27 May 2012

Mali: The Dreams of Capt. Amadou Sanogo

By Gwynne Dyer

Imagine that you are a junior officer in a West African army. You joined the army at 18, you worked hard, you managed to get sent to the United States four times for various training courses, but somehow the promotions never came. You have just turned forty, and in ten or fifteen years you will have to retire on a captain’s pension. What to do?

That is Capt. Amadou Sanogo, and in March he finally figured out what to do. He launched a military coup and declared himself president of Mali. Nice work, if you can get it – but then the roof fell in on his empty head.

A military coup against an elected government rarely lasts long if the general population is willing to defend it: the soldiers can usually be driven from power by a general strike. However, Sanogo had some grievances to work with. Mali was extolled elsewhere as a beacon of democracy, but the government was actually both corrupt and incompetent.

The main thing you need for a junior officers’ coup is the support of the ordinary soldiers. There’s not really much it for the men in the ranks, apart from the opportunity to loot: they’re never going to sit in the president’s chair, so they have to be deeply unhappy about the civilian government before they’ll back a coup. Happily for Capt. Sanogo, they were quite cross at President Amadou Toure.

Yet another revolt among the Tuareg ethnic group in Mali’s desert north broke out last January, the fourth since 1960. President Toure’s government was not giving the army adequate weapons and supplies to deal with it (or at least that was the army’s excuse). The rebels had only seized a couple of small towns on the far-distant Algerian border, but Malian soldiers were feeling humiliated and neglected.

But while the soldiers were very angry at Toure’s government by this March, there was no need for a military coup to change it. National elections were already scheduled for April, and Toure, having completed two terms in office, could not run again. How can you justify using military force to remove a president who is leaving office next month anyway?

You can’t, but then nothing’s perfect. At least the ordinary soldiers at the base Capt. Sanogo commanded just outside the capital, Bamako, were ready to follow his lead. So on 22 March he moved his troops into Bamako and declared that he was taking power because the elected government was not doing enough to halt the rebellion in the north.

President Toure went into hiding, and suddenly Capt. Sanogo was the most powerful man in Mali – but within a week two things went badly wrong for him.

Sanogo seems not to have realised that ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, strongly disapproves of military coups in its members (since each member government fears such a fate itself). He was therefore surprised when ECOWAS banned all trade across landlocked Mali’s borders and froze Mali’s accounts at BCEAO, the central bank for all the West African countries that use the CFA franc.

He was even more surprised when the Tuareg rebels took advantage of the turmoil in Bamako to overrun the entire north of Mali, an area bigger than France, in only one week. There was little fighting: the Malian army units just fled, as did tens of thousands of black African refugees. Pale-skinned Tuaregs living in the south also became targets for violence. Sanogo’s coup brought about exactly what it was meant to prevent.

These events, plus the growing shortage of fuel for transport and electricity (Mali imports all its oil), forced Sanogo to talk to ECOWAS. On 12 April, after only three weeks in power, Sanogo agreed that the speaker of parliament, Dioncounda Traore, would become the country’s interim leader until new elections could be held. Sanogo was paid off with a mansion and a pension suitable for “a former head of state.”

Only a week later, however, Traore was severely injured by a mob that invaded his residence while Sanogo’s troops stood by and did nothing. Sanogo is still running things from behind the scenes, while Traore is now in France undergoing medical treatment. And last Saturday the two rival Tuareg rebel groups that now control the north managed to settle their differences and declared the independence of the Islamic Republic of Azawad.

For a man whose ambition outran his understanding, Sanogo has accomplished a lot. In just a month he has ruined an imperfect but serviceable democracy and divided it into two hostile states: it will take years for Mali to recapture the north, if it ever can. And in “Azawad” the fighting will continue, because the black Africans living along the big bend of the Niger river in the south of that territory do not accept Tuareg rule.

Those who doubt the ability of mere individuals to change the course of history should contemplate Captain Amadou Sanogo.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“A military…incompetent”; and “President…him”)