A Mormon Moment in Mali?


Many Mormons in Utah are aware of the fact that a converted Mormon is running for president in Mali. Indeed, Yeah Samake, an important social entrepreneur in Mali, joined the Church in 2000 while studying at the BYU, and indeed he has registered as a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections in 28 July 2013. He is the mayor of Ouélessébougou, a community consisting of a small town and a group of villages in South Mali. Based on his success as mayor, he is running for president, already in 2012, but again in the present elections. Election campaigns cost money – no people know that better that Americans – and Samake has been able to generate quite some funds. During the last months he has run an effective campaign, basing himself on a successful NGO, Mali Rising Foundation, on a platform of decentralization, anti-corruption and ending aid dependency.

As LDS we do not have a whole lot of presidential candidates; the most recent one was Mitt Romney, who – as some of my readers might possibly remember – has lost the race. Having an American candidate was great, and was ‘The Mormon Moment’ in the USA, and also our day in the sun of publicity in Europe. Contrary to Mormon USA the European members never really believed in a victory for Romney, and anyway preferred Obama as a president. So in the end the USA elections ran conform the wishes and prayers of the International Church, not the Domestic one. But enough of rubbing salt into half healed wounds, for we have now a Malian Mormon running for President. Is this the Mormon Moment in Mali? Are we getting a Mormon President in an African country? Knowing the usual USA expertise on geography outside the US, I think that many LDS would have to google to find Mali on the map of Africa. And I wonder how many could right away mention the name of its capital (Bamako).

Nevertheless, Mali is important and Mali is in trouble, so these presidential elections are much more than the habitual ritual dance that characterizes many elections in Africa. Mali is important because it has been one the of strongholds of democracy in Africa, and because it has been, up till now, one of the countries where the major world religions cohabited in peace. It was an example for other countries, where presidents were elected democratically, and then after their term stepped down for new elections. Alfa Oumar Konare, the first elected Malian president and a good friend of mine, was the first to do so. For me personally, Mali is of supreme importance, as I have been working as an anthropologist in central Mali for the last three decades, mainly among the Dogon of the Bandiagara region, a well known tourist destination.  It is a country of great charm, rich cultural heritage and up till recently almost absolute safety, a great place to work in. I have a house in one of the Dogon villages, and are considered as kith and kin of that village.

What is now the problem in Mali? After the fall of Lybian president Khaddafi in 2011, his army disbanded, and many of his soldiers were hirelings from North Mali, mainly Tuareg, the ‘blue men of the desert’. They came home with all their weapons, and joined the dormant forces for Tuareg independence, reviving a conflict between North and South Mali that had been simmering for decades. Their impetus changed the political scene completely, and the regular Malian army was totally unequipped to handle this. So the army revolted and brought down the president. It was a strange coup, because they did not aim at governing, they simply wanted some money for the army. Eventually an interim government was formed, without any popular mandate, but then the AQIM was formed from the North, Al Queda in the Maghrib (= desert), a movement of assorted jihadists that took over from the Tuareg. So instead of a Tuareg rebellion, Mali had now an Islamist uprising on its hand, well armed, reasonable organized, and anti-Western. The AQIM quickly conquered the North, an immense stretch of desert, with the three main cities of Kidal, Gao and the mythical place of Timbuctoo – which indeed is in Mali. Whereas the Tuareg had been content with just their province in the North, the AQIM set out to conquer the whole of Mali, and threatened to take Bamako, the capital. At this point the French stepped in, and the French army quickly beat the AQIM and retook the North. Immediately the Tuareg movement moved in again, and right now the French are trying to withdraw, to be replaced by an international force from other African countries.

That is the legacy Samake would inherit. A new president faces severe challenges: to establish a legitimate government in the heart of Mali, to have the Tuareg acknowledge Malian sovereignty in their province, to prevent AQIM to strike again, and to reestablish the rule of law in the country. Quite a daunting task, and Samake is to be commended to try it, and I personally think he has an excellent platform, based on local initiative, anti-corruption and trying to break the vicious cycle of aid dependency, for at present Mali is addicted to donor money. What are his chances and how is Malian politics organized?  Malian politics has been based upon consensus: one person won, and the spoils of the regime were to be divided among all parties. The last president of Mali had no political party, but was a consensus candidate between most of the parties concerned: if they together voted him in, he was indebted to them and they would in the end all cash in. What looked like democracy was in fact dividing the lucrative jobs and contracts on the one hand, and then to govern as little as possible on the other. What are these political parties? Mali has as many parties as there are ‘big men’, rich people with money and connections who can organize a party and finance a campaign. Scores and scores of parties they have, all with names invoking ‘democracy’, ‘people’,  ‘development’ , ‘security’, ‘togetherness’ and the like. In an interview with a new leader who broke away from his former party, I asked him how his political program differed from the former one. He looked at me without any comprehension, this was clearly a stupid question: Of course his party was about democracy, development and togetherness, what else? Thus, Samake has formed his own party as well, conform Malian political culture, the ‘Party for Civic and Patriotic Action.’

‘Une parti est un Monsieur’ Malians say, a party is an individual patron. And this is where Samake has an uphill battle: a political patron has to have ‘clients’, people who are indebted to him, who will work and vote for him in the hope of sharing some of the eventual spoils. The old political elite has this kind of retinue, newcomers don’t. Samake is a relative newcomer, with followers in a small rural community. One element compounds Samake’s problem: Mali is a majority Muslim country. It always has been a tolerant Islam – up till the arrival of the AQIM – in which Islam lived peacefully together with the various Christianities (not LDS) and the strong strains of traditional indigenous religions, my field of study. Its tolerance is based on a long standing Sufi tradition, Islamic mysticism, but that does not make it much less Muslim. Having a Christian president is almost unthinkable, so Samake faces a problem on this issue as well. He is a Mormon, what for Malian means a Christian (wish it were so everywhere!), but of a brand they do not know about, which makes it slightly harder yet.

In short, Samake faces a double uphill battle. It is not sure yet whether the elections will be held at the date planned, 28 July. I myself I do hope they will, for the power vacuum in Bamako has to be filled, and the most important thing in Malian politics is not which candidate wins, but simply that everyone agrees that he has won. Policies will be exactly the same with all candidates, and the room to maneuver between the AQIM, the French Army, the International Force and the donor countries is extremely restricted. I do hope for a Mormon Moment, but I severely doubt whether we will have one, and in the end it does not matter much. In this kind of politics it is not the individual that counts, but just his legitimacy, and for that a Muslim president would be much better. I know that this is not the standard US way of looking at politics, but it is African reality. In the end, Mali has as much chance to get a Mormon president as the USA has to get a Muslim president.

Walter van Beek

12 comments for “A Mormon Moment in Mali?

  1. Julie M. Smith
    July 11, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Thank you for this post. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who is very ignorant about these issues and appreciates your perspective.

  2. Cameron N
    July 11, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Ditto. Thanks Walter!

  3. Naismith
    July 11, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Thanks so much for this. What a form of service, if he can help such a troubled land.

  4. July 11, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Wow, Walter. I didn’t know you had worked in Mali and had such connections. Thanks for this rundown. It mostly fits with what I have heard in the news (BBC and RFI) and read online.

    I’ve long been skeptical of Samake’s chances, and your article actually makes me more optimistic for him. Although I doubt he will win (the only poll I’ve seen the couple of times I’ve searched for them is an unscientific online only poll a month or so ago that had Samake 5th), your statements above make me think that he will share in the political benefits of the election regardless of whether he wins or not (or am I misreading you?).

    Part of my pessimism regarding Samake was in the fact that he had to create his own political party, instead of winning the support of an existing party, but your analysis suggests to me that creating your own party isn’t unusual.

    I’ve also wondered at how infrequently Samake’s name is mentioned as a candidate in the various online Malian news sites compared to other candidates — at least this led me to assume that he wasn’t considered one of the most likely to win. In that respect, I suppose the year-long delay because of the insurrection/war in the north may have helped, giving him more time to get his message out and persuade others that he would be a good president. I did notice last month that another party has agreed to support him, so perhaps his chances are improving?

    Anyway, thanks for the overview. I’d be interested in your take on my musings in this comment.

    If nothing else, Samake’s ability to raise funds from Mormons and others in the U.S. may say something about those who donated and about Samake’s ability to persuade others. That part is, I think, impressive.

  5. July 11, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks for explaining the issues he’s facing in such straightforward terms. Great post!

  6. J. Stapley
    July 11, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Excellent overview. Thanks.

  7. Armand Mauss
    July 11, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    Also little known is that in March of 2012, Yeah Samake visited the Claremont Graduate University under the auspices of the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies there and gave a stirring address to a packed house. See the event on You Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlT7j8aEOpI.

  8. Wilfried
    July 12, 2013 at 3:16 am

    A lot to ponder from this revealing post by Walter:

    1 – “Mormon news” needs more input from international expertise and critical insight. Articles on Samake in Deseret News or in Meridian are not the best sources. Triumphalism leads to ignoring or distorting reality and may incite people to make donations without enough information.

    2 – From our Western traditions we have a hard time understanding how politics work in most African nations. The extreme fragmentation and the dependency on “spoils”, as Walters mentions it, oblige to conduct politics in different ways. On June 20, just a few weeks ago, the interim president Dioncounda Traoré gathered the leaders of 35 (!) parties, including of course the largest ones, to discuss the future (meaning how to get the consensus for a president and how to repartition power between the invited parties). I find no information that Samake was included, either because of his seeming insignificance on the national Malian scene, or because of his harsh criticism of current and past politicians. What is the real position of this local mayor from a rural area in national politics?

    3 – Samake seems to be a hard-working, capable, and honest idealist who did splendid things in his native region and who deserves our admiration. As presidential candidate and because of his Mormon-American connections, he got some limited news coverage in the Western press (trickles from the Mormon coverage, see a Time article here and one in Le Monde here). But if one googles Mali news outlets, he seems generally ignored or ridiculed as a feather-weight careerist. The few positive items apparently come from self-placed advertisements, articles and youtubes. What is his real notoriety and public support in Mali?

    4 – His US-background, his Mormonism, and his dependency on US-money make him probably quite vulnerable in an unstable Muslim nation where well-equipped jihadists are threatening, the French military is withdrawing, and unsteady soldiers from other African nations must keep peace in a country twice the size of Texas.

    Of course, we can only wish him well in what seems a ‘mission impossible’.

  9. Walter van Beek
    July 12, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Dear Wilfried
    I was clear about his mission. If he succeeds he would have done an incredible job, but a colleague of mine, who is doing his PhD on Mali politics, had hardly heard of him. Actually, I think he has as much chance to be elected as Joseph Smith had, just before his death, to become president of the USA

  10. Walter van Beek
    July 12, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Dear Armand
    Thanks for drawing our attention, and an excellent oratory performance. In terms of content and caliber Samake is an excellent candidate, but as you know, also in the USA, these are not Always the deciding factors – thinking of Obama’s predecessor.

  11. jennifer reuben
    July 13, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    have to second the comments on the unlikelihood of Samake being elected also second the comment that American Mormon’s need a more global source of information and news. If the church is a world wide organizations its members have to step outside their America, Utah centered way of viewing events. I personal honor Samake’s attempt to serve his country but am very aware that his support is not strong within his own country,

  12. Ken
    July 14, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    “In the end, Mali has as much chance to get a Mormon president as the USA has to get a Muslim president.”

    So if my in-laws on Facebook are to be believed, Mali is several years overdue.

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