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Mali backs Obama election win

Patrick Smith
By Patrick Smith
Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report.

Posted on Wednesday, 7 November 2012 15:03

The people of Bamako’s enthusiasm for Obama was tangible across the city on the evening of November 6 as American voters were still trooping to the polls in their tens of millions. As in America, voting sentiment was a mix of self-interest and emotion. “Romney is against the poor. Africa is still poor so we wouldn’t see much good from him,” a bar tender at the five star Raddisson Blue hotel in Bamako’s Hamdallaye district, where a mini-city of office and apartment blocks is springing up.

As he poured me a scotch on the rocks, the bar tender – let’s call him “H” – explained it was a matter of shrewd calculation. “If we can work with the leader of the USA, we will all win. We had big hopes for Obama in 2008 but we know that the economic troubles in the USA and Europe held him back … this time we expect better,” he said looking around the near empty bar. Despite all the good trading news about Africa these days, Malians harbour big political and economic concerns for the year ahead. Having a friend in the White House should help, according to H.

After the putsch in Bamako and jihadist takeover in the north, Mali’s tourist trade has been thrown into a spin. Many hotels are more than half empty. In Mopti last weekend, a colleague and I were the sole guests at the legendary Hotel ya pas de probleme, a stone’s throw from the banks of the River Niger.

So Mali’s take on the US elections was a practical choice, according to Mahamadou Camara, our former colleague on the Africa Report and now a force on Mali’s media scene: “Obama must win.”

This week Bamako is hosting African, UN and western military planners. Mali couldn’t afford to go back to zero in its discussions with a new government under Romney in Washington, insists Mahamadou. “Military intervention in the north is more urgent than ever.”

Less than a kilometre from Bamako’s Place de la Republique, Chef Rahsaan has just opened the excellent Les Saisons restaurant, offering a Malian marriage of New American and French cuisine. No question, support for Obama was running high on election night at Les Saisons, whose cuisine and ambience are likely to be in high demand among the Bamako cognoscenti.

Chef Rahsaan’s place brings to mind other Americo-Malian collaborations: it was the epic duet between Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder that alerted the USA and much of the western world to the haunting beauty of Mali’s music. That relationship pointed to Mali’s cultural strengths but also its fiercely independent political spirit. Bamako’s extension of its diplomatic liaisons well beyond the traditional francophone axis has periodically irritated French governments but the current occupant of the Elysée Palace appears to be more indulgent than his predecessors.

China, Russia and the usual suspects

Mali’s diplomats and President François Hollande seem to believe that getting US President Barack Obama’s government to support a military intervention to reunite the country was a key part of the jigsaw. Initially, US official were insisting on credible national elections, preferably by next April, before they would offer logistical help for the intervention.

That changed after the US’s Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, helped win over the necessary consensus on the UN Security Council to back the intervention. Last week, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton breezed through Algiers to persuade President Abdelaziz to join the interventionist party – or at least refrain from undermining it. Ostensibly Algeria, consummately wooed by Madame Clinton, is now signed up to the interventionist coalition for northern Mali which remarkably includes Russia and China, as well as the usual suspects of Britain, France and the USA.

That word in Bouteflika’s ear was another reason for Mali, which has felt badly betrayed by Algiers in the past year, to think that continuity with Obama was better on all fronts than a roll off the dice with that follower of Latter Day Saints you don’t know, Mitt Romney.

Yet this picture of bilateral harmony requires some qualification, according to the pre-eminent political commentator here, Adam Thiam. There are those in Mali’s political elite who will never forgive Obama for lending US military muscle to the European-led campaign to support Libya’s rebels and overthrow Muammar el-Gaddafi.

Thiam says these politicians are not suffering from an outbreak of altruism towards Gaddafi et famille, but they simply remember the infusion of Libyan petro-dollars into Mali’s economy which helped build the splendid looking Cité Ministerielle.

They also ask a simple question about western interventions: who picks up the pieces afterwards? It was after all the ousting of Gaddafi, and the southward flight of his Tuareg collaborators that sparked the crisis in northern crisis and the division of the country. Expect that question to be raised more than a few times as Malian and American officials plan their next steps.

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