My counterpoint is that both matter.
Please allow me to explain more fully why I say this. I'll start with the frontrunner thing:
Yeah Samaké is the youngest contender for Mali’s presidency and is indeed called "the frontrunner" by articles in both PRI's The World and Slate Magazine.
Perhaps those sources are being generous, but there are no daily presidential tracking polls in Mali to give us a clearer picture.
In the French language Mali News he’s referred to as being among the top "young candidates" who are vying to unseat older, "more experienced public managers" who have also been tied to corruption.
Certainly, Samaké’s own press materials tout his popularity, but that's to be expected.
A blogger in Mali writing for Bridges from Bamako does criticize Samaké for being "U.S. Astroturf" instead of "Mali Grassroots." He (like the viewer) challenges his frontrunner status. He bases his challenge in part on the fact that Malian newspapers don't mention him nearly as often as a former prime minister who is also running for president.
Despite the blogger's apprehension, even he concludes:
"Whatever happens in the election, one thing is sure. It will take a lot more than one man — however dedicated and talented he may be — to change Mali’s political culture and root out the venality, waste and cynicism that characterize it. But just maybe Yeah Samaké’s run — if it’s genuine, and even moderately successful — will inspire other reformers to get into the game, and prove to be a harbinger of a more hopeful future."
Obviously, Samaké true stature among Malians will not be settled until after the elections now scheduled on July 7th.
Enough of that. I did not mean for his status as a frontrunner to be the focus of my story.
This was my focus: the remarkable narrative of a man with strong ties to Utah.
After graduating from BYU with masters in public policy, Samaké became executive director of the Mali Rising Foundation. The foundation builds schools and trains teachers. In 2009 Samaké was elected mayor of Ouélessébougou. His website reads:
“At that time, the municipality was ranked 699 out of 703 in terms of economic development, transparency, and management, with a tax collection rate below 10%. Within one year, Ouélessébougou jumped to the top ten cities in Mali with a tax collection rate about 68%. Yeah accomplished this by increasing citizen participation through a tribal council system, and by challenging the culture of corruption. His successes earned him the respect of his peers and he was appointed to the post of vice president of the League of Mayors.”
Can he take the touted successes of Ouélessébougou and repeat them on a national level? He says he can.
And yet the bigger question is this: Can he sufficiently strengthen a country that up until recently had given up two-thirds of its territory -- the north -- to Al Qaeda insurgents who had crossed into Mali from Libya?
Only France seems to care about the answer to that question right now. Its troops have cleared the Jihadists from northern towns of its former colony.
All well and good, but the French will not stay forever.
Will the Jihadists return when the French leave? Yeah Samaké holds that his brand of economic and political “hope” will turn the people against the extremists and deny them a new foothold.
ABC News quoted Samaké saying:
"Previous governments of Mali have not given the sense of investment, the sense of involvement in eradicating extremism you know but it breeds because people have no other options. If we have option to attend schools in our villages, if we have the hope that after school we get a job, why would we strap an explosive to ourselves or let our children strap explosive to themselves?"
Give them a reason to live, and they won't kill themselves and you along with them. Seems sound, but we shall see.
The French have committed to staying through the elections, but already they're planning to draw down troops from 4,000 to 1,000 by the end of the year. Without a dramatic change in the leadership in Bamako, many predict the Jihadists will be back.
We just spend years, blood and money expelling Al Qaeda and its affiliates from Afghanistan. Do we want them running Mali, instead?
Mali matters. And whether you believe he's the frontrunner or Don Quixote, Samaké matters.