Laura Seitz, Deseret News
The first LDS leader to be elected president of his country may not be Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman Jr., but rather Yeah Samake, who has recently announced his candidacy for the president of Mali.
Currently serving as the mayor of Ouelessebougou, Samake is in Utah for a few weeks to generate support and plans for his campaign.
"I consider Utah my second home," says Samake, who earned a master's degree and met his wife (a native of India) at BYU, and who has directed the Utah-based Mali Rising Foundation for about six years. "I appreciate and am grateful to so many Utahns for the opportunities and teachings they have given me. The things I have learned here have made me a better businessman, a better person. I am Utahn in culture, so even though this election will be held in Mali, Utah will play a big part of it," he says.
Samake was elected mayor of Ouelessebougou in 2009. At that time, the collection of 44 villages was ranked 170 out of 174 municipalities in Mali in terms of economic development, transparency of government and management. "We have since been able to bring it into the top 10 in the country. Ouelessebougou is now a pilot municipality because of the way we have run things with transparency, public participation and strict financial accountability."
Wherever poverty and literacy abide in large measure, corruption can creep into politics, and that has been the case in Mali in the past, but the people are seeking a change, says Samake. "Integrity and accountability have become very important."
Samake has instituted a council of tribal elders, what he likes to call his "Elder's Quorum," where each village sends two trusted elders to the council. It keeps leaders accountable and has become an agent of communication to the communities. "It has become a vehicle of change," says Samake. "People are gaining trust in their local leaders." And that has translated into economic change. "The collection rate of taxes has risen from less than 10 percent to 68 percent."
Through these projects, Samake has gained the respect of his peer mayors and was elected vice president of the association of 104 mayors of Mali. This, in turn, has "brought more access to national leaders, who are now willing give funds to Ouelessebougou because they know they will be used wisely."
The current president of Mali is a former military man, Amadou Toumani Toure, whose term will expire next April. Samake has thought that someday he might run for president. But a visit of the president to Ouelessebougou in January provided the spark for his campaign.
Toure had come for the inauguration of a solar energy project, "which is the largest in all of Africa," says Samake. "During my talk, I was inspired to say to the president something along the line that 'the prayers of the needy for their children can only be answered by the actions of the president.' Afterward, a delegation of mostly young people came to me and said they had never heard anyone talk so bluntly or so powerfully. They said, 'we think you are the one to inspire the young people to come and support our government.' "
That groundswell of local support "rushed things a bit," but Samake believes he has a very real opportunity to make a mark.
Mali is a multiparty country, and his supporters are creating a new political party, the Party for Civic and Patriotic Action, PACP as it is known in its French form. The launch of the party will be a major event when he returns to Mali in May, something he hopes will grab "headlines in every newspaper in Mali and in all of Africa."
The campaign goes into full throttle three months before the election in April of 2012. Then, if one party does not get more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off is held between the top two candidates, who have another two weeks to campaign. Inauguration day is June 8.
Samake knows he faces challenges, "but I'm confident that if we put the proper work into it, it is not impossible."
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