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Reflections on the Coup: Part 2 of 2

14 May

*This blog is a continuation of previous blog post of reflections on the coup*

Although the situation at hand is most tragic for the citizens of Mali, the current situation could have significant repercussions for those of us both fortunate to escape, and even those of us who have never been.

For me, my torrid love affair with the Sahel is not over, but my time in Mali is. I will be transferring to Peace Corps Senegal at the beginning of June to finish out my service. The climate and cultures will be similar, but the experiences will be very different. Here’s to hoping it steals my heart in the same fashion Mali did.

I wish my outlook for Peace Corps Mali was more optimistic, but it has been 7 weeks since the junta took over in Bamako, and every last ounce of optimism has been strained from the situation. Peace Corps will need a stable government in power in order to even consider the option of reopening in the country, and the recent countercoup looks only to place one of the final nails in the coffin. Pending a miraculous turn of events in the coming weeks, I think it’s safe to assume that the Peace Corps will officially suspending their mission in the country until further notice, putting even more well educated and hard-working Malians out of a job.

Although all of this, like much of my previous post, is heart-wrenching and frightening, the key point that many are failing to take heed of is how these recent events could eventually evolve into a direct threat to American and European interests. The Sahara has always suffered from poverty, religious fundamentalism and porous borders that make it a safe haven for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The governments of the countries in the Sahel, however, have always maintained a modicum of power in their respective regions in the Sahel, stationing politicians, troops and military facilities to prevent any radical group from truly being able to exercise a monopoly on power.

Unfortunately, that legitimate government monopoly on power in the Sahel is no longer.

With the capture of the Malian cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu by the MNLA, Mali has lost any authority it had north of the city of Mopti. The MNLA may be secular in its mission, but its monopoly on power in the region proved non-existent when members of the Islamist Ansar Dine burned and desecrated a saint’s tomb in the UNESCO world heritage site of Timbuktu last week. The MNLA may not have any stated desire to support radical Islam, but it has become clear that they have no capacity to control it either.

In addition to the MNLA’s growing impotency, the military junta further south continues to prove its incompetency. The recent counter-coup attempt sparked by further (most likely politically driven) arrests has proven that the junta has no intentions of relinquishing its power, but more importantly is incapable of forming a stable government that would allow it to reengage the MNLA in the north. Furthermore, the junta’s dismissal of ECOWAS troop support has made it clear that no third party government will be able to restore order to the north either.  With no threat from the south or any outside governments, and a impotent MNLA “controlling” the north, northern Mali has become what some would call…

… yes, a stronghold for terrorists.

Now, it would be a little sensational to suggest that northern Mali is on course to become the Afghanistan of the Sahel, but between Boko Haram’s growing strength from Northern Nigeria to Mali, Ansar Dine’s blatant strong-arming in Timbuktu, and an Al-Qaeda namesake now exercising more free motion and power than it has at any point in its entire existence, things do not look promising. Although Mali may be a far cry from a failed state for the time being, its northern half is slowly becoming a bastion of lawlessness.

And, as with any bastion of lawlessness, the security threat will continue to increase as it becomes more apparent that the government in the south is systematically preventing any return to the rule of law. The region of Azawad (what the MNLA calls the new “country”) may be landlocked and therefore less enticing of a safe haven than a country like Somalia, but make no mistake about its significance. Northern Mali has already become a growing regional security threat, let us just hope that no more radical groups find worth within its newly constructed borders.


Reflections on the Coup: Part 1 of 2

26 Apr

It has been over a month since an accidental altercation in Mali’s garrison city of Kati transformed within hours into a full-fledged coup d’etat.

It has been a little under a month since I was ordered to move into consolidation in my regional capital of San.

It’s been two weeks since I was evacuated to Ghana… and it’s been less than 48 hours since I’ve been home in New York.

The last month has been a whirlwind to say the least. My time in Mali was cut woefully short by a series of unfortunate circumstances that no one saw coming, and will no doubt have a profound effect on the future of Mali. But, to boil down all the implications of these events into a single post would not give justice to the true breadth of what has happened. Instead I will split this into two separate pieces: part one will focus on what this coup means for Mali and Malians. The second will focus more on what this means for me, the Peace Corps, and the international community at large.

Part 1: Mali and Malians

(My short rant I made during the coup, “Much a Coup About Nothing,” Is a good background to what I will elaborate upon here.)

It’s become relatively common knowledge that the main grievance that drove the military to overthrow Amadou Toumani Toure (Better known as ATT) was the belief that ATT was strangling the military effort to maintain security in the vast northern regions of the country. Lack of food and supplies, while facing a Tuareg rebellion recently augmented by the fall of Gaddafi and the return of arms and trained Malian Tuaregs from Libya, drove mid-ranking military leaders to try to take matters into their own hands…

Hands ill-equipped to run a military, let alone a government.

Since Capitan Sanogo seized power a laundry list of problems have arisen: The Malian military has withdrawn from all its strategic strongholds in the north (the separatist MNLA and Islamist Ansar Dine are the two main groups now in control of the cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu); ECOWAS threatened and then delivered short-lived sanctions to try to choke out the military junta; Nearly all non-essential international aid (except for emergency famine relief) has been pulled from the country; and, if all that weren’t enough, the ICC is considering opening an investigation into “war crimes” committed within the country.

All in the name of overthrowing a president who had publicly stated that he intended to step down at the end of this month and cede power to the winner of the election, an election that was slated to take place on April 29th.

And, if all this hadn’t made matters bad enough, recent moves by the junta that technically “stepped down” a little over a week ago have made it painfully clear that they still have their incompetent hands in the cookie jar, and intend on continuing to meddle in the affairs of what was mere months ago a democratic poster child for the developing world.

So what exactly does all this mean for your average Malian?

-A lot of things, and none of them good.

When I first told my Malian friends and family that I had to leave Mali, they did not understand. They all said that the fighting was far from here, and that I wasn’t in any danger. In fact, some of them, disgruntled with ATT’s failings over the years, went so far as to support the coup.

It’s hard to blame them. At the time, I didn’t feel as though I was in any immediate danger either, and as members of a fledgling democracy with only 20 years of stability under its belt, I think it’s relatively safe to say that there were many amongst them who didn’t yet understand the vast and far-reaching political implications of what had just occurred.

It took about a week, but as time passed more and more Malian nationals sobered up to what was happening around them. The MNLA took Timbuktu, and came within hours of the Northern river port city of Mopti. San, the city I was in at the time became flooded with military vehicles and cars filled with personal belongings, all of them fleeing from Mopti. ECOWAS delivered sanctions mere days later, and gas prices spiked. All other international aid organizations had not only pulled out of the city, but out of the country, and we were left standing with only an uneasy feeling in the pits of our stomachs.

Our friends, our families had already been struggling. A poor rainy season and harvest was showing the beginning signs of a famine, as many areas began to start rationing their meals. Although the ECOWAS sanctions were short-lived, the frequent border closings and resource shortages in the weeks following the coup dealt damage to an already hurt economy, and the complete upheaval of the constitution and democratic process means that at best Mali is in for a few months of growing pains as it finds its feet. The reality of the situation on the ground however hints at something longer, quite possibly with an indeterminable end.

The situation in the north won’t help things either. Although the MNLA has clearly stated that it has no intentions of ever pushing past Mopti, the security situation for foreign nationals in the region looks as though it will only continue to deteriorate. With the kidnappings of Algerian nationals in Gao, and the kidnapping (and release) of a Swiss missionary in Timbuktu, it is quite clear that the northern corridor is fast becoming a no go zone for all foreigners, not just the white European ones. The MNLA may have no interest in kidnappings, but their ability to keep Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and other new splinter groups at bay seems questionable at best.

This security threat will also continue to hurt Mali in the pocketbook as well. Timbuktu, Mopti, Dogon Country and Djenné served as Mali’s main tourist destinations, bringing much needed revenue into the region. Timbuktu has been unsafe for some time now, but up until recently Mopti, Dogon and Djenné were all relatively safe for travelers. With these areas now in serious danger of  a possible AQIM presence, it’s safe to say that the knife has been twisted in Malian tourism, and that the Malian economy will no doubt take significant time to recover from the countless blows this coup has dealt it.

The coup and the incompetent and misguided junta that ran it have dealt Mali a devastating set back in terms of economy, politics and security. Even if the coup leaders immediately remove themselves from the picture, It could take the country as long as a year to get back on its feet, and even longer to restore its economic and security situations. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem as though that scenario is likely to happen.

All of these facts are made even harder by knowing that Malians are a warm, hard-working and welcoming people who would invite you to come eat from their bowl even when they are struggling to feed their own families. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers because, like is most often the case, the people who will suffer most from these political failures will be the ones least deserving.

Ala ka nogoya ke, ala ka coup ban peu. (Bambara blessing: “May god make it better, may god finish the coup completely).

Explaining Views on African Development Policy Through Leonardo DiCaprio Movies

31 Mar

Let’s all face a certain fact about development: people don’t agree on its methods. In fact, I would go so far as to say that people don’t even agree on its validity. My past 5 months in PC has taught me a lot about on the ground development, but instead of using this time to launch into a tirade on my own personal views just yet, I’ve decided to take some time to lay out many of the different views I’ve encountered on African development.

Instead of doing this in the form of a stereotypical summary that would be akin to reading a dry textbook, I’ve been working on more engaging way to describe these views, and what’s more engaging than a Leonardo DiCaprio movie? The following list is a selection of Leonardo Dicaprio movies I have attached to different viewpoints on African development. I will later follow this post with a more legitimate analysis of the viewpoints, but hope that this will amuse you all in the meantime.

(Keep in mind these are only facets of viewpoints, and are not mutually exclusive, one could agree with more than one of these without being a hypocrite).

Blood Diamond

I mean, if this one wasn’t obvious from the title, then you may find this post just a little bit confusing. The movie famous for its “TIA: This is Africa” line is a stark acceptance of the “realities” of Africa. The “realities” means focusing on one of the most horrific civil wars that the continent has ever experienced because, well, success stories don’t make for good Hollywood movies.

Although this view on African development tends to focus on the very worst the continent has to offer, it holds faith in the idea that institutions can be created to stem these conflicts, many of which are fueled by resources (diamonds in this case- can be expanded to oil, coltan, gold and others). Things such as the Kimberley Process and other international mechanisms will be able to stem the fuel of these conflicts, thereby, in theory, grinding them to a halt and bringing a modicum to stability and wealth to war-torn regions.

The Departed

This film and many others in this list, while still accurately describing viewpoints on African development, does not depict the nuance a film like Blood Diamond can depict. The viewpoint stemming from the Departed is a little more straightforward.

The Short of It: Africa is screwed, and the only person who could come out of it looking ok is Mark Whalberg.

This viewpoint, with justifications ranging from the simplistic and misinformed “there are lots of despots in Africa who steal money, so why should we give it to them in the first place,” to well argued but pessimistic interpretations of the criticisms of Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly, the people in this category have abandoned Africa, because their interpretation of the African problems at hand is quite simple: It’s too hard, or it’s too depressing, so I’ll leave it to someone else.

(I also secretly hope some of the people expect Mark Whalberg to save Africa, because then this analysis would fit like a glove).


This is for those who believe in the eternal power of love.

Democracy, peace and reconciliation are the path to success, and with these things will come economic development. The idea is that sound and equal social institutions must precede, and will then spur economic development. Democracy will provide the conditions necessary to bring Africa up out of poverty.

Basically, love, equality and democracy will bring Africa wealth.

So Africa must find a sugar mama within its institutions, much like Leo did in Kate Winslet.


This is as much a development strategy as it is the viewpoint on development. I think it’s key to liken the concept of inception to PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action), a tool developed by the Peace Corps that we use to assess a community over a period of time in order to try and tailor our small scale development projects specifically to the community we live in.

The key connection in these two ideas fall within the idea of inception: planting an idea in someone’s mind in a way that they think it is theirs, and instead of rejecting it, they embrace it.

Development work has long been thought of in relatively simple terms: find something that the community wants, and then help them acquire it. The problem with this is that often it creates unsustainable projects that either break down and become abandoned by the community, or displace the local labor force by work brought in from abroad and serve to harm the community more than help. Broken down and abandoned buildings, tractors and solar pumps all stand monument to this policy, a problem that the creators of PACA hope to help ameliorate.

By placing the idea in the heads of the community members, and guiding them to realize their own true needs, these ideas stick, they take these projects and work on as their own, and their investment in its success leads to a much more long-term sustainability.

But, just to be clear, PACA has yet to involve any dream infiltration.

Shutter Island

This is a transitory state of being. This is what happens when someone starts of believing in the Titanic of African development. After some time, the realities and difficulties of Africa start to taint this belief (the recent happenings in Mali, for example, would provide a fitting catalyst for this sort of sea change). After some time these ideas wear on them, and then one of three possible end states occurs:

-They continue to convince themselves that the Titanic will prevail, and continue chasing it.

-They transition into a Departed view on African development.

-They go crazy

The Aviator

Honestly, why are we trying to push African wealth? It is clear through proverbs and many African mindsets that dooni dooni (Bambara for little by little) is the way that most people wish to progress anyway. Believe it or not, although they have their hardship many of them are content with their lives.

Plus, who really wants to be super rich anyway? All it does is turn you into a OCD-bound womanizing crazy in the long run anyway…

Gangs of New York

A Bill O’Reilly view of Africa: “there’s no question that Africa remains largely out of control with tribal warfare, brutal dictators, rampant poverty and disease, all combining to create chaos.”

Thanks Bill.

Now, this isn’t to say that Africa won’t eventually find its way, it’s just that for the time being we’ll just have to accept it for the warring hellhole it is.

This is the epitome of the hands off approach. But who knows, if we stick Leonardo DiCaprio in Africa and make sure Daniel Day-Lewis stays out, maybe a 30 second montage will turn Africa into New York City replicas.

Catch Me If You Can

I will give Bill O’Reilly his due here. Although there are still very general and bigoted views on the African continent (or country, since we want to cover all existing viewpoints), O’Reilly, in the article I quoted in the previous film description, does provide a sound and logical viewpoint on his opinion towards helping “poor Africans.” He blames despots, sneaks and crooks for misappropriating large amounts of aid funds, a problem that he uses as the crux for his reasoning as to why the current system doesn’t work. The argument goes that if a way is found to circumvent the corruption of the continent, then aid will cease to be such a wasteful enterprise. If the American government could find a way to take care of the stealing and siphoning of aid funds, then everything would get along better.

Unfortunately this is an issue that goes deeper than some simple check fraud… and I highly doubt if we put Tom Hanks on the case that he would be able to take care of it.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

The Prevention of Brain Drain.

Africans study abroad, learn valuable and important skills, and then never come home. The able bodied men and women of the work force desire to go elsewhere and do so. This causes a lack of skilled professionals intent on helping to increase economic activity and spur development within their countries of origin.

Basically, Africa is Arnie, and Africa could use a few more Gilbert Grapes.

PS- Though about updating my blog about that whole “coup” business, but it’s been said enough: the military needs to get its act together and realize it’s only exacerbating the problems of Mali. Until then I’ll leave the pointless speculation to others.