From the Series: Mali, March 2012

Did Mali lose fifty years of sovereignty in two days in January, when French forces went to war on Malian soil at the behest of the government in Bamako? There is no good answer, and the question might be either wrong-headed or precocious. Still, many struggled to answer it. Caught short by the drama of foreign intervention, foreseeable as it was, African intellectuals worked to elaborate some kind of analysis of the catastrophe that had befallen Mali since January 2012. Meanwhile many outside observers chose to fall back on the most comfortable of clichés rather than engage in the hard work of generating a new critical apparatus to describe the situation that confronted them. Much as the Malian army found itself out-gunned, many of us intellectuals proved ill-equipped to rise to the challenges facing a country racked by an internal rebellion, an externally-oriented war, and an existential political crisis. We had tools—albeit scarcely adequate ones—to think about each of these challenges separately, but not all of them at once.[1]

Bar a few signal exceptions,[2] Malian intellectuals themselves were largely silent in public fora, and the country's academics remained virtually mute.[3] Once an anchor of radical politics, the students' union had long ago lost its way. The anti-globalization Left never recovered from its disappointment when coup leader Amadou Sanogo proved not to be the reincarnation of Thomas Sankara, as well as from the realization that it had overplayed its hand. Mali’s best-known activist intellectual, Aminata Dramane Traore, struggled with a similar malaise. The generation of dissidents who had survived Moussa Traore's regime (1968-1991) had aged. In such a deep moment of crisis, it was unfair to ask too much of them.

Many outsiders reached for the familiar language of neo-colonialism, but that analysis was a lazy one. It prized the idea of Malian sovereignty over its lived reality, and it often got basic facts quite wrong. Ironically, its worst advocates were historians, practicing their discipline badly, who mistook the present for the past and bade others to do the same.[4] Worst of all, the diagnosis of neo-colonialism relied on the premise that Malians, the vast majority of whom welcomed the French intervention, were dupes, and that outside analysts knew better what was good for Mali than did those who had everything at stake.

The historical phenomenon of “FrançAfrique” seemed to offer a more precise line of analysis, but here too, it fit the situation badly.[5] Mali had never been part of FrançAfrique. True, France has deep interests in the sub-region and military bases in neighboring countries. But just as a premise is not an argument, a precondition is not a cause. Neither ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré nor his interim successor Dioncounda Traoré was ever a French protégé. Neither funded French electoral campaigns, and the March 2012 coup d’état was not the product of French machinations. If any part of the crisis could accurately be diagnosed as symptomatic of FrançAfrique, it was the relationship between the French presidency under Nicolas Sarkozy and the MNLA rebellion of early 2012, not the debacle that followed it. Precious few commentators pointed to that truth; none offered a language to capture what we saw.

So where were we? With a few admirable exceptions, American political scientists had abandoned the field and had nothing to say. They were writing either science fiction—internal methodological debates that produced tools poorly designed to capture what was afoot in the Sahel—or bedtime stories—misleading but comforting liberal narratives of democratization. The most astute and prescient outside analyses came from anthropologists and others committed to a fieldwork tradition. Why? Not because they were products of area studies or partisans of the particular. Indeed, the most empirically flawed and ethically dubious statements—sometimes made in contexts in which they could not be cited—emerged from just such partisanship.[6] Rather, because only those trained to listen closely could hear and begin to understand the social dynamics at work in a country in crisis. And because they could begin to construct a history of the present—a grounded, attentive, responsible one. Neither afro-optimism nor afro-pessimism captures the Sahel today, if they ever could. Wouldn’t we all be better served by some form of “Afro-positivism,” in the narrowest sense? By that I mean a real, empirical and ethical commitment to perceiving African societies—and when possible and appropriate ‘Africa’ as such—as lived, by Africans, now.

Gregory Mann is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University.


[1] Achille Mbembe begins to develop such a critical apparatus in Sortir de la Grande Nuit: Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée, Paris, 2010.

[2] See for example, Manthia Diawara, “La France qui gagne est-elle synonyme du Mali qui gagne?”, 15 January 2013.

[3] Isaie Dougnon, “In a time of crisis, why are academics so quiet?” University World News, No. 262, 9 March 2013.

[4] Vijay Prashad, “Habits of French Colonialism,” Newsclick.In, 23 January 2013; last consulted 31 March 2013. Widely cross-posted.

[5] “Mali: le regard de Boubacar Boris Diop,”, 2 February 2013; last consulted 31 March 2013. Widely cross-posted.

[6] See Barbara Worley’s invocation of the AAA code of ethics in her attack on Bruce Whitehouse at; last consulted 9 June 2013.