An Interview with Mary Leonard, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Mali

Mali Mary LeonardMary Beth Leonard, a native of Massachusetts, was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Mali on November 7, 2011. Her two previous assignments were as Director for West African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State and as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bamako, Mali. After joining the State Department in 1988, Leonard served overseas as an Economic and Consular officer in Yaoundé, Cameroon; Windhoek, Namibia; and Lomé, Togo. She also worked in the Department’s Operations Center and in its Office of Central African Affairs. She then served as Political and Economic Officer in Cape Town, South Africa and thereafter as Deputy Chief of Mission in Paramaribo, Suriname. Leonard is a magna cum laude graduate of Boston University, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the U.S. Naval War College.

The Politic: While you were still in school, what led you to study international relations and particularly to emphasize African studies?

It was really like I gradually fell into it. When I was looking to go to college, my best subject was probably French. But I didn’t want to be a French major because French majors — it may be different now — wound up reading French literature, and I wasn’t looking so much to read French as I was looking to speak it. Instead, I became an economics major. There has always been this big debate over whether to do business or economics, and as a child of educators, I was a big fan of a broad liberal arts education. I chose the economics way instead of a professional orientation. When I got to school and started to study economics — I was still a French minor — I realized I found most interesting was developmental economics. It made me think about doing work related to Africa. So my senior year in college, I took a couple of Africa courses: the History of Africa since 1865, the Economic Development of Africa, and the like.

I ended up going to graduate school and getting a master’s in African Studies. At that point, I had barely been to Africa. I had completed a very short internship in Chad, but I joined the Foreign Service and — bless them — they sent me to Africa for a total of 13 years. I have lived in Cameroon, Namibia, Togo, Mali twice, and South Africa.

I think a big difference — you know, I feel so old when I say things like this — is that in my day, people planned less! It was more of a journey of discovery — what do I like, what am I good at, or how would I combine those things? Asking those questions is very much how I got on this path. I have an impression of younger people today as being more inclined to pick a goal at the outset and going towards that. However, there is something to be said for the voyage of discovery to find where your talents and interests lie.

The Politic: Would you say there were aspects of your personality that predisposed you to working with the region?

I wouldn’t say that there were certain aspects that predisposed me to working with the region. In general, the Foreign Service self-selects people with a certain spirit of adventure and inquiry. That is true whether you’re going to Africa, going to Asia, or going to Latin America. I think there is a certain level of curiosity — adventure-seeking is probably too strong a term — and a predisposition to experiencing new things.

The Politic: Turning to what has recently been at the center of attention concerning Mali — the post-coup chaos dominating the region — what was your reaction when you first heard that fighting had broken out in Mali?

That was a very sobering day in Mali. I talk a lot about the fact that Mali’s crisis has four components, and the solution to Mali’s crisis has four components too, and they all sort of move together in positive and negative ways. First, there was already a drought situation, which became a much more difficult humanitarian situation because of the displacement of people from the various conflicts. Second, there was the rebellion that began in January of 2012. Third, there was the problem of the encroachment of terrorism in the north of Mali since about 2005 or 2006. And fourth, there was the coup, which came first as a military mutiny out of frustration with the performance of Mali’s military in the north. Indeed, this was a problem of resolving a situation related to domestic governance.

There was also an evolution to this. First there was a domestic rebellion, with the Tuaregs attacking various towns. Next, the Malian military tried to assert itself against the variety of threats in the north. Their frustrations turned into a mutiny that became a coup. Finally, you had, in the early part of this year, the very frightening advance when terrorists, who had been enabled by the Tuareg rebellion to get a much bigger hold in that territory, suddenly tried to push farther south.

The north of Mali is a distant and remote place. To a large extent, the line between the north and the south had been maintained and was a feature in people’s minds. But with the southward advance, that notion was derailed. That was a very, very tense day, and I think you saw in the reactions of the Malian people after the French intervention — an outpouring of thanks and joy that they stopped this — just how emotive that was for everyone in Mali.

The Politic: Throughout the duration of the affair, what has your day-to-day role been in addressing/dealing with the conflict?

The first point to make is that the United States is part of a big and active consensus from the international community about how to address the problem here — that all four of those elements need to be addressed and are mutually reinforcing. In order for Mali, for example, to resolve the serial problem of domestic rebellion and the grievances of northern populations — for Mali to address the security threats posed by terrorists and traffickers — it needs to have a duly elected government with the authority to implement any proposed solutions. They need a duly constituted government that thinks about the character of its civil military relations and can partner in a faithful way with others in the region.

The follow-up to that is the way in which the Embassy of the United States supports progress on those four tracks. In the course of my time here, I have overseen programs that the United States implements through partners like the World Foods Program. These programs provide emergency food aid and nutritional support to people struggling because of the impact of various crises.

The conflict has had all kinds of impacts on the Embassy, not just as an institution. At certain periods — because of fears about security or our ability to support the large community here — we had to have families evacuated. It is a difficult exercise both logistically and as a community of people who care about each other. Part of an ambassador’s job is to form relationships with those inside and outside the government so as to best understand the dynamics of the situation. It is about implementing concrete programs in which the United States government is involved and about taking care of our own community of Americans. For me, this means being concerned about the welfare of American citizens who live in Mali.

The Politic: In terms of the issue of domestic governance, while there is consensus that elections are needed, there has been concern that rushing the elections would further destabilize Mali. At this point, how prepared do you believe Mali to be for its elections on July 28?

Mali has a lot to accomplish between now and July 28, but they are working very hard to do the things that need to be done. For example, there are 6.9 million voter registration cards; as of July 5 or so, around 40 percent of them had already been distributed. There is a very tight timeline here, but there is also a great will to get it done. The President of Mali gathered the political candidates and also spoke to the nation on Sunday night [July 7, 2013]. The point he made was that there has been a shared understanding of the need to fairly elect a government. Only then will they be able to address the very big challenges that Mali faces.

During the course of the transition, the government, in very close consultation with Mali’s political classes, made certain important decisions. Some of these involved tradeoffs and compromises to allow them to preserve an aggressive electoral calendar and get to the brass ring of an elected government. Everybody was pretty well-informed about what those tradeoffs were. Basically, it was the question of which electoral lists to use — the ones that had always been used or the ones that were in the course of development. People felt more reassured by the anti-fraud properties of the list that was chosen, which was worth a couple of the compromises. People knew that a number of those who turned 18 in a certain period would not be able to vote in the election, but that was a tradeoff parties were willing to make. Mali is working very hard to make it to the finish line, and we should all be supportive of their efforts to do so. This has the advantage of getting out of the apparent fragility and instability of interim government is very high.

The Politic: Back in a 2009 interview with former Ambassador to Mali Abdoulaye Diop, Mali was referred to as the “study of success,” as a nation with a fully-functioning democracy. Has that changed and what, if any, implications does the conflict of the past two years have on future democracy in Mali? More generally, how has the concept of democracy in Mali evolved in the past few years?

I believe the reason people were surprised at what happened in Mali — and it was a surprise — was that some of the habits of thought and culture in this country turned out to be undermining rather than reinforcing the good habits of a democracy. For example, Mali had a military dictatorship until 1991, and the person who was recently deposed, ironically, was the one who launched the coup against that military dictator. In that first era of open, competitive democracy, partisan politics were very acrimonious. There had not been political parties for a long time, and they certainly had not been allowed to operate in that way. Ten years later, the new president, when he came in, decided he would not belong to a political party and that he would emphasize consensus. It was a reaction to a specific problem of the acrimonious nature of politics at the time, and it also played very much into Mali’s preferred cultural habits. This is a country that prides itself on a peaceful and consensual resolution of dispute. But what happened was that — contrasting what occurred in Senegal — in Mali, consensus did not turn into a “let’s agree and work out our differences” mentality. Instead, it became a way of trying to mask differences. It may have even turned into complicity with corruption.

In Senegal, when the president there tried to change the constitution in a way that was perceived to benefit him and his family, people stood up and said, “No, you can’t do that. You might have the voices in the National Assembly to do that as a technical matter, but we’re not going to let you do that — this is not right.” So the voices of the media and opposition party successfully constrained that activity. In Mali, because of this natural habit of consensus, they didn’t do that. The Freedom House recently ranked Mali’s press as the freest in Africa, where there was great freedom of expression and a great willingness to work things out in a peaceful way. You look at these things and sort of instinctively think, “Gosh, those are good habits in a democracy.” But taken to an extreme, they’re actually undermining. The lesson is that after the elections, Malians need to understand that their democratic evolution is not over. They need to remind themselves that citizens have a responsibility to stand up peacefully and constructively when they see something in their government that they do not like and ask for it to be changed. They need to re-exercise those muscles of civil society to help this democracy continue to evolve, continue to grow. But they also need to remind themselves of what the habits and requirements of citizenship are — that government exists to serve its people.

The Politic: How do you see the French intervention in Mali, which some have said was unexpected, affecting the future relationship between France and its former imperial domain?

It is interesting, because there is a long and complex relationship between France and Mali. Sometimes there are frustrations expressed in their relationship — there are difficult issues related to immigration. Oftentimes, because of Mali’s history, people’s default reaction made it easy to find fault with France. The day after the French intervention, market vendors were selling French and Malian flags in the streets, and people were riding their motorcycles with one flag on each side. There were little buttons that said, “Merci, Papa Hollande” — “Thank you, Papa Hollande.”

When the [French] President visited Mali, it sent chills down your spine. He went to Timbuktu — where people were getting beaten and stoned — and people were coming into the streets joyfully. There was this sense that people were being liberated. In his speech in Bamako, [Hollande] made conscious references to the fact that West Africans, including Malians, had served in France’s military when France’s territorial integrity was threatened in WWII, and now France was returning the favor. It was chilling and thrilling, a real renewal in the relationship. It has brought about a new appreciation, mutual respect, and friendship that is great to see. They have a shared history, and now they have a very strong shared recent past.

mali cropsThe Politic: The recent conflict seems to have brought a lot of Mali’s economic issues to the forefront. As it is, a country largely dependent on foreign aid, how do you see Mali establishing itself as a more fiscally independent nation?

If you look at the statistics, Mali is actually one of the poorest places on this planet — it is fourth or fifth from the bottom. It has a lot of economic development to go, and a lot of other countries, including our own, are very proud to be in a partner in that.  Obviously, the gold standard is to help someone to evolve into an economy that is self-sustaining. 80 percent of Malians are involved in agriculture, so helping them to be more productive and helping their markets function more efficiently is certainly hey to their future economic growth. I think there are two things about development relationships going forth.  First of all, many of the discussions that have been engendered in this period have been about corruption.  Many of our European partners work directly through budget support mechanisms. The United States tends to work much more through NGO partners, who we finance to carry out certain activities. But generally speaking, the donor community will want to be looking to make sure that resources are well-used going forward.

Second of all, there needs to be attention paid to the fact that Mali in 2013 is different than Mali in 2011, in a number of ways. There has always been the question of how you accomplish development in the north of Mali. For example, when you’re looking at supporting education now, you have to beware of the fact that the people in the north of Mali have lived through very difficult times. A lot of the physical infrastructure — schools, clinics and radio stations — has been damaged. Some tools that were previously available are going to need some rehabilitation going forward.

At the same time, the answer is not a redirection of resources from the south to the north, because the south is still a member of a country that is very, very poor and has legitimate needs. A big part of reconciliation is for people to have the sense that all citizens, no matter where you live, are having their needs addressed. So it can’t only be the southerners or only the northerners who are taken care of, but rather, the government must serve the needs of all of its population. In talking about work towards Mali’s continued growth and evolution, those are the sorts of topics I think would be at the fronts of people’s minds.

The Politic: Relatedly, how do you see the relative youth of Mali’s population playing into the picture of Mali’s future and growth?  Demographic information shows Mali’s population to be very young, with almost 50 percent being between the ages of 0 and 14.

Mali’s population is jaw-droppingly young, and with that comes a whole set of challenges. One is the amount of health infrastructure and education infrastructure necessary to address the needs of that rapidly-growing population. Mali has the second highest fertility rate in the world, so demographics are a large part of the country’s equation. Indeed, young people need productive things to do. If they happen to be well-educated and healthy, that is a good start; but just as important is how everyday people are made into productive members of society. Whether or not they have a role and a place in society is obviously a very important question for any country’s stability, growth and welfare.

The Politic: As a whole, how do you think America is represented abroad, and what elements of American foreign policy would you want to change?

I have represented the United States for 25 years now, and particularly in Mali, I am actually enormously proud of the role that we play. People really do look to us as standing for some very good principles. We’re the ones who will stand up and remind people that a government exists to provide services to its people. I am privileged to represent a really good brand. I think that every endeavor an individual, corporation, or government takes can always be improved, and it is important to be critical in one’s analysis and to be guided by that analysis as opposed to your aspirations for what you think ought to happen. That is a challenge that is not unique to a diplomat or to a representative of the United States, but to any human endeavor. But I have to say that particularly in Mali, Americans should be very proud.

One of my favorite stories deals with the health sector, in which we are very involved. Every five years, the United States government funds a demographic analysis that tracks a lot of things, and the one that always catches my attention is the five-year old child mortality rate. Before 1990, one out of every five children in this country was dead by the time that he or she was five years old.  In 1994, it was 230 or so out of every 1000 that was dead by the age of five. Then, in 2006, it dropped to below 200 per 1000. The most recent 2012 results showed it being around 90-something per 1000. A big component is that during this period, partners — not only from the United States but from the Global Fund — contributed to Mali’s being the country in Africa with one of the biggest percentage of bednet distributions. Malaria, after all, is a key killer of children. That we can bring about a mortality rate change from one in five to less than one in ten — that is still a really high and shocking number — is extraordinary.

Another of my favorite stories surrounds several significant projects here done by the National Institutes of Health. For twenty or thirty years, the NIH has funded a center of research on health issues, and they’re doing things like malaria vaccine trials and examining outbreaks of various illnesses as they are occurring. So they can say, “Here is a strain of typhoid or cholera or whatever, and this is the best way to treat it.” It is a center of wonderful research excellence that has come up with both real-time applications and long-term solutions, with life-altering outcomes for Malians. As an American, you should be very proud!


Embassy of the United States to Mali:

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Published by Amy Chang

Amy Chang is an Associate Editor of The Politic from Hockessin, Delaware. Contact her at

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