As Mali Wars With Islamists, a Mormon Runs for President

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ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP / Getty Images

Ivory Coast Republican Forces (FRCI) soldiers of the logistics battalion, part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, gather at the Ivory Coast's army headquarters in Abidjan before leaving for Bamako, Mali, on May 2, 2013.

When Niankoro Yeah Samake lands in Mali on Friday, following a successful California fundraising campaign, to register as a candidate in the country’s upcoming presidential elections, he will be carrying a lot of baggage. There will be the requisite suitcase stuffed with gifts from the U.S. for his family back home. He will have a sizable check from an American hair-products magnate to help fund his campaign. And he will have his well-thumbed copy of the Book of Mormon, scripture that has been a constant source of strength since he converted more than a decade ago. He is likely to need it. Aside from his wife and children, Samake is Mali’s only Mormon. He’s not even sure which will be more difficult: running as a Mormon in a country that is 95% Muslim, or being President of a nation so weakened by corruption that the past 14 months have seen the government felled by a coup and two-thirds of its territory overrun by Islamist militants. “I am not running for President because of my faith, but my faith will help me be President,” he says, via Skype on a layover in Paris.

(PHOTOS: France’s War in Mali)

It’s hard to understand why a man like Samake, a social entrepreneur well on his way to achieving American citizenship, who has spent most of the past 13 years in Utah running a successful charity, would even want such a job. Were it not for a French-led intervention earlier this year, Islamists would still control some half of the country. The security situation in the northern territory is grim: the undeveloped and ungoverned Saharan expanses have become ground zero for terrorism expansion in Africa, a malevolent node where al-Qaeda-affiliated groups collude with drug-trafficking mafias, gun runners and kidnappers-for-ransom. Mali, once a model for democracy in West Africa, has become a watchword for abysmal, corrupt governance. “The government failed the people, so the people turned to the religious groups that filled the gaps,” Samake says, referring to the success of Islamist militias that, for a time, occupied some of the country’s most historic cities. “Any nation that fails its people opens itself up to that kind of vulnerability, and we need to change that in Mali.”

In terms of becoming the leader he thinks Mali needs, Samake, 44, has a middling chance. He comes from a well-known political family, but his time spent in the U.S. alienates him from potential voters — though, as he likes to point out, the fact that he left a comfortable Western life in order to rebuild his country demonstrates unprecedented commitment. His charity work, a $500,000-a-year foundation called Empower Mali that delivers schools, education, solar energy and health care to his hometown of Ouélessébougou, has earned him national name recognition, but he lacks a widespread political base. He even has money — John Paul DeJoria, a co-founder of Paul Mitchell Systems, has donated $150,000, a quarter of the total Samake hopes to raise for his campaign. $600,000 may not seem like a lot for a presidential campaign, but in Mali, where the lead candidate, a former Prime Minister, has estimated that he will spend about $200,000, it’s a fortune.

Samake, who converted to Mormonism in 2000, when he was in the U.S. on master’s-degree scholarship at Brigham Young University, is audibly uncomfortable with comparisons to Mitt Romney, the Mormon U.S. Republican presidential candidate defeated last year. While he speaks highly of his faith’s focus on community service, he does not want his campaign to be reduced to his religion. In that way, he is hoping to learn from Romney’s candidacy. He was surprised, he says, to see how much Americans focused on Romney’s religion rather than his values, a pettiness he found disconcerting for a country that professes complete freedom of religion. He believes Malians, who are known for their extremely tolerant version of Islam, will overlook his religion in favor of what matters more: his platform, his delivery and his vision. “They won’t vote for me because of my religion, but because I have a burning desire to transform my country into one of the most productive in the world.” If Samake has his way, Mali could be the first country to have a Mormon President.

(MORE: Why Mali’s Islamist Threat Won’t Fade)

It is not entirely clear that elections will take place as planned on July 7. Preparations have barely begun, and there are still stretches of the country that remain out of government hands. Nearly half a million Malians have fled their homes, many for refugee camps in neighboring countries. Still, most Malians are desperate to put a cap on a miserable year marked by an impotent interim government handpicked by the junta, and continued insecurity as French and African forces tackle the militant threat. “We just want elections, we don’t care how they happen,” says Kata Data Alhousseini Maiga, a community organizer from the northern city of Gao. “Organization is a luxury at this point. The election of a bad President will still be better than the ineffectiveness of the current situation.”

Western governments are equally keen to see elections on time. France would like to be able to confidently hand responsibility over to a new government when it ends its military mission in the north. The U.N., which has just authorized a peacekeeping mission of 12,600 African troops, wants a partner in place when they arrive. Washington needs elections so that it can resume the delivery of vital aid — U.S. law limits financial dealings with governments that result from military coups. More to the point, those laws prevent the U.S. from assisting the Malian military with equipment and training, as well as with efforts to track and intercept the activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb— a key American concern.

But while foreign ministers and secretaries of state declare support for Malian elections in July, come what may, their representatives in Bamako privately express their reservations. “I am deeply cynical that these elections can get off the ground in time,” says one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointing out that even high-ranking Malian election officials are doubtful. Mamadou Diamoutani, president of the National Independent Electoral Commission, told AFP last week that elections on July 7 “would be difficult to achieve.” Siaka Sangare, the transitional government’s director general for elections, said he did not have the “means” to establish a comprehensive electoral roll in time.

(MORE: Why Islamists Are Destroying Timbuktu’s Shrines)

Samake, like many of the presidential candidates, believes it’s now or never. Waiting until conditions are perfect for elections could mean that they never happen at all, he says. “It is more important to have these elections in July than answering the question of whether or not every Malian will be able to vote. It does not have to be the most perfect election to serve the purpose of forming a government that is legitimate.” But if the north doesn’t have a say, it could further alienate a region that seethes under the perception that southern officials consistently trample its needs.

Nor is Samake that concerned about the current junta interfering with elections. He is more worried that Malians won’t have an opportunity to bring in the new leadership they so desperately need. “If this government fails to bring us an election, it should resign,” he says. “We cannot afford to continue with a government that does not have any legitimacy and is not equipped to bring peace to Mali.” Samake, like Malians in general, is eager to start afresh.