De l’eau à Bamako (février 2019)

In February 2019 I spent several days in Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. It was my sixth or seventh visit to the city, first encountered at the end of very long, slow journey by rail from Dakar in Senegal in the autumn of 1986. Since then much water has flowed under many bridges…

I arrived the easy way, by plane from Copenhagen via Paris. Leaving the northern winter behind for a few days turned out to be fine! On a bright, cloudless Sunday I flew across the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain, across the Mediterranean near the strait of Gibraltar and across the Atlas mountains in Morocco, before descending to land at Modibo Keita International Airport just south of the Niger River.[1] En route I tried to take some ‘photos of the landscapes from the air, but was not very satisfied with the results. The GPS on the video screen gave better impressions!

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The air-conditioned comfort of the Boeing was abruptly abandoned for the sweat and noise of a busy arrivals hall in mid-afternoon. Outside I noticed several white painted United Nations aircraft. The temperature was around 36-38 degrees Celsius in the shade. I walked to the car without putting on my hat and realised after ten metres that I had to be careful in the sun.

Temperatures increase for another couple of months before the rains begin, ushering in the cooler season. In February Bamako is dry and dusty. Despite being familiar with the urban environment in West Africa it was a minor shock to find myself in the chaotic traffic, cruising past all manner of small enterprises along the roadsides and past piles of rubbish.

I stayed at a “residence” called the Casa Blanca in a wealthy district close to the river. A group of watchmen sat around a stove brewing tea on the street outside the high gates. The residence was overflowing with artworks, both classical West African sculpted figures in wood and bronze and modern designer items such as a shoal of coloured wooden fish in a courtyard. Under the dangling branches of some fruit trees the gardens were full of chairs and tables in retro style laid out for relaxing around a small swimming pool.

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A very realistic wooden crocodile sat in the sunshine by the pool. Later I discovered that some of the new roundabouts in Bamako have been decorated with large sculptures of animals including a huge hippo and an enormous elephant. There is some wildlife in the parks in the Mali, but they are not very easy to access and recently tourism has more or less collapsed.

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I was in Bamako to work not just to relax by the swimming pool and enjoy the excellent meals served at the residence! I joined a “real time” evaluation team, with consultants from Burkina Faso, France, Mali and Senegal. We zoomed around the city meeting representatives of a series of organisations which are funded by Danish development assistance through so-called thematic programmes designed to contribute to “peaceful co-existence” and strengthened local government (“decentralisation”).

Bamako is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. There are few formal sector employment opportunities and under-employment is the name of the game. But people find all sorts of things to do in construction, transport, handicrafts, furniture making, small scale trading, etc., etc. From the balconies outside the offices where two of our meetings were held I observed urban gardening in full swing. There are veggies being grown on the plots of land between hundreds of half-built houses all over the city. Tiny wells provide the essential ingredient for successful cultivation: water.

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At the end of my trip I tried to summarise the state of affairs in Mali, anno 2019. The people I had met, the stories I heard and the commentaries I read didn’t leave much room for optimism. Bamako seemed relatively peaceful, but the nearly 20 million Malians struggling to make a living on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert are facing difficult times.

Sadly, the security situation in Mali and in neighbouring countries – particularly Burkina Faso – has deteriorated considerably over the past couple of years. While conflict resolution efforts in the north culminated in the signing of a peace agreement (the “Accord de Algiers”) in 2015 and continued peacekeeping efforts through the United Nations MINUSMA operation, there are now numerous violent incidents and general insecurity in the central regions of Mali, from Ségou northwards in a belt stretching from the Mauritanian border to northern Burkina Faso. A mixture of conflicts associated with age-old land and natural resource access problems (with inter-ethnic dimensions), with a violent religious inspired insurrection, with attempts to undermine state authority (both military and civil) and with criminal operations (trafficking, theft of cattle, etc.) have become increasingly widespread.[2]

Corruption is another serious problem. Many observers have pointed out that poor public financial management and administration have resulted in dis-functional institutions both at central and local (regional) government levels. A combination of attacks on government officials, loss of confidence in the institutions of the state as well as low levels of tax revenue are leading to the widespread failure to deliver public services for the population.[3] There is much talk of the collapse of “state legitimacy.”

In some ways the biggest tragedy of the crisis is the jihadi assault on education. Across the Sahel hundreds of schools have been closed after attacks, intimidation and threats to teachers. It is generally argued that the future prosperity of the region depends on a successful demographic transition – reduced birth rates – which in turn depends on educating girls. But in Mali at present around 250,000 children are unable to attend classes.[4] The upshot is an impending disaster: too many mouths to feed, low productivity agriculture and a continued exodus to hungry and thirsty towns and cities. Many dream of leaving altogether…

Not far from the Casa Blanca was another hotel with a terrace overlooking the Niger River. I went there a couple of times to enjoy a beer and eat some peanuts while watching the fishermen sailing homewards and the sun going down. There are small irrigation schemes along the riverbanks and some people spread their freshly washed linen on the scrubby bushes to dry. The pictures I took weren’t very good, but do give an idea of the size of the mighty river. Would that it flowed through a more peaceful and prosperous region!

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[1] Modibo Keita was the first president of independent Mali from 1960. He was an African socialist, overthrown by General Moussa Traoré in 1968. Traoré’s dictatorship lasted until 1991. After a people’s uprising another military man overthrew him: Amadou Toumani Traoré, known as ATT. One way or another military matters have dominated Mali since French colonial rule.

[2] MINUSMA is the United Nations “multidimensional integrated stabilization mission.” An organisation called the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) has published an interesting analysis of the origins and scope of conflicts in central Mali (Adam Thiam, 2017). Increased hostility towards the Peuhl (Fulani) communities is particularly noteworthy. For a relatively recent overview of the conflict and security issues in Mali there’s a succinct political economy analysis for the Norwegian government by Boubacar Ba and Morten Bøås (2017): https://www.nupi.no/en/Publications/CRIStin-Pub/Mali-A-Political-Economy-Analysis

[3] In December 2018 the government agreed with the IMF on payment of a final tranche of an extended credit facility (dating from 2013) after the Fund accepted “non-observance of a performance criterion”, which was the shortfall in tax revenue. Economic growth rates in Mali have been around 4-5 percent in 2017 and 2018.

[4] https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/school-closures-sahel-double-last-two-years-due-growing-insecurity-unicef

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