brusque removal of these men and women from their supposed place of sanctuary mobilized political opposition to President Chirac’s conservative immigration policies and helped bring a leftist government to power in France the following year.

While the Saint-Bernard operation was dramatic and highly mediatized, it was by no means unusual in the experience of Malians who go abroad. In August 1996, the very same month France expelled dozens of Malians, with little fanfare the Angolan government began a massive roundup (dubbed “Operation Cancer II”) of foreign migrants on its territory. On 22 August, the eve of the Saint-Bernard raid, Angolan police surrounded a mosque in one Luanda neighborhood and detained everyone inside–again, mostly West Africans. The campaign lasted four months and led to the deportation of 4000 migrants, including 1000 from Mali. “Cancer II” and many similar mass expulsions of immigrants by African governments have scarcely garnered any attention internationally. Over the years Malians have been targeted by sweeps in countries including Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Libya, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zambia. (One passage in my book Migrants and Strangers in an African City details the expulsion of thousands of West Africans from Congo-Brazzaville.) Most recently, dozens of would-be asylum seekers from African countries were deported by the US government, while Algeria repatriated over 400 Malians allegedly bound for Europe.

International migration is important to Mali. It’s difficult to know how many Malians live outside their country’s borders; most Malians who move from one place to another remain within Mali (the 2009 census found 2.6 million of these “internal migrants” in the country, some 20% of the total population). Reckoning the number abroad is much harder. For years the Malian Ministry of Malians Abroad has estimated that four million Malians live outside the country, a figure that seems wildly inflated even if we expand the category of “Malians abroad” to include anyone having one or more Malian parents. The Malian government’s RAVEC administrative census identified 265,000 Malian voters living abroad, while the World Bank estimated over 360,000 Malian emigrants in 2015. Arouna Sougane’s chapter in Le Mali Contemporain (2014) entitled “Migrations et transferts : Un état des lieux” advances the figure of 328,000 migrants, or 2% of Mali’s total population, abroad; some two-thirds of them live in other African countries, while 17% (57,000 by Sougane’s reckoning) live in France.

Even if international migrants account for a tiny sliver of Mali’s overall population, they are vital to the country’s economy. The World Bank estimated that Mali received 200 billion CFA francs in remittances from these migrants in 2011, while the regional central bank put the figure at over 350 billion, worth more than US$750 million at the time. And these figures, which have climbed steeply over the past few years (see below), don’t even factor in funds sent through informal value transfer systems, widely used by the Malian diaspora. At least one out of five people in Mali resides in a household with one or more migrants abroad, and in those households remittances account for 11% of household spending. (The above statistics all come from the same chapter by Sougane.)

Mali remittances

Remittances to Mali (source:, based on World Bank data)

All told, it’s quite possible that Mali’s remittances exceed the level of official development assistance (“foreign aid”) Mali receives, once informal flows are factored in. And, unlike official aid, remittances tend not to get siphoned off by foreign consultants, administration overhead and elites in Bamako; they go straight to urgent household expenses and sometimes to community-level projects (schools, clinics, mosques etc.).

So you can see why Malians would be concerned about rising anti-immigrant sentiment in host countries. Civil society groups like the Association Malienne des Expulsées have been sounding the alarm for years, and the fact that Mali could wind up on a list of “excluded countries” under a Trump administration is surely not lost on them.

The study of African migration flows and the barriers they’ve faced offers lessons that we in the West might ponder as we consider how to respond to the perceived “threat” of migrant influxes in our own countries.

  1. Expelling foreigners doesn’t solve the problem. Migrants might make a convenient scapegoat for politicians during periods of economic distress, but they are almost never the cause of that distress. Foreign labor usually occupies particular niches of the host economy and cannot easily be replaced after the foreigners leave. Congo’s attempt to promote local entrepreneurs by driving out West African shopkeepers in 1978 flopped after only a few months, leaving prices high and shops bare until the West Africans started trickling back in. Labor migration is a response to structural forces (see Ruth Gomberg-Munoz’s ethnography Labor and Legality on the forces underlying Mexican labor migration to the US), and anti-immigrant crackdowns do nothing to address these forces.
  2. Mass deportation has terrible optics. As the French government discovered two decades ago, rounding up immigrants en masse tends to generate public opposition because it just looks heartless. As more and more people get caught up in the dragnet, spouses are separated and parents cut off from children. Citizens who think of themselves as humane cannot always reconcile their positive self-image with brutal measures carried out by their governments. I don’t know if Americans are ready to see ICE squads battering down their neighborhood church doors to expel the migrants sheltering inside. When we consider that the US is home to an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, it’s hard even to imagine the extr9780520282520eme measures necessary to remove such a population from the country.
  3. Walls don’t work. For years the European Union has spent millions to prevent migrants from crossing into its territory from Africa. Stepped-up maritime enforcement coordinated by Frontex has only forced migrants to take longer, riskier sea routes. Immigration enforcement tends to benefit security contractors and human traffickers by raising the price of passage, but does little to stem the actual flow of migrants, nor does it blunt their determination to migrate. (See Ruben Andersson’s Illegality Inc. on the absurdities inherent in “the business of bordering Europe.”)

From their own experiences or those of their kin abroad, Malians often recognize that discourse casting immigrants as the enemy is purely a political tool–what we might call a form of ethnocentric nationalism. As Yael Tamir writes, “Ethnocentric nationalist language hardens the heart and leads individuals to be impervious to others’ misery, destruction and expulsion, blind to injustice, hatred and death. Ultimately, when national struggles occur, only a few members of each nation participate or support hostile activities, but many more are guilty of crimes of omission.” These words are worth remembering as we think about how to respond to the foreigners in our midst.


Postscript,  24 September: On the US case, consider this op-ed from the Washington Post: “Mass deportation isn’t just impractical. It’s very, very dangerous.” This article concludes, “history has shown that crisis rhetoric, coupled with a racially tinged aspiration to mass deportations, has repeatedly led to episodes that harm some severely, perhaps even mortally, and is likely to bring shame on us all.”

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Is Mali heading back to the abyss?

July was a bad month for Mali. On the 12th, government security forces fired on unarmed demonstrators in Gao, killing three. The protestors were denouncing the establishment of interim local authorities–a provision of the peace accord signed in June 2015, but something deeply unpopular with many Malians, who see the entire peace process as phony and driven by powerful outsiders. When the state is deaf to citizens’ concerns and puts warlords and rebel leaders into positions of political responsibility, it’s worth wondering whether the only way to make one’s voice heard in Mali these days is by taking up arms.

One week later, an army post was attacked in Nampala, near the Mauritanian border. The attackers overran the base at dawn and looted part of the town before melting away; reports indicated that 17 Malian soldiers were killed and dozens wounded. Two different Islamist groups, Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front, claimed responsibility. Given that the latter’s existence is considered dubious by some specialists, such claims should be received warily. But aside from the question of who carried out the raid, Malians are left asking what their army is good for–besides shooting unarmed demonstrators–if it cannot defend its own bases.


President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita paying tribute to soldiers killed in Nampala (photo: Maliweb)

Days after the Nampala attack, the precarious calm in Kidal was shattered by resumed fighting among armed Tuareg factions, in a further sign of the unraveling of the internationally brokered peace process underway since 2013. An unknown number of combatants and civilians were killed. (Sidiki Guindo’s GISSE survey firm has issued a recent report, funded by international organizations including the World Bank, on poverty, well being and perceptions of change among residents of northern Mali. Most northerners reported not seeing any attempt by the Malian state to restore infrastructure or services in their communities, and of course Kidal has had no Malian administration, even symbolic, since May 2014.)

While Bamako has been generally calm for months, the city has its own problems. On 30 July a near riot reportedly occurred in the Dibida neighborhood following municipal authorities’ campaign of déguerpissement (demolition of supposedly illegal structures and businesses). This unrest came amid a deepening sense of disappointment–about the Gao shootings, about the interim authorities, about the government’s inability to create jobs. In response to the above affronts, all the government has managed to do is extend Mali’s official state of emergency to March 2017. To quote rapper Tal B, money’s not circulating, the people are angry, there are no jobs.

The state is reduced to its coercive powers: ordinary citizens get no carrots, only sticks. Consider Tal B’s video for his song “Chicottement,” in which a teacher has his students conjugate the French verb chicotter (to whip).

It’s hard to argue with the depressing conclusions of Joseph Brunet-Jailly, who wrote in a recent blog post: “There has been no reconstruction of the state because there is no political plan.” There was a moment, two or three years ago following the installation of an elected government, when a genuine re-boot of Mali’s state apparatus seemed possible. Whether due to lack of political will or lack of means, that never happened, leaving Malians stuck with essentially the same undemocratic, dysfunctional political system they lived under when their country’s crisis erupted in 2012. And, as Brunet-Jailly points out, Mali’s international partners have refused to acknowledge the true nature and depth of this crisis.

All this is reminiscent of what happened in the months leading up to Bamako’s March 2012 coup d’état. The massacre of Malian troops (Aguel Hoc in 2012, Nampala in 2016) lays bare the state’s fundamental vulnerability; public frustration boils over; the president is powerless to act. The dire mood and deep distrust of government authorities that prevailed in early 2012 look a lot like what we’re seeing now.

The main difference this time, of course, is that thousands of UN and French troops are on Malian soil and are unlikely to stand by while mutinous soldiers or unruly demonstrators attempt to take power into their own hands.

A number of seasoned political actors and observers in Mali, from Tiébilé Dramé to Issa Ndiaye, have called for concertations nationales–a complete rethinking of the country’s  system of government and political representation. This is what the junta and their hotheaded supporters claimed to want four years ago, when half the country was under rebel control. In light of the post-1991 system’s persistent failure to reform itself in the intervening period, however, perhaps it’s time for such a dramatic step. Would donor governments support it? Or are their interests being served somehow by Mali’s prevailing paralysis and disorder? This question is weighing on a great many Malian minds as their country edges closer to the brink.

Postscript, 3 August 2016: Ansar Dine has posted a video showing what it claims are five Malian soldiers captured during the raid on Nampala. This revelation, compounded by the fact that two soldiers previously reported dead turned up unharmed after the attack, leaves the true Nampala death toll unclear. The defense ministry in Bamako has stated that six of its soldiers are missing.

Postscript, 18 August 2016: In another sign of popular discontent, Bamako youths protested yesterday against the detention of activist and radio host Mohamed “Ras” Bathily (who was interviewed for this blog in 2012). According to Mali’s chief prosecutor, Bathily was detained on suspicion of violating public morality and demoralizing Malian troops; he had recently criticized the government’s handling of the country’s ongoing jihadi insurgency. At least one protestor was reportedly shot dead by police, and social media networks including FaceBook and Twitter went dead in Bamako–though the government denies cutting them.


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Getting a read on Serval

From January 2013 through July 2014, the French military carried out on Malian territory a vast intervention codenamed Opération Serval. It has been reputed to be the largest unilateral overseas deployment of France’s armed forces since the Algerian war ended in 1962. The video below, an hour-long “documentary” by the French defense ministry, offers the official line on Serval, with its goal of “ending terrorist offensives, restoring Mali’s territorial integrity, and protecting 5000 French expatriates”; with gravel and gravitas, the narrator describes the operation as “simultaneously a formidable air-to-ground campaign, an immense logistical challenge, and an incredible ground maneuver.”

The video makes an effective tool for propaganda and recruiting purposes. But two years after Serval’s official end, how else might we remember the operation, what was it really about, and what can we learn from written accounts of it? Books germane to these questions have been published since 2014 by an American security analyst (Christopher Chivvis), a Serval commander (General Bernard Barrera), and a French military affairs author (Jean-Christophe Notin). None of the authors is a Mali specialist, but they can tell us a great deal about the international angles of Mali’s crisis.

Chivvis’s study (Cambridge University Press, 2016) offers the broadest and most positive assessment of Serval, detailing how Mali’s political and security crisis unfolded along with the international The French War on Al Qa'ida in Africapolitical dimensions of French intervention. Chivvis lauds France’s intervention in Mali as an effective, cheap, and “politically saleable” strategy to defeat terrorist groups on the ground. He notes that Serval cost France less than $1 billion through the end of 2013, compared to $745 billion spent on coalition operations in Afghanistan through 2014 and $823 billion in Iraq through 2012. Serval’s peak force-to-population ratio was just 0.7 troops per 1000 people in the host country population — far lower than for operations in Afghanistan (4.9 per thousand) and Iraq (6.4 per thousand). “Serval demonstrates that even a relatively small force can achieve military objectives decisively enough to have a positive impact on the broader strategic and political picture,” Chivvis concludes, hinting that France’s unilateral action in Mali might be the shape of things to come. In Africa, where “jihadist groups seem destined to remain a malignant growth for many years,” he suggests that Western militaries should perhaps be less risk-averse and more proactive in the future.

The account by General Barrera (Seuil, 2015) has a far narrower scope, being primarily the author’s journal for the period from his unit’s frantic mobilization in January 2013 until its return to France some four months later. Barrera offers glimpses of his own professional background (postings to Kosovo and Chad) prior to commanding what was then called the 3rd Mechanized Brigade, but most of his attention concerns Serval’s operational details. Despite contingency plans for just such a deployment, improvisation remains essential, the flip side of the low cost identified by Chivvis: after arriving in Bamako, the general sends his staff scavenging for spare parts, trucks, and satellite phones in local markets. Even weeks into Serval, many of his troops are still wearing heavy green uniforms for want of desert fatigues, and there aren’t enough brake pads to keep half his force’s AMX-10 armored cars roadworthy. This is “hegemony on a shoestring,” in some respects.

Equally striking is the weight of history in Barrera’s narrative. The author, the son of a veteran of the Algerian war, is steeped in his country’s colonial military exploits. “Spotting Niafounké on the map,” he writes, “I can picture my grandfather — an old colonial officer, during summers spent in his big Marseilles villa — telling stories of far-flung expeditions facing African spears, Chinese cannon, Moroccan sabers and muskets.” Launching an overland offensive to Timbuktu, Barrera notes that his troops follow the same route as the 1894 French expedition to take that fabled desert town. The general couldn’t escape this colonial legacy if he tried: his brigade inherited its nickname (“les Africains“) from a unit of Algerian infantry formed during the Second World War. After reaching Timbuktu he fulfills a boyhood dream by visiting the house once inhabited by explorer Réné Caillé. “History is never far away in Africa,” Barrera muses upon viewing the ruins of a French fort in Araoune. Any Malian intellectual or ancient combattant will tell you that France’s relations with Mali today cannot be understood without reference to their shared colonial past, and if this factor gets short shrift from Chivvis, it suffuses the pages of Barrera’s memoir.

Of the three books, however, I found Notin’s aptly named La Guerre de la France au Mali (Tallandier, 2014) the most informative. It’s an impressive work both in terms of quantity (600+ pp.) and couverture du livre : La Guerre de la France au Maliquality, especially given that the author wrote it while Serval was still underway and apparently without going to Mali. A seasoned observer of the French military, Notin interviewed dozens of French officers and officials in researching his account. He offers an intriguing interpretation of the March 2012 military coup in Bamako: “It appears that non-commissioned officers’ desire not to be sent to the northern front was the true motive,” he writes, adding that Paris had been expecting a coup for a few weeks, but believed that senior officers would carry it out on March 24. It may be that Captain Sanogo and his cohort of junior officers, instigating their mutiny on March 21, beat them to the putsch.

Notin highlights the little-known contribution of a French task force in turning back the initial jihadi onslaught even before General Barrera or his men had reached Malian soil. Opération Sabre deployed to some of Mali’s neighbors including Burkina Faso in September 2012 on a “train and support” mission (as described in a contemporary press account). It was Sabre’s helicopters that struck jihadi fighters near Konna on January 10, 2013, and it was Sabre’s special forces soldiers who worked with Malian troops to hold the line until reinforcements arrived from Chad and France over the following days. Once Serval was underway, Notin writes, it was subject to unprecedented control (some might say interference) from the Elysée, which directed French forces to capture Timbuktu before the more strategically important city of Gao. “We needed a conquest with strong media resonance,” an unnamed adviser of President Hollande tells Notin. “And Gao means nothing to anyone. Unlike the mythical Timbuktu.”

With respect to France’s ties to Tuareg separatists, Notin has a great deal to say. He portrays MNLA rebels as determined but politically naive, unrepresentative and prone to misreading their support abroad. He airs a critique by Christian Rouyer, the French ambassador to Mali from 2011-2013, of what became France’s policy of isolating rebel-held Kidal from the zone of Malian government control. Wittingly or not, France helped bring about northern Mali’s de facto partition, but those inclined to view the MNLA as French stooges might be surprised by the much more ambiguous, contentious relationship depicted by Notin (not to mention Barrera).

Which brings me to a key question underlying my interest in all three books: What did France gain from its Malian military adventures? Chivvis and Notin dismiss the supposed allure of Mali’s natural resources as a fable; the total value of gold extracted annually from Mali, Notin points out, is worth less than half of what the French government spent on Serval in 2013 alone. And while Chivvis mentions “France’s yearning to serve as a global force for the revolutionary values of liberté, égalité, and fraternité,” I think the strongest motivations lie elsewhere.

One part of the story is domestic, with looming budget cuts to the overstretched French military in 2013 creating what Chivvis considers “an obvious incentive for the army to demonstrate that it remained essential to protecting French interests at home and overseas.” Serval permitted such a demonstration and offered an overdue morale boost for French ground forces. Notin concludes, for example: “The mechanized infantry regained its heart for the mission that it had not carried out on this scale since the Second World War.” The other part of the story is international: France wants to remain une nation cadre–a nation that holds a central place on the world stage. And as Chivvis puts it, “Africa was, after all, still one of the few, if not the only, corner of the world where France was unquestionably a great power.” Political and diplomatic clout derive in no small measure from a nation-state’s ability to project force far beyond its borders–and Serval provided an opportunity for France to do exactly that. The operation generated an operational model that “would arouse admiration and incredulity among the Americans and British,” claims Notin, and enabled the French air force to demonstrate “its capacity to wage an air campaign which, while certainly not of the scale of the Iraq war, was stretched between France, West Africa, and Chad, covering a much larger zone.”


French equipment loading onto a Russian Antonov plane in Chad, January 2013 (photo: French Defense Ministry)

Yes, on the pages of these books one can truly see French military muscles flexing. In some instances the muscles haven’t been exercised in decades: Notin mentions that before Serval, the armée française had not parachuted supplies during an operation since 1989, while Barrera describes the airdrop of heavy equipment into Timbuktu as “a capacity not used since Indochina” (Dien Bien Phu, to be precise). In other instances the muscles strain: in the first month of Serval, according to Notin, French aircraft sustained an “operations tempo” four times higher than NATO standards. And sometimes the flexing only happens with hired help: lacking sufficient cargo planes of its own, the French military contracted Russian Antonov jets to fly thousands of tons of personnel and equipment from French bases to Mali, at a cost of tens of  millions of euros. But the muscles were flexed, and the message was sent. “To strike the jihadis in northern Mali was also to remind those who may have forgotten in the world that France could inflict great damage, very far from its borders, with unmatched responsiveness,” writes Notin. In other words, Serval’s showcase of military might proved that France is an important player in the 21st century.

Of its three stated objectives — “to secure  Bamako, stop the jihadist insurgency, and allow Mali to regain its territorial integrity,” according to Chivvis — Serval fully achieved only the first. Two years after that mission officially ended, the insurgency continues, Mali remains divided, and French troops have not left Mali. But at the end of the day, I suspect it was Serval’s unstated objectives, having little to do with Mali, that mattered most. These objectives were shoring up support at home for the French military and proving to a skeptical world that France still matters. If the favorable accounts reviewed here are any guide, both objectives have been met.

Postscript, 3 October 2016: France2 television’s “Cellule de crise” show offers a 90-minute reconstruction of the onset of Operation Serval.


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Terror comes to Mali’s capital, again

Why the Radisson?

Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel was a natural target for terrorists. There is just a handful of luxury hotels in Bamako, and the Radisson Blu is the only one whose name touts its Western ownership. There are no Marriotts, Best Westerns, Sofitels or other global hotel chains present there. Unlike the Hotel de l’Amitié downtown, the Radisson is not currently serving as the headquarters of the United Nations mission to Mali (slated to remain there until the end of the year), and thus is not nearly as heavily guarded. But the Radisson did have the reputation among Western expatriates as being the safest place to stay in Bamako. Several reports indicate that the attackers arrived in a vehicle with green diplomatic plates, which got them right past hotel security.

It’s worth noting that the Radisson is located in the capital’s ACI 2000 district, which also happens to be home to the U.S. Embassy and the Peace Corps office. Today’s attack may spur the U.S. government to reconsider its decision last summer to send Peace Corps Volunteers back into the field in Mali.

The Pentagon has stated that U.S. special operations forces are involved in the “hostage recovery efforts” in Bamako. This would mark a significant development, since the U.S. military has kept its distance from Mali since the 2012 coup.

Who are the attackers?

While no claims of responsibility have been reported as of this writing, there is regrettably no shortage of potential culprits operating on Malian territory these days. The likeliest suspects are the armed jihadi groups. I have adapted the paragraphs below from the introduction that I co-authored with Francesco Strazzari for the December 2015 special issue of African Security dedicated to Mali and northwest Africa.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is perhaps the best-known jihadist organization operating in northwest Africa and was formed by Algerian rebels who had fought in that country’s civil war and subsequently undertaken large-scale kidnapping for ransom of Europeans. The group seeks the overthrow of the Algerian government, the creation of a Saharan safe haven, and the targeting of Western interests in the region. As it pursues these goals, AQIM builds local support in its areas of operation by acting as a sort of Islamic charity and by its leaders cultivating marriage alliances with local populations. It has launched attacks in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria and collected over US$90 million in ransom payments since 2008.

An AQIM offshoot known as Al Moulathamine and led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar attacked the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria in January 2013, leading to the deaths of dozens of hostages. Seven months later Al Moulathamine united with another group, MUJAO (see below), under the name Al Mourabitoune. Last March Al Mourabitoune claimed responsibility for Bamako’s first-ever terrorist incident, an attack on a nightclub that killed five and wounded eight. In August it also claimed responsibility for attacks that killed thirteen Malian soldiers in different locations in northern Mali and on the Byblos Hotel in Sévaré, in the central Mopti region, in which four Malian soldiers and five UN workers were killed. Reportedly Al Mourabitoune rebranded itself as “Al Qaeda in West Africa later that month.

MUJAO (le Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) is another AQIM offshoot that has distinguished itself in terms of leadership and operations from its former mother organization. Its leaders espouse a borderless ideology that can mesh well with local sentiments in the region, where inhabitants may not view traffickers and other outlaw groups as a greater threat than government security forces. Reports suggest that they have been highly active in drug trafficking and that at least one of their former leaders has turned up fighting in a Malian government-backed militia group. After beginning its operations with an October 2011 kidnapping at a refugee camp in Algeria, it occupied the Malian town of Gao for several months in 2012, implementing a harsh version of shari’a law. Since its ouster from Gao in early 2013, MUJAO has carried out sporadic attacks throughout northern Mali as well as western Niger. It briefly merged with Belmokhtar’s group before splitting off again and possibly pledging loyalty to ISIS.

The group known as Ansar Dine, unlike the others, is dominated by Malian Tuareg fighters and commanders. Its leader, Iyad ag Ghali, fought for the Tuareg nationalist cause in the early 1990s. He is known in northern Mali as a canny political player, and while observers debated his motives and level of ideological commitment to jihad, his group enforced shari’a law in Timbuktu for much of 2012. Although Ansar Dine lost considerable manpower in early 2013 (with hundreds of his men defecting to a newly formed, ostensibly secular Tuareg militant group, the Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad), ag Ghali’s organization has claimed responsibility for attacks on Malian security forces, including two carried out in mid-2015 in the far south of the country near the border with Cote d’Ivoire. Ag Ghali recently released an audio recording in which he called for attacks on France, and he has already been speculated as being behind the Radisson attack. One of ag Ghali’s self-proclaimed disciples, a militant preacher reported as Amadou or Hammadoun Koufa, has also announced his own offshoot group called the Macina Liberation Movement.

What do they want?

We should be cautious about drawing direct connections between this attack and ISIS, or last week’s attacks in Paris, or the subsequent French airstrikes in Syria. Armed jihadis have been targeting French and Western interests in northwest Africa since well before the advent of the Islamic State, and as the above paragraphs show, it’s far from evident that any of these groups have solid links to ISIS. The Bamako attackers most likely identify with those who carried out the Paris attacks, but their particular motivations may also diverge: for jihadis in Mali, their main grievance is with the French military for driving them out of the territory they controlled in northern Mali three years ago.

Postscript: Reuters reports that Al Mourabitoune has claimed responsibility for the Radisson attack.

Postscript 2: Guinean music star Sekouba “Bambino” Diabaté was among those freed from the hotel after the attack. In an interview, he says he overheard attackers speaking English, “in what seemed like a Nigerian accent.”

Postscript 3, 22 November: The Macina Liberation Movement has also reportedly issued a claim of responsibility for the attack, “in reaction to the attacks by Barkhane forces which with the Malian military is targeting members of MLM and Ansar Dine.”

Postscript 4, 26 November: I’ve received word that Peace Corps Volunteers will be evacuated from Mali in the wake of the Radisson Blu attack.

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Uncomfortable truths about Mali

Laurent Bigot (RFI photo)

Some may recall a candid speech from a French diplomat in July 2012 about Mali and its neighbors. It was delivered by Laurent Bigot, then France’s top diplomat for West Africa. Bigot’s candor got him fired, but earned him a reputation for speaking uncomfortable truths. He has now penned an op-ed in Le Monde under the title “Operation Barkhane: A license to kill in the Sahel.” His analysis this time similarly pulls no punches, excoriating French and Malian officials in equal measure for their lack of vision, foolishness and duplicity. I was sufficiently impressed by Bigot’s short text to translate it here in its entirety in hopes of gaining it a wider audience.

Since France’s intervention in Mali, the defense ministry regularly congratulates itself on putting presumed terrorists “out of the fight.” The French army is carrying out the death penalty, which France abolished in 1981 and which its diplomats are trying to abolish around the world. This strange paradox stems from the lack of reflection on how to fight terrorism.

France has bought into the American concept of fighting terrorism, the infamous “war on terror,” without gauging its consequences and especially without realizing its tragic ineffectiveness. One need only look at the state of Afghanistan and Iraq to understand the extent of this strategy’s failure. A total failure. Mali is no exception to the rule. 18 months after the beginning of the French intervention, the security situation in the north is at its most precarious despite the international military presence, and the situation in Bamako is as degraded as it was on the eve of President Amadou Toumani Touré’s ouster.

Yet I am among those who consider the intervention to have been a courageous political decision by President Hollande. Unfortunately, the absence of thinking about terrorism’s causes, coupled with a troubling denial of Malian political realities, turned the military victory into a political defeat.

Fighting terrorism cannot be reduced to eliminating its alleged leaders. To execute presumed terrorists without any form of trial is to kill in the name of our values, the very act for which we justifiably reproach our adversaries. Some call it legitimate self-defense. This forgets that it’s defined in French law: a riposte must come at the moment of the aggression, otherwise it’s an act of revenge. And this is how it is perceived by local populations, because executing an alleged terrorist leader is first of all killing a father, a husband, a son or a brother. I do not forget the victims of terror but, under the rule of law, it is the duty of justice to investigate and punish. Credibly promoting the rule of law entails a non-negotiable requirement: leading by example.

The strategy of an eye for an eye masks the root of the problem: why do terrorist movements take hold in some regions and not others? With respect to northern Mali the answer is fairly simple, even if the solution is not. The failure of the state in the north and its predatory, even murderous presence (the Malian army has carried out abuses several times since independence, including recently) have created a void to be filled by armed groups, which also carry out a social mission beyond the terror they wield over local populations. While the people of northern Mali have little taste for the way of life imposed by terrorist groups, neither do they care for the presence of the Malian state as they have always known it.

This post-independence Malian state has never been a blessing for these populations. So, when they fall under the control of terrorist groups, they do what they’ve done for centuries: they adapt. They simply move from one precarious situation to another. These terrorist groups too are trying to win acceptance, by buying food staples at above-market prices, transporting the sick to the closest clinics or establishing order. Testimony confirms the security that prevailed in Gao during the reign of these groups – which obviously does not excuse any of the violence they carried out – even as French diplomacy seems unmoved by the same violence when carried out by Saudi Arabia. Maybe it’s about their buying power?

Northern Malians have, moreover, completely turned away from the political system established by the national conference in the early 1990s. Mali’s democracy once so lauded by the West has given way to the predation of special interests along the lines of what goes on in Bamako. Democracy is perceived as allowing a minority to enrich itself with full impunity and the blessing of the international community, whose hypocrisy borders on collusion. We must confront this perception to understand why a military force and the billions of euros announced at international conferences are no longer convincing to anybody on the ground.

As I emphasized, the solution is not so easy. Let us start with an ambition founded on demanding the truth. Malian authorities are primarily responsible for this enormous mess. Let us not cloud the issue; let us be exacting in our partnership with Mali. If we remain satisfied with false pretenses, the same causes will yield the same effects. I have often heard that not all truths are good to tell. The strength of a truth lies not in being silenced but in being spoken, with all the respect one accords one’s fellows. This is the terrain on which France is expected.

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How to get filthy rich in sinking Africa

When a government gets serious about fighting corruption, certain effects quickly become visible. As a New York Times article showed last week in the case of Nigeria, once President Buhari’s crackdown got underway a few months ago, the people who’d been stealing the country’s vast public wealth started behaving differently. It takes more than speeches: a head of state must initiate some investigations, high-profile arrests, and firings of high-ranking civil servants before corrupt officials start to realize that the cycle of impunity that had protected them for so long is over — or at least, as we may find in Nigeria, temporarily interrupted.

In Mali, meanwhile, nothing has yet signaled embezzlers or reassured ordinary citizens that feeding time at the government trough is over — President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s abundant 2013 campaign promises to fight graft notwithstanding. Despite a string of corruption scandals since Keita took power, nobody caught with their hands in Mali’s public till has been punished. And of course it doesn’t help that French investigators have linked Keita himself to various shady dealings and underworld figures.

Bamako’s illicit economy, fueled by money looted from state coffers, continues unabated. Far from being reined in under Keita’s rule, it appears to be undergoing a boom. I heard from one human rights investigator recently that Keita and his entourage are turning back the clock to the bad old days of impunity. Civil servants who complain about corruption or try to hold their staff accountable for it, such as police director Hamidou Kansaye, are being let go.

And some of the biggest forms of abuse are happening in the open. Earlier this month reports surfaced of a deal to sell a 3.43-hectare plot of public land in Bamako to private developers. The video below shows a panoramic view of the parcel in question; it’s the cleared area in the foreground.

Given its setting on the waterfront between the Pont Fahd and the Pont des Martyrs, it’s a prime location for development. The problem, as an article in the Bamako weekly Le Sphynx points out, is that the land was reserved for public use five years ago. The plot was meant to become the Place du Cinquantenaire, site of a new monument and park for the Malian people. This fact didn’t stop two of Keita’s cabinet ministers from approving the sale earlier this year, ostensibly to an American firm called Wipi Group for “construction of a five-star hotel and shopping mall,” according to a leaked official document (n° 2015 – 0028-MDEAF- MATD/SG dated 1 September 2015).

There’s so much that’s dubious about this transaction. By all evidence Wipi Group, owned by a Sudanese immigrant in the U.S. and registered in South Dakota, has no other holdings and lacks the capital to develop the site. How did such an unknown company secure this deal — which was never put out for a bid — in the first place? Why has a Wipi Group representative denied that his firm ever purchased this property, or any other property in Mali? Why does Mohamed Ali Bathily, one of the two ministers whose signature appears on the leaked document, now reportedly deny that the signature is actually his? Suspicions in Bamako abound that Wipi is merely a smokescreen, a stand-in for unnamed buyers likely to enjoy close ties to Mali’s head of state. But you can forgive Malians for being suspicious: over the past couple of decades they’ve seen too much of their national patrimony sold into private hands at below-market prices, after all, lining the pockets of their country’s corrupt elite.

The Wipi Group deal only illustrates a rule Malians have long understood: if you want to make a fortune in this country, you don’t have to offer the best goods or services at the lowest price. You shouldn’t try to pioneer some fantastic new product that will make people’s lives better. For that matter, you needn’t bother creating anything of value at all. Just get your hands on some public resources, buy off anyone charged with overseeing their use, and sell those resources to private buyers. In broad daylight.

Will the Place du Cinquantenaire deal go forward now that it’s come into public view? Will the government officials who (allegedly) approved this deal ever be called to account for their lack of transparency? The average Bamako resident, according to Sidiki Guindo’s latest poll, rates President Keita’s performance lowest with respect to the fight against corruption. Given the climate of cynicism fostered by Mali’s booming illicit economy, whistle-blowers and anti-corruption campaigners face an uphill battle. The same is true all over Africa, not least in Nigeria, where decades of failed crackdowns can inspire a sinking feeling. (Good luck to you, President Buhari!)

Readers may recognize this post’s title as a variation on that of Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), which recounts an unnamed protagonist’s rise from poverty to power amid the cutthroat business competition of an unnamed South Asian city. But you have to look elsewhere in this author’s work to find the passage that best resonates with the cynical opportunism now prevailing in Mali. As one particularly corrupt character in Hamid’s debut novel Moth Smoke (2000) puts it: “People are pulling their pieces out of the pie, and the pie is getting smaller, so if you love your family, you’d better take your piece now, while there’s still some left. That’s what I’m doing. And if anyone isn’t doing it, it’s because they’re locked out of the kitchen.”

Words to live by in Bamako these days. Or as Malians might put it, “Silence, on mange.”

Pie, anyone? Grab it before it’s gone.

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Writing the Afropolis

Ryan Skinner’s Bamako Sounds is undoubtedly the most intelligent book I’ve read about contemporary Bamako in general, and its music scene in particular. It’s an important work, less for what it says about a given set of musical styles than for what is says about Mali’s wider cultural landscape, about the ways Malian people today understand who they are and how they relate to each other and the rest of the world. The book’s subtitle–An Afropolitan Ethics of Malian Music–offers a clue to how Skinner approaches this landscape.

Bamako SoundsAfropolitanism is quite a young concept, only a decade in the making. Writer Taiye Selasi’s 2005 essay “Bye Bye Babar?” is generally considered its first articulation, and Selasi’s vision of the Afropolitan was subsequently criticized as shallow and elitist (e.g. by Binyavanga Wainaina, Emma Dabiri and Marta Tveit). But Skinner’s analysis follows a different Afropolitan strand, spun by historian Achille Mbembe.

Mbembe describes Afropolitanism as a form of post-nationalist, post-nativist modernity emerging in Africa’s urban spaces. He traces its meaning in a brief 2005 essay on the topic:

Awareness of the interweaving of the here and there, the presence of the elsewhere in the here and vice versa, the relativization of primary roots and memberships and the way of embracing, with full knowledge of the facts, strangeness, foreignness and remoteness, the ability to recognize one’s face in that of a foreigner and make the most of the traces of remoteness in closeness, to domesticate the unfamiliar, to work with what seem to be opposites–it is this cultural, historical and aesthetic sensitivity that underlies the term “Afropolitanism.”

Afropolitanism in Bamako, Skinner writes, draws from multiple cultural registers–ethnic tradition (mainly Mande), national discourse, the Islamic umma and the global ecumene. For the Afropolitan, these registers are not conflicting (never mind mutually exclusive) but complementary, forming a polyphony that is the backdrop and soundtrack to daily life in the city. Afropolitanism here is anything but the privilege of a jet-setting elite. For Skinner it’s “an egalitarian and creative practice of freeing oneself to present tradition in new ways” (p. 182). For rich and poor, from swanky nightclubs to the intense sociality of the SOTRAMA, Afropolitan ethics suffuse existence in Bamako.

Music is of course the author’s point of entry into this discussion. Skinner is an ethnomusicologist at Ohio State, not to mention a musician who counts kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté among his teachers. So the sonic dimensions of Bamako culture are given preeminence, in part because music is so all-encompassing in Malian society. Skinner writes that “good sound–music that stirs bodies, triggers thoughts, and incites emotions–affirms good subjectivity, audibly expressing the persistence of cultural mores and social imperatives in counterpoint with the interests, desires, and aspirations of individuals” (p. 102). His analysis of Bamako’s musical landscape ranges from “high culture” (an instrumental performance by Toumani Diabaté at the French Cultural Center) to popular vocal music (a wedding gig by Dialy Mady Cissoko, a rehearsal by Nana Soumbounou) to neighborhood rap tributes like Need One’s “Bolibana”:

Surveying this diverse landscape, Skinner takes pains to highlight the choices Bamako artists make in crafting their sounds and their presentation to others, for these choices speak to the Afropolitan ethics he seeks to map out in this book. “My attention is drawn,” he writes, “to the bargaining, improvisation, mobilizations of identity, and intersubjective revisions that characterize the ethical projects of African subjects in the world today” (p. 10).

Malian musicians’ Afropolitan tastes may be eclectic, but the reader learns that they also operate within a particular political economy characterized by constraint and uncertainty. Where most commercially available recordings are pirated and only a fortunate few artists land lucrative tours abroad, making a musical living is a tremendous challenge. In his last two chapters, Skinner outlines the postcolonial history of cultural production in Mali and shows the impact of the country’s current political turmoil on its artists. Most of us know that music was banned by the Islamist militants who controlled northern towns three years ago (subject of the documentary “They Will Have to Kill Us First“); fewer of us may be aware of how badly the state of emergency in Bamako crippled that city’s music scene in 2012 and 2013.

Even in the best of times, Skinner demonstrates, Bamakois experience urban life as an unstable mixture of conviviality and precarity, “a wild space of risk, possibility, hope, and anxiety” (p. 35) that they must navigate as best they can. Music is a vital tool with which Bamakois learn to domesticate this wild urban space, transcend it and connect with the world beyond its limits.

Bamako Sounds is a work of consummate scholarship, and this fact is at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Readers unfamiliar with Foucauldian biopolitics or Althuserrian moral subjectivity, for example, may find portions of it rough going. Yet what this book offers to any reader ready to take it on is a means of coming to terms with everyday life and cultural identity in the Afropolis, one that moves beyond sterile dualisms of modern vs. traditional and imported vs. authentic. Skinner’s take on Afropolitanism offers a fresh means of imagining “the increasingly urban, demographically young, internally diverse, widely dispersed, highly productive, intensely creative, and always already modern African World” (p. 184). As African societies become ever more urbanized and ever more oriented toward the outside world, such a perspective has never been more welcome, or more necessary.

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