A lesson in sociability

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Three predictions about Mali’s 2018 presidential election

News from Mali just keeps getting worse.

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

Mali violence 2015-2018

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

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

I therefore offer three predictions.

1. Voter turnout will be dismal.

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

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

2. The incumbent will win.

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


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

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

3. It won’t matter anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Corruption and the presidential plane

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

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

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

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

737 before

The 737 (note small lettering)

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

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

737 after.jpg

The same 737 with large lettering

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

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


Stéphane Poncet, at left

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

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


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

Kidal, Mali 2013

Malian administrators in Kidal, 2013  (photo: ICTJ)

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

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

Mali arms

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Offline references

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

How did Mali get here? (Part 4: Geopolitical explanations)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Coming up in Part 5: Institutionalist explanations

Offline references

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

How did Mali get here? (Part 3: Anti-imperialist explanations)

To account for the extent of state decay and recent political violence in Mali, Western journalists, diplomats and security specialists have often focused on proximate causes (e.g., Islamic radicalization, state corruption, the spread of small arms, and inter-ethnic tensions) with little attention to historical, social, and political-economic context. Better informed accounts by Malians and others seek to identify the long-term processes behind this instability. While these various narratives converge at points, for analytical purposes I will put them in three separate categories: anti-imperialist, geopolitical, and institutionalist. Each category has shaped policy and scholarly discourse regarding Mali, yet none can entirely illuminate Mali’s situation on its own. This post focuses on anti-imperialist analyses.

Russian charter image

Image from a Russian translation of the “Mande Charter

From the late colonial period, a strong anti-imperialist perspective informed Mali’s ruling elite. Emerging during the quest for liberation from French rule, this perspective led US-RDA intellectuals to pursue a strong central state and national identity (cohered through a single political party) at home and pan-Africanist policies abroad. Wary of neocolonial designs on the region, Malian nationalists in the 1960s accused France of opposing their new country’s full sovereignty by sabotaging its federation with Senegal and inciting the Tuareg to revolt (I. Sidibé, 2005; Lecocq, 2010; Mann, 2015). Certain Tuareg and Arab chiefs’ advocacy of continued French rule, e.g. through the OCRS (see part 1 of this series), constituted an unpardonable offense in Malian nationalist eyes (N. Keita, 2005). For its part the French government hoped to maintain troops on Malian soil, notably at the Tessalit garrison, after independence to support its ongoing war in Algeria. This desire fueled mistrust and resistance among Malian leaders, who fervently supported Algerian independence (Joly, 2013). Modibo Keita’s regime celebrated the final departure of French forces from Mali in September 1961 as a signature achievement for the young nation, and held up Mali’s new army as a symbol of national dignity (Mann, 2003).



Seydou Badian Kouyaté

Suspicion of French motives has shaped Malian politics and national identity ever since. More than half a century after Mali’s independence, the specter of French meddling in Mali’s internal affairs still aroused public fears (Koné, 2017). Denunciation of Western economic exploitation of Africa features in jihadi as well as nationalist propaganda. Anti-imperialist narratives represent Mali’s “Tuareg problem” as primarily exogenous and Tuareg rebels not only as feudal racists but also puppets of neocolonialism. Asked in 2015 how Modibo Keita’s government handled the 1963 Tuareg rebellion, Seydou Badian Kouyaté–a former minister in that government–replied, “We went to war. That crisis was provoked by French colonists who had served in southern Algeria and some in northern Mali. Those colonists… pushed our brothers into rebellion.” In this telling, the revolt stemmed not from heavy-handed administration nor from the nomads’ history of resistance to state control, but from covert French manipulation.


Aminata Dramane Traoré, altermondialiste par excellence

Malian anti-imperialism took on an altermondialiste tone in the 1990s, with activists such as former culture minister Aminata Dramane Traoré decrying neoliberal economic reforms as an affront to national sovereignty (Siméant, 2014). Once Mali’s crisis flared in 2012, she and other critics linked it to Western efforts to destabilize the country and region. “The West’s interest is for a central Malian state without real control over the northern part of its territory,” she asserted (Diop and Traoré, 2014: 141). Weeks after the coup, a group of Mali’s most prominent public intellectuals–including Traoré and Kouyaté–warned of the “planned recolonization” of the country and invoked the memory of the OCRS.

Anti-imperialist narratives sometimes nourish conspiracy theories casting Mali solely as a victim of a “great game” between global powers and ignoring domestic drivers of rebellion and state incapacity. Such theories were popular among Malian journalists and intellectuals. Malian officials, despite their own anti-imperialist sentiments, have generally refrained from openly accusing France or other foreign powers of interference. In one notable exception during a 2015 speech to Malian troops, IBK appeared to lend credence to reports in the Malian press of an arms embargo against the country. These reports accused Western governments, particularly France, of trying to destroy the country by preventing its military from rearming. Yet no embargo ever existed: the Malian government continued buying weapons from sources in Brazil, Russia, and elsewhere.

Malian nationalists’ concerns for their country’s sovereignty were both sincere and reasonable, though. French intelligence services had maintained close ties with Tuareg leaders (Marchal, 2013). With Mali’s once-vaunted army in disarray, over 4,000 French soldiers were deployed to Mali for Operation Serval (2013-14), followed by 1,000 posted there indefinitely for its successor Operation Barkhane. Operating out of sensitive bases including Tessalit (regarded by some, rightly or wrongly, as “one of the most geostrategically important locations on earth”!) and letting MNLA rebels control Kidal, even collaborating with them on the ground to hunt jihadi fighters, French forces only stoked Malian suspicions of their true purpose in the region (Notin, 2014; Wing, 2016). Many in Mali similarly saw the UN’s Mali peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, as tainted by imperialist motives (Sabrow, 2017).


Operation Barkhane: Creeping recolonization?

Nostalgia for the US-RDA’s anti-imperialist ideals surged after the events of 2012. Some Malians blamed France for the 1968 coup, and lionized the late Modibo Keita as a martyr of neocolonialism. Political language regarding Mali’s present travails frequently echoed official rhetoric on Tuareg rebellion and imperialism from the early 1960s. Former prime minister Soumana Sako, for example, lambasted the 2015 peace accord signed by the Malian government, arguing that national reconciliation should not “condone impunity nor support the survival or resurgence of slavery-supporting feudal, racist, and obscurantist forces.” A political party in Bamako denounced a “vast plot to undo the Malian state as a unitary, democratic and secular republic.”

Such narratives thrive for good reason. As Chafer and Keese (2013: 5) noted,

conspiracy theories find fertile ground in the literature on Franco-African relations precisely because they have been dominated by secrecy. Moreover, France has in many cases done precisely what the conspiracy theories claim that it does–destabilize or prop up African regimes that are perceived as pro-French in order to further French interests.

Yet these and other authors find anti-imperialist suspicions of French influence overstated, as notions of a “French plot in the Sahara” often rest on unrealistic assumptions. Well before the 2012 crisis, Boilley (2005: 180) wrote that “a large portion of this fear was fantasy, ascribing to France interventionist designs that no longer operated through vague desires of political control like the OCRS, or the wish to unleash rebellions against the Malian central state.” France and other powers continue to defend their interests in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel today, but their methods have changed since 1957.

Scholars have also challenged the nationalist assumption that Modibo Keita’s revolutionary regime was brought down by external forces, identifying strong internal factors behind the breakup of the Mali Federation, the 1963-64 Tuareg rebellion and the 1968 coup (e.g., Mann, 2003; Keita, 2005; Lecocq, 2010). Defenders of US-RDA rule tend to exaggerate its achievements and overlook its mistakes, not least in managing the economy. Ultimately, states Ibrahima Sidibé (2005: 351), “Malian socialism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.” Its corresponding anti-imperialist narratives have contradictions of their own which cannot be ignored.

Coming up in Part 4: Geopolitical explanations

Postscript, 30 May 2017: The anti-imperialist perspective is alive and well in Bamako’s political class, as evidenced by a press item on SADI party official Dora Cheick Diarra who explicitly traces Mali’s current destabilization to “the history of the OCRS.” Among the nationalist/anti-imperialist views expressed in this piece: “powerful invisible hands” profit from Mali’s destabilization to steal its riches; there was never a rebellion under Modibo Keita; and Mali’s supposed allies protracted the country’s emergency in 2012 by preventing the junta from dealing with northern rebels (though the words “rebel” and “rebellion” are tellingly absent from this piece, aside from the insistence that Modibo never faced any).

Offline references

  • Boilley, Pierre. 2005. Un complot français au Sahara ? Politiques françaises et représentations maliennes. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds. Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 163-182.
  • Chafer, Tony and Alexander Keese. 2013. Introduction. In Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese, eds. Francophone Africa at Fifty. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 1-12.
  • Diop, Boubacar Boris and Aminata Dramane Traoré. 2014. La gloire des imposteurs : Lettres sur le Mali et l’Afrique. Paris: Philippe Rey.
  • Joly, Vincent. 2013. The French Army and Malian Independence. In Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese, eds. Francophone Africa at Fifty. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 75-89.
  • Keita, Naffet. 2005. De l’identitaire au problème de la territorialité : L’OCRS et les sociétés Kel Tamacheq du Mali. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds. Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 91-121.
  • Koné, Kassim. 2017. A southern view on the Tuareg rebellions in Mali. African Studies Review 60(1):53-75.
  • Lecocq, Baz. 2010. Disputed desert: Decolonization, competing nationalisms and Tuareg rebellions in Mali. Leiden: Brill.
  • Mann, Gregory. 2003. Violence, Dignity and Mali’s New Model Army, 1960-68. Mande Studies 5:65-82.
  • Mann, Gregory. 2015. From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Marchal, Roland. 2013. Military (mis)adventures in Mali. African Affairs 112/448:486-497.
  • Sabrow, Sabine. 2017. Local perceptions of the legitimacy of peace operations by the UN, regional organizations and individual states – a case study of the Mali conflict. International Peacekeeping 24(1):159-186.
  • Sidibé, Ibrahima Baba. 2005. Les relations franco-maliennes à la recherche d’un nouveau souffle. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds. Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 341-362.
  • Siméant, Johanna. 2014. Contester au Mali : Formes de la mobilisation et de la critique à Bamako. Paris: Karthala.
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

How did Mali get here? (Part 2: From military rule to multiparty politics)

Introduction: This post is the second in a series reviewing Mali’s modern history and present trajectory. Subsequent posts will survey the distinct but overlapping analyses of Mali’s postcolonial development. As I work to improve my draft for publication, I invite readers’ comments and criticism. This post picks up in the late 1960s, where the previous one left off.

The coup that ousted Modibo Keita in November 1968 ended Mali’s period of revolutionary socialism. Under the presidency of junta leader Lieutenant (later General) Moussa Traoré, the government undid some unpopular US-RDA policies but kept a firm grasp on the economy and society and tolerated little dissent. Keita died in prison in 1977, and the regime’s detention of dissidents, including many former members of 131602370_title0h_872823418government, drew censure from abroad (Mann, 2015). Severe droughts in 1972-73 and 1983-84 left Mali dependent on foreign aid and government debt, intensifying historical patterns of emigration to neighboring countries and beyond. Migration for labor and trade had been a central part of the male life course for men throughout southern and central Mali for generations. From the 1970s, thousands of Tuareg joined this outflow and headed for Libya, where some joined the Libyan armed forces (Lecocq, 2010). In Bamako, the combination of neopatrimonial politics, elite predation of aid, and IMF-induced fiscal austerity further compromised the Traoré regime and damaged the economy to a degree scarcely offset by pragmatic policy decisions, such as abandoning the Malian franc and rejoining the CFA franc zone in 1984 (Baudais, 2015). Mali’s second Tuareg uprising began in 1990, and like the first elicited a harsh reaction from government security forces. 100,000 refugees fled the country, and many remained abroad for years (Lecocq and Klute, 2013). This rebellion, which saw the first explicit rebel demands for an independent homeland, continued through the mid-1990s.

Amidst the northern conflict, nationwide opposition to Traoré’s authoritarian rule culminated in massive street protests in Bamako. Traoré was forced from power in March 1991; Amadou Toumani Touré (known at “ATT”), the army colonel who toppled him, headed a transitional government which in 1992 organized Mali’s first democratic presidential election since the end of the colonial era. Thirty years of one-party rule gave 1059725637468way to a multiparty political system and new constitution. The new regime of President Alpha Oumar Konaré legalized private newspapers and radio stations, devolved some state powers to a new layer of elected local officials, and expanded public primary schooling from 28% of school-age children in 1991 to 62% in 2000 (Zobel, 2013). With the economy expanding by more than five percent annually, observers declared that Mali had achieved “a thriving multiparty democracy with competitive elections, a free press, better protection of civil liberties and political rights, less corruption, and stronger governance” (Radelet, 2010: 10).

This combination of growth and formal democracy, however, failed to foster sustainable, inclusive politics into the 21st century. Especially after the 2002 election of Amadou Toumani Touré as president, the government appeared increasingly unable to cope with att_mal_491620852persistent challenges. ATT adopted a “consensus approach,” bringing a host of political parties into his government. Without significant opposition, his government had little incentive to make hard political choices or enact meaningful reforms. Voter turnout was among the lowest in the region. Public schools became dysfunctional, social divisions widened, and state dependency on foreign aid increased (N. Keita, 2013; O. Sidibé, 2013; Charbonneau and Sears, 2014; Baudais, 2015; Bergamaschi, 2016). Public satisfaction with democracy plummeted from 63% to 31% of survey respondents while perceptions of corruption rose (Dulani, 2013). Lucrative smuggling interests, including the transit of South American narcotics across the Sahara, facilitated criminalization at every level of the state, from elected officials in the north to top-ranking authorities in Bamako, and magnified disputes between local communities (Ag Alhousseini, 2016). Sporadic, low-intensity rebellions in the north blended into criminal activity.

The 2011 demise of Libyan President Muammar Kadhafi and his regime sparked the gravest threat to Malian stability: Tuareg fighters returning from Libya joined forces with Tuareg groups in northern Mali to organize new rebel movements. One, the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), fought for a secular, independent state within Mali’s existing borders. Another, Ansar Dine, fought for the establishment of Islamic law throughout Mali. Both groups allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had been present in Mali’s north since at least 2006. These were the main entities responsible for expelling the Malian armed forces from the country’s three northern regions in early 2012. Soon after occupying northern cities and towns, though, the MNLA lost support due to abuses carried out by its fighters, leading to a complete northern takeover by jihadi groups imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic law (Lecocq and Klute, 2013; F. Keita, 2014; Schulz, 2016).

Meanwhile the March 2012 coup exposed Malian democracy’s failings. Many Bamako residents saw it as divine punishment of a corrupt ruling elite, viewing elections as merely ”arrangements between those in power to perpetuate their hold on society and the economy” (Diawara, 2014: 111). Many greeted the coup as a chance to free the country from predatory rule and establish the true democracy that had eluded them since the 1990s. A return to the political status quo ante was, for them, out of the question. Neither the army junta nor the civilian transitional government officially succeeding it, however, could reunite the fractured nation.

In January 2013 French President François Hollande deployed French forces against an Ansar Dine- and AQIM-led offensive in central Mali. Operating alongside troops from IBK_509189415Mali, Niger and Chad, “Operation Serval” retook the north of the country, ending the jihadi occupation and enabling transitional authorities in Bamako to organize a nation-wide presidential election later that year. Ibrahim Boubacar Keita or “IBK,” a former prime minister, received over 77% of second-round votes.

Key problems persisted, however. Kidal, the country’s sole administrative region in which Tuareg constitute a majority, had been the scene of the 1963-64 rebellion and remained a stronghold of separatist sentiment; it reverted to MNLA control once French troops drove out jihadi groups (Ag Alhousseini, 2016). Kidal’s continued exclusion from central government authority sapped IBK’s domestic support. The deployment of UN peacekeepers from July 2013 brought only limited stability to the north, where jihadi attacks on UN, French, Malian government and civilian targets increased year by year. Violence soon spread from the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu to the central regions of Mopti and Segou. In 2015 Bamako was the unprecedented scene of jihadi terrorist tactics when gunmen targeted two businesses catering to Westerners, killing five civilians at a bar and 20 at a hotel in separate incidents.

These events’ potential to spur a “credible, state-led rethinking of the state” (Charbonneau and Sears, 2014: 11) was squandered in the years following IBK’s election, and Mali’s political establishment demonstrated neither the willingness nor the capacity to undertake serious reform. Implementation of a 2015 peace agreement brokered with separatists, mandating among other things a degree of self-rule at the regional and community level, lagged. As president, IBK outsourced difficult issues to associates rather than deal with them directly (Baudais, 2015). Public service provision remained poor, and in rural areas where the majority of the population lived, most government services never existed to begin with. For rural Malians, the crisis “merely exacerbated what was an ongoing empirical state failure” of long standing (Bleck and Michelitch, 2015: 26; see also Bleck et al., 2016).

This failure left the field open for non-state actors advocating alternative forms of political change, many of them violent. With government authority increasingly tenuous, a proliferation of armed groups in central and northern regions blurred the boundaries between criminality, insurgency and terrorism (Boeke, 2016). Conflicts between herders and farmers and between rival ethnic self-defense militias intensified throughout the Mopti region, with factions sometimes seeking redress for local grievances under the banner of jihad (International Alert, 2016; Sangaré, 2016). Jihadi groups gained strength in northern zones completely outside the control of the Malian state, the French military or UN peacekeepers (Ahmed and Carayol, 2017). For its part the international community was unable to impose a lasting solution, as the French and UN military missions lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the Malian public (Sabrow, 2017).

Creeping instability in Mali also laid bare the country’s “Tuareg question”: after multiple generations of Tuareg-led rebellion against the Malian central state, the place of Tuareg people within Malian society remained a raw issue. Neither the government nor rebel groups held much confidence in their 2015 peace deal (International Crisis Group, 2017). A significant portion of Tuareg–particularly members of high-status groups–held out for a Tuareg-dominated, self-governing “Azawad.” Down south, where most of Mali’s population lived, Tuareg irredentism was widely viewed as the root cause of the country’s calamities. “For many southern Malians, the MNLA and other Tuareg rebel fronts are responsible for the disastrous conditions all of Mali has experienced since the onset of this recent conflict,” wrote a Malian anthropologist (Koné, 2017: 56).

Before 2012, political violence was foreign to most Malians, but structural violence–in the form of poverty, political exclusion, and social hierarchies based on race, caste, gender, and education–was rooted deep in Malian life (Bayart, 2013). The country’s economy, dominated by the production of a few primary commodities (gold, cotton, cereals, and livestock), never brought about widespread prosperity despite sustained economic growth (Moseley, 2017). Agriculture, employing three-quarters of the population, remained precarious due to erratic rainfall, and food insecurity was rife. As in much of the Sahel, climate change and high fertility rates placed significant economic and demographic pressure on Malian communities. With the nation’s population approaching 20 million–four times its size at independence in 1960–the scale of the human drama playing out in Mali had never been greater.

Coming up in Part 3: Anti-imperialist analyses of Mali’s instability


  • Ag Alhousseini, Mohamed. 2016. Du conflit aux conflits, Kidal dans l’espoir d’une paix jamais retrouvée. FES Mali Policy Paper, Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
  • Baudais, Virginie. 2015. Les trajectoires de l’Etat au Mali. Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Bayart, Jean-François. 2013. Les racines du mal : entretien avec Jean-François Bayart. Politique International 139.
  • Bergamaschi, Isaline. 2016. The politics of aid and poverty reduction in Africa: A conceptual proposal and the case of Mali. Global Cooperation Research Papers 16:5-33.
  • Bleck, Jaimie and Kristin Michelitch. 2015. The 2012 crisis in Mali: Ongoing empirical state failure. African Affairs 114:1-26.
  • Bleck, Jaimie, Abdoulaye Dembele and Sidiki Guindo. 2016. Malian crisis and the lingering problem of good governance. Stability: International Journal of Security & Development 5(1):1-18.
  • Boeke, Sergei. 2016. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Terrorism, insurgency, or organized crime? Small Wars and Insurgencies 27(5):914-936.
  • Charbonneau, Bruno and Jonathan M. Sears. 2014. Fighting for liberal peace in Mali? The limits of international military intervention. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 8(2-3):192-213.
  • Diawara, Mahamadou. 2014. La crise malienne et la politisation des catégories populaires. In Joseph Brunet-Jailly, Jacques Charmes and Doulaye Konaté, eds. Le Mali contemporain. Bamako: Editions Tombouctou. 89-116.
  • Dulani, Boniface. 2014. Malian democracy recovering / Military rule still admired. Afrobarometer Policy Paper 12.
  • International Crisis Group. 2017. The Sahel: Mali’s crumbling peace process and the spreading jihadist threat. 1 March.
  • Keita, Naffet. 2005. De l’identitaire au problème de la territorialité : L’OCRS et les sociétés Kel Tamacheq du Mali. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 91-121.
  • Keita, Naffet. 2013. Y a-t-il un gouvernement légitime au Mali ? In Patrick Gonin, Natalie Kotlok and Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, eds. La tragédie malienne. Paris: Vendémiaire. 83-92.
  • Koné, Kassim. 2017. A southern view on the Tuareg rebellions in Mali. African Studies Review 60(1):53-75.
  • Lecocq, Baz. 2010. Disputed desert: Decolonization, competing nationalisms and Tuareg rebellions in Mali. Leiden: Brill.
  • Lecocq, Baz and Georg Klute. 2013. Tuareg separatism in Mali. International Journal 68(3):424-434.
  • Mann, Gregory. 2015. From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Moseley, William G. 2017. The minimalist state and donor landscapes: Livelihood security in Mali during and after the 2012-2013 coup and rebellion. African Studies Review 60(1):37-51.
  • Radelet, Steven C. 2010. Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries are Leading the Way. Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.
  • Sabrow, Sabine. 2017. Local perceptions of the legitimacy of peace operations by the UN, regional organizations and individual states – a case study of the Mali conflict. International Peacekeeping 24(1):159-186.
  • Schulz, Dorothea E. 2016. “Shari’a” as a moving target? The reconfiguration of regional and national fields of Muslim debate in Mali. In Robert W. Hefner, ed. Shari’a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 203-228.
  • Sidibé, Ousmane Oumarou. 2013. La déliquescence de l’etat : un accélérateur de la crise malienne ? In Doulaye Konaté, ed. Le Mali entre doutes et espoirs : Réflexions sur la Nation à l’épreuve de la crise du Nord. Bamako: Editions Tombouctou. 171-192.
  • Zobel, Clemens. 2013. Le Mali postcolonial : Perspectives politiques. In Patrick Gonin, Natalie Kotlok and Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, eds. La tragédie malienne. Paris: Vendémiaire. 57-81.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

How did Mali get here? (Part 1: Echoes of decolonization)

Introduction: Recently I’ve been drafting a brief overview of Mali’s modern history and present trajectory. The aim is to excavate the long-term political, economic, and historical underpinnings of Mali’s ongoing instability. This post is the first in a series on this overview; subsequent posts will survey more recent history and the distinct but overlapping analyses of Mali’s postcolonial development. As I work to improve my draft for publication, I invite readers’ comments and criticism.

The final years of French control over what was then called le Soudan Français or French Sudan set the mold for much of what followed independence. The legacy of seven decades of colonial rule continues to shape questions of governance, relations among various segments of society, and foreign relations for Malians today. Indeed, reading the Malian press in the early 21st century, one often finds that political discourse about key issues has scarcely changed since the late 1950s.

The government of France’s Fourth Republic (1946-1958) sought to preserve its influence over French possessions in Africa and elsewhere. It created the French Union, a political framework that bestowed certain rights upon erstwhile colonial subjects, including political participation and representation in the metropolitan National Assembly. On the heels of French military defeat in Indochina, a bloody war for independence in Algeria–France’s largest colony and Mali’s neighbor to the north–helped bring down the Fourth Republic and put Charles de Gaulle back in power. To forestall the breakup of its overseas possessions, in 1958 de Gaulle’s government created the French Community, granting limited self-rule to former colonies but maintaining the metropole’s power over their defense, diplomacy, and currency. A territorial body known as the Organisation commune des régions sahariennes or OCRS had been established in 1957 to keep French sovereignty over a vast expanse of the Sahara Desert stretching from the eastern borders of Morocco and Mauritania to northern Chad and its borders with Libya and Sudan (see map below). This territory was meant to guarantee French access to newly discovered mineral resources in the region, including oil and gas, as well as France’s nuclear testing site in southern Algeria (N. Keita, 2005; Lecocq, 2010).


Both the French Community and the OCRS were overtaken by events, however. The Community became defunct as former colonies opted for full independence. In 1959 French Sudan and Senegal formed a union called the Mali Federation, taking its name from the Empire of Mali which spread over much of the western Sahel from the 13th through the 17th century. The Federation fell apart just weeks after independence from France in August 1960, splitting into two sovereign republics. As for the OCRS, it was dissolved after Algerian independence in 1962 (Mann, 2015).

Throughout this gradual transition from colony (French Sudan) to member of the French Community to member of the Mali Federation to independent republic, a new generation of leaders in Bamako fought to assure their homeland’s emerging sovereignty. The Union 220px-keita_stamp_1961Soudanaise – Rassemblement Démocratique Africain or US-RDA, a pan-Africanist party headed by former schoolteacher Modibo Keita and drawn from a small cadre of civil servants educated in French colonial schools, became the dominant faction. In many respects the US-RDA stood firmly against lingering French control, opposing the OCRS in particular. After becoming Mali’s first president in September 1960, Keita demanded that French military personnel evacuate their bases on Malian soil (including Tessalit in the far north, which was useful for the war effort in Algeria). He forged military links with the Soviet Union and communist China, and later established a new currency, the Malian franc. In these regards Mali diverged from its neighbors such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire, which continued to house French military bases and retained a currency, the CFA franc, pegged to the French franc. Yet the Malian government made no diplomatic or economic break with France, and retained French as its official language (I. Sidibé, 2005; Joly, 2013). Moreover, Mali’s first constitution was heavily drawn from France’s 1958 constitution, marked by a strong presidency and highly centralized state authority (Baudais, 2015). While the people governing had changed, the same style of governing–secular, bureaucratic, autocratic and occasionally brutal–endured (I. Sidibé, 2005).

Perhaps the most significant resistance to Malian government authority in these early years came from northern Tuareg communities. Tuareg nomads had long roamed large swathes of the Sahara; their zone of activity straddled the borders of five newly independent states in the region. French colonial administrators had upended Tuareg society by banning slavery, dismantling local polities and favoring some clans over others (N. Keita, 2005). Despite, perhaps even because of, their repeated armed opposition to colonial rule, Tuareg people occupied a “privileged place in the French colonial imagination” (Lecocq and Klute, 2013: 425) and were exempted from forced labor, conscription and schooling requirements.

Like their French predecessors, Malian leaders in Bamako interpreted the hierarchies within Tuareg society as evidence of an essentially feudal political order marked by vestiges of slavery. The ruling US-RDA, guided by pan-Africanist and modernist ideals, worked to coalesce a unified Malian national identity and historiography, but did so largely around the dominant Mande cultures of the south (Lecocq, 2010; Baudais, 2015). In promoting this model of nationhood, Malian government officials saw themselves as opposing an unjust Tuareg social order that permitted light-skinned elites to impose their will upon darker-skinned vassals as well as other racially “black” peoples inhabiting the region (Lecocq, 2010). The US-RDA spoke out against the forces of “ethnic particularism” and “obscurantism,” not to mention the lingering influence of colonialism throughout the country. This struggle was especially acute in the north, where several Tuareg and Arab leaders had lobbied French officials in the late 1950s for inclusion in the OCRS instead of a new, black-led nation-state (N. Keita, 2005; Hall, 2011; Koné, 2017).

These tensions formed the backdrop of Mali’s first Tuareg revolt in 1963-64 when nomads in the northern Adrar mountains–probably no more than a few hundred in all–took up arms. Malian troops violently suppressed the rebels and abused civilians suspected of aiding them; trauma from this period remains seared into many Tuareg communities’ memories (Lecocq, 2010; Rasmussen, 2017). Suspecting a French hand in the uprising, Malian authorities courted the support of historically marginalized segments of Tuareg society to cement their control over the north (Boilley, 2005). Much of northern Mali would remain under direct military administration for decades.

Political power, marked by the authoritarian culture of commandement inherited from French colonial administrators, became increasingly personalized under Keita’s presidency. Official socialist rhetoric and economic policies proved divisive. The government was forced to devalue the Malian franc in 1963 and again in 1967, and cracked down on groups it accused of undermining its revolutionary aims, such as migrants seeking work abroad and merchants opposing import controls. Heavy-handed rule sapped the state’s legitimacy and stoked disaffection in segments of society and the state apparatus (Baudais, 2015). New troubles were brewing.

Coming up in Part 2: From military rule to multiparty politics

Offline references

  • Baudais, Virginie. 2015. Les trajectoires de l’Etat au Mali. Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Boilley, Pierre. 2005. Un complot français au Sahara ? Politiques françaises et représentations maliennes. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 163-182.
  • Hall, Bruce. 2011. A History of Race in Muslim West Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Joly, Vincent. 2013. The French Army and Malian Independence. In Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese, eds. Francophone Africa at Fifty. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 75-89.
  • Keita, Naffet. 2005. De l’identitaire au problème de la territorialité : L’OCRS et les sociétés Kel Tamacheq du Mali. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds Mali-France: Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 91-121.
  • Koné, Kassim. 2017. A southern view on the Tuareg rebellions in Mali. African Studies Review 60(1):53-75.
  • Lecocq, Baz. 2010. Disputed desert: Decolonization, competing nationalisms and Tuareg rebellions in Mali. Leiden: Brill.
  • Lecocq, Baz and Georg Klute. 2013. Tuareg separatism in Mali. International Journal 68(3):424-434.
  • Mann, Gregory. 2015. From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rasmussen, Susan. 2017. Global media and local verbal art representations of northern Malian Tuareg. African Studies Review 60(1):77-100.
  • Sidibé, Ibrahima Baba. 2005. Les relations franco-maliennes à la recherche d’un nouveau souffle. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 341-362.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Mafiacracy: The Malian state adrift

ibrahim-boubaca-keita-ibk-logo-caricature-logo-corruption-213x300This post  was written by A. Karim Sylla of the MaliLink Investigative Reporting Group. A longer version in French, featuring additional coverage of irregularities in public finance and high-level government appointments, appeared on 24 January in Bamako’s Le Républicain newspaper.

Malian government bureaucracy costs taxpayers dearly. More than half the state budget goes to civil service salaries and administrative expenses–buildings, motor pools, telecommunications, trips, supplies, etc. For every franc spent on public infrastructure, roads, or schools, another 1.37 francs is spent on the bureaucracy. From 2010 to 2017, the Malian budget more than doubled, from 1.1 trillion to 2.27 trillion CFA francs (about US$4.5 billion), an increase of 106% that yet had little impact on key sectors like education and health, or even the effectiveness of government services. But worse than its poor productivity, the Malian state sector has become a place where funds meant for public investment either disappear or are misspent. Through fraud and theft of public funds, a mafia has taken over the public sector.

And this goes back a long time. In its 2007 report, Mali’s Bureau du Vérificateur Général (BVG) or inspector general’s office singled out the Ministry of Urban Housing for its spending on household goods:

Average annual « food expenses » reaches 34 million francs. Add to that 500,000 francs for buying soap, cooking oil and cooking utensils, the purchase of 2645 cans of Nido powdered milk, and some 3 million francs to buy 141 bags of sugar. This department’s food costs are clearly excessive.

CHU GT.jpeg

Why was the ministry buying cooking oil? Couldn’t that 34 million francs have been put to better use in the pediatrics department of Gabriel Touré Hospital? Civil servants buying themselves Nido milk with public funds while children die of malnutrition!

Fraud is now done in the open. According to the 2012 BVG report, in the Ministry of Mines:

Purchases made by the DFM [Direction des Finances et du Matériel] cannot be justified. For example, even though the department has only 23 HP printers, it purchased 813 ink cartridges worth for 52.29 million francs in just nine months. That quantity suggests that each printer used 4 cartridges per month. Moreover, some of the cartridges purchased did not match the type of printer used by the DFM.

Many BVG reports have come and gone, and nothing ever comes of them. Everyone blames everyone else; the executive branch accuses the judicial branch of foot dragging while the judiciary blames the executive or even the BVG. Meanwhile, fraud and corruption run rampant. The social fabric is indelibly stained to the point that nothing is shocking anymore, even at the highest levels of the state.

After a journalist asked whether it was normal for the family of Prime Minister Modibo Keita to get state-subsidized housing from a program designed to enable low- and middle-income households to gain access to new homes, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita claimed that the prime minister, after loyal and honest service as a civil servant truly deserved this “gift” (six villas in all: one each for his wife and five children).

The omnipresence of fraud gives it a whole new meaning in public affairs. Ordinary citizens accept it as the norm; the courts rarely intervene, even when the abuse is excessive. Nevertheless, the case of the telecommunications regulatory agency stands out and demands an explanation.

Open-air fraud

The Malian Telecommunications and Postal Regulation Authority (l’Autorité Malienne de amrtpRégulation des Télécommunications et Poste or AMRTP) is charged with managing and regulating telecommunications in Mali. It oversees application of government policy, guarantees competition and protects the interests of customers. It also enjoys fiscal autonomy, and its resources come mainly from a 2% tax on telecom companies. That’s a lot of money: AMRTP coffers held close to 46 billion FCFA in late 2015. And this being Mali, such a sum generated considerable envy.

Earlier last year, the AMRTP hosted a visit by the Contrôle Général des Services Publics–one of many agencies in charge of seeking out irregularities and violations of financial procedures. Auditors finished their report in June 2016. This document, of which we obtained a copy, exposed instances of fraud and graft during the period 2012-2015. Among the examples of the regulatory authority’s questionable expenses are the following:

  • Organizing a summer camp abroad for the children of AMRTP personnel (cost: 494 million FCFA);
  • Buying 227 iPads, 80 iPhones and 100 computers for ministers, presidential staff, the National Assembly, and AMRTP personnel (cost: 468 million FCFA)
  • Communication expenses for the AMRTP’s administrative council (cost: 28 million FCFA)

How can the AMRTP spend 500 million francs on a children’s summer camp in a country where 43% of the population lives in total poverty, and where 2000 people die of malaria every year because they can’t afford a 500-franc dose of Maloxine? All told, the agency spent over a billion francs of public funds without justification.


The Toyota Landcruiser (Note: has only 2 front wheels, 2 rear wheels, 2 headlights and 1 windshield)

The reports of various oversight agencies show that the Malian state is being looted in a multitude of ways. Euphemisms such as “irregularities,” “managerial errors,” “discrepancies,” “non-collection of fees,” etc. boil down to just one thing: a fraudulent system kept in place to enrich certain civil servants at state expense. Some civil servants’ greed knows no boundaries. The staff of the Ministry of Mines surely wins the prize for sheer brazenness in this regard (BVG 2012 report, p. 89):

With respect to vehicles, maintenance records show, for instance, that for a single repair job, 150 parts were installed on a single vehicle [including] 3 windshields, 3 oil filters, 3 air filters, 3 fuel filters, 4 front shocks and 4 rear shocks; 2 windshields, 4 front and 4 rear shocks, 2 radiators, 4 sets of motor brackets, 4 crankshafts, 4 fuel pumps and 6 headlights were installed on another. Such cases have become common and recurring.

Such effrontery may seem amusing, but it’s the root of the problem. Theft doesn’t even bother to escape oversight–since punishment never materializes–and concentrates on extracting maximum funds from state accounts. The 2014 BVG report (the last one published) includes examples like these:

  • At the Roads Authority, some 11.8 billion francs simply disappeared, including 4 billion misallocated by a single individual (p. 106).
  • 667 million francs disappeared from the Office de la Haute Vallée du Niger (OHVN), including 183 million stolen by the head of marketing (p. 118).
  • At Gabriel Touré Hospital, the BVG found that the staff basically stole x-ray film worth 115 million francs; as a result of the shortage of x-ray film, the radiology unit stopped functioning for two weeks (p. 125).
  • In all, 1.4 billion francs disappeared from Gabriel Touré Hospital accounts from 2011 to 2014. This sum is the equivalent of the combined budgets of the public hospitals of Ségou (Hôpital Nianankoro Fomba) and Kayes (Hôpital Fousseyni Daou).
  • At the Centre International de Conférence de Bamako (CICB), where the controller set himself up as a bank teller for ministry of culture personnel, the public lost nearly 995 million francs (p. 131).

What future for Mali?

By our estimate, the Malian public lost 2.5 billion francs at the AMRTP alone with no outcry whatsoever. This is, alas, no isolated case; all government offices are involved. The problem lies in the very nature of civil service in Mali, where the least competent are named to strategic posts, not because of nepotism but to perpetuate chaos and facilitate fraud. Honest civil servants can never hold important positions for long. All Malians suffer from this problem caused by the few, the civil servants who haven’t grasped that a well-run Mali will benefit everyone, including them. The out-of-order hospital scanner affects everyone; the polluting car that nevertheless passes inspection worsens everyone’s respiratory problems; the poorly built road increases transport costs and the price of produce for all; the corrupt education sector undermines economic growth. We are all victims, and the damage is not only financial: we are witnessing the breakdown of society in which the extreme has become the norm.

The 2.27 trillion francs in Mali’s 2017 budget put the country at the forefront of the West African Economic and Monetary Union: only Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal spend more. Yet everything is lacking in Mali. Malians pay all sorts of taxes and fees just to support an administration that does not serve them. Despite the 106% rise in public spending from 2010 to 2017, can we truly claim to be better off? Slashing the budget by half would make it possible to lower the value-added tax from 18% to 9%, and everyone would live better except the bureaucrats who’ve grown accustomed to getting rich off the backs of peasants. The Malian taxpayer is the worst kind of sucker.

Postscript, 31 January: In a speech to his party this week, former prime minister Moussa Mara declared that “what weakens and handicaps [Mali] is, first, corruption, individualism and the unbridled quest for money…. Nobody is ashamed anymore of stealing, lying, or debasing oneself to get money or a position allowing one to get it.” Yet Mara’s party retains its position within the majority of President Keita, whose regime has done remarkably little to stem the tide of corruption described in Sylla’s article above.              – Bruce Whitehouse

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments