He has the smile of a president, a politician’s smooth tongue – and his forebear’s names are affixed to buildings all over his hometown here.
Capitalizing on those qualities, Niankoro Yeah Samaké hopes to be elected the first Mormon president of Mali, a mostly-Muslim country that was recently controlled partly by Islamist extremists.
Inside his home, a low brick building, Mr. Samaké has lunch with his family as a courtyard fills with admirers. Outside, scrawny dogs and scattered chickens run for cover as crowds of singing and dancing men and women fill the sandy street, before they enter.
“A vote for Yeah is a vote for a new Mali,” declares Bakary Diallo, a youth leader for Samaké’s Party for Civic and Patriotic Action standing at the door.
The ever-smiling Samake goes into politician mode, shaking the hand, sometimes twice, of every single youth before gently ushering them back into the street.
Two weeks ago Samake landed in Mali after a successful fundraising campaign in California. Along with the compulsory suitcases stuffed with gifts for his family, he carried with him a large check from a famous hair product magnate to help fund his presidential run.
Samake will need the help. He faces the challenge of trying to rebuild a nation that in the last 14 months has witnessed both a military coup and an Islamist insurgency.
If not for a French-led intervention in January, Islamists would still control two-thirds of the country.
And he is also a Mormon candidate in a country that is 95 percent Muslim. Samake and his family of four are Mali’s only Mormons.
”I was elected mayor in Ouéléssébougou, a town where 90 percent of the population is Muslim,” Samake tells the Monitor as cheering crowds leave his home. “My faith is not a problem! In fact it will help me win the elections.”
In 2009 Yeah Samaké was running a successful Utah-based charity when he decided to run for mayor in Ouéléssébougou, a town of some 12,000 residents in the southwest corner of Mali.
“When I saw my hometown was failing, just as Mali is now, it came to me I should run for mayor. I could not fail my people then, just as I can’t fail Mali now, when the country finds itself in the worst situation imaginable,” he says about the decision to return to the farming community where he grew up.
Four months after the French arrived, Timbuktu and the regional Mali capital in the north, Gao, have been liberated from the radicals. But the security situation in the northern regions is still fragile. The vast and scarcely populated Sahel has become a launch pad for terrorism in West Africa. On May 23 a Mali-based radical group bombed a French-owned uranium mine and a military camp in neighboring Niger. Various iterations of Al Qaeda-like groups traffic drugs and weapons and kidnap Westerners for ransom.
Mali, once seen as a model for democracy in West Africa, has become a synonym for a dysfunctional and corrupt state.
“The government did not have the people’s best interest in mind, so the people turned to the religious groups,” Samaké offers. “The old leaders were more interested in serving themselves. If I’m elected president I want to serve my people.”
His first encounter with Mormonism took place in 1985, when he started working for the Ouéléssébougou-Utah Alliance, an charitable organization based in Utah designed to improve health, education, and economic opportunities in Mali.
He met a Mormon couple from Colorado, Jeff and Gretchen Winston. They were so impressed by his work ethic and devotion that they sponsored him to study in US. After finishing his studies, Samaké converted to Mormonism, married, and settled in Utah.
“What I saw in the Mormon faith was a strong sense for community building,” he offers, “As a social entrepreneur, I found strength in my faith. Today my faith will help me become Mali’s next president.”
The 44-year-old social entrepreneur has a fair chance. He comes from a well-known political family. His time abroad has caused some voters to frown, but supporters say Samake’s willingness to leave a comfortable life in the US to come home and rebuild his country shows care and mettle.
When elected mayor Samaké quickly set out to transform Ouéléssébougou, transforming it from one of the most mismanaged and politically corrupt villages in Mali to one of relative social reform.
His charity, a $500,000-a-year foundation called “Empower Mali,” brought education programs, health improvements and even solar energy panels to Ouéléssébougou.
The charity also gave him national recognition – a reputation as a doer.
“When others talk about politics, I act,” Samaké says.
Will a can-do reputation make up for a lack of a broader political base?
Samake isn't concerned, and prefers to just plow ahead: “Mali now has the opportunity to change the old leadership, [that is] stalled by corruption, and [together we can] show the world that Mali is a secular nation that embraces all religions,” adding, “And what better way to do that than by electing a Mormon?”
Whether elections scheduled for July will even come off on time, is unclear. Bamako is in a state of post-coup, post-military intervention political confusion. Preparations for the vote are way behind schedule. Western governments are keen to see elections happen on time, but diplomats doubt they can be held on time. The election date has already been pushed forward once.
The United Nations, which has just authorized a peacekeeping mission of 12,600 African troops, wants a partner in place when they arrive beginning of July. Yet half a million people from the north are still displaced in the south, or in neighboring countries.
The European Union and the US are tying free and fair elections to a resumption of delivery of some forms of aid, even as suicide attacks and the presence of Islamist cells threatens the fragile peace.
Samaké, like the other presidential candidates, stresses that elections should be held on time. “With no real leadership in place the country cannot move forward. At this point it’s not a question of whether or not every Malian will be able to vote, at this point even an imperfect election is better than no election at all."