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


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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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Cause for public optimism?

Afrobarometer has recently released the results of a special opinion survey carried out across Mali between 17 December 2013 and 5 January 2014. This survey randomly sampled over 2000 Malians from each of the country’s nine regions and the District of Bamako, weighted in proportion to national population share. The findings (as detailed in Afrobarometer Policy Paper 9, “Mali’s Public Mood Reflects Newfound Hope,” and Afrobarometer Policy Paper 10, “Popular Perceptions of the Causes and Consequences of the Conflict in Mali“) suggest that Malians believe their country to be in a much better situation than it was a year ago, and that they are broadly confident that the country’s prospects will continue to improve.

Not surprisingly, most respondents (67 percent) told surveyors that Mali is headed in the right direction, compared to just 25 percent who had expressed the same opinion in December 2012. This opinion was even more commonly held by residents of northern regions and internally displaced persons in the recent poll, perhaps because they had emerged from Islamist occupation in early 2013.

When asked to identify the most pressing problems to be addressed by the Malian government, Malians (especially northerners and the internally displaced) were most likely to cite political instability (see chart below). Food insecurity was a close second at the national level, but whereas 25 percent of southerners listed it as a priority, only 17 percent of northerners and IDPs did the same. Despite perceptions of northern Mali as a zone of chronic famine, hunger is a greater concern in the south than in the north. If this sounds implausible, remember that government studies in recent years (e.g. the 2011 ELIM survey) have found the country’s highest levels of poverty to be in the southern Sikasso region, where at least eight out of ten residents are considered poor.

Most important problems identified by survey respondents, APP 9, Table 2 (percentages)

Most important problems identified by survey respondents, from APP 9, Table 2 (percentages)

In addition to their shared sense that Mali is on the right track, southerners and northerners have similar outlooks with regard to the restoration of security: 60 percent of respondents nationally believed that basic security would be restored by the end of 2014, and 71 percent of northerners agreed. Northerners, however, were more likely than southerners to report feeling unsafe in various contexts.

Although they mostly characterized their own economic situations as “fairly bad” or “very bad,” Malians appeared hopeful for their prospects: roughly nine out of ten believed their own economic conditions would improve in the coming year. They gave the Malian government poor marks for its handling of the economy, reducing poverty, creating jobs, stabilizing consumer prices, and lessening inequality. Yet 62 percent expressed confidence that it can solve these problems in the future.

With respect to Mali’s most recent armed conflict (late 2011-mid 2013), respondents were asked “How many of the following options can help resolve the conflict?” The choices were “A strong state,” “Render justice to all people involved,” “Civic education,” “Development of the northern regions,” “Dialogue between the State and armed groups,” and “Secession of the northern regions.” The Afrobarometer team showed that a strong state is favored throughout the country, particularly in the north. For the most part, northerners were more likely than Malians overall to cite northern development, but less likely to support dialog with rebels or even secession (see chart below).

Preferred options to resolve Mali's conflict, from Afrobarometer Policy Paper 10, table 15B

Preferred options to resolve Mali’s conflict, from APP 10, table 15B (percentages)

Malians are split on the prospects of a negotiated peace agreement. Asked to assess the “probability that signing an agreement is the basis for sustainable peace in Mali,” significant minorities (24 percent nationally, and as high as 41 percent in Gao) answered that it was “not at all probable.” But most respondents were at least somewhat positive about such an outcome: 65 percent nation-wide rated is as either “a little probable” or “very probable.” For Kidal the figure was 67 percent (see chart below).

Signing an agreement as basis for sustainable peace, Afrobarometer Policy Paper 10, table 16

Signing an agreement as basis for sustainable peace, from APP 10, table 16 (percentages)

I take away two important conclusions from this survey. One, Malians are an optimistic lot: despite their own dismal circumstances, they tend to feel hopeful for the future. (Not at all like those melancholy Zambians studied by James Ferguson some years ago.) Two, Malians generally agree on the best responses to their country’s crisis: building a strong, capable state, putting an end to impunity, educating citizens, and developing the north are widely supported by the Malian public. Easier said than done, of course, but at least they favor the same options. Afrobarometer research has shown that northerners and southerners had different experiences of conflict and displacement since 2012, yet when it comes to the problems affecting the country and their potential solutions, the perceptions in the north and in the south are not terribly divergent. Perhaps there is reason to be hopeful for Mali’s future after all.

Postscript, 3 April: In light of news from Afrobarometer that a coding error had affected some of the data in their original tables on responses from northern Malians, I have updated this post to reflect revised figures. 17 percent of northerners listed food insecurity in Table 2 (not 15 percent as previously stated), and 71 percent of northerners believed that security would be restored by the end of 2014 (not 44 percent as previously stated). The results posted on the Afrobarometer website have also incorporated these revisions.

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Happy in Bamako

After all that’s happened in Mali over the last two years, sometimes we need a reminder that living there can be about something other than uncertainty, fear and violence. That people who dwell there can be–and for the most part, are–peaceable, joyful individuals who love life. So when I came across this video shot in Bamako, set to Pharrell Williams’ cheery hit “Happy” and inspired by its music video set in L.A., I knew I had to post it here.

Watching “We are HAPPY from Bamako” made my day, and my hat’s off to the folks at for the idea. Isn’t it wonderful to see the side of life in Bamako that has nothing to do with politics, corruption, or Amadou Haya Sanogo?

You’ll have fun picking out your favorite landmarks from Mali’s capital in these scenes. Stay happy, Bamako.

Another version posted after the above:

Some other African city videos in the “Happy” family

Turns out “Happy” videos constitute a global urban meme. Check out, for example:

There are plenty of others, but I haven’t yet found any from Bangui, Conakry, Juba, Luanda or Nouakchott. Residents of those cities, you’re on notice! None from East or Southern Africa that I’ve seen either. (Well, one from Cape Town, filmed entirely in a bistro there by its employees–does that count? Too commercial for my tastes.) Maybe they need to get happier?

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Sanogo in the clink

I’ve been waiting for just the right reason to bring this blog back from hiatus, and that reason seems finally to have arrived.

According to the AFP, “Amadou Sanogo, leader of a 2012 coup that plunged Mali into chaos, was jailed on suspicion of murder and complicity to murder on Wednesday.” Mali’s chief prosecutor Daniel Tessogué has told the Associated Press that Sanogo has so far been charged with kidnapping only. Sanogo, according to his own spokesman, was forcibly removed from his home this morning and brought before a juge d’instruction (judge of inquiry, responsible for leading an investigation preceding a criminal case). This hearing reportedly took place at the gendarmerie in Faladié. A source within the Malian Ministry of Justice says that this action emanated “from the highest levels of the state.”

Today’s arrest puts an end to the month-long standoff between the former captain (and, since August, current four-star general) and Malian judicial authorities. This stalemate began in late October amid reports of Sanogo’s arrest. Here’s a recap of how it evolved over the past several weeks:

How the mighty have fallen

  • 25 Oct.: Rumors of Sanogo’s arrest circulate in Bamako; they are later denied by Malian security officials.
  • 26 Oct.: A new round of accusations against Sanogo surfaces in the Bamako press, alleging his involvement in the killings of rivals within the Malian military.
  • 31 Oct.: Jeune Afrique reports that Bamako-based judge Yaya Karambé has issued summons to 17 people, including Sanogo, as part of an investigation into the detention, torture, and killing of paratroopers who had taken part in the failed “counter-coup” of 30 April 2012, an episode generally known in Bamako as l’affaire des berets rouges (since paratroopers in Mali, as in many other countries, wear red berets). Sanogo’s hearing, scheduled for 6 November, never takes place.
  • 7 Nov.: Sanogo is again sought for questioning, this time over the deaths of soldiers following another mutiny in Kati during late September 2013; authorities later state that he can be forced to appear to give testimony. Boukary Daou, director of the Bamako newspaper Le Républicain (and onetime prisoner of the junta) suggests these judicial proceedings are merely a smokescreen intended to head off a pending investigation into Sanogo’s misdeeds by the International Criminal Court. One of the dead in Kati was reported to be Sanogo’s own head of security; speculation is rife that Sanogo ordered him and several of his colleagues killed to prevent them from testifying against him.
  • 19 Nov.: Sanogo is slated to be questioned by Judge Karambé in connection with the “berets rouges” affair. This hearing falls through, however. By some accounts, Sanogo claims his status as former head of state grants him immunity from such proceedings. Other reports suggest concerns over security and a disagreement over the venue.

Many other recent developments in Bamako suggest that the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (“IBK”) has been gradually stripping the Kati junta of whatever power it still exercised. In early October Sanogo had to move out of his Kati fief and take up residence in Bamako, an attempt by civilian authorities to undermine Sanogo’s influence. This came on the heels of President Keita’s scrapping of Sanogo’s military reform committee. On 9 November, the Malian army chief of staff, Gen. Dahirou Dembélé was sacked; Dembélé had been appointed to his post by the junta in April 2012. On 11 November, former red beret commander and ATT ally Col. Abidine Guindo was released from prison; Guindo was widely believed to have led the 2012 “counter-coup” and had been seen as the junta’s chief adversary within the military.

Wonder if they let him keep his magic baton…

With Sanogo’s arrest this morning, these events have reached their logical conclusion. When he was elected last summer, IBK was commonly perceived as Sanogo’s ally; he had even been described as “the junta’s candidate.” Rather than attack his supposed ally head-on, Mali’s president has been biding his time, incrementally ratcheting up the pressure on the junta.

Why did things come to a head now? Perhaps because Sanogo was refusing to go gently. Many Malians suspect he was even trying to intimidate those who sought to question him. Judge Karambé reportedly feared for his safety, and his home has been under tight security. Just yesterday, the judge’s son was attacked in Bamako by assailants who stole his motorcycle; some interpret this incident as a veiled threat against the judge himself. (The number one rule of political analysis in Mali: there are no coincidences.)

How will this development be greeted in Bamako? From my vantage point in Pennsylvania, it’s hard to say. The first two people I called in Mali’s capital, around 7:30 p.m. Bamako time, weren’t even aware of the news. One friend, an ardent Sanogo admirer, flatly contradicted my report that he had been arrested. If such a thing had happened, my friend told me, he would certainly have heard about it, and there would be angry crowds in the streets. (Could the Malian government somehow be keeping the lid on this story, at least for a few hours? Even if it were, wouldn’t Bamako residents have heard the news via RFI?) But the BBC’s Bamako correspondent thinks most residents are relieved to see this long saga finally approaching its end. And the families of those “disappeared” by the junta are definitely celebrating.

In any case, massive protests against Sanogo’s arrest strike me as unlikely, as the general’s following has significantly diminished over the past year. I do feel confident in predicting that if the Sanogo case ever goes to trial, it will be a momentous and closely watched spectacle. There may even be public pressure on the government to broadcast it live, as was the case with former President Moussa Traoré in the 1990s, when he was tried for political and economic crimes committed while in office. But then, let’s remember, although Moussa was convicted and sentenced to death, he was eventually pardoned and is now enjoying a peaceful retirement in a very nice mansion on the bank of the Niger River in Bamako. Perhaps Mali’s putschist captain-turned-general can expect a similar fate?

Postscript (4 December 2013): Prosecutor Daniel Tessogué confirms the discovery of a mass grave near Kati, containing 21 bodies thought to be those of red berets killed by the junta in May 2012. The existence of this grave has been spoken about in Mali for some time (see my response to a comment below), but never before verified. Meanwhile, pro-Sanogo protestors in Kati have set fire to one of that town’s markets, in their fourth demonstration since Sanogo’s arrest. An interview with Sanogo has also been broadcast by a Bamako radio station; in it Sanogo claims he is the object of a vendetta by red berets and others linked to the deposed regime of Amadou Toumani Touré.

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Mali’s election: Two cheers for round one

The results are finally in, after five days of nervous expectation. The Ministry of Territorial Administration has released its official vote tally from the 28 July first round of presidential voting [PDF]. Since the ministry, in its inimitably opaque fashion, arranged these results in no discernible order, I have organized my own complete ranking of candidates by vote share [PDF]. The chart below shows only the top five finishers from that ranking.

VotesTo nobody’s surprise, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is well out in front (see my in-depth profile of “IBK” on Think Africa Press). He will face Soumaïla Cissé in the 11 August run-off. Both are established career politicians. This year’s crop of “reform” candidates didn’t fare so well: Moussa Mara finished in 11th place, Soumana Sako in 13th, and Yeah Samaké in 16th. The latter’s finish was behind even that of Oumar Ibrahim Touré, a man so “old guard” that his claim to fame is having run Mali’s health ministry at a time when millions of aid dollars notoriously disappeared from its coffers.

It’s worth pointing out how closely these results conform to Sidiki Guindo’s poll from 12 weeks ago, featured on this blog in May. Mali’s “lone pollster” correctly predicted not only the order of the top three candidates, but also the level of support for the top candidate. His follow-up poll from July was even more accurate. Bravo, Sidiki!

Voters in Quinzambougou, Bamako, 28 July (photo: Aly Haidara)

Voter queue in Quinzambougou, Bamako, 28 July (photo: Aly Haidara)

Was Mali’s election too big to fail?

Well before these results were even hinted at, the first phase of Mali’s presidential election was being hailed as a shining success. The country’s interim president wasted no time in describing it, shortly after voting began Sunday morning, as “the best election that Malians can remember since 1960.” Governments abroad had the decorum to wait until after polls had closed to give their endorsements. France’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement the next day welcoming “the good conduct of the Malian presidential election, marked by heavy turnout and the absence of major incidents” [PDF]. The US State Department commended Malian authorities for their “commitment to holding transparent, inclusive elections.” African Union and Mali’s neighbors have added their own seal of approval. If observers witnessed “minor technical difficulties” and “irregularities,” it was nothing to cast doubt over the poll’s inclusiveness and credibility.

Or was it? Malians’ perspective depends in part on where they live, and which candidate they support. Disorganization prevented many living outside the country from casting ballots. Election day for France’s Malian community was described as a “big mess.” In the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, election officials were chased out of one polling place by Malian residents angered over not receiving their voter ID cards; the vote in that neighborhood was effectively boycotted. In refugee camps in Burkina Faso, only about a hundred of 3500 Malians registered were able to cast ballots. In Bamako confusion was also widespread, as many would-be voters couldn’t find their polling stations. Reports posted by members of the public to the SOS Démocratie website enumerated dozens of instances of absent poll workers, insufficient voting materiel, and chaotic electoral lists. They also made allegations (unconfirmed, but plausible) of vote-buying attempts by campaign workers, who found clever ways around the system’s safeguards.

A coalition of parties accuses IBK’s camp of engaging in fraud, while Soumaïla Cissé’s party alleges that ballot-stuffing occurred. IBK’s rivals objected to Tuesday’s remarks by Col. Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, Mali’s interim minister of territorial administration, suggesting IBK would likely win an outright majority of votes, thus precluding a second round of voting. Coulibaly, whose ministry is charged with organizing elections and reporting the results, is no disinterested technocrat: he was chief of staff to junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo prior to being named minister in April 2012. In light of IBK’s suspected links with the junta, the minister’s intervention struck many as inappropriate, possibly an attempt to curry favor with the likeliest winner or even manipulate the outcome.

The international community’s rush to sign off on Sunday’s vote was, perhaps, unseemly. But this election simply has to succeed, for many reasons. The Malian government needs a new president to begin the difficult process of getting the country out of its present crisis. The US needs an elected regime in Bamako with which to resume its bilateral aid and military assistance. And the French government needs to justify its risky strategy of the last several months, which forced Malian authorities to stick to a deadline they would have delayed if not for unrelenting French pressure. “For France, it is a great success,” Prime Minister Ayrault told the press. “Our international partners have hailed our courage and coherence because France in no way wanted to do anything reflecting the militarism and paternalism of the past, but on the contrary to give Africa and in this case Mali every chance to become a democratic independent nation, in charge of its own development.”

Outside a Bamako polling place, 28 July (photo: Aly Haidara)

Outside a Bamako polling place, 28 July (photo: Aly Haidara)

The bright side

However we might view such pronouncements, let’s give credit where it’s due: if Sunday’s vote was disorderly and shambolic, it was peaceful, and it was no disaster. The skeptics, including me, have so far been proven wrong. And the most promising aspect of Mali’s election story is that turnout was big. As Diakaridia Yossi wrote in the Bamako daily L’Indépendant, “Never in Malian memory has a presidential election succeeded in mobilizing so many people.” Over 3.5 million votes were cast, 40 percent more than the previous record set in 2007. Participation was certainly poor in some areas, especially Kidal, where voter intimidation may have been a factor. At the national level, though, the official turnout rate was 51.5 percent. Remember, participation in previous elections has never reached 40 percent. Given the obstacles mentioned above, half of eligible Malians actually managing to cast ballots is a giant leap forward.

By turning out massively to vote, Malians confounded the cynics, both in Mali and abroad, who called this election a “charade” meant to legitimize Mali’s occupation and subsequent partition, “the greatest masquerade in the political history of Françafrique,” and the instrument of Mali’s submission to foreign powers. Ordinary Malians clearly felt that they and their country had something to gain from voting.

Mali’s election is far from over, and significant challenges remain. Perhaps the greatest will be convincing the losers that this process was indeed free and fair. The counting and reporting of votes has hardly been transparent to this point; as one Malian put it, “Even if God himself validated these results, there are those who will say that God was bought off.” Assuming IBK wins, some in Bamako are wondering whether his image could suffer from the uncertainty hanging over this election’s outcome. Once his honeymoon with the Malian public ends, doubts about how he achieved his victory could very well multiply — a dynamic dubbed “ATT syndrome.” Let’s hope Mali doesn’t go down that road again.

Postscript, 7 August: Pollster Sidiki Guindo has released a brief summary of his most recent survey data (gathered 8-14 July), from which he extrapolates second round percentages for IBK and Cissé. Guindo predicts that the maximum share Cissé can obtain is 43 percent.

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Five key questions about Mali’s election

The international media flock to cover elections for the same reasons they flock to cover sensational courtroom trials: these happenings are scheduled in advance, and have great potential for drama. As another election draws near, the world’s attention is turning back to Mali after a brief post-Serval lull.

US media coverage of African elections tends to frame election day as the culmination of a process of transition from an unstable, authoritarian society to a peaceful, democratic one. It portrays voting as organized by ethnic blocs, and focuses on what candidates say in their campaign speeches rather than what voters actually expect them to do. Such depictions are often misleading. Since understanding what’s at stake in Mali’s election depends on asking the right questions, I’d like to propose the following ones along with some preliminary answers.

How will voting take place?

Mali’s 1992 constitution requires the winner of a presidential election to gain the majority of votes cast. If no candidate wins such a majority on Sunday, 28 July, a second round must be held in which the top two vote-winners from the first round face off against each other; this so-called “two-round system” is used in dozens of other countries. Mali’s second round of voting, should it be necessary, will be on Sunday, 11 August.

Ballot boxes in Bamako (Reuters photo)

Ballot boxes in Bamako (Reuters photo)

This year, for the first time, Malians must have a biometric ID card in order to vote. While this is intended to prevent identity fraud, in practice these cards won’t be any improvement over the old photo ID cards, since the equipment necessary for an individual to verify his or her identity isn’t in the field yet. Many would-be voters are having a hard time getting the new cards, and although any citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote, 300,000 Malians between the ages of 18 and 21 will be a priori excluded from this election, since the voter rolls are based on an administrative survey conducted four years ago.

What factors will influence Malian voters’ choices?

In Mali, as Cristina Barrios and Tobias Koepf write in a recent analysis for the European Union Institute for Security Studies, “political life is more about networking and outreach through family and business ties than any concrete vision for the state or the pursuit of socio-economic goals.” Voting in Mali, as in many places, is often an expression of patronage politics or loyalty to a particular group rather than an expression of political ideology.

Ethnicity is an important part of Malian social life, but it is not a dominant factor in Malian voting behavior. Some solid political science research has demonstrated that although Malian voters show a preference for candidates of their own ethnic identity, this preference is cancelled out by “cross-cutting cleavages” that form around senenkunya or joking relations (item 4 on my list of “four things to love about Mali“). So ethnic affiliation does not carry the political weight in Mali that it does in Kenya or Cote d’Ivoire, where an individual’s ethnicity is a strong predictor of which candidate they support.

What do Malian voters want?

Given Mali’s traumas of the last 18 months, it’s tempting to believe that this election will be mainly about questions of national unity and reconciliation. But an outreach campaign just concluded by SOS Démocratie, a Malian grassroots activist association, suggests something different. It identifies the main concerns raised by voters in six regions — Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso, Segou, Mopti and Timbuktu — plus various neighborhoods of Bamako. (See the table of results in a French-language PDF document.) These voters are overwhelmingly concerned about the high cost of living, unemployment, corruption, law and order, and everyday quality-of-life questions, particularly water and sanitation. Preserving national unity and ending conflict are also concerns, but much further down the list of priorities.

Reaching a definitive agreement with Tuareg rebels will indeed be one duty of the new Malian president. Yet given the sway of donor countries, especially France, over Mali’s interim government in recent months, it seems probable that any such agreement will reflect donor priorities more than the will of Malian voters.

What changes will this election bring?

A great many Malians would like to elect a leader who can make a clean break with past ways of governing, and chart a new course for their country’s democracy. Some of the 27 candidates currently in the running appear capable of doing so. Unfortunately, the candidates best positioned to win this race are all tightly connected to the same political establishment that’s been running Mali for the last 20-plus years. The following four men will, I suspect, garner the most votes; their odds are confirmed by Sidiki Guindo’s latest poll. (For a complete list of candidates and their profiles, see my previous post.) While all promise to deliver change, not one could be considered an “outsider candidate.”

  • “Dra” (Dramane Dembélé) Dra2is only 45 years old and on his first run for office, but has the backing of Mali’s largest and most powerful political party, ADEMA. This party ruled the country from 1992 to 2002 and played a role in every government since. Dioncounda Traoré, the former speaker of parliament, was its presidential hopeful until last year’s coup; this year, as interim president, he’s barred from running, so ADEMA had to pick someone else. Anxious to dissociate their party from the past, ADEMA’s leaders went with Dembélé, a virtual unknown. This former mining engineer carries some baggage over and above his ADEMA affiliation: as a former top official of the ministry of mines, he was briefly detained last year by the army junta which suspected him of skimming off state mining revenues. Nevertheless, there are allegations in the Malian press that the junta now backs his campaign.
  • “Soumi” (Soumaïla Cissé) Soumiwas seen as the “establishment candidate” when he ran as ADEMA’s candidate for president (and lost to Amadou Toumani Touré) in 2002. He subsequently founded his own party. Now 63, he is running a well-funded campaign. He has been a bitter opponent of the junta, which repeatedly raided his house, roughed him up and detained him in 2012. Despite the fact that he’s been out of government for over a decade, his previous association with ADEMA and his 1990s ministerial service under President Alpha Konaré mean many Malians continue to see him a pillar of the country’s classe politique.
  • “IBK” (Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta)IBK
    is yet another ex-ADEMA stalwart, having spent six years as Konaré’s prime minister before forming his own breakaway party. He’s run for president in two previous elections, and served as parliamentary speaker during ATT’s first term. At 68, IBK is taking his last shot at the presidency. This week he was endorsed by SABATI, a new Malian political organization with an Islamic (possibly Islamist) agenda (see Alex Thurston’s analysis of SABATI). Some Malians believe he is France’s preferred candidate, while others think he’s too close to the junta. [Some journalists are saying now that IBK “never criticized the coup,” but this is flat-out wrong.]
  • “Modibo” (Modibo Sidibé) Soumiwas a minister and prime minister under ATT, and for many Malians embodies the legacy of ATT’s decade in office. He was widely thought to be ATT’s handpicked successor: following the 2012 coup, Bamako buzzed with rumors that troops had uncovered a vast store of “Vote Modibo” campaign material in the presidential palace, although none was ever made public. (See Modibo’s own videotaped recitation of, and rejection of, such rumors.) He too was arrested by the junta last year. Now 60 years old, Modibo has lots of money to spend on this campaign — his key chains are all over Bamako — but probably also has the highest negative ratings of any contender. Some Malian newspapers alleged that he narrowly escaped being “lynched” during a visit to Paris last April, at the hands of angry Malian immigrants.

If elected, any of these four men would have huge debts (monetary and political) to repay the entrenched interests supporting their campaigns. They will therefore be poorly positioned to deliver the kind of transformation of governance most Malians desire. Barring a surprise showing by a more committed reformer (like Soumana Sako or Moussa Mara), dramatic change at the top of Mali’s political system appears implausible.

What can go wrong?

The three most likely problems are, in no particular order:

  • Disorganization: This election is being “delivered with forceps,” under unrelenting French pressure. Rushed preparations will create widespread logistical problems. Many citizens won’t get their voter cards in time, and some of those who do won’t know where to cast their ballots.
  • Trouble up north: The Kidal region was the scene last week of what the BBC calls “race riots”, plus the kidnapping of election workers. Although the MNLA separatist rebel group officially backs the electoral process, many of its members adamantly oppose their leaders’ decision to allow Malian elections on the territory of what they still view as “Azawad.”
  • Fraud: One candidate, Soumaïla Cissé, has warned of “preparations of massive fraud” involving 1.9 million voter cards printed without photos (which, if true, would account for 28 percent of all cards delivered). Rumors in the Malian press suggest that the buying and selling of votes is already underway. The question is not whether fraud will occur in this election, but whether the extent of fraud will invalidate the results. SOS Démocratie has set up a website and phone network where citizens can report rigging, disorganization, intimidation, vote buying, and other abuses. (This network is modeled on the Ushahidi platform that Kenyans used to flag post-electoral violence in early 2008.)

Too much of any of the above could rob the vote of its legitimacy. Some believe it’s already too late: last week Tiébilé Dramé, one of the original 28 presidential candidates, pulled out of the race, saying the conditions for a fair election weren’t in place. Another candidate, Mountaga Tall, told RFI this week that voting “will be in no way inclusive. Turnout isn’t a given due to the rainy season. We are sure of poor organization.” The results are almost certain to be contested: one candidate (guess who?) has already declared that any vote he doesn’t win must be rigged.

But this vote is happening regardless, and many Malians are cautiously optimistic that it will close the book on the current period of uncertainty and unrest. Let’s hope that the obstacles mentioned here will be overcome, and that the donors’ risky push for quick elections will pay off for the Malian people. And let’s hope there won’t be too much drama.

Recommended pre-electoral reading:

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A glance at Mali’s 2013 presidential candidates

Ready or not, here it comes: the first round of Mali’s presidential election is less than two weeks away. Despite the many technical and political difficulties plaguing the vote’s organization (see a recent analysis I wrote on the International Foundation for Electoral Systems website), a postponement now looks unlikely.

Malian and UN officials keep saying this election won’t be perfect, which is a little like saying that a Metallica concert won’t be quiet. The real question, of course, is whether Malians will regard its outcome as legitimate. The answer will depend in part on the degree to which voting takes place in the northern region of Kidal, where the governor (responsible for organizing the voting) recently returned for the first time since 2011 — only to head back to Bamako a few hours later, amid reports that Tuareg leaders had asked him to leave. It will also depend on how many people turn up at the polls nation-wide, and how many of those are turned away due to logistical failures.

While we wait to see what happens, let’s consider Mali’s field of presidential candidates. In the interest of completeness I’ve researched all 28 of them, and written a brief profile of each below. My purpose is not to identify and comment on the likeliest winners — I’ll save that for my next post — but to make some observations about Mali’s political system.

Note, for instance, that the vast majority of these candidates represent parties that they themselves founded. Mali’s political parties tend to be fan clubs for individual politicians, and their membership exists for patronage; political platforms and ideologies are at best secondary concerns (though they do seem to be getting more emphasis now than in previous elections). Several candidates have switched parties multiple times before establishing their own.

These candidacies also illustrate the strong links between Mali’s current crop of aspiring leaders and its previous generation of leaders. Five of these presidential hopefuls have close personal or political connections to President Moussa Traoré (1968 – 91); three served in governments of President Alpha Oumar Konaré (1992 – 2002); six served in governments of President Amadou Toumani Touré or “ATT” (1991 – 92 and 2002 – 12), and five others belong to parties that supported ATT politically. Five of these candidates last year ran afoul of the junta, which detained four on suspicion of corruption and treason before releasing them without charge, and forced another to resign from office.

Below, in alphabetical order, are the individuals approved by Mali’s constitutional court to enter the race.

  1. Jeamille Bittar (Union des Mouvements et Associations du Mali, b. 1967) Born in the Segou region, of Lebanese and Malian ancestry; earned a master’s in engineering in the USSR. BittarWealthy and influential businessman, head of Mali’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, active in economic, civil society, and political circles. Former VP of the Parti pour le Développement Economique et Social (PDES), which strongly backed ATT during his rule.
  2. Haïdara Aïchata Cissé a.k.a. “Chatto” (independent candidate, b. 1958) Chatto        Native of Bourem (Gao region) and the field’s lone female. Former Air Afrique union activist; now an outspoken parliamentarian and PDES member. Running independently since her party decided not to enter a candidate. Rose to global attention in 2012 by speaking out in the media against the Islamist and separatist rebel takeover.
  3. Soumaïla Cissé a.k.a. “Soumi” (Union pour la République et la Démocratie, b. 1949) Born in Timbuktu; trained as software engineer. SoumiJoined President Konaré’s ADEMA party and headed three different ministries under Konaré between 1993 and 2000. Started his own party in 2003 after unsuccessful bid as ADEMA’s presidential candidate; chaired the West African Monetary Union (2004 – 11).Youssouf Cisse
  4. Youssouf Cissé (independent candidate) A jurist and complete unknown, lacking a campaign website or even a Facebook page; with the exception of a couple of appearances on ORTM, he has been ignored by the Malian media.
  5. Dramane Dembélé a.k.a. “Dra” (Alliance pour la Démocratie en Mali – Parti DraPan-Africain pour la Liberté, la Solidarité et la Justice/ADEMA-PASJ, b. 1967) Geologist and ex-Director General of Mali’s Ministry of Geology and Mines (2005 – 10). Won the nomination of Mali’s most powerful party despite never having held elected office before. Was on executive committee of powerful AEEM (Association des Élèves et Etudiants du Mali) student union in early 1990s.
  6. Cheick Modibo Diarra (Rassemblement pour le Développement du Mali, b. 1952) CMDFormer NASA astrophysicist and ex-head of Microsoft Africa; served as interim prime minister from April to December 2012; forced to resign by junta. Married to daughter of former President Moussa Traoré.
  7. Siaka Diarra (Union des Forces Démocratiques, b. 1963)      Siaka Diarra        Koulikoro native and English professor; took over the UFD party from the late Demba Diallo. Has never held elected office.
  8. Tiébilé Dramé (Parti pour la Renaissance Nationale/PARENA, b. 1955) TiebileForeign minister during ATT’s transitional government (1991 – 92). Founded PARENA in 1995; ran unsuccessfully for president in 2002 and 2007. Brokered the Ouagadougou Accords in June 2013, and is advocating a delay of the vote.
  9. Housseini Amion Guindo a.k.a. “Poulo” (Convergence pour le Développement Pouloau Mali/CODEM, b. 1970) Bandiagara native raised in Sikasso; former history teacher; has represented Sikasso in Mali’s National Assembly since 2005. Left Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s RPM party to create CODEM in 2008.
  10. Cheick Keita (Union pour la Démocratie et l’Alternance) A colonel in Mali’s customs service and political unknown.Col Keita
  11. Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta a.k.a. “IBK” (Rassemblement pour le Mali, b. 1945) IBKKoutiala native; served as President Konaré’s campaign director, then foreign minister, then prime minister (1994 – 2000). Left ADEMA to form his own party, then became speaker of the National Assembly (2002 – 07). A contender in the 2002 and 2007 presidential elections.
  12. Sibiri Koumaré (Sira) A political unknown with only a Facebook page for publicity; lacks any mentions in the Malian press.Sibiry
  13. Alhousseini Abba Maïga (Parti pour un Nouveau Afrique/PANAFRIK, b. 1976) The Abbafield’s youngest candidate; a Songhai with little name recognition, no strong party base and a skeletal website. His platform centers on appeals to youth voters and Pan-Africanism.
  14. Choguel Kokalla Maïga (Mouvement Patriotique pour le Renouveau, b. 1958) Choguel    Gao native who ran for president in 2002, then served as ATT’s minister of industry and commerce (2002 – 04). Backed ATT’s reelection in 2007.
  15. Moussa Mara (Yelema, b. 1975) Probably the best-known member of a new generation of leaders who came of age during Mali’s post-1991 period. Elected mayor of Bamako’s Commune IV as an independent in 2009; founded the Yelema (“change,” in Bamanan) party in 2010.Mara
  16. Dr. Oumar Mariko (Solidarité africaine pour la démocratie et Marikol’indépendance/SADI, b. 1959) Physician born in Bafoulabé (Kayes region); secretary general of AEEM student union in early 1990s. Founded the radical leftist SADI party in 1996, and previously ran for president in 2002 and 2007.
  17. Dr. Soumana Sako a.k.a. “Zou” (Convention Nationale pour une Afrique Solidaire – Faso Hèrè Ton, b. 1950) Holds a doctorate in development Zoueconomics from the University of Pittsburgh and has worked for the UN, the African Development Bank and the US Agency for International Development. Viewed by many as a solid technocrat during a stint as finance minister under President Traoré (1986 – 87), he was ATT’s prime minister during the 1991-92 transition to democracy, and made a short-lived presidential bid in 1997.
  18. Niankoro Yeah Samaké (Parti pour l’Action Civique et Patriotique, b. 1969) Mayor Yeahof the town of Ouéléssébougou; holds a master’s in public policy from BYU and is vice president of Mali’s League of Mayors. Best known abroad as “the Mormon candidate,” though his affiliation with the Church of Latter-Day Saints is generally ignored by the Malian press.
  19. Mamadou Bakary Sangaré a.k.a. “Blaise” (Convention Democrate Sociale – Mogotigiya, b. 1954) Career-long civil servant and political activist. Founded the CDS in 1996 and ran for president in 2007.Blaise
  20. Konimba Sidibé (Mouvement pour un Destin Commun, b. 1956) KonimbaDeputy from Dioïla; ex-cabinet minister (1991 – 92). Split from PARENA this year to form his own party.
  21. Modibo Sidibé (Forces Alternatives pour le Renouveau et Modibo Sl’Emergence, b. 1952) Former inspector-general of Mali’s national police; headed up the ministries of health and foreign affairs under President Konaré. Was ATT’s secretary-general of the presidency before becoming his prime minister (2007 – 11).
  22. Dr. Hamed Sow (Rassemblement Travailliste pour le Développement, b. 1952) French-trained production engineer, minister of energy under ATT. Currently an adviser to Prime Minister Django Cissoko.Hamed
  23. Mountaga Tall (Congrès National d’Initiative Démocratique/CNID, b. 1956) MountagaLawyer; founded CNID in 1991; placed 3rd in the 1992 presidential race. After boycotting the 1997 poll, ran again in 2002. Has represented the city of Ségou in Mali’s National Assembly since 2002.
  24. Racine Thiam (Convergence d’Action pour le Peuple, b. Racine1975) Another young hopeful with scant political experience and a fledgling party. Has a French business degree and worked most recently as communications director for Orange Mali, one of the country’s two cell phone networks.
  25. Oumar Bouri Touré a.k.a. “Billy” (independent candidate) Deputy from Goundam (Timbuktu region), loyalist of former president ATT and the PDES party.Oumar Bouri Toure
  26. Oumar Ibrahim Touré (Alliance pour la République, b. 1957) Twice a cabinet minister under ATT (2004 – 2010). Left ADEMA in 2003 to join Soumaïla Cissé’s URD; founded his own party in 2013.OIT
  27. Cheick Boucadry Traoré a.k.a. “Bouga” (Convergence Africaine pour le BoucadryRenouveau – Afriki Lakuraya/CARE, b. 1962) Has never run for office or served in government, but his father Moussa was Mali’s president for 23 years. Bouga’s CARE party backed ATT during the latter’s presidency.
  28. Ousmane Ben Fana Traoré (Parti Citoyen pour le BenRenouveau) Onetime ATT ally and adviser to the presidency; affiliated with the UK-based International Liberal federation.

POSTSCRIPT, 17 July: Tiébilé Dramé announced at a Bamako press conference today that he is withdrawing his candidacy, “because the conditions of a normal election are not present.”

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