Keep Peace Corps out of Mali

Although I’d hoped to take a break from this blog over the summer, I’ve been watching recent events in Mali with a growing sense of alarm. Below is a list of some notable terrorist incidents in parts of Mali that were, until recently, considered “safe.” The map  shows locations of  seven incidents I have enumerated, but note that this is not an exhaustive list of terrorist activity in Mali.

Sites of terrorist attacks in central/southern Mali (numbers correspond to locations enumerated below)

Sites of terrorist attacks in central/southern Mali (numbers correspond to locations enumerated below)

  • Kayes region: In November 2012 the radical jihadi/criminal organization known as  MUJAO claims credit for kidnapping French citizen Gilbert Rodriguez Leal in Diéma (1), near the Mauritanian border. MUJAO announces Leal’s death in April 2014. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to Diéma.
  • Bamako district: On 7 March 2015 gunmen kill five people during an attack on La Terrasse nightclub in Bamako’s Hippodrome neighborhood (2). The group Al Mourabitoune, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claims responsibility. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, the bars and restaurants of Hippodrome were a frequent destination for off-duty Peace Corps Volunteers in the capital.
  • Koulikoro region: On 8 August 2015 the national gendarmerie post in Baguinéda (3), a small town located just 15 km outside the District of Bamako, is attacked by unknown assailants. According to Studio Tamani, they manage to sack the offices and burn a vehicle before escaping into the night; none has been apprehended. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to Baguinéda and its environs.
  • Sikasso region: In June 2015, gunmen on motorcycles mount separate attacks on police posts near the border with Cote d’Ivoire in Fakola (4) in the Kolondieba district and in Misseni (5) in the Kadiolo district. Islamist group Ansar Dine later claims responsibility. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to both districts.
  • Ségou region: On 1 August 2015, unknown gunmen kill two Malian soldiers and wound four in an ambush on the Diabaly-Nampala road in the Niono district. This follows a January attack on the town of Nampala (6) in which ten Malian troops died. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to the Niono district.
  • Mopti region: On 7 August 2015 attackers kill at least five civilians and four Malian soldiers at the Hotel Byblos in Sévaré (7). While Al Mourabitoune allegedly claims responsibility, some reports highlight the attackers’ links to the Macina Liberation Front, a recent offshoot of Ansar Dine. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to Sévaré, which at one time was also home to a regional Peace Corps office.

This list suggests a disturbing trend: the “bad guys” who, for the most part, once contained their nefarious activities to Mali’s unruly northern reaches–particularly the regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal–have penetrated into the rest of the country. Of Mali’s nine administrative regions plus the District of Bamako, each has now been the scene of at least one terrorist attack, and most have seen terrorist violence within the last 90 days.

The spread of this violence, directed both at military personnel and soft civilian targets, is particularly worrisome at this moment in time because the Peace Corps, the U.S. government-funded development agency, is getting ready to re-deploy Volunteers to Mali. Peace Corps had very sensibly pulled all its Volunteers out of the country in April 2012 in the wake of the army coup in Bamako and militant takeover of the north. Last year, it sent a very small number of “Peace Corps Response” volunteers to Mali for short-term service; they completed their in-country training and were sent to their posts in November 2014. Now the agency is gearing up to send a much larger number of Volunteers to posts in southern Mali.

When I heard from the Peace Corps director that this move was in the offing early last year, I thought it was prudent. In light of the recent events outlined above, however, I think the risk of Peace Corps Volunteers becoming targets of terrorist activity in Mali is unacceptably high. As the list of violent incidents grows longer, and more and more unprecedented tragedies take place, Malian security forces have not been able to keep foreigners, UN personnel, or even their own troops safe from harm. PCVs should not be sent into this environment.

I write these words with a heavy heart. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer whose service in Mali years ago is the origin of my career as an anthropologist and Africanist scholar, I wish every American who sought the opportunity could serve for two years in a peaceful, secure place like the Mali I remember. Unfortunately, as recent events illustrate, the Mali of today is no longer that place. Gone are the days when the threat of a kidnapping, shooting, or suicide bombing was unknown to Malians, or even known only to northerners. The threat is now pervasive and shows no sign of diminishing.

Thus far I have kept to myself my serious reservations about the return of PCVs to Mali. I know that Peace Corps staff and U.S. Government officials are strongly committed to the safety of Volunteers wherever they are posted, and they have always taken action to protect PCVs in Mali. Lately, however, I’ve begun to wonder: If we’ve misjudged the threat and a Volunteer is taken hostage, wounded, or killed in Mali, how could I justify this silence? There is no way I would want my own son or daughter to be exposed to the level of danger that currently prevails for Westerners throughout Mali.

We must engage with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. For me, this means recognizing the risks in Mali for what they have become. If any U.S. Government employee, PCV, trainee or trainee’s relative, or anyone living in Mali would like to weigh in on this question, I invite them to do so in the comments section below.

Postscript, 12 August: With tonight’s attack on the Sogoniko bus station in Bamako, the security situation in southern Mali edges closer to the abyss. As a PCV I spent countless hours at that station waiting for Sikasso-bound buses. Could anyone possibly make the case that Mali is a safer place for Americans today than it was in April 2012, when Peace Corps evacuated the country? Or is the primary distinction simply the fact that the U.S. supports the Malian regime now, and it didn’t back then?

Postscript 2, 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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Who wants peace in Mali?

“We should not be misled by talk of entering a time of peace. Peace is not the absence of war; it is the absence of the rumors of war, the threats of war, the preparations for war….”

– Gil Scott Heron, “Work for Peace” (1994)

Bamako, 26 May, near the Monument de l'Independance

Bamako, 26 May, near the Monument de l’Independance (photo: Maliactu)

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Bamako yesterday to urge an end to the ongoing impasse over a definitive peace deal with northern rebel groups. Malians are unquestionably weary of the conflict in the north, the latest iteration of which which has now dragged on for 42 months. Yet it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what yesterday’s demonstration was calling for, and the divergences in how this event was covered in the media suggest that the current impasse means different things to different people.

Reading the account from RFI (headline: “Mali: Demonstration of support for the Algiers accord in the capital”) we could conclude that the march was in support of the peace deal signed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) on 15 May amid great fanfare. By this account, the march was a sign of strong public backing for the accord, even though the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad or CMA, the coalition of the most important separatist rebel groups, refused to sign it. The Algeria Press Service proposes a similar reading, and quotes an organizer’s improbable estimate of 200,000 Bamakois turning out yesterday to call for peace — which, if true, would mean that more than one in ten city residents took part.

From Maliactu, though, we learn that demonstrators expressed support for IBK, whose close ties with French businessman and alleged mafia boss Michel Tomi were the subject of embarrassing revelations by the French website Mediapart last week. Maliactu describes protestors’ views that the leaks to Mediapart were part of a French campaign to weaken the Malian head of state.

Then again, Afribone reports that demonstrators directed their ire at the perceived complicity of France and the United Nations with the rebels. “Down with France, down with MINUSMA,” was one slogan they shouted, along with “France + MINUSMA = MNLA” (the MNLA being the principal separatist group within the CMA). The Afribone article also mentions that a French flag was burned. The headline in L’Indicateur du Renouveau reads “Thousands of Bamakois Say No to France and the UN.”

So what happened yesterday — a rally for peace, a demonstration of support for Mali’s embattled president, or a show of defiance toward enemies? Apparently all of the above: pacifist slogans like “No to war” and “Peace now!” came side by side with more bellicose ones like “Liberate the north!” and “Down with the CMA!” The multiplicity of participants’ messages speaks to the multiplicity of views regarding the best way forward for their country.

While I was preparing to write an analysis of the Algiers accord and its significance last week, the International Crisis Group beat me to it: their new report “Mali: An Imposed Peace?” (see the full report in French, or the executive summary in English) offers a detailed and somber assessment of the current situation. The authors are, in my view, justifiably pessimistic. “Mali is heading less toward lasting peace than toward a new phase of confrontations,” they write. Hardliners on both sides have actively tried to torpedo the peace process, and fighting has flared in recent weeks, especially around the town of Ménaka, making separatist leaders more reluctant than ever to pursue a negotiated settlement.

“Without the participation of the CMA, signing the Bamako accord will not guarantee a way out of lasting crisis,” the report concludes. “To the contrary, it could lead to a new phase of confrontations for which the two camps have prepared. This could be deadlier than last year’s. It would lead a generation of young militants, let down by the political process, toward more radical forms of engagement.” (Let’s note that the separatist base is already highly radicalized.)

Even if immense international pressure ultimately brings the CMA to sign the accord, and even if the accord is implemented — and those are two very big ifs — the provisions of the agreement are unlikely to improve governance and state institutions. As discussed in a previous Crisis Group report (published last November, also the subject of a post I wrote in January) on the talks leading up to the accord, the peace talks misdiagnosed Mali’s problem as solely a center-vs-periphery issue, overlooking deep dysfunction within the state apparatus as well as significant schisms and stratification within northern populations.

Further complicating prospects for lasting peace is Malians’ distrust toward their country’s international partners, most notably France and the UN. While I’ve written about this subject before, it’s worth underlining the degree to which this distrust has delegitimated the peace process. Rumors in recent months have alleged that shadowy foreign interests manipulated the Malian government into accepting the deal in Algiers. A good many people, and not only Malians, see the conflict and the international response to it as expressions of global imperialism, not the failings of the Malian state.

In line with such interpretations of events, the Bamako press casts an increasingly accusatory gaze at French and UN presence in northern Mali. Reports allege that France and the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission have sided with the rebels by remaining passive in the face of rebel aggression, plotting with the MNLA to disarm anti-separatist militias, arming MNLA fighters in Ménaka, and secretly drumming up support for the CMA among traditional leaders. While they amount to mere rumors, these reports have shaped public opinion: a recent poll on Maliactu shows that 88 percent of readers agree with the statement “MINUSMA supports the rebels.”

Mongi Hamdi (L), Hervé Ladsous (center), IBK (R) (photo: MINUSMA)

Mongi Hamdi (L), Hervé Ladsous (center), IBK (R) (photo: MINUSMA)

For the most part, IBK and his government have not actively contributed to the demonization of the UN in Mali. At the 15 May signing ceremony of the Algiers accord, however, IBK alluded to MINUSMA’s perceived lack of partiality, asking Hervé Ladsous, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations (also a Frenchman) to show “a little respect for our people.” The remarks won him points at home, and prompted Ladsous and MINUSMA chief Mongi Hamdi to hold a press conference the next day and deny that the UN had taken sides.

(Could there be a connection between the deterioration of the UN’s reputation in Mali and two recent and unprecedented attacks on MINUSMA personnel in Bamako, the latest of which on Monday killed a Bangladeshi peacekeeper? Impossible to say, since the perpetrators remain at large.)

In light of the above, it would be misguided to see yesterday’s massive demonstration in the streets of Mali’s capital as evidence of strong public support for the Algiers accord or the peace process in general. A vocal portion of the Malian public remains opposed to the accord’s concessions to the rebels, and suspicious of the international partners responsible for overseeing its implementation. Malians may not like war, and they may be tired of it, but this does not mean they will accept peace at any price. The conflict in northern Mali is far from being settled.

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Desperate for a way out

“A tragedy of epic proportions” — that’s how the International Organization for Migration describes what’s been happening to the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year. On the African continent, while instability and economic stagnation have driven thousands of young people to leave home, chaos in Libya has made it easier for migrants to get access to the Mediterranean coast.

Migration routes through northern Africa (source: NY Times)

Migration routes through northern Africa (source: NY Times; click map above for the full story)

Migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean (source: UNHCR)

Migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean       (source: UNHCR)

The number of people making this risky sea crossing reached an all-time high last year: by UNHCR estimates, 219000 arrived on the shores of southern Europe in 2014, ten times more than in 2012. So far this year, thousands of others have died in the attempt (3500, or one every two hours, according to figures cited in Le Monde).

What lands do they leave behind to reach these perilous shores? Their most common countries of origin are as far east as Afghanistan, and as far west as Senegal. Many are zones of current conflict, and most are located in the Muslim world. Among the origin countries of migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean in the first quarter of this year (see chart below), Mali is ranked #8. A dozen survivors from the latest shipwreck, and at least 50 dead, were Malians.

Top 10 origin countries of Mediterranean crossers in early 2015

Top 10 origin countries of Mediterranean crossers in early 2015 (source: UNHCR)

Reading about the recent drama on the Mediterranean, as Italian and Maltese sailors still searched for victims of the latest boat sinking with unknown hundreds feared drowned, I remembered a friend of mine whom I’ll call Lamine.

I met Lamine nearly four years ago in Bamako, where he was working as a security guard. Lamine had never gone to school, but had learned to speak French and even acquired a good command of English. He projected dignity despite the threadbare uniform that hung over his spare frame. He was easy to talk to and loved to joke with me in Bamanan. He flashed a warm smile whenever I saw him at work. Occasionally we would visit each other at home. After I left Mali in 2012, we kept in touch via occasional e-mails and phone calls.

In 2013 Lamine quit his job. Even after working six days a week for five years, he earned only the equivalent of $100 a month from the multinational company he worked for — not starvation wages by Malian standards, but nowhere near enough to permit him to marry and start a family. Pushing 40, he saw no prospects for advancement as a security guard and was anxious to seek his fortune elsewhere. He sold the old laptop I’d given him and invested the proceeds in a restaurant, pictured below. (I didn’t ask Lamine for the naming rights; the name was all his idea.)

Lamine's restaurant

Lamine’s restaurant in Bamako

For a while his prospects seemed to improve: he got engaged to the sister of a friend, and was happy with his new business. But he also suffered setbacks. Shortly after Lamine opened his restaurant, a thief stole his motorcycle. He couldn’t use an expensive coffee machine he’d purchased because of electricity problems. His engagement was called off at the request of his fiancee’s family, and he could not get back the bride wealth he had already paid worth more than $300.

“When I first opened my restaurant, people would come; now I can’t make 5000 francs” [~$10], he told me on the phone. Life in Bamako had become too expensive, and he was frustrated with the government’s inability to address the needs of ordinary people like himself. Kɛyɔrɔ te mɔgɔ la, bɔyɔrɔ te mɔgɔ la, he complained in Bamanan — “Nothing to do, no way out.” He got engaged to another woman, and needed another $300 for the bride wealth, plus more for the anticipated wedding expenses.

Last year he started talking about emigrating. “I want to leave because there is nothing here. I want to find another country where I can have some money. I’m tired of asking others for help,” he said. He thought about applying for a US visa. He thought about Equatorial Guinea, where he knew someone who had apparently made good money. In the end he decided on Libya, where a friend was working as a carpenter. I warned him not to go. I told him what I’d heard about political instability, armed violence and exploitation of African migrants there. None of it mattered: Lamine bought a bus ticket to Niger, and from there made his way north across the Sahara.

It was a few weeks before I heard from him again. He had joined his carpenter friend on the outskirts of Tripoli. Life wasn’t bad, he said, but there wasn’t much to do after working hours. “When we leave the workplace, we can only stay at home. There is nowhere else to spend our time. When you look at a woman, she will ask you why you’re looking at her. Women talk too much here,” he grumbled. Plus, Libyan men were always armed. One might hire you for a job, then when it’s done take out his gun and refuse to pay. Often when Lamine prayed, he told me, he asked God to grant him good luck to make it back to Bamako. But first he had to earn some money. He couldn’t return home empty-handed. “Stay safe,” I told him, realizing just how empty those words must have sounded to him.

Several weeks went by. I started reading about more and more shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea, more and more African lives snuffed out in the failed attempt to reach a European promised land. “Hello Lamine,” I texted him last weekend as footage of the search for survivors from a sunken fishing boat played on my computer monitor. “I read news about Africans who left Libya and died in the ocean. I hope U are OK. Please never get on a boat to Italy.” I got no answer.

Days passed, and I began to worry. Could Lamine’s despair over his blocked aspirations back home have led him to try the dangerous crossing into Europe? Could he have become one of the victims, another undocumented body bobbing in the waves? If he had, would anyone ever know what had happened to him?

Finally I received a text message: Lamine was still in Libya. “Hello my best friend i saw your message,” he wrote. “i’m well here and i will never try to do it.when I leve here it will be on mali thanks indeed.”

Lamine’s story illuminates a key dynamic weaving together marriage, migration, and the postcolonial Malian state. There are few good options for Malian men like him who have reaped no benefits from the state, who had no opportunity for education, who despite their industry and natural talents inhabit the margins (see Alcinda Honwana on African youth and “waithood”). To become full-fledged adults and worthy members of society, they must marry and establish their own households, but they need money to do so. Many see no hope of realizing their dreams without undertaking a dangerous journey abroad, where they imagine money will be easier to come by. Others join Islamic fundamentalist movements at home, determined to use piety to gain the respect denied them by poverty. Whoever figures out how to remove obstacles to jural adulthood for impoverished men across the Muslim world will strike a bigger blow against religious extremism than all the Predator drones the Pentagon can buy.

In some respects, Lamine has been lucky thus far. He has his health, and a modest short- term job. Inshallah, as he puts it, soon he will head south with a wallet full of dinars. Inshallah, he will not be robbed of his earnings before arriving home. Inshallah, he will be able to find a place for himself in his native land.

God willing, Lamine. Stay safe.

Postscript, 28 April: See Adam Nossiter’s story “African Leaders Are Mute, Even as their People Die at Sea” in today’s New York Times.

Postscript, 3 May: This post has been translated into French and posted on the website of the Association Malienne des Expulsés. Thanks to J-J Méric for the translation.

Also, see the opinion piece by Bamako-based journalist Alex Duval Smith entitled “Guilt-tripping Europeans won’t help drowning migrants” (The Guardian, 23 April).

Postscript, 1 July: Lamine returned home to Bamako yesterday. He’s very happy to be back. Over the phone he told me that he was afraid in the Sahara — many people died along the way — but once he got to Niger his convoy was able to travel with a French army escort, and they were safe from that point. From Niger he passed through Burkina Faso before crossing into Mali near Sikasso. He describes life in Libya as “very, very dangerous.” When I next see him in Bamako, he says, he has many stories to tell me about the place.

Postscript, 18 May 2016: An official with the Ministere des Maliens de l’Exterieure estimates that 376 Malians drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.

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What Mali’s recent past reveals about its present woes, Part 2: Of chiefs, slaves, and “paranoid nationalism”

In his recent book From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel, historian Gregory Mann describes how state sovereignty was fashioned in the Sahel following the end of colonial rule. In the previous post, we discussed his concept of “nongovernmentality” and the evolution of new sovereignties through the interaction (sometimes adversarial, often quite cooperative) between international NGOs and Sahelian governments, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. In this post, our discussion focuses on three areas of resonance between Mali’s present-day political tensions and those afflicting its accession to independence during the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when Modibo Keita’s Union Soudanaise-Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (US-RDA) was in power.

BfB: In chapter 2 you describe how the US-RDA campaigned on a platform of undermining traditional authority, with the aim of centralizing power in a secular, modern state structure. Today we’re seeing pushback against that modernist approach, and the latest peace agreement being promoted would cede some power to traditional and Islamic authorities. Former Prime Minister Soumana Sako recently accused those who drafted the agreement as mounting a “frontal assault against the Republic and an attempt to return it to the colonial order under which our People suffered so much.” Reading this section of your book, I thought “Aha, so this is where that comes from.” How strong was the perception, back in the 1960s, that traditional authority and the modern state are like matter and anti-matter? Is that even a viable metaphor?

GM: That’s a great metaphor—I don’t know if it’s one I would use in print, but I see exactly what you mean. What the US-RDA thought they were doing was pursuing an anticolonialist sort of emancipatory politics. In practice, what they ended up doing, by destroying the canton chieftaincy (the chefs de canton), they ripped out a whole middle stratum of the administration at the same they were setting forth a very ambitious, modernist set of goals. So in some sense their politics was absolutely coherent for the moment they had lived through in the 1950s and earlier, but it had unanticipated effects.

BfB: What was their primary grief with traditional authority?

Intallah Ag Attaher, amenokal (chief) of Ifoghas Tuareg from 1962-2014

GM: It was precisely that it wasn’t traditional: it was disguised as traditional [see “the invention of tradition“], but it was rapacious, it was feudal, it was anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, and lay behind systems of extreme social hierarchy and slavery of earlier decades. So their opposition to that kind of authority makes a lot of sense, it’s coherent. The irony is that the one place where the RDA didn’t break chiefly power, and explicitly chose a more ambiguous line, was with the Kel Adagh in northern Mali. The RDA acted as the colonial regime would have acted: they said, “We won’t accept this candidate, we want that person to be chief,” they manipulated the chieftaincy. They tried to reform it, to limit its capacity, but they didn’t try to take it apart or abolish it. So in fact the system of government that perdured in the Kel Adagh territory has always been distinct… right through the time of President Alpha Konaré in the 1990s, it’s always been a distinct form of government in which “traditional authority” has existed [notably in the office of the amenokal, or chief]. All this came back into play with the process of decentralization that began in the 1990s, but that too was an echo of the 1950s and 1960s: decentralization was originally an RDA project.

BfB: You write that in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, controversies concerning the persistence of slavery “made good press” in the Sahel. These controversies centered on allegations that certain Tuareg pilgrims were using the hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca] as a pretext to sell black slaves in Saudi Arabia. To what extent can we know whether this problem was real or something perceived by the nationalists of the RDA? How much do we really know about this phenomenon?

GM: It’s a great question because it’s hazy. Bruce Hall has written about it a little bit; Baz Lecocq is working on it. On the question of whether a slave trade existed and were people being sold in the Hijaz, having been brought from West Africa under cover of the pilgrimage in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Baz is more skeptical than I am, actually. Baz has done more research than I have… it seems to me like the evidence is pretty good, but that’s the RDA evidence, and it’s also the French state, the commissioners of the pilgrimage in the late ‘50s saying that this stuff is going on.

BfB: These days, you can read characterizations in the Bamako press that describe separatists as “esclavagistes.” Is this the same perception being expressed 50 years later? Has the situation not changed that much in two generations?

GM: It’s certainly a deeply rooted racial stereotype in Mali, there’s no question about that. On the one hand, many people of Tuareg origin, and many people of Mande origin can coexist quite well, but if pejoratives are going to be tossed about, that’s certainly one that’s going to be tossed. It speaks to the social hierarchies that are prevalent in the north but function much more discreetly in the south.

BfB: In chapter 2 you also mention the view articulated by the US-RDA, following the breakup of the Mali Federation in September 1960, that Senegal coveted Mali’s riches. This recalls current discourse about Mali’s “geostrategic significance” and its mineral resources. Was the idea that Senegal was coveting Mali’s wealth a sincere belief in 1960, or just the RDA’s ex-post-facto justification for the collapse of the federation? Was there something to it?

GM: I think the RDA believed it was true; I think they saw Mali as the breadbasket, the source of agricultural riches (including the pastoral riches) of Sahelian West Africa, and they thought Senegal relied on that form of wealth. Which is a very particular vision of wealth—they weren’t talking about things traded on distant markets, they were talking about primary agricultural commodities. But they firmly believed that it was the case, and they over-estimated their importance to Senegal. I think they believed it, and I think they were precisely wrong.

The untold story of Mali and OilBfB: Let’s come back to the present day, when different accounts (both from Mali and abroad) portray insecurity in northern Mali as a product of oil and gas interests or mineral interests, when many see great geostrategic stakes in Mali generally, and in the north in particular, driving the conflict. Is this a similar exaggeration of Mali’s importance to the outside world?

GM: This idea was circulating among some Western diplomats, especially in 2012 and 2013, that Mali had what they would sometimes call a “paranoid nationalism,” that Malians rejected any outside interference, especially of ECOWAS, because they were “paranoid nationalists.” But I think that historical memory in Mali would recognize the historical contingency of Malian sovereignty from the get-go, there was always this idea of being under siege. The collapse of the Mali Federation, the fact that Algeria was still at war when Mali became independent, the instabilities provoked by the French currency manipulations, especially in 1994—you’re not paranoid if you recognize a delicate situation for what it is, not something to be taken for granted.

But the question of mineral wealth in the north, and whether or not the conflict is being ginned up in various ways as a struggle over these plots for potential future exploitation of oil and gas—I always found that argument very reductive. The possibility of profitable extraction has always been more hypothetical than anything else. The actors who are most prominent (Algeria, Canada, China, Italy) have more interest in stability than in instability. And I don’t see what the supposed end game of ginning up a separatist movement would actually be for them; what would the gain be? As you’ve pointed out in your blog, it’s not like the Malian government was known for its rectitude; there are cheaper and easier ways to make a deal than to provoke a civil war. But it’s a classic way of envisioning imperialism, it goes back to Lenin, and Nkrumah modernized it with his views of neocolonialism as being fundamentally about the extraction of mineral wealth in particular. But I just think it’s very reductive.

My understanding is that the oil that might be in the north, even if it could be gotten out of that territory, isn’t even appropriate for most refineries; only the Chinese could really use most of it. We have a glut of oil production in the US, not a deficit, and prices are at a historic low, but they’ve been going down for a few years, even before the conflict had really begun. So it’s not as if this is happening in the context of a sharp scramble for a scarce resource. In fact an explosion of oil extraction technologies has brought about a glut on the market. The US interest in the Sahel is not an oil and energy interest, it seems to me, and I don’t think that of the other players is primarily oil and energy either. Algeria is its own complicated scenario, but even the Algerian interest is more about making life difficult for other people than about exploiting these plots themselves. I’ve just always been a skeptic of that argument—it’s too easy. And it makes the people of the north essentially dupes of outside powers, which is quite dismissive of a set of concerns, some of which may be legitimate and others may be overwrought, but which are nonetheless deeply felt, even if only by a small minority.

Thanks to Professor Mann for granting this interview.

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What Mali’s recent past reveals about its present woes, Part 1: The road to nongovernmentality

These days the sovereignty of the Malian state looks more hypothetical than ever. The government’s control over its northern regions ranges from tenuous to nonexistent. Kidal has been firmly under the rule of Tuareg separatists for two years, while only the presence of French and UN troops prevents Gao and Timbuktu from falling back into the hands of the jihadists who occupied them for most of 2012. In Bamako, the treasury is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and public spending is subject to audits by the International Monetary Fund.

To consider how the Malian nation-building project reached this juncture, some Empire to NGOs coverobservers might look back to previous, and ultimately unsuccessful, peace accords signed between the Malian government and northern rebels in 1992 and 2006. Others might look back to the strictures of neoliberalism that cut state budgets and sapped public faith in the Malian state from the 1980s. Historian Gregory Mann, in his new book From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel, looks back even further, to the very origins of the region’s postcolonial states in the early 1960s. Examining the policies pursued by West African founders of independence affiliated with the pan-Africanist Rassemblement Democratique Africaine party (RDA), Mann traces the erosion of state sovereignty in the Sahel through what he calls a “prehistory of neoliberal Africa” focusing on the period from the 1960s and ‘70s before neoliberalism came into vogue.

While the book has an explicitly regional focus, it keeps Mali firmly at its center as it follows the evolution of postcolonial sovereignty in the Sahel through four areas: the emergence of nationalist political elites in the late 1950s; the implementation of state migration policies in the 1960s and ‘70s; the proliferation of nongovernmental humanitarian relief organizations during the droughts of the 1970s; and the success of nongovernmental human rights organizations, particularly Amnesty International, in raising public awareness about the treatment of political prisoners.

The following is excerpted from a recent interview with Professor Mann. The second half of the interview, focusing on persistent issues of conflict from the 1960s to the present, will be posted next week.

BfB: Your book’s subtitle is “The road to nongovernmentality.” How would you define nongovernmentality?

GM: It’s a phenomenon of governmental rationality in which the functions of government around the preservation of life increasingly get taken over by nongovernmental organizations and fall outside the realm of the state’s activities. So the idea of nongovernmentality does not necessarily take as its corollary that NGOs are hyper-powerful, or all-powerful. It simply observes that many functions of government, in the Foucauldian sense of husbanding and controlling the conditions of life, slip away from the state, are eschewed by it, or are pushed onto NGOs. And it’s important not to fall into a common logical fallacy that I myself was working under for a long time, that the rise of NGO power is at the cost of state power. In many ways the one can enable the other.

BfB:  Early in the book you state that one of your aims is “to move away from a zero-sum analysis in which NGO strength is a function of state weakness.” What made you drop the zero-sum view?

GM: I think it came partly from recognizing, even early in the game—as early as 1974—[Nigerien President] Hamani Diori was reaching out to American NGOs to try to expand his sphere of influence, the number and ilk of his allies.

BfB: You write that an American NGO, Africare, was operating out of Niger’s embassy in Washington for a time. [See a short summary of this history on Africare’s website.]

JCKennedy Niger

Africare co-founder Dr. Joseph C. Kennedy in Niger in the 1970s

GM: Which is astounding, and there are fascinating links between the African-American diaspora in the US and these African governments that appear in the 1970s. They’re counter-intuitive in two ways. The first is that the governments in question are francophone and quite far from the most familiar corners of the continent for the African diaspora—we’re not talking Ghana! The second is that these are actually highly technical problems [that the NGOs are being mobilized to address] that are distant from the everyday concerns of the African diaspora in the US. Concerns around famine, pastoralism—how do people in Harlem see that in their daily lives? They see poverty in a very different way. And I think that’s why that moment fades out and is kind of forgotten, because by the mid- to late-1970s, it’s Angola, it’s Mozambique, it’s Rhodesia, there’s a much more visible narrative of white power and minority domination on the continent.

In some ways, by passing off some of its responsibilities to outside actors like NGOs, an African state can liberate itself to focus on other things. (Security of the regime, for example, might rank high.) It can focus on other kinds of politics and a narrower view of what the function of the state really is.

BfB: How do you explain the emergence of nongovernmentality?

GM: I think of nongovernmentality as a phenomenon or an effect, not as something that is intended or planned or designed. It is something that emerges over time as the functions of government, in the broadest sense, begin to escape from the state, which is no longer sovereign in many ways. In the Amnesty cases, in the most literal ways, the state is no longer sovereign over life and death of its own citizens—which Agamben, for instance, would have you think is absolutely central to the very idea of what sovereignty is. So when I began work on this I was thinking more about Agamben’s ideas of sovereignty and that actually fell out; I don’t think he’s even in the bibliography. I was originally thinking through those ideas in terms of the human rights cases. So what I mean by nongovernmentality is more a phenomenon that emerges over time that is not planned or controlled by any particular set of actors, but more the governmental rationality that characterizes modern statecraft, and the work of government more broadly slips into this sphere of what we would later call “civil society” of the non-governmental organization. And in that sense it’s removed from any kind of direct politics, which is the great complaint of many African political activists—key questions are being posed and answers being proposed outside their spheres of engagement, and that’s fundamentally anti-democratic.

BfB: Your book highlights a paradox concerning the timing of the advent of nongovernmentality and the erosion of state sovereignty in the Sahel.

GM: The argument I was trying to make is that the 1960s and ‘70s was the period when state sovereignty was valued the most highly and had the greatest weight politically. It was at that point that you see the beginning of this sort of NGO power. And usually we think of the neoliberal period in Africa as being post-Cold War, late 1980s and 1990s. But the rise of NGO power is actually in the ‘60s and ‘70s: it takes off when state sovereignty is so cherished and political leaders [in the Sahel] are so concerned about neocolonialism and anticolonialism. And they think of their sovereignty as very contingent, [not] as fixed or stable at all—as we now, even in the most dire circumstances, more or less assume that it is. (Either now you argue that all sovereignty is a charade, or you recognize that even in a situation as dire as January 2013, Malian sovereignty is still at least recognized and preserved in a formal and legal sense.)

So the people most interested in creating and forwarding Mali’s anticolonial political tradition were themselves deeply tapped into Third Worldist or Communist networks; in some senses it was those networks, especially trade union networks in the 1940s and 50s, overlapping as they did with the Communist Party and with the RDA, that opened the gate to much of the human rights politics, a completely different form of politics. That liberal human rights politics of Amnesty International in the late 1970s couldn’t be further away from RDA, trade union or French Communist Party politics of the ‘50s and ‘60s, let alone in the ‘40s which is when those guys cut their teeth.

BW: But by the 1970s, “those guys” were among the intended beneficiaries of Amnesty’s campaigns.

Ibrahima Ly

Ibrahima Ly

GM: It was the whole category of people who had been held as prisoners since the fall of the RDA regime. Some people were classic “prisoners of conscience” types, like Ibrahima Ly [author of a 1974 antigovernment tract entitled “La Farce Electorale,” imprisoned from 1974 to 1978], or Victor Sy… intellectuals who because of their speech are deemed dangerous and thrown into prison. The case of the RDA politicians is a little greyer. But Amnesty adopted all of them as cases collectively, insofar as their conditions of detention were deemed to be so inhumane. So it was a big spectrum of people who fell into that rubric.

BfB: You write that human rights campaigns had “viral effects.” What do you mean by that?

GM: This metaphor is meant to capture the idea that human rights NGOs acted in literally a viral fashion, attaching themselves to existing political networks (e.g. trade unions) in the interest of benefiting vulnerable prisoners, but in doing so they reprogrammed the cells of the hosts for their own purposes, for their own reproduction. I mean this as a very objective metaphor; it is not meant to say that human rights groups are a disease afflicting Sahelian states.

But the particular kind of activism that Amnesty represented actually vitiated other organizations, which had a particular political position, of their original objects. The issue became how the prisoners were treated, not how the society was governed or why it was that people had gone to prison in the first place. Amnesty’s activism attached itself to an existing network of activists and effectively changed its orientation, and then Amnesty exploded as an NGO from 1977 to 1978, won the Nobel peace prize, became a significant player in world politics, [and] the number of its chapters and members exploded in Europe and the US. At that moment, the kind of internationalist socialist vision that the US-RDA espoused was beginning to look outdated; it was no longer about inequality or control over the means of production, all those Marxist terms went away and in Amnesty’s vision everything became a matter of freedom of speech, freedom of dissent. Which is odd because it makes it appear that the political prisoners had been dissenting for the sake of dissent, but that wasn’t the case. “La Farce Electorale” is not Pussy Riot in a Moscow church.

The second part of this interview, appearing on March 25, will examine some of the ways discourses about Mali’s present-day instability resonate with the country’s early independence period.

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Mali’s peace negotiations: Déjà vu all over again?

[This piece originally appeared on the blog Fragile States.]

Starting in July 2014, representatives of Mali’s central government and various northern rebel factions took part in peace talks hosted in Algiers. Following the latest round in November, a draft agreement proposed unprecedented changes to the apparatus of the state and the distribution of its resources. Among its more significant provisions:

  • Replacing regional governors, currently appointed by the central government, with elected executives (article 8a).
  • Establishing regional legislatures (article 8a), along with local police forces (article 8i).
  • Creating a national senate to give an official role to Mali’s “traditional and religious notables” (article 8j).
  • Shifting 30 percent of state revenue from the national to the local level (article 16).

At the Algiers talks (RFI photo)

Although the proposal thus grants considerable power to local and regional authorities, it does not establish a federal system—something central government officials have explicitly rejected. Nor does it recognize a distinct northern polity (i.e., the territory rebels claim as “Azawad”). On the other hand, it confers some special status on the north by promoting northerners’ inclusion in state institutions (articles 8k and 8l) and creating a new Development Zone for the Regions of Northern Mali (article 8b). Could this compromise foster the reconciliation Mali needs?

Maybe—but the draft agreement also has serious deficiencies. A paper by the International Crisis Group (“Mali: Last chance in Algiers”) highlights the inadequacies of not only the document under discussion but also the process that created it. For the ICG, the draft “is a useful first step, but it offers solutions that have shown serious limitations in the past.” Many provisions of the current document were included in previous peace deals—the Tamanrasset Accord in 1991, the Pacte national in 1992, and the Algiers Accord in 2006. The question this time around is whether leaders on both sides, as well as their international partners, can avoid their predecessors’ mistakes in finalizing and implementing a peace agreement.

There are three main problems with the current peace process:

1. It reduces the conflict to a problem of center vs. periphery.

Northern separatists frame the situation in northern Mali as one of a breakaway region—“Azawad”—resisting an oppressive central government. They represent the north as suffering under indifferent southern rule. This framing is reflected in the draft agreement, which refers to northern regions’ “considerable lag in terms of socioeconomic development compared to the rest of the country.”

This claim is hard to square with available data. A 2011 household survey found that extreme poverty was lower and literacy higher in Mali’s three northernmost regions (Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal) than in the southern/central regions of Sikasso, Segou and Mopti. Sikasso in particular is paradoxically poor in light of its favorable climate. The north certainly has been and remains underdeveloped compared to Bamako, but not compared to the rest of the country.

While north-south inequities do exist in Mali, they must not obscure the inequities and fractures that exist within populations at the ethnic, regional, and local level. Social hierarchies, often based on ascribed status such as nobility or slave ancestry, have long marginalized large numbers of people throughout the country, while elites have hijacked the state to their own ends, pitting their client groups against one another. A northern development program created by the 1992 Pacte national, for example, was “captured by a narrow elite from the north, which negotiated its privileges to the detriment of other groups” (ICG p. 16).

The north’s internal fault lines have only intensified since the violence began in 2012 (see Oxfam 2013). In a national context where social cohesion is weak both vertically and horizontally, a fairer division of power and resources must be sought within and among communities. The draft agreement’s emphasis on rectifying north-south imbalances therefore misrepresents the problem.

2. It has excluded the voices of ordinary Malians.

Protest in Bamako against northern autonomy, September 2014 (Maliactu photo)

When the peace process began 18 months ago, it incorporated not only Malian government officials and rebel leaders, but civil society representatives as well. The government pledged to launch an inclusive national dialog through which citizens of every region could air grievances and help shape the outcome of peace talks. That process stalled, and the process morphed into two-party talks between government and rebels. Even civil society groups vetted by Malian authorities have been kept away from the negotiating table.

Subsequently, leaders of many Bamako-based civic organizations condemned their exclusion and criticized the draft agreement. A coalition of civil society associations known as Mali Te Tila (“Mali cannot be divided,” in the Bamanan language) has also assailed the proposed agreement as a prelude to Mali’s partition. While these groups have surely been antagonized by the Malian government’s failure to seek their input, they also articulate a pronounced public sentiment that shifting state power to the local level—an approach first tried in the 1990s—will only further weaken the country. Many activists in the capital, steeped in decades-old nationalist discourse, are loudly calling for a centralized, unitary state… as though Mali’s status quo ante offered a viable way forward. Meanwhile, northern community leaders whose people have the most at stake in any peace deal and who have not taken up arms are unable to make themselves heard.

3. It allows insufficient time for peace to take hold.

The parties are under considerable pressure to reach a deal quickly. “The hour of truth is approaching,” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told journalists last month. Concerned that protracted negotiations could break down amid increasing violence on the ground, his government wants a deal wrapped up by the end of January. Mounting attacks on UN peacekeepers in Mali (of whom 44 have died since the mission began in 2013) make it harder to delay an agreement.

In his December report on Mali, however, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged caution: “While mindful of the necessity to reach an agreement within a reasonable time frame,” he wrote, “I consider it equally important for the parties to be allowed sufficient time to collectively address and resolve contentious issues to ensure a truly inclusive, viable and implementable agreement.” Such caution is sensible given that northern Mali’s most durable peace during the 1990s formed when an agreement brokered by the central government was coupled by others initiated by local communities, a process that took several months (see the account in Les Liens Sociaux au Nord-Mali).

The ICG paper suggests an interim security agreement to foster the conditions necessary for a more lasting peace, and allow for the groundwork of a final agreement to be put in place. “In the face of armed clashes, it is tempting for mediators to move quickly to achieve a deal that would only guarantee security in the short term,” its authors write. “But rushing the process will not help. Time is needed to build the foundations of sustainable peace.”

Can Malian authorities and rebel groups steer clear of the pitfalls that doomed earlier peace initiatives? Can France, Algeria, the African Union, the UN and the broader international community stop history from repeating itself in the region? The answer lies less in the specific provisions of a formal peace agreement, and more in these parties’ willingness to break from exclusionary politics and to envision ways of governing that allow all inhabitants of Mali fair access to the political process. A lasting solution lies not in making sure that all sides respect the rules of the game; the solution lies in changing the game. It remains to be seen whether any of the parties represented in Mali’s peace talks have an interest in doing so.

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Why Ebola can–and must–be stopped in Mali

To bring us up to date on efforts to contain Mali’s Ebola outbreak, here is a post from a guest blogger who recently concluded a visit to Bamako where he observed the ongoing public health campaign by various international, governmental, and non-governmental organizations, including the one he manages.

Almost every restaurant, bar, and hotel in Bamako currently has a professional greeter, responsible for distributing squirts of hand sanitizer, ensuring any entrant washes their hands from a newly installed tap, and checking the temperature of every person through the doors with an infrared no-touch thermometer, held an inch away from one’s temple. On the streets, billboards, fliers, and a loudspeaker-mounted vehicle announce Ebola education and prevention messaging, while fact and rumor twist through communities and whispers.

A neighborhood handwashing station in Bamako

A neighborhood handwashing station in Bamako

In late October, Mali recorded its first recorded Ebola cases. First, a young girl carried the virus across borders from Guinea. Despite her having been in contact with hundreds during her voyage, initially there were no other cases. Then, an imam from Guinea sought treatment in one of Bamako’s best clinics, frequented by expatriates, UN soldiers, and Mali’s upper class. The imam died, as did a nurse and doctor who treated him, a mosque worker who cleansed his body, a friend who visited the imam in hospital, and a child of the deceased nurse. The second outbreak resulted in hundreds of additional contacts throughout the city, and has inspired deep concern around the preparedness of the public health system in Ebola’s newest breeding ground.

Its geographic and political state contribute to the precariousness of Mali’s situation, a large, landlocked country that borders seven other nations, including a vast, mostly ungoverned swath of earth – the Sahara Desert – that runs across Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, and Niger. An uncontrolled outbreak here could easily spread beyond the grasp of NGOs and governments, crossing borders unchecked and sharing territory with the likes of banditry and terrorism, both causes and effects of Mali’s 2012 coup d’état. Adding to this geopolitical quagmire are refugees in Niger and Mauritania and seasonal food insecurity. A low rate of doctors per capita and a longstanding user fee healthcare system further compound Mali’s current fragility.

A health worker screens for fever

A health worker screens for fever

International actors recognize this gravity. The CDC and WHO softened their predictive forecasting recently, should Mali become the fourth country overrun by Ebola. WHO Director Margaret Chan recently visited to motivate health workers and international actors to respond aggressively. The New York Times editorial board has rung the canary call, appealing for fast, international action, while the UN and USAID have both opened emergency operations offices in Bamako over the last week.

Yet right now, it’s fast action and small efforts that can go a long way. A small dedicated CDC team seemingly managed to track most or all of the contacts across the city. Mali Health, the NGO I direct, has been working since September to education, inform, and prepare, as our community-based efforts to improve maternal and child health dovetail seamlessly into effective Ebola response. And most recently, our redeployed Community Health Workers have worked as Contact Monitors to check in with every contact twice daily, taking temperatures and monitoring any symptom development. Their gridded pages have been slowly filled as contacts reach their 21 days.

A banner by Mali Health promoting hand washing for the prevention of diarrhea and Ebola

A banner by Mali Health promoting hand washing for the prevention of diarrhea and Ebola

Active case finding – sending local teams into communities to screen for the sick and educate families and parents about prevention and healthy habits – is one of the many roles a Community Health Worker can play, and if effective, can make enormous difference. Another is developing trust. While Ebola is spread by the contact with fluids, rumors are airborne, often complicating prevention or treatment efforts. The new Ebola Treatment Unit in Bamako, staffed by MSF, is where people are killed. Ebola is a white man’s conspiracy. Even, Ebola isn’t real. These sentiments highlight the very common breakdown of trust and understanding between communities and the health system, both local and international. In Sierra Leone, despite heroic efforts, this resulted in the forced quarantine of all residents in its capital city. In Mali, it’s clear how easy this would be. Already there are whispers of cases being hidden by their families.

But there is also a dose of heavily guarded optimism. Mali has had two Ebola survivors walk out the doors of its treatment center over the last weeks. If Mali reaches January 18th without another case, it can be declared Ebola free. But with more cases closer to the border in Guinea and the very real ongoing risk of complacency, there remains a strong likelihood that cases could return. Trust must be built and nurtured between the health and local communities through a national response of coordinated Community Health Workers. Early treatment must be promoted and adhered to in order to limit contacts and increase survival, and the system to support such practices put into place. If an early warning system can be implemented, trainers trained, clinics prepared with proper screening and protocols, and enough equipment and medical personnel in place to quickly trace, place and face each case, Mali could avoid the breakdowns incurred by Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and would provide a blueprint for hope and effective execution.

– Kris Ansin is Executive Director of the Mali Health Organizing Project, which works to promote awareness of and access to community health programs.

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A hard look at Mali’s problems

It’s not yet clear whether Mali will avoid its own outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. Thus far only one case of infection has been confirmed within Mali’s borders, on 23 October. A Doctors Without Borders representative credits a rapid response by Malian and international health officials for averting an epidemic. (See also a piece in today’s New York Times: “Quick Response and Old-Fashioned Detective Work Thwart Ebola in Mali.“) The disease appears to have been contained, for now.

While this news is encouraging, other problems are threatening Mali’s tenuous peace, and could prove to be every bit as dangerous as an Ebola outbreak. I want to focus on three of these problems here.

1. The positions of the Malian government and northern rebels remain irreconcilable. At peace talks in Algiers last month, the loose coalition of rebel groups issued a skeletal plan (see the PDF version here) calling for an autonomous northern territorial entity within a newly federalized Republic of Mali. This so-called “state of Azawad” would be subject to its own laws and administered by its own civil servants; the federal republic would have a new flag and a new capital city (relocated from Bamako to Mopti). The rebels’ proposal “would render national unity almost meaningless,” according to unnamed sources in Bamako cited by Africa Confidential. The Malian government’s own proposal calls for an enhanced decentralization regime (see the PDF version here), shifting a degree of authority and resources from the national government to a new set of elected regional governments — but rejects any federal solution.

Meanwhile, in Algiers...

Meanwhile, in Algiers…

The Algerian government, which is mediating the peace talks that began in September, is pushing hard for a deal to be reached by the end of the year. Even if a compromise is agreed to in Algiers, however, it will be rejected by many rank-and-file rebels and government supporters alike. Recent skirmishes between Tuareg rebels and Malian troops south of the Niger Bend signal rising tensions on the ground. This is not even to speak of groups absent from the Algiers talks, which brings us to the next problem.

2. Armed jihadists have not been beaten. For several months after French and Chadian troops chased Islamist fighters out of northern Malian cities in early 2013, the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), MUJAO and other jihadist groups appeared to have subsided. This year, however, has seen a resurgence of violence in the north of the country, despite the French military’s renewed efforts to hunt down jihadist fighters. A French sergeant was killed in late October during one such operation in the Kidal region.

Lately the jihadists have been targeting their attacks on peacekeepers and bases of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, in the north. Since June, by my count from UN press releases, 80 MINUSMA troops (from Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Senegal) have been killed or wounded in a dozen separate incidents involving IED explosions, ambushes, and mortar barrages of UN patrols and bases. Sporadic IED attacks in the region have also targeted Malian army troops as recently as this month. The jihadists want to convince northern Malians that neither the UN nor their government can protect them, that in fact the very presence of the Malian government and the international community in the north endangers them. Which brings us to the third problem.

3. MINUSMA is in serious trouble. Northern Mali is the size of Texas, and securing the area requires considerable resources. But the UN’s operation there suffers from too few personnel, not enough equipment, and poor leadership. The size of MINUSMA’s security contingent, which is supposed to exceed 12,000 men, currently stands at 9,000 — and diplomats close to the mission don’t expect it to get any higher. MINUSMA also lacks the airlift capacity, especially helicopters, to carry out its mandate. Consequently, its power in the north is tenuous. One researcher recently told me that MINUSMA exerts “nominal control” over the cities of Timbuktu and Gao–but even there, only during the daytime. The rest of the north is effectively outside the orbit of both the UN and the Malian government.

MINUSMA troops honor fallen comrades, November 2014

MINUSMA troops honor fallen comrades, November 2014 (UN photo)

Part of the problem is that MINUSMA has been rudderless for some time. Bert Koenders, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the mission, left in October to take up a new post (as foreign minister of his native country, the Netherlands). No successor has yet been named. Relations between the mission and the Malian government are poor. Staff morale is low. Even within the wider UN bureaucracy, MINUSMA is perceived as a dysfunctional mission.

As problematic as MINUSMA has been, however, it doesn’t seem likely that Mali can live without it in the near term. If the international community is to achieve its objectives in Mali — stabilizing the north and protecting its civilian population — MINUSMA will require a serious reboot.

With the Malian military still unable to carry out its mission, the country will remain under international security supervision for the foreseeable future. (UN peacekeeping operations in Africa are rarely short-lived: blue helmets have been in Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia for over a decade, and in Congo-Kinshasa for 15 years.) Northern Mali is already becoming a theater for protracted low-intensity conflict between jihadist fighters and the international community. The jihadists are playing a long game there, cultivating support and even marrying into local populations. Victory, from their perspective, does not require defeating French or UN forces in battle; it merely requires outlasting them on the ground. They know that one day, probably several years from now, those forces will pack up and leave. What seems most likely to take their place?

The Tuareg nationalist cause, for its part, has only been emboldened by Bamako’s weakness, and its leaders are pressing their advantage at the Algiers talks. But an independent “Azawad” would be neither sustainable nor practical, and given the post-independence disaster that is South Sudan, the international community has no stomach for another two-state solution in sub-Saharan Africa (whatever Mali’s conspiracy theorists may think). The Malian government, for its part, has done nothing to win the support of neglected Songhay populations in the north, let alone disaffected Tuareg. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, beset by corruption scandals, hasn’t shown that he can even govern the south effectively. Government spending is essentially under the control of the International Monetary Fund.

Surveying this scene, it’s hard to avoid concluding that Mali has already become, in the eyes of the international community, one of those African “basket cases” like Somalia or the DRC — the sort of country that survives only under international receivership, where violence and unrest have become the norm, and where state power is almost gone over much of its territory. While we don’t know what the future will hold, a return to the status quo ante, with a nominally sovereign central government in Bamako managing more or less to preserve stability, seems almost out of the question. Maybe Mali’s problems are simply the latest sign that the nation-state system in Africa has outlived its usefulness. If that is indeed the case, we can only hope that something more enlightened and durable takes its place.

Postscript, 12 November: The Malian government has reported two more deaths from Ebola, apparently unconnected to the first case confirmed last month; reports suggest that a number of UN personnel are under quarantine in Bamako’s Clinique Pasteur, where one of the fatalities was treated, and where the other fatality worked as a nurse. Reuters reports that the clinic was under police lockdown as of Tuesday evening. And the Times has run a new story entitled “Outbreak in Mali Eclipses Early Success.” Thus the only apparent good news out of Mali lately turns to bad news.

Postscript, 28 November: According to The Financial Times, “One UN peacekeeper has been killed or wounded in Mali every four days on average since the organisation’s ‘blue helmets’ operation was launched there 18 months ago. Diplomats say with 31 deaths and almost 100 injuries so far, it is probably the highest casualty rate of any recent peacekeeping operation.”

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Book review: Can Judd Ryker save Malian democracy?

There are not a great many novels set in Mali. The country has had its own small literary scene since the 1950s, featuring writers like Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Massa Makan Diabaté, Moussa Konaté, and Yambo Ouologuem. Maryse Condé’s Segu (1987) and its sequel The Children of Segu (1989) offer worthwhile historical fiction dealing with Mali’s precolonial conflicts and kingdoms. But Mali appears quite seldom in English-language fiction. Clive Cussler’s Sahara (1992) is one exception to avoid; John Updike’s The Coup (1978) is set in a fictional country that looks a lot like Mali. Otherwise, Mali maintains a low profile, especially for American readers.

Moss_THE-GOLDEN-HOUR-678x1024Which is why The Golden Hour, a novel of political suspense published this month by Putnam, is at least somewhat remarkable. It is the first work of fiction by Todd Moss, though he has published a number of non-fiction books on economic development and stock markets in Africa. At his day job, Moss is Chief Operating Officer for the Center for Global Development, a Washington, DC think tank. (Full disclosure: I knew the author back in the 1990s, when we were both worker bees in Washington’s Africa policy non-profit circles.) His novel comes highly recommended: the dust jacket features enthusiastic endorsements not only by thriller writers like John Sandford and Douglas Preston, but by pundits like Francis Fukuyama and James Fallows. In the latter’s judgment, Moss does in this book for diplomacy what Tom Clancy did for the military.

The Golden Hour is the story of Judd Ryker, a social scientist plucked from Amherst College to lead the U.S. State Department’s new Crisis Reaction Unit. (If you’re wondering why the author christened his protagonist “Judd Ryker,” I suspect it’s because “Ted Striker” was already taken. Like Striker, Ryker’s efforts to save the day are haunted by his past, but at least Ryker doesn’t have a drinking problem.) Ryker is an unlikely action hero: he never fires a gun, though he does carry one briefly, and the primary threats he faces are bureaucratic rather than kinetic. He’s tasked with reversing a coup in Mali, one oddly similar to the putsch of March 2012 — even though Moss had already finished the book by then. Among the parallels: the fictional junta is named the “Council for the Restoration of Democracy,” while the real one was called “the National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State”; the leader of each compares himself to Charles de Gaulle.

As a Mali specialist, I could easily fault the inaccuracies and shortcuts surrounding the novel’s Malian setting. Reading the opening sequence, in which a Peace Corps Volunteer is kidnapped after a day teaching school north of Timbuktu, I couldn’t help thinking “Hey, the Peace Corps hasn’t had classroom teachers in Mali, or any volunteers north of Timbuktu, for decades.” At the mention of a “Bienvenue à Mali” sign at the Bamako Senou airport, my inner critic screamed “Oh no he didn’t!” And overall, I encountered few passages especially evocative of Mali or its people — very little to make me say “Aha, that’s the Mali I know and love.”

Todd Moss with President Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali

Todd Moss with President Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali, 2007 (photo from the CGD blog)

Such objections would be beside the point, however. Moss has been to Mali, but he’s no country specialist, and his novel’s setting isn’t ultimately that important: the real object of his insight in these pages is less the Sahel than the State Department, and specifically the culture of institutional in-fighting that shapes the implementation of U.S. foreign policy. Starting his job at State, Ryker is “shocked at the particularly virulent, dog-eat-dog subculture of the United States Foreign Service,” Moss writes, remarking on the “spectacular irony that those tasked to build friends for America around the world would treat each other with such disdain.”

Inter-agency rivalry is another huge hurdle for Ryker. Trying to grasp the murky, fluid situation developing in Mali, he receives conflicting accounts from State, the Pentagon, and the CIA, not to mention foreign governments and DC lobbyists. How can he cut through the layers of disinformation to find out what’s really going on? How can he restore Mali’s democratically elected president to power when his defense counterparts, who see that president as soft on terrorism, prefer to deal with a military strongman in Bamako?

Moss knows this territory intimately: From 2007-2008, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. As he mentioned in a recent interview with The Washington Post, one of the things he tried to do during his service at State was reverse a military coup in Mauritania. The imprint of that failed mission is evident throughout The Golden Hour, as Moss’s hero struggles to reconcile multiple conflicting agendas within the U.S. government to achieve his objective in Mali.

The plot is implausible at times, and formulaic in ways the author acknowledges. (At one point, aboard a helicopter racing toward Timbuktu, Ryker wonders, “am I becoming a caricature of the outsider in Africa, living out romantic fantasies?” The implied answer is “Damn right!”) Its African characters are mostly flat, serving either as villains or dispensers of cryptic, proverb-laden advice. The prose throughout does not exactly sparkle. For these reasons I cannot call The Golden Hour the best thriller, let alone the best work of fiction, I’ve read this year. (That distinction goes to David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which simply blew my socks off. I’m still trying to find them.) But it’s an enjoyable, fast-paced read, and I find it encouraging that Moss was able to publish this book at all, given U.S. trade publishers’ disinterest in African subject material — see his essay for The Daily Beast on that score. I hope The Golden Hour sells well and helps generate public interest in African affairs.

And that reminds me: Like probably every other American who’s spent time in Mali, I’ve pondered writing my own novel set in that vibrant, colorful country. It’s the story of an intrepid American Fulbright scholar whose anthropological fieldwork in Bamako is interrupted by civil unrest, and to complete his mission he must confront renegade troops, intransigent leftist protesters, and U.S. embassy minders bent on restricting his grant funding and mobility. Publishers, please drop me a line. I just need a good name for my protagonist. Taking my inspiration from Moss, I’ve come up with a few possibilities, and invite you to vote for your favorite below:

Got a favorite novel that features Mali? Feel free to recommend it in the comments section. And you can catch Moss on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show” on Tuesday, September 16.

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IBK, one year on: A voter’s remorse

Editor’s note: It’s been one year since Ibrahim Boubacar Keita or “IBK” was sworn in as Mali’s president. To mark the occasion, a Malian guest blogger offers his reflections on IBK’s record in office and the promises he made to his people.

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita

In June 2013, since many were saying that presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had no political platform, his campaign rapidly drew up a 56-page document. Entitled Pour L’Honneur Du Mali – Projet Présidentiel Le Mali D’Abord [“For the honor of Mali – Presidential Plan ‘Mali First'” – upload a PDF version here], the document was very well written, but composed (almost) entirely of slogans devoid of meaning. The defense and security section merited one page, double-spaced to make it look bigger than it was. The section consisted of six goals:

  1. Effectively guaranteeing the defense of the nation’s territory and population
  2. Succeeding in the mission of public safety
  3. Performing special military operations
  4. Honoring Mali through military operations abroad
  5. Guaranteeing the integrity of public institutions and the safety of people and their property
  6. Protecting the population against all types of risks or scourges and against the consequences of any conflict

My favorite is number 4 – military operations abroad! For a country that was unable to defend itself, the candidate was focusing on foreign operations as a key policy. Obviously, nobody in the campaign bothered to check the hurriedly written program for the relevancy of its content. Malians should have known then.

To be sure, the president still has four years left to carry out programs in his platform; it would be hard to expect satisfaction after one short year. But one must admit that the country is off to a poor start.

In his swearing-in speech, IBK promised certain things to Malians – They were not part of his platform (which he probably never read), but were promises nonetheless.

Corruption and poor governance

“Restoring state authority will coincide with a tireless fight against corruption, which inhibits our capacity to emerge from economic and social under-development…. Let no one enrich themselves illicitly at the expense of the Malian people.”

Shortly after saying this, the president and his team went about fiddling with public finances. His personal friend Sidi Mohamed Kagnassi (later named special adviser to the president) received a dubious-looking no-bid defense contract worth 69 billions francs (approx. US$136 million) in November 2013, later raised to 108 billion francs; to help him finance the deal, the state also provided a loan guarantee worth 100 billion francs (approx. US$197 million). In effect, taxpayers were financing Kagnassi, a government employee, to become a top state contractor. Mali’s laws allow no-bid contracts for defense-related purchases to maintain secrecy, but as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found out in their routine evaluation [PDF] of public accounts, the law was abused in this case: the vast majority of the contract was for the purchase of non-military items (e.g., trucks and open-bed 4x4s).

The abuse of public finances did not stop there; as the IMF was arguing with the government on the Kagnassi contract, another no-bid defense contract worth 25 billion francs (approx. US$49 million) was being readied. The first portion, valued at 10 billion francs, followed the same technique; more trucks over-invoiced up to four times their value. To add insult to injury, this contract was signed by then-minister of defense Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga on 22 May, the day after an army unit was defeated in Kidal, and while everybody was trying to piece together what had happened; the bodies of Malian soldiers were still lying in the sands of Kidal.

“As president, I will ensure good management of public resources. I will put in place the appropriate mechanisms to assure the transparency and effectiveness of public spending.”

No sooner were these words uttered than the president began planning the purchase of his private jet – an aircraft of unknown cost, thanks to lies deployed by the state. It was claimed to be 17 billion francs [approx. US$33.5 million], then 20 billion, then 5.5 billion plus a 14.5 billion loan, then just a few days ago the finance minister said it cost the treasury 18.6 billion. We must await the auditor-general’s report due this month to really understand how much taxpayers are in for.

Air Acrimony

Just after its purchase, Malians were told that the airplane belonged to them, even if they didn’t want it. Alas, the IMF was also embittered, but having more leverage it demanded and received a letter of explanation from the Malian government. The finance minister’s explanations were all over the place:

Engaging in a vast reform program involving military training and updating equipment for national defense, the military undertook to acquire a certain number of items including a command aircraft to transport military staff. This aircraft would also serve the transportation needs of the President of the Republic, whose current travels pose significant security challenges due to the rental of private planes and the changing of aircrews.

IBK's fancy new Boeing 737 in flight

IBK’s fancy new Boeing 737 in flight

How our army suffers! All sorts of messing around is carried out in its name. The finance minister claimed the airplane was a military command aircraft; a command aircraft with bedroom, office, living room and a shower. Mali already had a presidential jet acquired by the previous president. In an open session in parliament, Prime Minister Moussa Mara objected to the use of that airplane because it was… owned by the military. The newly acquired jet is registered in Aruba and supposedly leased to a third-party; that contract has never been published. The opacity surrounding its purchase – well, it’s a military airplane that needs secrecy – has alarmed the IMF, which is asking for an auditor’s report.

And the list goes on and on.

Justice for Malians

“A Malian’s life will henceforth be worth its inestimable price…. Let no one be above the law. It will be applied equally to all. I will put an end to the impunity and the vested interests that have sapped our judicial and state institutions.”

Nobody is above the law – except people who participated in crimes in the north. The victims are just that, victims to be forgotten with no right to presidential tears. People were stoned to death, hands were amputated, women raped, and peaceful citizens simply killed for nothing. The rebels who had been imprisoned were freed from the custody of the justice system and simply asked to go home. Abuses carried out by elements of the armed forces have also been swept under the rug.

As we have seen, you have to watch out whenever the president says “Let no one…” – you’ll be disappointed if you take those words at face value.

The people’s trust

“The trust, the great, great trust placed in me will never be sullied. I will henceforth see to the safeguarding of our people, both persons and property.”

There are clearly two types of Malians: those IBK has disappointed, and those whom he will disappoint. Mali’s secured territory is shrinking by the day; people living in the north no longer dare travel outside of their towns. They were the first to be let down. The armed forces were equally let down. Now, civil servants and merchants are unhappy. It seems everybody will get its turn – it’s one of those presidential inshallahs.

“As President of the Republic, I will work unceasingly to restore the authority of the state.”

Ask the people of Kidal, Menaka, Anefis, Tessalit, Tinzawatène, Tessalit, Ber, etc., if they see the Malian flag flying anywhere, or to whom they’re paying taxes. IBK appointed sub-prefects to the north less than two weeks ago. They can’t take their posting because the government has no control in the north.

For the happiness of Malians

“Ah, Malians! I have understood your message. It went straight to my heart. I commit myself to enacting it daily, for the Honor of Mali. For the happiness of Malians! Mali first!”

The president likes to use Latin expressions. One Malians are using today is fecimus iniuriam electio  – “we made the wrong choice.” The disappointment is overwhelming. We want our money back.

A. Karim Sylla is a blogger who writes often on the MaliLink distribution list, where he posted an earlier version of this text in French on 4 September.

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