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SALT LAKE CITY -- Growing up in a poor village in sub-Saharan Africa, Yeah Samake never imagined himself to be the future front-runner in the 2012 Malian presidential race.
But that is exactly the position in which the Mali native and BYU alumnus finds himself as he visits Utah this week to raise funds for his 2012 campaign. Samake will host a free "family night" Monday at the UCCU Events Center at Utah Valley University, where attendees can learn about Samake's upbringing and his plans for his campaign.
His story is one of "small miracles." The Ouelessebougou, Mali, native attended school in a village where only 15 percent of children were able to do so.
After earning his undergraduate degree in Mali, a sponsorship by a Colorado family took Samake to Brigham Young University, where he graduated with a master's degree in public policy and a desire to return to Mali and serve his country.
"Where much is given, much is expected," Samake said. "I have been given much. I have been fortunate with the level of education I have. I can stay in America and enjoy the luxury and abundance here, and not go back to Mali and struggle, but I love my country."
It was that love that led Samake to run for mayor of Ouelessebougou in 2009, where as a Latter-day Saint he received 86 percent of the vote in a town that was 90 percent Muslim.
"In Mali, religion is not a divider," he said. "We are looking for someone who cares for the country, and has love of the country, but also has the skill set, the passion, to bring this country out of poverty."
In two years as mayor, he made progress toward that goal in Ouelessebougou, turning it from a poor village in one of the poorest countries in the world into one of the top five economies in Mali. Samake said his success in Oulessebougou, a sister city to Salt Lake City that encompasses 44 villages, can be attributed to trust and transparency in government.
Samake met with the council of all of the city's 44 villages to lay out a plan for improving the city, focusing on decreasing corruption and tax evasion.
"I covenanted -- I promised -- if they would pay their taxes, I would guarantee I would not misuse one cent of their money, and I would not let anyone else abuse it," he said. "It meant a lot to them."
That was, perhaps, because Malian government traditionally has been embroiled in corruption. Since opting for a democratic political system in 1991, the government has attempted to reform the tax code and the education and health sectors, but perceptions of corruption have actually increased. The problem is only aggravated by the high poverty rate: the average yearly income is only US$1,500 per person, and most Malians do not want to see their income disappear into the pockets of corrupt officials.
Between 2009 and 2010, though, tax payment in Ouelessebougou rose from 10 percent to 68 percent. Samake expects that number to reach 80-90 percent in 2011. He attributes the success to his creation of what he calls an elders quorum: two individuals from each village who overview quarterly the state of taxes in the city.
It was part of his plan to decentralize Ouelessebougou's government and put power in the hands of the people instead of government officials; it is a plan he will apply to Mali if he is elected.
- Dec. 12, 6:30 p.m.
- Free to the public
"Central government is not best suited to solve problems in local settings," he said. "By giving power to the people and local leaders, we give them means and ways to come together and build a better environment locally."
Samake said he imagines that if Mali were able to do this, the country would be in a very different situation than its current one.
"I was born 42 years ago in one of the poorest countries on earth," he said. "Today, 42 years later, I'm running for president of one of the poorest countries on earth. Something is going wrong."
Part of what went wrong is that leaders lost touch with why they were elected, said Samake, who believes leaders should exist to serve the citizens of their countries.
The importance of service is a lesson Samake says he took to heart at BYU and has not forgotten as he tries to effect change in a historically troubled country.
"I have seen freedom, and I hope to bring that same freedom to my country," he said. "The passion for service that brought me to run for mayor is the same passion that is bringing me to run for president."
"That's why it makes sense for me to go back and give back to my country," he continued. "Everything I am, I owe it first and foremost to my Lord, but also to my country."