Meet the Mormon Running for President of Mali

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 21 2012 3:37 PM

The Other Mormon Candidate

He’s running for president of Mali.

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The Samakés have always been prominent in Ouéléssébougou

Courtesy the Samake 2012 campaign.

This hunger was part of the family’s sacrifice towards a greater cause. In a dream, Samaké’s father, Tiecourafing, had received an “inspired vision” that his children would not live lives focused solely on finding the next meal. And so, Tiecourafing did not send Yeah or his brothers and sisters into the fields to farm, as most people in the Koulikoro region of Mali do. Instead, “my father sent us all to school to get an education, to end the darkness of illiteracy so we could live lives of integrity and service.” This was a radical decision in a region of the country where, Samaké estimates, only 15 percent of the population receives any formal schooling.

Today, Yeah Samaké counts veterinarians, engineers, college professors, teachers, and doctors among his siblings. And though the Samakés have always been prominent in Ouéléssébougou—Yeah’s paternal ancestor, Ouelessee, established the community in the 19th century—their educations have made Tiecourafing’s offspring the core of a small, but growing professional class of Malians in the region.

While all his siblings have followed their father’s mandate to dedicate their lives to “integrity and service,” Yeah Samaké has perhaps interpreted that mandate the most literally. After receiving his B.A. in English from the École Normale Supérieure de Bamako in the nation’s capital, Samaké returned to his hometown, where he worked unpaid as a teacher for three years, supporting himself by acting as a guide and interpreter for the U.N. and the Peace Corps. He also worked for the Ouéléssébougou-Utah Alliance, an organization founded by Utahans in 1985 to partner with local Malians to improve heath, educational, and economic opportunities in the country. This brought him in contact with a Mormon couple from Colorado, Jeff and Gretchen Winston, who were impressed by Samaké’s work ethic and his devotion to his community.

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The Winstons eventually sponsored Samaké to come to the United States to further his education. At BYU, he earned a master’s degree in public policy and served as president of the Black Student Union. During this time, Samaké fell in love with Utah, a state that he considers his “second home.” He also fell in love in Utah when he met Marissa Coutinho, a BYU undergraduate from India. The couple converted to Mormonism, married, and settled in Utah, where they began raising their two children. In 2004, Samaké started the nonprofit Mali Rising Foundation, dedicated to building schools and training teachers to expand the educational opportunities for Mali’s poorest children.

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Samaké's father sent his children to school so they "could live lives of integrity and service"

Courtesy the Samake 2012 campaign.

As with the current U.S. president, community organizing was a stepping-stone toward a career in politics. In 2009, after he was elected mayor of Ouéléssébougou, Samaké relocated his family to Mali. Samaké says that his predecessors treated the governmental coffers like their own personal ATMs—and since no one trusted that government revenues would go to the common good, less than 10 percent of the population paid their taxes. Ouéléssébougou was ranked 699 out of 703 communes (groupings of tribal villages) in Mali for governmental management and transparency. Two years into Samaké’s tenure as mayor, the city now ranks in the top 10 in the country, with a tax collection rate of 68 percent. This has spurred a construction boom, with new schools and health clinics springing up throughout the region.

In order to foster greater community involvement in the government, Samaké drew on the organizational model of Mormonism. He established an “Elders’ Quorum,” which, as in a Mormon congregation, is made up of trusted community members who meet periodically to discuss financial and capitol matters. Each village sends two representatives—both men and women, Samaké is quick to point out—to evaluate how the tax money is being spent. The Elders’ Quorum also makes sure each village is paying its fair share of taxes. “Those who don’t pay don’t get services,” Samaké told me, while “the villages who paid their taxes first got schools first.”

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As Yeah Samaké tells the story, at least, his run for the presidency was not planned. Last January, Mali’s current president, Amadou Toumani Touré, came to Ouéléssébougou to dedicate a new solar-panel field. During his introductory remarks, Samaké went off-script. He was inspired, he says, to call out the president for his failure to adequately respond to the needs of the Malian people. Samaké told the president that the only way to stamp out corruption would be to follow Mali’s constitutional mandate to decentralize power and to engage local leaders in solving the problems of their own communities, as he has done in Ouéléssébougou. Samaké’s brazen challenge to the president’s leadership impressed some of the young Malians in attendance. They approached the mayor after the ceremony and urged him to run for president.

According to his own wife, however, Samaké’s desire to run for president is not a recent development; he has, she says, harbored presidential ambitions since at least their days at BYU. And it is his Mormon “brothers and sisters” in Utah as much as his Malian compatriots that have made his campaign possible. His top campaign advisors, Patrice Pederson and Kent Potter, are members of the LDS Church with strong political and marketing backgrounds. Pederson told me that most of Samaké’s 13 competitors for the presidency “use money they’ve embezzled from the government.” As a protest candidate running against such abuse of “the people’s money,” Samaké has had to find other sources of income. With the help of his well-connected advisors, Samaké has made frequent trips to Utah and called on potential Mormon donors in New York and Washington, D.C.