Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

On the Ground in Bamako: What’s next for Mali?

On the Ground in Bamako: What’s next for Mali?

Photograph via Flickr by Magharebia

In March 2012, Malian soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Bamako and ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré, who was nearly through his second term. At the time of the coup, Mali was a month away from the presidential elections, and Touré was not even in the running. The point of the coup was not to focus on Touré’s reign, but to demonstrate the army’s dissatisfaction with how the government in Bamako was handling the separatist Tuareg movement in the North. These separatists had long been a problem in Mali, but they had been recently invigorated by armed fighters returning from Libya after the civil war there. Touré’s government was doing little to contain them, and the Malian soldiers aimed to address the problem by overthrowing him. As the crisis evolved, work in the capital stopped, power outages lasted for hours, television stations went off the air, shops were looted in the downtown area, curfew was put in place for residents, and gunfire echoed throughout the city.

Anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse was living in Bamako as a Fulbright researcher at the time of the coup. Whitehouse, who received a Ph.D. from Brown University with a dissertation on transnational migration from Mali and other West African countries, was examining kinship and marriage patterns there. After the military coup, Fulbright terminated its program, urging its scholars to return home; Whitehouse decided to stay and finish his work, without the grant.

On his blog, Bridges From Bamako, Whitehouse documented not only snippets of his research findings, but also observations of daily life in Bamako during the pandemonium and thoughts about how Bamakois were responding to the coup. The blog began attracting the attention of journalists who were covering the turmoil in Bamako from afar. Soon, Whitehouse was giving interviews to Time magazine, the New York Times, the blog Africa Is A Country, and other media outlets.

Whitehouse returned from Mali in June. He spoke with me from campus of Lehigh University, where he is an assistant professor.

Bruce Whitehouse

Construction: Having previously lived in Mali, and living in Bamako as a researcher right before the coup, to what extent did you foresee the uprising?

Bruce Whitehouse: The history of Tuareg unrest and separatism goes back at least to 1963 and has recurred roughly once a decade. The Bamako regime has never fully controlled the desert. The region has long been home to smugglers, insurgents, and criminals. The coup wasn’t really a surprise to anybody. What was a surprise, I think, was just how different things were this time. When the rebellion resurged in late 2011, you had fighters showing up from Libya with lots of arms. But I don’t think the Libyan civil war made all the difference. If the state in Bamako had been stronger, the rebellion could have still been headed off. If you look at Libya, a lot of those fighters had to cross through Niger to get to Mali. And many convoys were fought and destroyed by Nigerien officials. Generally what had been seen as the Tuareg home region extended into Niger and Algeria, as well as Mali. But the Nigerien government showed that it had a firmer control of its territory. Niger has a border with Libya, yet it was able to contain the problem; Mali does not share a border and yet it wasn’t.

So why is that? You have to go back to what we’re calling the failure or the deterioration of the State. I don’t think anybody predicted that the State would collapse as quickly and dramatically as it did in Mali—but there were warning signs of how weak the central government was.

Construction: What kinds of warning signs?

Bruce Whitehouse: See my blog post from January 12, where I wrote about what had changed in the fifteen years since I’d first come to Mali. In terms of political growth—in the ’90s, Malians were optimistic that things were going in the right direction. But by January 2012, the mood had changed. People were much more negative about Mali’s future, and the role of the State and their leaders. They felt that corruption had become a much larger problem, a problem they couldn’t live with anymore. People were saying that elections were not going to take place in April, that the system had been rigged. There was a widespread idea in Bamako that the fruits of democracy, planted during the president’s first term, were no longer there.

Construction: How did these fruits come to rot?

Bruce Whitehouse: A lot of people believe that President Touré can be blamed for everything that happened. But that’s a little too easy. Part of it was that the checks and balances that were written into the 1992 constitution—he found a way around them. And there really was no opposition to his party. So there was no meaningful discussion.

[pullquote_right]Politicians like Touré climbed the ladder and pulled it up after themselves.[/pullquote_right]

Construction: What does this imply about Malian political and civic culture in the broader sense?

Bruce Whitehouse: Some will say that democracy was all a sham put on for the benefits of foreign donors. I don’t think that’s true; most Malians want democracy. But the institutions aren’t there, and politicians like Touré can too easily get around the protections within the system. They climbed the ladder and pulled it up after themselves.

Construction: How would you describe the changes to daily life in Bamako since the coup?

Bruce Whitehouse: Since March, the tourist industry has completely disappeared. It started going down after the rebellion but now hotels are closing, and nobody’s coming. I know a guy who was a wood carver making statues for tourists, and his market is gone, and he’s really desperate; he can’t feed his daughter. People who worked for hotels, restaurants, airlines, are not getting business anymore. Agriculture is doing fine this year and civil service jobs are still there, but tourism is gone and a lot of aid projects have been suspended because the donors have decided not to give money to Mali until the regime stabilizes. Foreign investment has pulled out too. In June, I wrote about the economic costs of the coup—there was supposed to be a multi-million-dollar sugar cultivation project along the Niger Delta, and that was cancelled. Then add the rebellion—a hundred-thousand or more people have fled northern Mali and settled in and around Bamako. A lot of people are really suffering.

Construction: How has your experience been as a correspondent for the media?

Bruce Whitehouse: It was a novelty because having worked in Mali, I know that generally the media aren’t interested in what someone like me has to say. Hours after the coup, I went on the BBC site and they had a link asking for people in Mali to send in their emails if they could provide information, and I did. Then, through the blog, I began getting emails and phone calls from journalists. Suddenly I became an on-the-ground expert. I knew why the interest was there, and I knew it would be relatively short-lived; visits to my blog really spiked after the coup, and then went down, then spiked again when the counter-coup happened, and then went down again. That’s fine; people want to get the news.

In general, I found that the journalists I dealt with asked pretty good questions, and when I read what they’d printed, or listened to their broadcasts, I felt they did a decent job of explaining the situation—but there was always this tendency in the media to describe a black-and-white dynamic where you have a democratically-elected president who was the good guy, and the junta as the bad guys. In a way I saw my job as complicating those distinctions and pointing out that the president was tremendously unpopular, and explaining that, as my Malian friends told me, they were very happy that President Touré was not in power anymore. They weren’t necessarily happy that a coup had taken place—they would have liked to see him driven from power in another way. But I wanted to help outsiders understand why more people in Bamako weren’t protesting the coup, why many of them supported it. In general, Malians had a fairly ambiguous response to the coup. They wished that problems could have been solved another way, but they didn’t want Touré back in office.

Construction: What can the international community do?

Bruce Whitehouse: The instinct to isolate the junta was not productive in the long run. I understand that the Unites States government cannot issue aid money to a government run by a military junta. But in hindsight, when the international community decided it would try to contain and isolate this regime, that only helped accelerate the division of the country and the rebellion. What most Malians want from the international community is help—military assistance—with retaking the north. They want unity. They don’t feel they need extra soldiers, just arms from the outside; just last week the Malian government reiterated that they don’t want foreign troops coming in to help secure Bamako, they want logistical support and arms. And those are the things the international community doesn’t, unfortunately, seem willing to provide right now.

So, the thing that might be the most helpful seems like it won’t happen. I understand why it would seem like a politically-bad move to work with a government that overthrew a leader, but that might be a tradeoff. It looks like we’re going to see a protracted crisis in this case. The best the government Bamako can hope for is one that can re-establish control over the three key cities in the north and the roads that connect them. But then you have the Islamists there, who up until this point, have been left alone by the government in Bamako; there’s a chance they might launch attacks if bothered, which hasn’t happened before. I don’t have a sense of exactly what will happen in Mali in the next few months but I don’t think it will be good.