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 “Samaké 2012” T-shirt

Courtesy the Samake 2012 campaign.

And Mormons seem enthusiastic to support one of their own. Samaké’s campaign has received extensive coverage in official and unofficial LDS publications. At a recent visit to a gym on the University of Utah’s campus, two young women sported bright yellow “Samaké 2012” T-shirts. At a rally at Utah Valley University this past December, some 400 people showed up to hear Samaké discuss the “miracles” that transformed him from a poor starving child into the self-proclaimed “front-runner” to be Mali’s next president. After the rally, volunteers passed around a campaign hat that quickly filled up with $10 and $20 bills. A source within Samaké’s campaign told me that he has raised tens of thousands of dollars, mostly from Mormon sources.

Samaké’s story reflects the great efforts the LDS Church has, over the last 30 years, put into both humanitarian and missionary work in Africa—a continent that, before 1978, the Church largely avoided. Since the mid-1800s, church leaders had taught that blacks were not spiritually worthy to enjoy all the benefits of the Mormon gospel. In 1978, then-president of the church Spencer W. Kimball announced that he had received a divine revelation extending the Mormon priesthood to “all worthy male members of the Church … without regard for race or color,” though the previous teachings of the Mormon church have never officially been repudiated.

That history of racial exclusion looms over the Mormon embrace of Samaké, which stems in part from excitement about the all-inclusive contemporary church—and also partly from guilt about the past, when he would not have been welcomed as a full member of the Mormon community. One LDS Church employee, who did not want his name published, explained to me that his elementary school-aged son had chosen to study Mali as part of a school project because of Samaké’s candidacy. This son then pestered his dad to buy him a “Samaké 2012” T-shirt. “Samaké seems like a great guy,” the father explained to me. “But I think supporting in him is a form of penance for a lot of church members. It’s a way of getting over the past.”

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The white Mormon embrace of a black African can also, at times, feel a bit awkward. At the Utah Valley University rally in December, Douglas Jardine, introducing the candidate, enthusiastically shouted, “Smile for us, Yeah!” The naively patronizing request highlighted that Samaké appeals to some Mormons primarily for the attractive image of modern Mormonism that he projects—not for the kind of president he might become.

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How likely is it that Samaké actually becomes president? There are no tracking polls taking Malians’ political pulse on a daily basis. Using other metrics, however, Samaké’s claim to front-runner status seems not without some merit.

Because his campaign’s major plank is the decentralization of power to local governments, Samaké has received endorsements from a sizable number of Mali’s mayors. His candidacy has also received a fair amount of media coverage in Mali. According to Patrice Pederson, this coverage has arisen out of an organic interest in Samaké’s protest against the status quo of incompetence and corruption (in contrast to the publicity for Samaké’s opponents, which, she says, is bought and paid for).

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A solar-panel field in Ouéléssébougou

Courtesy the Samake 2012 campaign.

Unfortunately for Samaké, however, more immediate concerns have come to dominate Mali in the past few weeks. Armed militiamen calling themselves Azawad Liberation Fighters have attacked towns in the northeast, seeking territorial independence from Mali for ethnic Tuaregs. According to Cherif Keita, a Mali-born professor of French who is currently leading a group of 20 Carleton College students on a study abroad trip in his home country, these events have “shifted the focus away from the territory in which new candidates like Yeah Samaké could have had some chance.” Safety and security, Keita says, not reform, will likely be “the burning issue of the day.”

Whether security or corruption proves more important to voters in the end, one issue that apparently does not concern them is “the Mormon question.” Samaké told me that most people in Mali know so little about Mormonism that they seem him simply as “a Christian” (which is different enough, perhaps, as Mali is 90 percent Muslim). More importantly, he insisted, this election isn’t about religion. “I’m not running to make Mali Mormon,” he says. “I’m running to replicate the success I had in Ouéléssébougou.”

Even if religion has nothing to do with his campaign, however, a safe and stable Mali with a Mormon head of state would likely have a massive impact on the LDS Church’s stature in Africa. One could imagine an LDS missionary training center being built in Mali, to train African-born missionaries who would proselytize across the region. A temple might be welcome, too, allowing the growing number of Mormons in Africa to travel to the country to perform sacred rituals. Mali could even become a tourist destination for American Mormons. This all seems possible because it would be in Mali’s national self-interest, as well as the interests of the LDS Church.

And that is without even mentioning the great public relations coup Samaké’s election would represent for Mormonism. When asked to answer for its historical sins of excluding people of African descent, church authorities could point to Yeah Samaké as evidence that the Mormon racist past is history.

In fact, if Samaké becomes the first Mormon elected president, that might ease the path for Mitt Romney—whose own campaign has been dogged by accusations that he belongs to a racist church—to become the second.

Max Perry Mueller is a Ph.D. candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard and associate editor of the online journal Religion & Politics.