Can the Malians Speak

It has become customary to discuss Mali while simultaneously ignoring Mali.

Mopti, Mali in 2014. Credit: United Nations Photo via Flickr CC.

On November 20, 2015, twenty people were killed in a terror attack in Bamako. In hindsight, the casualties were low compared to the hundreds of Malian and foreign victims the conflict in Mali has claimed in 2015. Yet this specific attack received widespread media coverage. In fact, it was in 2013 that my country first made a blaring entrance onto the global media scene, as France launched a military intervention there. Much of the international coverage of the conflict has been surprisingly cut off from the actual situation on the ground. It has become customary to discuss Mali (the site of Western or terrorist intervention) while simultaneously ignoring Mali (a country with a specific history, politics, and culture).

This has caused voices from Paris, Washington and Benghazi to hold more analytical weight in international conversations around the conflict than voices from Douentza, Konna or Aguelhoc. This analytical trend in current affairs fits right into and old historical narrative: one that emphasizes the West as the main shaping agent in African history, as opposed to Africans themselves.

In the case of the international coverage of the Malian conflict, the evidence falls into one of three categories: (a) a very low representation of Malian voices (b) numerous factual errors on Mali from news outlets and (c) writers deliberately erasing the Malian context from their analysis while using Mali as an example to bolster their stance.

The Backdrop

March 22, 2012. It was way passed 8:15pm GMT, the usual start of the Malian public television prime time news, but for the past few hours, the screen had remained frozen on one live feed reading: “in one moment, a statement from the military”. At dawn, images of the TV studio invaded by a group of soldiers appeared on the screen. They were struggling to read a statement announcing they had ousted the president, were cancelling the upcoming elections, and closing the national borders. Meanwhile, Bamako was filled with gunshots.

For most Malians, what ensued in the following months actually pushed the developments of that night way low on the scale of traumatizing events. These included: armed groups conquering a sizeable chunk of the country; sharia law imposed in Mali’s northern regions (Mali is Muslim country with a secular constitution); little girls raped, couples stoned, people having their limbs cut off, reports of atrocities both inflicted upon and committed by the Malian army, and refugees filling up camps in neighboring countries.

By January, as the UN attempted to put together an African-led intervention to be launched in the next few months, heavily armed Jihadi troops found themselves just miles away from the city of Mopti, only a 7 hours ride away from Bamako. The Malian president resorted to make an appeal for immediate military intervention to his French counterpart. By then my main concern, along with that of an overwhelming majority of Malians, was: “What is going to happen to my family and friends, and how do we, as a country, get out of this alive?”

Concerning dissonance

It quickly appeared the main concern of a number of analysts, politicians and commentators in Western, Middle Eastern, and African capitals, was: “What are France’s neocolonial pursuits in bombing Muslims in Africa, and how do oil and uranium play into this?” It struck me then that few of these commentators seemed to demonstrate an actual interest in Mali. Rather, they were interested in Western imperialism, the successes and pitfalls of the global war on terror, the lack of solidarity amongst African nations, the meanings of Islam, and so on.

To be clear: those are all crucial themes to investigate in order to understand the current situation in Mali. A critique of France role and interests in the conflict, for instance, is warranted. But in order to be credible, such a critique must necessarily be grounded in the perspective of those most affected: Malian citizens.

This has seldom been the case. In 2013, a documentary on the war in Mali featured a grand total of zero Malian interviewees. Analyst Glenn Greenwald, scholar Tariq Ramadan, as well as Mohamed Morsi and Dilma Rousseff all strongly opposed the French intervention, calling it a Western aggression on Muslims in a helpless former colony, thus blissfully ignoring the fact that the Malian public was then overwhelmingly supportive of the intervention (Senegalese academic Bakari Sambe wrote an important rebuttal of Ramadan’s claims). Another way in which the specific Malian context was ignored was through Mali’s inclusion in the newly discovered world regions of Sahelistan and Africanistan (for counterarguments, see Gregory Mann and Andrew Lebovich).

Empire state of mind

By placing Western agenda at the center of their analysis while dismissing Malian citizens’ opinions, Greenwald, Ramadan, and others, demonstrated an ‘empire’ state of mind startlingly similar to that of the imperialistic French state they were denouncing. In displaying such contempt for Malian voices, they were thus operating from the very intellectual framework they claimed to be fighting against.

This past November, as the attack in Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel were being covered in international media, a number of foreign commentators again displayed a lack of interest or knowledge in the specificities of Mali’s local context.

The attack was labeled an “instant blowback from the shocking events in Paris”, and “another attack against France”. A news report described one of the groups having claimed the attacks, the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), as Mali’s Boko Haram. Forget about the centuries of Malian history and politics that might have contributed to the MLF’s emergence, as former Malian foreign affairs minister Tiébilé Dramé argued. A major French TV channel introduced Mali’s former prime minister as being a mere spokesperson for the Bamako city hall. A pundit on the same network allegedly explained the failures of the security system at the Radisson hotel by claiming: “the African man does not have the required professionalism.” Meanwhile, CNN had a correspondent report on the situation in Bamako from “neighboring Nairobi”.

Can the Malians speak?

Earlier this year, Somali academic Safia Aidid demonstrated how Eurocentrism shaped current knowledge production in Somali studies. The same can be said of the international coverage of the Malian conflict. One easy way to reverse this pattern is to focus on the voices of those most affected. The Malians can speak.

The university of Bamako has a number of professors, such as Issa N’Diaye, Naffet Keita, or Isaie Dougnon. Journalists Adam Thiam, Baba Ahmed, Adama Diarra, or websites and Studio Tamani are excellent news sources. Useful coverage in English of the recent attacks have included pieces by Jaimie Bleck, Abdoulaye Dembele and Sidiki Guindo, Susanna Wing, Peter Tinti, Rida Lyammouri, Joe Penney, Gregory Mann and Andrew Lebovich. Strolling through any Malian city, one will inevitably run into a Grin: a group of youngsters engaging in futile discussions and/or heated debates, while sipping on hot tea. Malians on Twitter such as @SySawane, @Fasokan, @PouloDebo, @Abdou_Diarra, @Babtwitter, @Aiseta_B, @Mousdiak, @Nenesatsy, @Abdou_Dra, @BocaryGuindo, @Balfaumar, to cite very few, are an excellent resource to keep up with events Mali. We go by #Grin223.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.

And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.

The new antisemitism?

Stripped of its veneer of nuance, Noah Feldman’s essay in ‘Time’ is another attempt to silence opponents of the Israeli state by smearing them as anti-Jewish racists.