It was the summer of 2020, and Yeah Samaké was 6,000 miles from history. On his phone and his television, he saw it: thousands of protesters flooding the streets of Bamako, Mali, demanding the country’s president step down. This was the moment for which Samaké had yearned. But Samaké—a two-time Malian presidential candidate—was trapped, on the other side of an ocean.
He’d brought his family to Utah during the pandemic. But the more he followed the developments in Mali, the more restless he became. “I cannot stay here,” he thought. Due to COVID-19, there were no flights to Mali, so he hatched a plan: Fly to Ivory Coast, Mali’s neighbor to the west, and rent a car to drive to the border. From there, he’d hire two motorcycle drivers to get him across—one for himself, one for his luggage. Once in Mali, he’d rent another car and drive to Bamako.
As Samaké tells me this story, his eyes widen. We’re sitting in his friend’s home in Highland, Utah—he’s in town for a few weeks to work with his Utah-based nonprofit. He lifts his hand, and I see his Brigham Young University cufflinks; pinned to his traditional kaftan robe is the logo of the political party he formed in Mali: Parti Pour L’Action Civique et Patriotique, the Party for Civic and Patriotic Action.
Samaké’s plan in 2020 worked, and he traveled from Utah to join the local Malian protests. Later that year, a military coup forced Mali’s controversial president to resign. But political stability was short-lived. Several of the country’s strongest leaders fled after the coup and another died from COVID-19. Soon, another military takeover installed a different leader. It was the the third coup in a decade, the fifth since Mali won its independence from France in 1960.
To outside observers, Mali is a country rife with potential but plagued by corruption. It has vast natural resources, but too often unstable government and lingering colonial influence obstruct progress. Even so, some experts foresee “a new awakening,” led by young Malians. Armed with technology and global perspectives, the younger generations are demonstrating and calling for change. A democratic presidential election is scheduled for early 2024, and Samaké—the father of three, BYU grad and convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—is stepping up. He announced his candidacy last month.