Is Mali heading back to the abyss?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Getting a read on Serval

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

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

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

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

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

Of the three books, however, I found Notin’s aptly named La Guerre de la France au Mali (Tallandier, 2014) the most informative. It’s an impressive work both in terms of quantity (600+ pp.) and quality, especially given that the author wrote it while Serval was still la-guerre-de-la-france-au-mali-534927-264-432underway and apparently without going to Mali. A seasoned observer of the French military, Notin interviewed dozens of French officers and officials in researching his account. He offers an intriguing interpretation of the March 2012 military coup in Bamako: “It appears that non-commissioned officers’ desire not to be sent to the northern front was the true motive,” he writes, adding that Paris had been expecting a coup for a few weeks, but believed that senior officers would carry it out on March 24. It may be that Captain Sanogo and his cohort of junior officers, instigating their mutiny on March 21, beat them to the putsch.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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Terror comes to Mali’s capital, again

Why the Radisson?

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

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

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

Who are the attackers?

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

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

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

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

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

What do they want?

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

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

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

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

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

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Uncomfortable truths about Mali

Laurent Bigot (RFI photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to get filthy rich in sinking Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Writing the Afropolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keep Peace Corps out of Mali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript 2, 26 November: I’ve received word that Peace Corps Volunteers will be evacuated from Mali in the wake of the Radisson Blu attack.

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Who wants peace in Mali?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Desperate for a way out

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

Migration routes through northern Africa (source: NY Times)

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

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

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

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

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

Top 10 origin countries of Mediterranean crossers in early 2015

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

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

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

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

Lamine's restaurant

Lamine’s restaurant in Bamako

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God willing, Lamine. Stay safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BfB: What was their primary grief with traditional authority?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Professor Mann for granting this interview.

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