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Worrying signs in Mali and a bonus travel guide: Bamako on $2 a day


I am back in Mali after almost 7 months in Abidjan, the longest break since I first starting coming here in 2010. I tried to come back sooner, but the restaurant took over and I repeatedly postponed the trip.

I am here now, savoring the last days of Mali’s winter, spending time with friends, catching up with a few projects and dealing with some unfortunate developments (my girlfriend’s mother’s house burned to the ground, thankfully no deaths or serious injuries).

Forgetting about all of that for a minute, I want to talk about some of the larger movements in Mali’s political machinery over the past couple of weeks. Mali surprised a lot of people with presidential and legislative elections that went off with few problems and relatively high turnout (in large parts of the country — the same can not be said about Kidal and the refugee camps).

In my pre-election post, I stated that the best case realistic scenario was IBK winning with a large percentage of the vote, no voting bureaus blown up in Kidal or elsewhere, and a minimum of disenfranchisement. All things considered, that is what happened.

Why did I think this was the best case realistic scenario? Because of the two electable candidates — IBK and Soumaila Cisse — IBK was more likely to win with a significant mandate and he had a history, albeit a short one, of opposing the ATT style of governance (no opposition, everyone — in government — gets a piece of the pie and the people get screwed). I think Soumaila winning with a narrow margin could have been problematic, especially considering he had already once been a target of Sanogo and co.

Of course, this is more a commentary on the weakness of Mali’s democracy than it is on the candidates themselves. It doesn’t address their policy ideas or even their resumes.

Several months later, IBK is president and his party has a majority in parliament. Last week, the parliament voted for the assembly president and Issiaka Sidibe was elected by an enormous margin (115 votes for, 11 votes that went for opposition figure Oumar Mariko, and 20 blank ballots). It’s not surprising that a longtime member of IBK’s party was elected president of the assembly. What is a little surprising, or troubling, is that Issiaka Sidibe is IBK’s brother-in-law and he is the father-in-law of IBK’s son, Karim Keita, who is himself a member of the national assembly.

During the ATT years, political opposition was nonexistent. ATT and those close to him coopted deputies and political parties to create a “government of consensus.” There’s no reason to oppose the president if you are getting a large slice of the cake, right?

There is legitimate concern that Mali is back on the same path. Recently, a group of 11 political parties in parliament formed a group called “Alliance pour le Mali.” With 26 elected deputies, the group is calling itself the “2nd power” after RPM in parliament. When I first heard about this, I thought, oh hey, look at that, someone is stepping up to put a little pressure on IBK and his party. Nope. The group has pledged to support IBK. The spokesperson of this group is Moussa Mara, former mayor of Commune IV, founder and current head of the political party Yelema (which translates from bamanankan to “the change”), and 2013 presidential candidate. He is now a minister in IBK’s government.

Some will argue that the 20 seats of URD, Soumaila’s party, and whatever Mariko can muster serve as more significant opposition than what was faced by ATT. Whether that is true or not, what has happened in the early months of IBK’s presidency is not encouraging. IBK has a mandate to be “the change,” but that won’t happen if everyone gets into bed together. Recently, there have been efforts to go after certain officials for corruption, but the capacity of the Malian justice system, at least as it exists right now, is limited, and if things continue to move in the direction of “consensus politics,” the whole rotten system will simply restart with new faces.

In many ways, it’s unsurprising to see various political parties get behind IBK. He won with an overwhelming majority of the vote in an election that had the highest reported turnout in Mali’s history. But this is something to watch. After all, a deputy can support the president without forming a coalition that pledges allegiance to him.

Bamako on $2 a day


1000 CFA is about $2. It doesn’t go as far as it used to. Food prices and transport costs have risen in Mali recently. I wanted to see if it was still possible to get through the day on this, eating 3 meals and taking round trip transportation. This is what happened:


I started the day with a 225 CFA breakfast. A couple of eggs and a slice of baguette.

After breakfast, I took a SOTRAMA, one of Bamako’s green private minibuses, across the river where I was meeting someone. The SOTRAMA cost 150 CFA. Last year, Bamako’s major transport union tried to raise the price of a SOTRAMA fare from 150 to 200 CFA. This was a significant price hike. While the official fare was 150 CFA, many routes cost just 100 CFA (about 20 cents) and you could often negotiate with the prentike, especially if you had exact change. Serious protests occurred throughout Bamako and at one point SOTRAMAs were actually run off the road. They subsequently lowered the price from 200 to 175 CFA. I was able to get away with 150 CFA because I had exact change and because I was picked up on the side of the road. If you are leaving from a designated SOTRAMA stop, you will pay the full 175.


After my meeting, I needed to cross the river, but I didn’t have enough in my budget to take another SOTRAMA as I knew I already had to take one to get home. So I walked across the bridge, which is actually quite pleasant. For lunch I had a plate of tigadigana, a peanut based sauce, with rice. The sauce had a couple of pieces of meat in it and it cost 300 CFA (about 60 cents). It may look like someone took a crap on a plate of rice and served it to me, but don’t be fooled, tigadigana is delicious.


For dessert, a little bissap, frozen to perfection. It cost me 50 CFA (10 cents).


On my second SOTRAMA ride, which did cost 175 CFA, I was fortunate to spot this tshirt hanging from a tree. Michael Bolton. I would love to meet the future and past owner(s) of this shirt.


In the evening I had a little problem. I had gone through 900 CFA already and I needed to eat dinner. Hmmm. There is a lady that dishes up spaghetti, brochettes, salad, and black eyed peas right around the corner, but 100 CFA won’t cut it. Convincing myself that my earlier bissap purchase was an extravagance, I decided to add 50 cfa to my budget. 150 CFA (30 cents) = a plate of spaghetti and black eyed peas.

So I spent 1050 CFA. Of course, this doesn’t include housing and many other possible expenses, like a Michael Bolton tshirt.

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{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Linda February 5, 2014, 8:18 am

    Phil I love this post! Well, I love ’em all, but I really appreciated this update and explanation of the situation there. I’ve been with limited internet the last few months, so I haven’t been able to read as much as usual, so this brought me up to date nicely.

    Obviously hope that sanity and an appropriate version of democracy prevail in the not too distant future.

    Loved the second part of the post too. How safe do you think it is traveling there now? That is for someone who doesn’t know their way around?

    • phil February 15, 2014, 4:09 pm

      Hey Linda,
      I would say the south of the country is quite safe. Even up to Dogon Country I wouldn’t be too concerned. Beyond that, I would hold off for a while and see how things go in the north. Unfortunately, a lot of foreign govs give all of Mali the red zone treatment, including the south.

  • Bruce Whitehouse February 15, 2014, 12:40 pm

    I completely concur with your political analysis, Phil. There’s much to be concerned about with politics as usual in Bamako. As for the cost of living, has the price of bissap gone up? The bag in your photo appears to be the size that used to go for 25F. If the price of my beloved “dableni” has doubled, that could be an equally worrying development!

    • phil February 15, 2014, 4:07 pm

      Hey Bruce, yes it has!!!! It’s funny because when I went to pay for it I handed over a 25f coin not even asking for the price. My girlfriend later informed me of the change. Prices going up in Bamako!!

  • Hamish Healys March 25, 2014, 9:13 am

    It’s not easy getting democracy to work in some countries but my hopes are high for Mali.

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