Ex-BYU student focused on restoring democracy in bid for Mali presidency
With just six weeks until elections to pick the new president of Mali, Yeah Samake was preparing for a major campaign speech when it all came crashing down.
As he left a hotel where some foreign guests were staying, soldiers in a line of military pickups rolled by, firing shots into the air, taking control of the national television and radio station across the street.
The soldiers, furious at corruption and the lack of support they had received in their fight against al-Qaida-backed rebels in the northern part of the African nation, stormed the presidential palace. They forced President Amadou Toumani TourÃ© from power and plunged the nation, once touted as a model of African democracy, into chaos.
"I went home and completely collapsed," said Samake of the March coup. "I had no idea what to do, after all the energy and all the resources we had spent, to find ourselves in a dead end was nothing I had anticipated."
That lasted until his wife, whom he met when they both attended Brigham Young University, found him on the couch and "gave me a kick" and told him to get out of her living room.
"She said, 'Yeah. We have sacrificed everything to come to this country. â¦ Your country has never fallen as low as today. You cannot just come do a pity party in my living room. This is a time for a leader to rise,'" Samake said in an interview.
He strapped on a bullet-proof vest under his suit coat, prayed for safety and, despite a military-imposed curfew, walked through five checkpoints and waited hours to meet with Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, the leader of the coup. Samake said he demanded that Sanogo return power to a democratically elected civilian government.
The captain was surprised by the request, but Samake said he told the captain, "I know you love this country. You're wearing the uniform â¦ and it is our duty to sustain democracy."
In the months since, Samake has been working as an emissary for Interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, meeting with world leaders to try to fashion support for the new government and at the same time, continuing his candidacy for the presidency.
"It's a trying time, but it's a test. If Malians were to take control, we will become a better nation, we'll be a better democracy," Samake said.
Elections are scheduled for April, but John Campbell, an expert on Africa with the Council of Foreign Relations, believes a strong interim government would need as much as two years and international support to restore order in Northern Mali and create enough stability to hold valid elections.
"That very much remains to be seen whether that will happen," he said. To move prematurely risks further alienating those in the north and deepening the divide in the country.
Whoever wins the election whenever it is held will inherit the daunting task of rebuilding a nation shaken by the collapse of its government and plagued by poverty and a legacy of corruption.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb controls roughly two-thirds of the nation, and instability and harsh sharia law have displaced as many as 1.5 million Malians and aggravated the existing food scarcity.
"The issues in Mali are the consequence of years of bad governance and desperate poverty," Campbell said. "You would start with the history of neglect and marginalization in the north, a history of unkept promises to establish some form of federalism, a political system that has largely involved the various elites in the country rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
The effort to cobble together international support in Mali has been an ongoing campaign. The United States had refused to support the interim government because of concerns about the lingering influence of the leaders of the military coup.
In early October, the United Nations adopted a resolution supporting the development of a plan for regional military intervention, led by the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union, aimed at regaining control of the northern territory.
In late October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Algeria urging support for the effort.
But Campbell said, even if a plan is formulated, enacting it is difficult, especially without Western support, which seems unlikely.
Samake says it is in the West's interest to restore order in Mali.
"America or any nation will not and should not allow extremists and al-Qaida in the Maghreb to have a safe haven anywhere in the world," he said, "because they will use that base to prepare and attack Western interests anywhere in the world."
Samake was born in Ouelessebougou, the eighth of 18 children, and his father, who never learned to read, worked to put each through school.
As a young man, he worked as a translator for a group of Utahns on a humanitarian mission in Ouelessebougou, Salt Lake City's sister city, and in 2000 came to the United States, converted to Mormonism and attended classes and eventually earned a master's degree in public policy from BYU.
Samake became director of the Mali Rising Foundation, a nonprofit that built schools in Mali, and was elected mayor of Ouelessebougou in 2009.
He has campaigned on a brand of federalism for Mali, where a strong central government enforces the laws, but local mayors are able to build the schools and roads their communities desperately need.
"This is an economic conflict," he says of the struggles in his homeland. "If we had strong leaders who cared for the people, who had policies in place that advance the standard of living, this wouldn't have happened.
"Now Mali has a chance to pick new leaders, not based on the power affiliations they had," said Samake, "but based on who can better serve the people of Mali. Who has a track record of serving the people of Mali. And that's where I have hope that my candidacy is the strongest."