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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JCKennedy Niger

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

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

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

BfB: How do you explain the emergence of nongovernmentality?

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

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

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

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

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

Ibrahima Ly

Ibrahima Ly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Algiers talks (RFI photo)

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

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

There are three main problems with the current peace process:

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

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

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

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

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

2. It has excluded the voices of ordinary Malians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Ebola can–and must–be stopped in Mali

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

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

A neighborhood handwashing station in Bamako

A neighborhood handwashing station in Bamako

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

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

A health worker screens for fever

A health worker screens for fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A hard look at Mali’s problems

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Algiers...

Meanwhile, in Algiers…

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

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

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

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

MINUSMA troops honor fallen comrades, November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book review: Can Judd Ryker save Malian democracy?

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

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

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

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

Todd Moss with President Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IBK, one year on: A voter’s remorse

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

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita

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

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

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

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

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

Corruption and poor governance

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

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

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

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

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

Air Acrimony

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

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

IBK's fancy new Boeing 737 in flight

IBK’s fancy new Boeing 737 in flight

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

And the list goes on and on.

Justice for Malians

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

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

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

The people’s trust

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

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

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

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

For the happiness of Malians

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

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

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

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Can Malians trust each other?

As the Malian government and northern rebels prepare for negotiations called for by the “roadmap” recently signed in Algiers, it’s worth asking how much trust exists between the different sides. Afrobarometer survey data collected last December suggests that inter-ethnic trust is low among Malians: 56 percent of respondents said that their views toward other ethnic groups had become less favorable since the latest round of armed conflict began two years earlier. (These findings generally echo those of an October 2013 Oxfam report on post-conflict social relations in northern Mali.) Rebels are loath to grant even a symbolic presence to the Malian state in the territory they control, while in Bamako there is tremendous opposition to the reintegration of former rebels into the national security forces.

It’s also worth asking, though, whether an acute lack of trust afflicts Malian society more generally. The same Afrobarometer survey finds interpersonal trust to be low even among people of the same ethnicity. There’s a common saying in Bamako these days: Ne dalen te ne yɛrɛ ma, kuma te mɔgɔ wɛrɛ ma — “I don’t even trust myself, let alone anyone else.”

Like a lot of outsiders, I find Malians quite sociable and friendly, thanks in part to the quality of mɔgɔya about which I wrote in a post last year. Just beneath the surface of everyday social relations, however, it’s easy to find signs of pervasive mistrust. Malians don’t trust their political leaders, as shown in a 2013 poll. They don’t trust their country’s partners abroad. They don’t trust courts or the police, whom they suspect of subverting justice for personal profit. My most recent fieldwork in Bamako also found significant mistrust between the sexes: many women don’t trust their male partners to be sexually faithful, while many males fear that their women will leave them for men with more money. When you leave your shoes at the mosque entrance, you can never be sure someone won’t steal them. Anecdotally, I often find Malians to be wary of people outside their immediate circle of kin and friends. They frequently assume that others will take advantage of them given the opportunity.

Sir Paul Collier

Sir Paul Collier

Some prominent scholars see the lack of interpersonal trust as a cause of poverty. In his latest book Exodus: How Migration is Changing our World, Oxford University economist Paul Collier argues that societies with high levels of trust are also more prosperous and effectively governed. High-trust societies, he writes, “are better able to cooperate and also face lower costs of transactions because they are less dependent upon processes of formal enforcement” (p. 32). Such societies are characterized by the presence of what Collier calls “mutual regard” or “benign fellow-feeling” — the sense of a shared identity that makes social safety nets possible. “The bedrock of rational trust,” says Collier, “is knowledge that the society is characterized by mutual regard: because people have some sympathy for each other, it is sensible to presume that a cooperative action will be reciprocated” (p. 62). To have a positive impact on society, people’s trust and mutual regard must extend beyond family, clan, and ethnic group. A lack of trust contributes to what Collier terms “dysfunctional social models,” which foster opportunism and undermine the rule of law. Nigeria is one country with such a dysfunctional model, he claims: “Nigerians radically, deeply, do not trust each other. Opportunism is the result of decades, probably centuries, in which trust would have been quixotic, and it is now ingrained in ordinary behavior” (p. 65).

Collier goes on to argue that migrants from poor countries take their dysfunctional social models with them, thereby lowering levels of trust, cooperation and mutual regard in rich countries. My aim here is not to assess his anti-immigration stance (of which you can find a critique by Michael Clemens and Justin Sandefur published in Foreign Affairs). I will just point out that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America lists Nigerians — those very same people who radically distrust one another — among eight immigrant groups boasting a “culture of success” in the United States. This is why it pays to be skeptical of culturalist analysis.

Did the slave trade foster enduring mistrust?

Did the slave trade foster enduring mistrust?

But I do wonder whether Collier might be right about the harm that the lack of trust inflicts on poor countries like Mali. If there is a pervasive mistrust in Malian society, what are its origins? A 2011 article in the American Economic Review (cited in Collier’s book) found a close correlation between trust levels and the legacy of the slave trade on the African continent. It seems likely that colonization and subsequent political and economic disruption also had a negative impact on social trust. A Malian friend recently suggested that the liberalization of Mali’s economy in the 1990s led to an erosion of cultural values, including mɔgɔya; now money, not people, is the top-ranking concern. “We don’t have trust anymore in our society, and when we do have it, we put it in the wrong thing,” she told me.

Throughout Africa, poverty goes hand in hand with suspicion and social discord. Life in South African informal settlements, as sociologist Claire Decoteau writes in her 2013 ethnography Ancestors and Antiretrovirals, is marked by “an underlying fear of widespread malevolence and a definite distrust of one’s neighbors” (p. 56). Sometimes this fear takes the form of witchcraft accusations, but it would be a mistake to attribute it to “traditional beliefs.” Many South Africans, not unlike my friend in Bamako, “experience the arrival of ‘development’ with a tremendous sense of loss — of tradition, of solidarity, of a shared sense of culture and identity” (p. 61). Loss, in other words, of what sounds a lot like Collier’s notion of mutual regard.

The lack of trust is correlated with poverty, but what’s the nature of this correlation? Are Malians poor because they’re distrustful, or are they distrustful because they’re poor? What if their mistrust has been heightened by rising inequality within their own society? (Epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, in their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, argue that high levels of trust are positively correlated with economic equality, and cite evidence that the lack of trust is caused by inequality, not the reverse.)

I don’t know whether there is enough trust to generate a successful outcome for planned peace talks between Mali’s government and rebel factions this year. But I know that trust, and particularly its absence, poses serious problems for Malians of all walks of life today, in the south as in the north. Malians will need time to heal what has been broken — not only by conflict, but by centuries of exploitation. They will need social and state institutions that protect the rights of the vulnerable as well as the powerful. If they can build up and strengthen those institutions, I’m confident that they will develop the mutual regard that many feel they have lost.

Media watch: If you can catch today’s interview with ace Africa correspondent Rukmini Callimachi on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” by all means do so. She discusses her recent New York Times exposé of European ransom payments to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as her reporting on abuses committed by the Malian army in Timbuktu last year.

Postscript, 4 February 2015: I came across this passage in Why Nations Fail (p. 60): “It might be true today that Africans trust each other less than people in other parts of the world. But this is an outcome of a long history of institutions which have undermined human and property rights in Africa.” In short, the authors believe that mistrust is a product of extractive institutions–not their cause.

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Mali vs. the West

Is Mali the victim of a shadowy global conspiracy?

Malians are pondering this question more and more, and for many of them the answer is a clear “yes.” Surveying the chaos engulfing their country and region, they see the hidden hand of the world’s great powers.

Such analysis is common, and increasingly explicit, in the Bamako press since last month’s crushing ejection of the Malian military from Kidal by separatist rebels. Consider an article from the 16 June issue of Inter de Bamako (headline: “Crisis in the north: The national and international plot against Mali is confirmed”). Author Yacouba Aliou portrays the MNLA rebellion as a French creation, and claims that “everything that happens in Kidal is an initiative of France.” But the plot also includes the Americans, the Swiss, the Scandinavians, and Mali’s neighbors Burkina Faso and Mauritania, whom he accuses of harboring the MNLA. The conspiracy extends further to all African heads of state, who “take no initiative except those coming from France and the USA.”


Mali’s “Azawad” rebellion: Made in France? (Photo: AP)

To those who perceive this plot, the fact that all these governments have been insisting that the Malian government reach a settlement with the MNLA is proof the plot exists. This insistence is, to put it mildly, a sore point for many in Bamako. “It would be more practical for the Malian government to talk with the HCUA [successor to the Tuareg-dominated Islamist group Ansar Dine] or MUJAO, labeled jihadists, than to talk with the thieves of the MNLA,” Aliou writes. If Western and African governments expect Bamako to make concessions to the MNLA, he supposes, it must be because they actively side with the rebels. He exhorts his compatriots to understand that “Mali is at war with France and its friends in Europe and the West.”

The reason for this war is power, pure and simple. After UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently urged all parties to Mali’s northern conflict to implement a ceasefire agreement, Yoro Sow, also writing in Inter de Bamako, angrily characterized the United Nations as “imposing the diktats of the winners of the Second World War, whose only desire is the domination of the world by iron, fire and blood.” The plot widens.

And the alleged Western conspiracy to divide and conquer Mali is not the exclusive preoccupation of opinion writers at a bottom-tier Bamako newspaper. The plot has also been condemned by Malian “civil society” groups, such as the Conféderation syndicale des travailleurs du Mali, a labor organization. In a statement released in February, the CSTM’s leadership denounced the “underhanded complicities of a fringe of the international community as malevolent as it is selfish, whose unacknowledged aim is the partition of Mali.”

Rokia Sanogo and Oumar Mariko at MP22 rally in Bamako

Rokia Sanogo and Oumar Mariko at MP22 rally in Bamako

Especially where the French are concerned, apprehensions of sinister designs are common among Bamakois, notwithstanding their enthusiastic welcome for French troops just 18 months ago. “France’s arrival in Mali is not in our interest,” declared Rokia Sanogo of the MP22 political movement earlier this year. “The MNLA is a creation of France, a mole. And France advanced the jihadist presence to be able to come here while supporting the MNLA.” Seydou Badian Kouyaté, who served in President Modibo Keita’s cabinet in the 1960s (and later advised Congolese strongman Denis Sassou Nguesso), similarly sees the MNLA as a puppet of French interests, and has accused France of waging a 50-year campaign of “raising the Tuareg against us.”

Such claims are not new to Mali (see my 2012 post about “false flag” theories and my 2013 post on “intoxication by information”), and one should not overstate their significance in Malian society today. Unlike in, say, Zimbabwe, allegations of neocolonialist plots have been absent from official government discourse. The state newspaper L’Essor, in fact, has tried to quell these rumors, declaring that “always trying to stigmatize [France and the UN] stems from a denial of reality.” Nonetheless, the recent surge in allegations of a French or Western plot to destroy the country demands serious analysis.

There is a self-serving element to these conspiracy theories, particularly concerning the Malian government’s stance toward Tuareg separatism. If the MNLA and other rebel groups were hatched by foreign powers, they cannot also express legitimate political grievances of the country’s northern residents. By painting the movement as externally generated, its critics can absolve themselves and their state of responsibility for the present conflict. They need not account for years of inept, corrupt and occasionally brutal central government rule, because France makes a handy scapegoat.

But there is a more substantive element too, because like all conspiracy theories (see Peter Tinti’s “On Conspiracy Theories and Uncomfortable Truths“), the “MNLA as French puppet” narrative is based on nuggets of fact. Le Nouvel Observateur reports that Tuareg rebels have received covert assistance for years from the DGSE (France’s foreign spy agency), which believed they could track down jihadists holding French hostages in the Sahara. (In the US, Rudy Atallah has also advocated using Tuareg fighters as a “force multiplier against the Islamists.”) As recently as mid-2012, according to a report published in Le Monde, the French government airlifted arms and fuel to the MNLA.

And Malians harbor nagging doubts about the role of the “international community” in their nation’s conflict and its resolution. If France and its allies truly support Malian national unity, why were MNLA troops never bound by the “cantonment” process in Kidal under the terms of last year’s Ouagadougou Accord (an accord that was itself denounced by a Malian presidential candidate as “the greatest plot against Mali’s territorial integrity”)? If the US government truly stands with the Malian people, why didn’t it intervene to help beat back the rebel threat in 2012? (Forget about the Leahy Law–nobody I’ve met in Mali believes US foreign policy can be constrained by something as puny as law.)

Beyond their self-serving and substantive aspects, however, what I find most troubling about Malian conspiracy theories is the shared assumption upon which they’re based: that the policies of Western governments are designed to maintain Western dominance by destabilizing the rest of the world.

Boko Haram: Made in USA?

Boko Haram: Made in USA?

Western powers, under this assumption, see peace and prosperity in the Third World as a menace to their own welfare. Because their wealth is based on the subjugation of impoverished nations, they strive to keep places like Mali poor and conflict-ridden. Mohamed Diakité, in his column in the Bamako weekly Tjikan, suggested earlier this month that Boko Haram, the virulently anti-Western terrorist group that has kidnapped and slaughtered thousands in Nigeria, is actually a creation of the CIA. His rationale? Because Nigeria recently surpassed South Africa as home to Africa’s largest economy. “The hidden stakes behind all this are simply economic,” Diakité writes. “It’s a matter of slowing Nigeria’s rise to power as a West African regional power and countering the breakthrough of certain emerging Asian and Latin American countries in Africa, notably China and Brazil.”

What I disagree with here, even more than the baseless accusation of US support for Boko Haram, is its underlying worldview of global politics as a “great game” (and a zero-sum game at that) in which the stability of the global South is inimical to the interests of the global North. This rationale is a fixture among francophone African analysts of the geographic and demographic foundations of international relations, commonly called la géopolitique.

My translation of BS Diarra’s (2013) chart explaining Mali’s conflict

My translation of BS Diarra’s (2013) chart explaining Mali’s conflict

It’s not easy for me to evaluate geopolitics and its assumptions, in part because my training is in anthropology rather than political science or international relations. I’ve read political economy and dependency theory, but I’m skeptical of a Western imperative to destabilize the Third World for three reasons. One, it flies in the face of my own experiences in Africa, where I have known representatives of Western governments and international organizations to be genuinely committed to promoting peace and economic security–even though they fail in this mission far too frequently. Two, the idea that the West seeks to profit from chaos in the South ignores the fact that peace is generally good for business and foreign investment, while war is not. Overall, instability in Mali, Nigeria or Syria does not make Americans, Canadians or Norwegians better off. And three, this model of politics reduces Africans to passive victims in a global historical narrative, ignoring the dynamic processes of “extraversion” (see Jean-François Bayart) and “political ju-jitsu” (see Gene Sharp or Stephen Ellis) in which Africans and their leaders have long been engaged.

The American university students I teach perceive the US as a primarily benevolent force in the world. They see Africa’s poverty and conflicts as the result of the continent’s insufficient modernization. I have to show them that the history of US and Western engagement with Africa goes a long way to explaining African problems today. But where I attribute the cause to our collective (and often self-serving) blindness to our policies’ consequences, my Malian friends are much more likely to attribute it to a deliberate strategy of Western hegemony. Mali’s conspiracy theories are not invented by unread peasants; they are elaborated and swapped by the most educated members of society, some of them with Western graduate degrees. Their beliefs stem not from ignorance of the facts, but from a distinctive interpretation of them.

While I don’t accept this interpretation, reading recent accounts of Mali’s “war with the West” makes me question my own analysis of global politics as seeking, if not greater justice, then at least enhanced cooperation and stability. Is this view misplaced? Has our world not changed since Niccolo Machiavelli’s time? I hope someone with poli sci or IR credentials will enlighten me.

Postscript, 10 July: The Bamako daily L’Indépendant claims it has received a confidential document, “concocted” by unnamed “partners involved in the resolution of the crisis,” which lays out Mali’s future partition–but it neither shows the document nor provides details on which countries produced the document.

Postscript, 10 September: The New York Times has published an article on Iranian views that the Obama administration set up the radical jihadist group ISIS as a means to divide and conquer the Middle East.

Postscript, 5 November: A leftist alternative news site is running an interview in which someone named Francis Boyle describes the Ebola virus currently ravaging West Africa as a possibly weaponized strain released by US biological warfare laboratories; he adds that US military efforts to contain the outbreak in the region are merely a smokescreen for an invasion. This interview is now discussed in francophone Africa via its translation on the Canadian altermondialiste site mondialisation.ca.


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Kidal, as seen from Bamako

There are, of course, radically different narratives about what happened in the northern town of Kidal last weekend. One of them, which we’ll call the “loyalist narrative,” says that Moussa Mara, Mali’s dynamic and courageous prime minister, flew to Kidal on a peacemaking mission and visited the governor’s office, which was then attacked by terrorists (including MNLA separatists) intent on scuttling negotiations. The attackers shot many Malian soldiers dead and took 30 civilians hostage, coldly executing several. An opposing account, which we’ll call the “separatist narrative,” claims that Moussa Mara, Mali’s reckless, inexperienced prime minister, engaged in a deliberate act of aggression by flying to Kidal, intent on scuttling negotiations. Without provocation, Malian troops assaulted the MNLA barracks in town; MNLA members then fought back, taking 30 prisoners of war, some of whom were killed in the crossfire. (Read the MNLA’s May 19 communiqué for a full version of this narrative.)

The international community has so far responded cautiously. The US State Department condemned the violence without identifying the perpetrators; Bert Koenders, the UN’s special representative to Mali, did the same and called for an investigation. But in statements to the press, Prime Minister Mara linked the rebels to Boko Haram, and said that “Mali is at war with terrorists.”

The events in Kidal have stirred up nationalist fervor in Bamako, where the media and ordinary people generally make no distinction between the MNLA separatists, jihadis,  armed bandits and drug smugglers. They hold bitter memories of the massacre at Aguel Hoc back in January 2012, when dozens of Malian soldiers were killed. A headline in today’s issue of L’Indépendant, normally one of the more temperate voices in the Bamako press, screams: “The MNLA and its narcojihadist allies commit pure butchery in Kidal as in Aguel Hoc in 2012: Six hostages tortured before being slaughtered, eviscerated or shot by their kidnappers.” The article identifies the victims as four government officials and two soldiers. (An article in Les Echos lists all six as government officials.) The Malian nation has a new set of martyrs.

There is extremely little public support in Bamako for letting Kidal, or any other part of Mali, be split off from the rest of the country. Results from Afrobarometer’s December 2013 survey show that support for a united country was at 95 percent in Bamako (the nation-wide average was 92 percent). It’s true that Kidal is a remote region with a tiny population, and it’s unlikely that most people in Bamako have ever actually set foot there. Yet for many Bamakois, Kidal serves as an important symbol of the nation and its territorial integrity. Alioune Ifra Ndiaye, a pillar of the Bamako arts scene, recently began a campaign on social media to promote national unity and patriotism under the slogan “Je suis Kidalois.”

Protestors at French embassy, Bamako (AFP photo)

Protestors at French embassy, Bamako (AFP photo)

In Bamako as well as Gao, protestors have denounced what they perceive as French and UN complicity with the rebels. A growing number of Malians have come to believe that the MNLA is part of an international plot to divide the country. France is generally seen as the force behind this plot. (Even some prominent jihadi leaders have described the MNLA as a puppet of the French.) And it is certainly true that the French government has had a rather cozy relationship with the MNLA since its inception; its current ambassador in Bamako has had close ties to the breakaway movement.

From the protestors’ point of view, the separatists have no political legitimacy and no legitimate grievances; they merely defend their own shadowy interests and those of their sponsors abroad. To advocate negotiations between the Malian government and the MNLA — as every foreign government and international organization has done, and as stipulated by last June’s Ouagadougou Accord — is, according to this perspective, an insult to the Malian people. As far as the protestors are concerned, you could no more expect the Malian government to hold talks with the MNLA than you could expect the US government to hold talks with Al Qaeda.

Yet President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, even after his prime minister has spoken of all-out war and called the MNLA terrorists, even after the president himself accused rebels in Kidal of crimes against humanity and vowed to punish these crimes, even after he dispatched 1500 Malian troops to Kidal, continues to talk about a negotiated settlement. In a televised address to the nation on Monday evening (the text of which was printed in Tuesday’s L’Indicateur du Renouveau), he said, “We will therefore go toward dialog, convinced as we are that salvation imperatively passes that way. Salvation as long, of course, as all parties, the government of Mali, the international community, the armed movements, live up to their engagements.”

For the past 15 months, Kidal has been under the control of a small band of armed rebels, a situation tolerated by the international community. Under the influence of the loyalist narrative, most of Keita’s countrymen see these rebels as unrepentant criminals who must be brought back into the national fold, by force if necessary. The violence that followed the prime minister’s Kidal visit offered an opportunity to do exactly that. The questions to ask now are: Will Keita exploit that opportunity (while still preaching peace), or is he serious about his commitment to a negotiated settlement? And, perhaps more importantly: Is there anything left to negotiate?

For people in Bamako, the answers are difficult to see.

[Author’s note: This post is meant to explain the common views of Bamako residents on matters of national unity and negotiations with armed groups. I do not necessarily endorse these views, nor do I believe that a purely or primarily military solution can achieve lasting stability in northern Mali.]

Press roundup: A number of headlines in the global English-language media suggest that last weekend’s conflict has dealt a blow to the MNLA’s image, associating it with hostage-taking groups like Boko Haram and presenting the group as the aggressor:

Meanwhile, the Malian government seems to be pressing its advantage with international opinion, demanding that the UN assume a more robust mandate to disarm rebels. According to the AP, Mali’s foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop urged the UN Security Council via videoconference to take action; at one point Diop “held up a picture of a woman — a regional government official slain by the rebels — and said: ‘This is a crime against humanity and your council should take strong action in order to stop impunity and atrocity.'”

Managing international opinion was never a strong suit of the Malian government, particularly where the conflict in the north is concerned. Under Mara’s leadership, that may be starting to change.

Postscript, 22 May: In the wake of the rebel victory over the Malian army in Kidal on 21 May, the conspiracy theme continues to run hot in the Bamako press and among Malian social media users. A headline in today’s Le Pretoire casts Mali as the “victim of an international plot”; on Facebook you can read wild allegations that French troops parachuted into Kidal to fight alongside the MNLA. Small anti-France demonstrations have continued in Bamako, where the French lycée was closed today as a safety precaution. French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian has reportedly canceled a scheduled visit to Bamako. The city’s markets have been unusually quiet as many residents went home early or even stayed home.

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How US military assistance failed in Mali

After Mali emerged from authoritarian rule in 1991, the United States government ramped up bilateral development and military aid to the country’s new, formally democratic regime. American trainers began working with Malian soldiers; those of us who spent time in towns like Segou or Sévaré in the late ’90s regularly encountered US Special Forces troops during their rotations there. Then came 9/11, the Global War on Terror, and the founding of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); the Pentagon spent millions on new programs to train and equip armies throughout the Sahel region, and in 2008 created AFRICOM, a new command for Africa that has been quietly expanding its activities on the continent ever since.

US Navy SEAL instructor observes Malian soldiers in live fire exercise, Gao, 2009

US Navy SEAL instructor observes Malian soldiers in live fire exercise near Gao, February 2010 (Photo: Max Blumenfeld, JSOTF-TS/AFRICOM)

With the March 2012 coup and near-total collapse of Mali’s military, it became painfully evident that none of these initiatives succeeded in building a Malian force to counter the threat from AQIM and other armed groups in the region. As Greg Mann wrote shortly after the coup, “a decade of investment in Special Forces training, cooperation between Sahelien armies and the United States, and counterterrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.” Numerous critiques of US assistance to Mali have followed, some (e.g. Barry Lando in the Huffington Post) suggesting that American military training inadvertently helped the rebels win. These critiques, however, lacked specific evidence as to what went wrong.

A recent study fills this gap, offering an insider’s insights into the failures of US military aid to Mali. It was written by Simon Powelson for his masters thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School, on which he was advised by anthropologist and defense analyst Anna Simons. Powelson, currently a major in the US Army, led Special Forces training teams on multiple rotations to Mali between 2009 and 2011 as a captain (his participation in a 2009 exercise in Gao, for example, is documented in leaked State Department cables as well as by Agence France Press). The author draws from his own experience, interviews with US, Malian, and French military personnel, evidence from WikiLeaks cables, and various published sources to produce probably the most comprehensive assessment yet made public of the Pentagon’s failed approach to counterterrorism in the Sahara and Sahel.

US and Malian troops on rifle range near Timbuktu, May 2009 (photo: Max Blumenfeld, JSOTF-TS/AFRICOM)

US and Malian troops on rifle range near Timbuktu, May 2009 (photo: Max Blumenfeld, JSOTF-TS/AFRICOM)

Powelson’s principal focus is on the period after the US Department of Defense created the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara (JSOTF-TS) in 2006. This group took the lead in providing in-country training to the Malian armed forces. From 2009 its instructors began working with composite Malian units known as ETIAs (an acronym for Echelon Tactique Inter-Armée), which were key to the Malian Defense Ministry’s strategy to secure the north. (A 2009 State Department cable referred to ETIAs as “Mali’s current unit of choice in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”) An ETIA consisted of 160-200 soldiers drawn from different service units; these soldiers rotated into the ETIA for a roughly six-month stint in the north (considered a “hardship tour” in the Malian military), then rejoined their original outfits elsewhere. Four ETIAs were responsible for security in an area roughly the size of Texas.

The main problem with the ETIAs, aside from insufficient numbers, was constant personnel turnover. American trainers imparted skills to ETIA troops who soon completed their tours and left; the lessons learned quickly dissipated. It didn’t help that where the soldiering abilities of Malian troops was concerned, the baseline was incredibly low. Powelson writes that members of two of the four ETIAs

displayed an almost total lack of basic soldier skills. Some soldiers claimed never to have fired their weapon before the JCET [Joint Combined Exchange Training, conducted by US personnel]. Others could not disassemble their weapon. And still others were perplexed why their rifle would not fire when filled with sand! Furthermore, during initial rifle training, the ODA [Special Forces A-team] observed some soldiers firing with their eyes closed! There were individual exceptions, but overall the poor skill level was… shocking.

Even after two years of near-constant ETIA training operations involving US Special Operations instructors from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, the ETIAs’ combat capabilities remained abysmal.

Equipment posed further challenges. From boots to uniforms to ammunition pouches, the US government provided gear for individual ETIA members, but these items disappeared  as soldiers rotated back to their original units. US-made rifle magazines were “unfit for combat use”; expensive radios, also supplied by the Pentagon, were impossible to use. Powelson describes a “disconnect between Malian requirements, the type of equipment they could absorb, and US train and equip efforts.” The Malian Defense Ministry did its share of damage by ordering the wrong parts and failing to issue new equipment from its stockpiles. At a time when many ETIA soldiers’ rifles were broken or obsolete, “thousands of new Chinese AKs sat crated in a Bamako supply depot.”

Such deficiencies did not go unnoticed. By mid-2010, American and Malian officials planned a fresh start with a new unit, the Compagnie de Forces Speciales (CFS), the members of which would be drawn from the Malian army’s most elite group, the 33rd Airborne Regiment. This unit was to be mission-ready in five years–but AQIM and its allies didn’t wait that long, launching their insurgency in late 2011. In contrast to the ETIAs, which “completely disintegrated as cohesive fighting units” once the shooting started, according to Powelson, CFS troops acquitted themselves well on the battlefield. But they were too few and too poorly supplied to stem the tide of disaster that engulfed Mali’s military and ultimately the entire country.

Malian paratroopers receive logistics training in W. Virginia, November 2011 (photo: Allison Hill, US Army Africa)

Malian paratroopers receive logistics training in W. Virginia, November 2011 (photo: Allison Hill, US Army Africa)

Powelson characterizes pre-2012 US engagement with the Malian military as “episodic”: its goals focused narrowly on counterterrorism and “train and equip.” It favored short-term training missions, bringing Malian personnel to the US through the International Military Education and Training or IMET program (coup leader Amadou Sanogo, among many other Malian officers and enlisted men, did IMET-sponsored courses in the States), or bringing teams of US instructors like Powelson’s to Mali. These missions did nothing to address underlying incapacities, chief among them poor unit cohesion and a dysfunctional organizational culture. “Instead of military culture that valued honesty, discipline, self-sacrifice, decisive action, initiative, and duty to country,” the author writes, “an opposite culture emerged that created an environment that did not support sound individual initiative or discipline–a culture overrun by apathy.”

US military assistance never addressed this dysfunctional organizational culture, as AFRICOM’s commander acknowledged last year. Rebuilding Mali’s military and fostering cultural change within it requires what Powelson calls “enduring engagement”; this is what planners intended by creating the CFS, and what the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) has done for the past year. Rather than transferring knowledge and skills to individual soldiers, EU officers have helped the Malian Defense Ministry form new units from the ground up. Four battalions of about 650 troops each have now completed 12-week EUTM courses in Koulikoro designed to foster unit cohesion as well as train capable soldiers. The mission was recently extended by two years and will include members of Mali’s National Police, Gendarmerie, and National Guard. US military aid to Mali, meanwhile, has been suspended since the coup: “Any eventual resumption of assistance to the Malian military will prioritize security sector reform, professional norms, the reassertion of civilian authority, accountability mechanisms, and the rule of law,” the State Department said in a press release last September.

If Powelson’s analysis helps settle the question of how and why America’s episodic engagement in Mali failed, it raises broader, more vexing questions, to which that press release alludes. Will enduring engagement with the Malian military be enough? Malian troops still harbor a deep distrust toward their military and civilian leaders. More to the point, once an effective military is created, can it be sustained in the absence of an effective state? The ills of the armed forces are, at their root, the same ills that afflict the Malian state as a whole; the culture of apathy Powelson observed within the army extends throughout the government. Yet “nation-building” is unlikely to be on donors’ policy agendas, thanks to a decade of harsh lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Strengthening the Malian state will be an enduring process indeed, and it would be unrealistic to expect Malians to make it happen on their own. But even if Western governments commit significant time and resources to that process, it’s not clear that they have either the knowledge or the patience necessary to see it succeed.


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