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The Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA), hosted a discussion on agriculture in Senegal and the crisis in the Sahel (read Mali) this morning at the Cosmos Club as part of its semi-annual meeting and symposium this morning.  Perhaps most notable, and most exciting for those interested in the Sahel, was the appearance of the Ambassador of Niger, Maman Sidikou, who really has me excited about Mahamadou Issoufou’s government in Niger.

I am not particularly familiar with ICWA’s work, but based on some conversations I had with its members and some brief comments by its staff, I get the impression they have not traditionally engaged African issues in much depth; it is always good to see new movement in Africa’s direction.

Before going any further, a brief observation on the demographics of the crowd may be revealing, it consisted overwhelmingly of retirees or people of that age – probably 85% of those present.

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Jori Lewis, a much younger ICWA fellow, and a journalist by profession, spoke about her experiences living in Senegal for two years: her culture shock, love for the Senegalese national dish thieboudienne, and her work researching the country’s peanut industry.

She is now working on a history of the peanut and its African and American connections and hopes to start a peanut butter cookie producing business in Senegal (which may export cookies to the ECOWAS subregion).

From L - R: Armstrong, Gwin, Whitehouse

From L – R: Armstrong, Gwin, Whitehouse


A panel discussion on the Sahelian crisis followed.  Hannah Armstrong, an ICWA fellow with security interests who has been floating around the Sahel/Sahara was joined by the Anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse, who was living right around the corner from her in Mali last year and the trio was rounded out by Peter Gwin of the National Geographic, who has spent considerable time in Mali’s famed outpost, TImbuktu.

Whitehouse provided a fairly comprehensive overview of recent developments in Mali over the past decade, which I suspect most readers of this blog will be familiar with.  He noted that while Mali had been beset by ‘rampant corruption’ in recent years, this was accompanied by tangible gains in the economic and human development spheres (although he described himself as an aid skeptic). He spoke of his frustration with the best intentioned efforts of ill-informed diplomats in the West who have cause much harm to Africa.  He cited the impending elections in Mali, scheduled at the end of July, as being on a timetable set by France and giving him much cause for pessimism.

Gwin provided an overview of ethnic and economic tensions in Timbuktu, one of the main cities in northern Mali that fell outside the control of the government.

Hannah Armstrong spoke of a visit to Gao, the second major city in Mali’s north to be liberated as a result of France’s recent intervention.  She criticized those in the West for the romantic notions they often ascribed to the Tuareg and she singled out France 24 and Al-Jazeera as contributing to that discourse by giving Tuareg representatives preferential access to the airwaves.

She also made some mildly apologist notes for Algeria’s authoritarian government, but she did not have the time to draw her thoughts out in too much detail.

The Awesome Ambassador

The highlight of the event was the informal engagement of the Ambassador of Niger, Maman Sidikou.  He expressed concern that the third major city in the north of Mali, Kidal, had not fallen back into the administration of the central government.  On a point that I agree with emphatically, he spoke of his tenure with the World Bank and its tendency to paint projects as always being a rosy success (the implication being that this is what happened in Mali writ large).

He also instilled a cautionary note in a brief discourse on ethnic mixing in Niger.  He mentioned that he has family roots in Mali and spoke of a significant degree of ethnic mixing in Niger, including the multi-ethnic union that will result from his own son’s impending marriage.  He warned that the security of the region was threatened much more by foreign jihadists than local Tuaregs.

If more ambassadors showed up at these types of events, I’m sure that policies would be much better.  Kudos to Ambasador Sidikou.