Out of Africa

An expat witnesses the end of halcyon days in Mali.

On Feb. 14, my husband and I moved to Bamako, Mali, with our 1-year-old. Seven weeks later, the baby and I found ourselves evacuees on a flight back to the United States.

We had been in our new house just south of the Niger River for only four days when, in late March, junior military officers staged an improvised coup d'état, reversing 20 years of elected civilian rule in Mali and plunging the country into chaos. Two weeks after the coup, whose purported intention was to restore Mali's territorial and democratic integrity, an army of separatist rebels declared independence of the northern half of the country -- just as my daughter and I changed planes for Washington.

Back in the halcyon days of February, Mali was one of those African countries you could convincingly assure your grandparents was safe. We used the standard line: Mali is a model of democracy and stability in the region. Sure, there is the "problem of the north" -- the latest in a long series of revolts by Tuareg rebels and the presence of an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cell -- but that's deep in the desert, a thousand miles away from the capital. (Mali is nearly the size of Texas and California put together.) My husband and I were excited to work on projects to strengthen justice and public-sector systems in the country -- he at the U.S. Embassy and I at the Earth Institute, Columbia University's regional center for West and Central Africa. Our daughter would learn French, Bambara (Mali's primary local language), and how best to eat a mango. Thanks to my previous work in Mali and other connections, we had many friends in Bamako.

But I cannot say I was not warned. "Mali is like the Niger," a close friend was fond of saying. "It looks so calm. But below the surface the current can carry you away."

Indeed, beneath that calm surface were signs of trouble. Following the Europeans' lead, USAID was working toward increasing government-to-government support, directly financing the Malian treasury. Yet expats commonly talked about corruption in Mali; a 2010 scandal in which officials at the Malian health ministry embezzled at least $4 million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria serves a spectacular case in point. In our most cynical moments we mused that government officials had simply learned to play the aid game and knew what to say and do to keep the money rolling in -- nearly $1 billion in official development aid annually and millions more in mining investments. But the vast majority of Malians barely continued to eke out a living in the dust and sand. Thousands more were unable to do even that, dying in one of the worst food crises on record, brought on by droughts acerbated by climate change.

I think our ardent desire to believe in the symbol of Malian democracy kept us from dealing with deeper issues. The presidential elections originally scheduled to take place later this month were considered "low risk"; President Amadou Toumani Touré -- who resigned following the coup -- was in his last term and was expected to step down when the time came. I was among those who underestimated the crise de confiance -- the terrible lack of trust in politicians and deep concerns about corruption, nepotism, and what many in Mali called the exclusive "mafia" of the political class.

On the day the coup began, March 21, my daughter, her nanny, and I were in the labyrinth of our outdoor neighborhood market when my husband called to say there had been some trouble in the military town of Kati, just outside the capital and that, just to be safe, we should avoid going downtown. It was not news that the soldiers were livid at the perceived lack of government support to fend off the Tuareg rebellion, so back in the market the three of us took our time finding just the right colored buckets and other items for settling into our new house. Thirty minutes after returning home we learned that a mob had blocked a nearby bridge. My husband called back: Soldiers had overrun the national television and radio station, and now something funny was going on up on the colline du pouvoir -- the "hill of power" where the presidential palace and several other government buildings look down on the city.

When he was finally able to return home late that night, my husband had a perfect view from our roof of the gun battle up on the hill. I stayed glued to Malian national television. After hours of eerie dance music videos behind the message "In a moment, a declaration from the soldiers," a dozen men in various military uniforms, some holding guns, appeared and explained that they were now in control of the country. They looked to be straight out of Binyavanga Wainaina's classic essay "How to Write about Africa."

We went on home-based lockdown the next day as soldiers continued to fire in the air around our neighborhood. The baby was oblivious to the gunfire as I read her a bedtime story. But in that intimate moment, questions of coups and governance ceased to be an academic and programmatic problem. Instead, we worried about staying away from windows and stocking provisions.

It took me a few days to realize that the reactions of everyday Malians to the coup were more complicated than the blanket condemnations on Twitter from both Malians and the international community. When I began listening more closely to what my neighbors were actually saying, I got a glimpse of the undercurrents. People largely shared the junta's grievances: Touré had left the Malian army woefully unprepared to fight the rebellion. And while politicians benefited from resource exploitation and drug-running, schools and health clinics barely functioned. Our neighbors saw democracy in Mali -- in terms of accountability and the expression of the people's will -- as a charade; to them, the junta's intent to "restore democracy" by ousting the elected president was not ironic. Yet most people were uncomfortable with the junta's approach; some referred to them as "children with guns," and everyone worried about what would happen next.

As with all good juntas, Mali's said it would stay only long enough to fix things and hold elections. But under what increasingly felt like house arrest, I watched online from my dining room table as the situation rapidly went further south, literally. In just over a week the Malian army had retreated from the biggest three northern towns, including Timbuktu. It was unclear who was in control. Tuareg independence rebels were fighting side-by-side with Islamists seeking to impose sharia law on all of Mali (something quite incongruous with Malian tolerance), and no one quite knew what al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was up to or where the shadowy group might strike next.

Meanwhile, the junta dug in its heels. Severe regional sanctions loomed as I alternated between packing our family's "go bag" and planning my garden.

On April 2, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed a "total embargo" on Mali to try to force the junta to give up power. I became keenly aware of just how hot it was outside: 105 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and getting hotter. We found a source of local milk in the neighborhood, and I made my own yogurt. Our daughter, spending most of her time with the kids across our dirt road, started saying "ayi" -- "no" in Bambara. Then my job left in an 11-car caravan moving west: Like many other NGO offices, the regional anti-poverty center relocated to another country.

When the U.S. Embassy authorized voluntary departure for "non-emergency" Americans, we were torn. Expat friends had been leaving in droves but Bamako still felt normal despite the sanctions, and we figured the junta might still agree to a transition deal. We had worked hard to get to Mali and it made little sense to leave when the country needed its friends the most. Finally, we were told that expat families with children should leave while it was still possible. Our nanny and I fought back tears as we decided which toys would go and which would stay with my husband, awaiting our intended return. Our rushed goodbye in the sweaty chaos of the Bamako airport -- me struggling with baby and bags down the stairs to the tarmac -- was as wrenching as they make it out to be in the movies.

What not to listen to on an evacuation flight out of Bamako: Amadou et Mariam's "Welcome to Mali."  When my daughter finally fell asleep, I put their classic "Ce n'est pas bon" on loop because I wanted to feel just that raw. "Hypocrisy... corruption... dictatorship in politics -- it's not good," the Malian duo sings. "Happiness and love for the people."

It is very hard to know what will happen next. An initial political solution and the lifting of the ECOWAS sanctions -- obtained this week when the junta agreed to cede the interim presidency to the head of the National Assembly, per the Malian constitution -- is just the beginning. The junta leaders remain key players, yet the formidable questions of forming a consensus government, organizing elections, and addressing the secession of the north, greatly complicated by the advances of the radical Ansar Dine and AQIM terrorist groups, remain unresolved. Already hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the food crisis and conflict, and much greater violence is possible. Even if Bamako remains calm, it may take quite a while for embassies and international NGOs to deem it safe enough to restart operations and invite the return of all expats, including babies. 

It was a sparkling day in Washington when my daughter and I landed, just in time to catch the last cherry blossoms. I was instantly reminded of how easy it is in America to forget about what is happening so far away. This time, however, it is home I have left behind. And the question of finding long-term resolutions to the intertwined complexities of politics, famine, terrorism, human rights, and war has become very personal.


-/AFP/Getty Images


Don't Throw Iran's Democrats Under the Bus

In pursuing a nuclear deal with Tehran, Obama is betting against the future.

You wouldn't know it from following the news, but the nuclear impasse is not the only issue dividing Iran and the United States. In his latest message to the Iranian people on the occasion of their festival Nowruz in March, U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized another: human rights. After describing at length how "the Iranian people are denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want," he announced measures to penetrate "the electronic curtain that is cutting the Iranian people off from the world."

It's difficult, by contrast, to find any mention of Iran's human rights record in the many background briefings and on-the-record comments by officials of the P5+1 - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- ahead of Saturday's negotiations with Iran in Istanbul. Proposals for how to resolve the nuclear standoff pour forth from pundits, but few if any include suggestions for what to do about Iran's jailing of journalists, execution of hundreds of people per year, persecution of religious minorities, or other human rights problems.

Indeed, Iranian dissidents chafe at the attention the West gives to the nuclear impasse, and Iranian reformers have long feared that their interests will come second to a nuclear deal. As noted dissident Akbar Ganji warned in his September 2006 "Letter to America" in the Washington Post, "We believe the government in Tehran is seeking a secret deal with the United States. It is willing to make any concession, provided that the United States promises to remain silent about the regime's repressive measures at home."

One reason Iranian democrats worry that we would throw them under a bus for a nuclear deal is because that is exactly what we would do. The cold truth is that the West, including the United States, would gladly negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran's hardliners at the expense of Iranian human rights and democracy. If all it took to reach a nuclear deal were to remain silent about Tehran's repression, the prospects for a deal would be excellent. But in fact what holds up the deal is that Iran is not prepared to give up much of its nuclear program and the West is not convinced that the Islamic Republic would live up to any commitment it makes. What's more, the West -- especially the United States -- is not willing to offer much in trade so long as the fundamental geostrategic conflict with Iran remains.

Not only is a nuclear deal unlikely, but Iran's past record strongly suggests that it would not stick to a deal for long. Iran accepted an enrichment freeze in 2003 (only to immediately cheat, claiming that it was just continuing research on enrichment) and agreed to a renewed freeze in late 2003. Only later did Iranian officials acknowledge that the freeze had come at a convenient moment for Iran, which was having problems getting its centrifuges to work. Once those technical problems were solved and international pressure faded as America's seeming victory in Iraq turned to dust, Iran broke the freeze in February 2006 and installed about 2,500 centrifuges in the next year and a half, bringing its total to about 3,000. By August 2009, Iran had installed roughly 9,000 centrifuges. It is not clear, in other words, whether the temporary two-and-a-half-year freeze actually made much difference in the pace of Iran's nuclear progress.

A good argument can therefore be made that counting on sustained implementation of a deal is at least as risky a gamble as supporting democrats. Why gamble for the sake of a modest and temporary agreement that does not resolve the many other U.S. complaints about the Islamic Republic -- such as its state sponsorship of terrorism -- when the alternative is to gamble on a democratic movement? Instead of focusing on a nuclear deal, why not continue to use sanctions and covert action to slow down Iran's nuclear program while stepping up political pressure regarding Iran's human rights violations and providing more support for Iranian democrats, primarily through covert programs? Some may argue that political change in Iran will take time.  Actually, revolutions happen quickly and blow up out of nowhere, as we have seen across the Middle East. Nobody predicted the 2009 protests that brought millions out to Tehran's streets. So let's be honest: We have no idea when change could come to Iran.

In the unlikely event of a deal, the Iranian regime is highly likely to trumpet such an agreement as proof that the West does not care about the Iranian opposition and that the regime's hold is rock solid. That claim could resonate in Iran and disillusion democrats about the West -- not good in general but particularly not good if the democrats ever come to power. Sixty years ago, the United States, for geostrategic reasons, supported an autocratic Iranian government (that of the shah) against a popular movement (led by Mohammad Mossadegh). The result was not good for the U.S. image around the world and was disastrous for Iran. Before shoring up another autocratic Iranian government for geostrategic gain, we should pause to weigh the risks and benefits, especially if we are not completely sure the Iranian regime will stick to the deal.

For the United States to stay silent on human rights out of fear of how such statements might affect negotiations is to confuse ends and means. Negotiations are one way to advance U.S. interests, not an interest in themselves. A more democratic Iran that is more respectful of human rights would serve the interests of both Americans and Iranians. Such a reality would put the two countries on a path toward resolving not only the nuclear crisis but also state support for terrorism and interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries such as Lebanon and Iraq. A democratic Iran would become a normal state rather than a revolutionary cause.

I would be the first to say that I do not see much evidence that Iranian democrats will come to power any time soon. But I know someone who thinks this is a realistic prospect, and his name is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He frequently warns about the danger of a velvet revolution -- a quick overthrow of the Islamic Republic by a popular movement of youth, women, and intellectuals stirred up by Western media like the BBC. Presumably Khamenei knows something about Iranian politics and Iranian public opinion.

It is not the place of outsiders to determine what kind of government Iran should have, but we are not indifferent to the outcome of the power struggles in Tehran. Even while strenuously objecting to what it saw as a "regime change" policy by the Bush administration, the New York Times wrote in an editorial on April 11, 2006, "The best hope for avoiding a nuclear-armed Iran lies in encouraging political evolution there over the next decade." That was true six years ago, and it is true today.

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