When I visited Mali last summer, I noticed that a big roundabout in ACI 2000, a posh neighbourhood in the capital, Bamako, had been turned into a market for flags. Most of those on sale, maybe even all, were Russian or Malian. The day before I left, I went for a haircut, and the barber showed me a Russian flag he kept stowed behind his door, ready for an opportunity to parade his allegiance. By contrast, the French tricolore has been ritually burned so often that supplies are probably running low. I was also told that French flags have been unstitched and resewn as Russian ones, with the red, white and blue rearranged.
The Air France flight from Paris to Bamako was packed. Mountains of luggage, craggy and oddly shaped, waited to go into the hold. From January to July 2022, Mali was under a border embargo from Ecowas, the economic community of West African states, which was trying to force the ruling junta to return to democracy. Dakar in Senegal and Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, the key ports for goods entering landlocked Mali, were inaccessible. But not Paris. I had to wait an hour and a half in Bamako for my suitcase, as one enormous sack of goods after another rolled round the carousel. At the back of the baggage hall there was a huge portrait of Modibo Keïta, Mali’s Marxist founding father, who cast a melancholy gaze over the mercantile crowds.
I hadn’t really been looking forward to the trip. Bamako was no longer the sleepy capital city under a hill that I had first visited in the early 2000s. It was teeming with motorbikes and old cars, including the (infamous) Sotrama taxi buses. Like Dakar’s cars rapides, Niamey’s fabas and Abidjan’s gbakas, Sotramas are overloaded with passengers, poorly maintained and recklessly driven. Daytime traffic made many streets impassable for pedestrians. A new addition, the alarmingly named Katakatani, a motorised tricycle with a flat trailer attached, is as menacing as a car and as fickle as a motorbike. The air reeked of engine fumes. Bamako’s frail infrastructure is hopelessly outmatched by the city’s chaotic growth. A Malian student I met in Holland shortly before my departure told me none of his relatives still lived in their village in southern Mali: ‘They have all moved to Bamako.’ Citymayors.com, an urban statistics website, lists Bamako as Africa’s fastest-growing city and the sixth fastest-growing conurbation in the world. The population – more than three million – has tripled in the last two decades.
Rapid urban growth can be seen across sub-Saharan Africa, fuelled by rural poverty and the concentration of opportunity in big cities, particularly capitals. Bamako, like Dakar, is an interesting example of the phenomenon. Industrial and public sector jobs, along with those in the lucrative development aid sector, are concentrated in such cities, creating a large pool of salaried workers, which in turn encourages investment in services and housing – real estate is booming in Bamako – as well as providing jobs for skilled and unskilled workers.
In the years before independence, when Mali was known as the French Sudan, the writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ set out a vision for the country. He imagined three historical legacies – African tradition, Islam and French-inflected modernity – co-existing in harmony. You can still find a residue of this dream in Mali and its neighbours. In Boulkiemdé province in Burkina Faso, where I went after my Mali trip, the naaba (or ‘lord’) of Issouka has built a palace in an improbable style: a mini red-brick fort adorned with colonnades and with tall grey statues above its crenellations. One room is decorated end to end with brightly coloured storybook murals by a local artist. The central image depicts a garden scene by a river, where six men sit together in the shade: a naaba wearing a regal bonnet with his attendant beside him, a European in a pith helmet, a Muslim cleric, a Christian minister and a traditional African priest. We’re meant to imagine that each of the five chief figures represents one of Burkina’s founding cultures.
In the West, we hear more about France’s troubles in the Sahel than about the region’s intercultural tensions. One evening at dusk, not long after I arrived in Bamako, I was listening to the adhan – the Muslim call to prayer – when I noticed something was off. It took me a moment to realise it wasn’t being delivered in Arabic, but in Bamanankan, the language of the Bambara people. Bamanankan is spoken by the vast majority of Malians, irrespective of ethnicity, but I don’t know of anywhere else in the Muslim world where the adhan is delivered in a language other than Arabic. To most Muslims, it would feel like a serious theological breach.
I can only think of one other country where the call has not been made in Arabic. In 1932, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decreed that in Turkey the adhan must be delivered in Turkish; his government posted police at minarets to enforce the law. Some months later, a muezzin in the city of Bursa was detained and beaten by the police for making the call in Arabic, and over the years other delinquent muezzins were jailed, fined or locked up in asylums. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Arabic regained its monopoly on the call to prayer. Around the same time, a nationalist Mandinka movement known as Nko was gaining ground in the south of Mali and calling for the end of ‘Islamic imperialism’, which Nkoists considered worse than the French version. Muslim zealots, they pointed out, had invaded the sacred groves of the Bambara and Mandinka peoples and torched ritual objects or ‘fetishes’ – an attack on the soul of the people. In 1949, the Nko leader Solomana Kanté invented a script of twenty consonants, seven vowels and seven diacritical marks stressing the tone of different words: many African languages are tonal, unlike Arabic and French. Kanté and his followers saw the script as a way to bring about the intellectual emancipation of the Mandinka from the French and, above all, from Islam. Today, it is sometimes taught in Malian schools. Many followers of the movement have since converted to Islam, but they maintain that Islam must be divorced from ‘Arabism’ and assimilated to the culture of the Mandinka faithful.
Also at odds with Islam in Mali are the Kemetists, whose faith draws freely on ancient Egyptian religion and the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Kemetism became an orthodox religion in Chicago in the late 1980s, thanks to Tamara Siuda, who was undergoing initiation as a Wiccan priestess when, she claims, she was contacted by Egyptian deities. Illinois gave Kemetism legal recognition in 1993, at the beginning of the internet era. It spread to Europe and Africa mostly by means of online forums and platforms. While there are minor chapters in Burkina and Niger, Kemetism in the Sahel is found mostly in Mali; it may be that Nko, which shares with Kemetism a focus on African cultural emancipation, prepared the ground for this polytheistic, non-doctrinaire religion. Its followers are modest in number but ambitious. Last October, a video surfaced on WhatsApp and Facebook of a young Kemetist in a shop in Bamako taking the fight to the enemy; he began with the standard ancient Egyptian greeting – ‘Hotep!’ (‘Be in peace’) – and went on to denounce Islam in Bamanankan. He was brandishing a Qur’an, which he then threw to the ground and trampled.
Perhaps the really mischievous part of his performance was that he subsequently ‘disappeared’, or at any rate state forces have failed to locate him. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship tried to mollify outraged Muslims, but Fakoly Doumbi, the elderly Kemetist guru in Mali and chairman of the Rally for the Rehabilitation of Negro-African Religion, was irritated that the government seemed to be taking sides in a potential ‘war of religions’. ‘Many follow the path of the ancestors,’ he said, ‘and will resist Islamic impositions.’ (Ancestor veneration is the most obvious similarity between Kemetism and Nko.) A prosecutor in Bamako ordered Doumbi’s detention for an ‘offence of a religious nature that could lead to public disorder’. The offence might be non-existent – that was certainly the view of Doumbi’s lawyer, who flew in from Cameroon – but the charge was symptomatic of the government’s fear that religious conflicts can get quickly out of hand. The state-affiliated High Islamic Council of Mali organised a demonstration, intended as a show of force and perhaps a call to order, but the appearance of the black flag of jihad fluttering above the crowd alarmed minority groups. Many Christians took to social media to denounce ‘Islamic impositions’, including a recent sermon by a prominent cleric who boasted that most Malians were originally Muslims, except for those few who had been led astray (into Christianity) by ‘the whites’. He later apologised after a formal protest from a Protestant pastor. Meanwhile, defenders of traditional African religions reminded everyone that ten years ago, Seid Chouala Bayaya Haidara, one of the clerics who called for the swift punishment of the Qur’an trampler, had burned a fetish in public.
I first came across Nko in 2014 when a Malian friend in Paris tried to convince me to adopt Solomana Kanté’s script. He couldn’t comprehend my ‘resistance’ and on one occasion furiously accused me of being ‘colonised’. These days, he is filled with Kemetist fervour and, to my awe and surprise, has become a respectable scholar of ancient Egyptian. He seethes with anger at Islam and takes the view that all its foundational concepts were borrowed from Egyptian texts via Hebrew (which he has also learned). Such notions give a veneer of erudition to the propagandist discourse of Kemetists like Doumbi, who is enmeshed in a network of Pan-African zealots and dogmatists.
Doumbi’s talk of ‘wars of religion’ tells us something about the clashing visions that could easily destroy Hampâté Bâ’s multicultural vision of Mali. Doumbi’s main adversary is Imam Mahmoud Dicko, a charismatic Salafi cleric who has been working for decades to turn Mali into an Islamic republic. He was instrumental in Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s accession to the presidency in 2013: in return for Dicko’s support, Keïta promised to promote an Islamist platform championed by the youth wing of Dicko’s unofficial movement. But Keïta didn’t come good, and in the summer of 2020, Dicko helped to engineer his downfall. Until the military takeover later that year, Dicko could almost smell the ultimate prize – a constitutional change that would turn his informal position as Mali’s ‘moral authority’ (a label given to him by the media) into an official one in an Islamised or even fully Islamic republic. That would have brought jihadist leaders into the political process, and driven Doumbi, and others like him, into the wilderness.
The founding spirits of modern Mali and the Sahel in the Issouka Palace mural need updating. The traditional African priest now stands for a mercurial vision of Pan-Africanism, which has more to do with ideology than religion. The affable Muslim cleric is worried by the prospect of ideological doctrines – Salafism and even jihadism – eroding his congregation; the Christian minister is defending a minority redoubt. The figure in the pith helmet, who represents republicanism, remains the incumbent by default, even if Malians can’t come to terms with their inheritance from French colonialism. For all their bluster, the Pan-Africans and Kemetists have no theory of state formation or practical vision of government; neither Dicko’s political intrigue nor jihadist violence has succeeded in establishing the Caliphate in Mali, though jihadist groups have imposed a rough version at gunpoint on millions of villagers. Mali remains a French-style republic that isn’t sure it wants to be one.
This is true of other countries of the Sahel. I was once asked at a conference in Niamey, the capital of Niger, what we should do (the ‘we’ referred to the Niger establishment) to oppose the spread of Salafism. In Niger, as in Mali and Burkina Faso, the government controls the major information outlets – the school system and curriculum, national television and radio, and much of the press. ‘Believe in yourselves,’ was the response I was tempted to give, but I would have been pitching to the wrong audience. They were still struggling with their clunky postcolonial hardware. New republican ideals – adjusted for the Sahel context – were absent. Anyhow, establishment incumbents don’t tend to become radicalised; they are much too busy protecting the status quo.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Mali was the poster child of democratisation in Africa. It is now seen as the West’s biggest disappointment on the continent. It has experienced three coups in a decade and was more or less ungovernable in the intervening years. Today, it is ruled by a military junta that persecutes political opponents, derides the West and has Vladimir Putin as a patron. But just as the West’s lionisation of Malian democracy was excessive, its current disenchantment might be too.
It’s not always easy to find out what Malians think about any of this. In 2021, researchers at the Bamako office of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy carried out a fastidious nationwide survey (they included many areas controlled by jihadists) investigating opinions about democracy. I was given an outline of their findings. The survey divides Mali into ‘cultural regions’ defined by history and geography – a better model than ethnicity. In every region, researchers found a widespread aversion to one person, one vote representative democracy. My first thought was that this was a reactionary view, based on the belief that some voices should count for more than others. In fact, one person, one vote makes no sense to people in Mali because it insists that majority opinion is the only way to adjudicate daunting issues of justice and power in a complex, heterogeneous society. The principle of justice in old Sahelian regimes, though it might be honoured in the breach, is that each person must get something and no one should walk away empty-handed. The most persistent criticism of electoral democracy in the region – not just in Mali, but in Niger and Burkina – is that it breeds exclusion, barring the defeated from any share in the spoils or decisions, while the winners rejoice in victory for ‘notre régime, notre pouvoir’. In the West, the despotism of the majority and the ritual of gracefully conceding defeat are (or used to be) part of the political culture. For many Sahelians, they look like a recipe for conflict and division.
I suppose it comes down to history. The Sahel is known for its empires, but its most common political form was the small associative republic that Western ethnologists, puzzled by this comprehensive decentralisation of power, referred to with a string of unflattering names: acephalous, headless, stateless, anarchic. It was government by continuous deliberation, accounting for everyone’s interests. Will it return one day?
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