Despite having lived in a neighboring country for two years, I never got to Mali. It was however quite popular with the Peace Corps volunteer travel circuit. I recall the picturesque Dogon country being a particular allure. Moving to the Sahel in 2008, it was very much a ‘backward’ region that garnered little attention in the US, Francophone/Anglophone divisions aside.
Today that has all changed. Everyone and their mother had an opinion on the French intervention in Mali. However, the elections that have restored Mali’s former ‘model democracy’ have come and gone, with scant attention from Washington. Granted, there are many summer vacations to Maine and Massachusetts to be had, but to my knowledge, there were hardly any events on the elections. The Zimbabwe elections, taking place the same week, got limited attention, but there was at least one major conference on them. Conversely, the Kenyan elections in March received considerable attention in DC.
The lesson I take away from this is that if you are a dictator and want to avoid/lessen the wrath of the Western nations promoting a democracy and governance agenda, schedule your elections in July or August (are you listening Laurent Gbagbo?).
On a related matter, are there any significant Sahel experts in the DMV? John Paden of George Mason comes to mind, but he is quite elderly and by some frames of analysis, northern Nigeria would not be counted as Sahelian (speaking of which there is quite a plethora of Nigerian experts in DC, with most focused on Abuja, the Niger Delta, and Lagos). Terrorism and conflict has drawn a lot of folks to the Sahel, something that has been particularly visible to me as my return to the US coincided with a drastic deterioration in the region’s security situation.
While I am all for people being abreast of current events, one doesn’t particularly build up a strong reservoir of expertise if they just change directions with the wind (for the sake of controversy, Andrew Lebovich comes to mind here. I’ll give a shout out to Alex Thurston for consistency). Furthermore, many of these folks operate on a not very nuanced narrative set by outlets like The Atlantic and Foreign Policy. I see few experts focusing on Hezbollah activities in coastal west Africa (or even the CAR) or studying Liberia for its Al-Qaeda connections.