One of my favorite books about the World Bank is Michael Holman’s Last Orders at Harrods. It’s a satirical novel about trouble brewing in a fictional Kenya during the visit of the World Bank President Hardwick Hardwicke (and his sidekick speechwriter, Jim “Fingers” Adams). What’s great about Holman’s book is that the author, a former Africa editor at the Financial Times, shows in a humorous manner how the Bank interacts with clients and how the view from Washington can sometimes be oblivious to what’s really going on in the country.
I’ve tried to follow in Holman’s footsteps with The Golden Hour, my new thriller about a State Department crisis manager fighting chaos in West Africa and bureaucracy in Washington DC. The hero Judd Ryker has just 100 hours to reverse a coup in Mali, rescue a kidnapped Peace Corps volunteer, and save the U.S. embassy from a terrorist attack. In the novel, shifting forces in Bamako and competing interests at headquarters conspire to shield the truth and complicate resolution. Ryker’s first task is simply to figure out what’s really going on.
Like Holman, my main purpose was to entertain. (Who doesn’t like a rollicking thriller?) Also like Holman, I think some underlying truths are better illuminated through fiction. I have been reminded of this over the past few days by messages from friends and colleagues asking if the Golden Hour is perhaps relevant to unfolding events in Burkina Faso?
This wouldn’t be the first time that reality followed fiction. For inspiration to write The Golden Hour, I drew on 25 years working on Africa and my experiences serving as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under Condoleezza Rice. I based the plot, in part, on a real coup in Mauritania in 2008. Knowing that few readers would have ever heard of Nouakchott, I set my fictional story in Mali and much of the action in the well-known city of Timbuktu. At the time, Mali seemed to be doing very well, a democracy and development success story, and an ideal setting for international intrigue.
About six weeks after I finished the manuscript, Mali had a real coup. In March 2012, President Amadou Toumani Touré was overthrown by a previously unknown, U.S.-trained captain. The putsch was quickly followed by seizure of the northern half of the country by a mix of rebels and extremists. A French military invasion restored (nominal) territorial integrity, although the situation remains highly fragile today.
The coup and collapse also exposed the façade of Mali’s developmental achievements. Outsiders—including me—didn’t see the brewing frustration and resentment. (And while the coup was a disaster for Mali, the fiction-predicts-reality helped me sell The Golden Hour to a leading publisher, Penguin’s Putnam Books.)
We may be seeing a similar pattern play out in Burkina Faso right now. The country was largely considered a development success. President Blaise Compaoré had refashioned himself as a regional peacemaker and positioned his country to be a reliable security partner for the West. But an attempt to extend presidential term limits last week sparked mass protests and forced Compaoré to stand down on October 31. We are now witnessing Burkina’s military factions competing for control, new civil protests, and rising risks of widespread breakdown.
What might be drawn from Mali’s experience and the idea of a Golden Hour? The concept originally comes from emergency medicine. As an ambulance driver in Boston, I learned that trauma patients must see a doctor within sixty minutes or their chances of survival plummet. In my book, the Golden Hour refers to the short window after a crisis when problems can be fixed quickly by outside intervention—or, conversely, the period where inaction allows things to spin out of control. Three things struck me in thinking about Western reactions to events in Ouagadougou.
- Speed is essential. Waiting too long to signal intent and to provide assistance can undermine the ability of outsiders to encourage a good outcome.
- We should take the long view. Prioritizing stability is attractive in the face of turmoil. Yet outside forces like the World Bank or the governments of France and the United States should not sacrifice longer-term political and developmental objectives for short-term expediency.
- We need to revisit our darlings. Compaoré was in power for 27 years which, in hindsight, is dangerously long. Plenty of other political leaders across the developing world have been in power for more than two decades or even longer. Many are still considered successful in the halls of Foggy Bottom or 1818 H Street.