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."
A recent survey of eight regions of the country revealed "a lot of enthusiasm and energy." Samake will be holding fundraising activities in Utah and will be visiting Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and other cities that have large groups of Malian emigrants. Information and details on his campaign can be found at www.samake2012.com.
Mali is a French-speaking country that is 90 percent Muslim. Will his religion be a factor? It wasn't in the mayoral race, and Samake doesn't believe it will be in the general election. "What people want are leaders with integrity and leadership."
For Samake to even consider being president of his country is inspiration of its own. He was born into a poor family in a country where one in five children don't live past age 5. "I was not born to power. I did not inherit a legacy of privilege. But I believe in working hard. I believe in service." And because of that, he says, "I was presented with layers of opportunity."
Samake was able to attend school, something that only 15 percent of the people in Ouelessebougou did at that time. Then, he was able to attend college and came to the United States. In New York City, he came into contact with and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and through the generosity of a family in Colorado was able to go to BYU for graduate work.
"I believe that if you work hard, you have a shot at a good life, and that is something that should be available to every child in every country," he says.
And that is his hope for Mali.
Samake believes in a Mali where "a quality education is not a luxury, but something that every child has access to, where parents don't have to choose between eating and sending their children to school. I hope for a Mali where everyone can get quality health care and pregnant women don't have to ride a bicycle to the hospital during labor to get help. I hope for a Mail where clean drinking water can reduce water-borne disease. I hope for a Mali that can become strong enough to help other African nations. And I hope for a Mali where love of one's country is so strong in the heart of every child, he or she will be willing to make sacrifices."
The key, he says, is "using our resources with integrity and finding leaders who believe in service rather than taking advantage of their position."
And that, he says, is something that can change not only Mali, but all of Africa, and even the world.