Mali’s strongman is a skillful communicator
Since the coup d’état six weeks ago, Malians at home and abroad have been desperate to gauge the character and motivations of the men who carried it out. Starting in the early morning of March 22, they have closely followed media appearances by the leaders of the Comité National pour le Redressement de la Démocratie et la Restauration de l’Etat (CNRDRE), in particular its president, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo. Although he rarely leaves his headquarters at the Kati army garrison — out of concern for his security, we hear — he has often spoken on Malian television and radio, and sometimes on international media outlets.
Although officially he’s no longer in charge, having agreed to hand over power to constitutionally designated civilian authorities a month ago, Sanogo and his junta obviously retain a great deal of power, and Sanogo himself has consistently maintained that the April 6 “accord-cadre” signed between the CNRDRE and regional body ECOWAS guarantees the junta an enduring, if ill-defined, role in Mali’s political transition process. Many Bamakois see Sanogo as the man truly in command of the country and its security apparatus; it’s no coincidence that journalists clamor for his attention.
On Sunday evening, May 6, Africable TV broadcast a recently recorded interview of Captain Sanogo conducted by one of its editors, Abdoulaye Barry, in Sanogo’s Kati office. Previously I had little respect for Barry, whose commentary on the death of Muammar Gaddafi last October was so fawning over the late Libyan dictator it could have been written by Gaddafi’s own propaganda machine. Interviewing Sanogo, however, Barry earned his journalistic credentials through direct, hard-hitting questions. (A transcript in French is available, slightly abridged in spots.) In the course of this 50-minute interview, conducted in French, it became clear that Sanogo is not only politically savvy but an effective communicator who knows how to reach an audience and push the right buttons.
There are many revealing moments in this interview. Sanogo says his top priority is “the North” (i.e., reunifying the country), a statement he repeats a few minutes later; this is exactly what most Malians, impatient with the state’s inaction in the face of the country’s de facto partition, want to hear. Sanogo says he abides by the accord-cadre and is fully subordinate to Mali’s new civilian government; this is exactly what Mali’s neighbors and donors, anxious to prevent the junta from setting a dangerous precedent, want to hear. Whether Sanogo’s intentions will match his statements is another matter. What I want to focus on here, however, is an exchange that begins 37 minutes into the interview, when Sanogo tries both to justify the coup d’état and to show that he respects democracy far more than the elected leaders he helped topple. The following is my own translation.
Barry: In Africa, where our democracies are often characterized by unlimited terms of office, Mali set a good example. Now Malians hang their heads abroad, because they’re like any other Africans again. They’re no longer proud, they’re ashamed because their country that had been an example has fallen. Do you feel any remorse when you think that ultimately you’re responsible for their shame?
Sanogo: I tell you, it’s now that Malians should hold their heads high. It’s now that Malians should be proud, because [their] democracy was only a shell. A democracy cannot happen without a strong, republican army, and we didn’t have one…. There cannot be democracy with… corrupt, rotten leaders, a hierarchy, I don’t know, without ideas, without motivations citoyennes, because when at a high level of responsibility in the state, you allow yourself to look a citizen in the eyes and lie to him, when you allow yourself to rig elections, when you allow yourself to buy off elections, when you allow yourself to buy off his conscience and lead him where he shouldn’t go, is that what you call democracy? No.
It’s now that Mali can lift up its head a little, it’s now that Mali has regained its pride a little. Because [Malians] have the opportunity again to sit down, make adjustments, and elect whom they want based on principle, not money. To elect whom they want according to their reputation or their power. This means no Malian is all-powerful. A Malian is a Malian. Offering the same chance, the same opportunity to everyone at every level, that’s what I call democracy, and not the other democracy, where a head of state steals, loots, defrauds, betrays his country, is that democracy? … When a government in place doesn’t really serve the mission it should for its country, to save the people, is that a democracy? When elected officials are ready to put everything to work — money, weapons, plots — to achieve their personal goals, is that a democracy? I would say no, but now the people have the chance to restore this democracy.
Barry: Captain, whatever the limits and weaknesses of Malian democracy, of the Malian democratic project, it remains an example in Africa. We’ve seen what’s happened on the continent, leaders who don’t even have respect for their own people. The former Malian president, whatever one accuses him of, was among the first Africans to take power by force and then respect his people, organize democratic elections and step down, then return ten years later to office by democratic means…. in the name of democracy, one should have instead consolidated that project.
Sanogo: What proves to you that he was going to step down [after elections this year]?
Barry: Well, he said it, we could take him at his word.
Sanogo: He said it, and I think this was the same head of state who said in 1991 that he had no ambition to return [to power]. He came a second time to rig everything, the people know all about it. In short, there was no democracy. The people are a witness. There was none. And this fellow was not going to step down…. History will judge.
Barry: But we were a month from the presidential election–
Sanogo: Just like we were a month from scandal in Bamako, from another civil war, because of this same fellow. I tell you, history will remember this one day.
Barry: Didn’t your coup send Mali back 20 years?
Sanogo: I think the coup brought Mali forward 20 years. Through this coup, the average citizen has seen and understood what he hadn’t understood, has seen what he hadn’t had the opportunity to see, to know what was being hidden from him about his own country, in the same of what democracy?
Here Sanogo masterfully changes the narrative. By his telling, it is not he who undermined democracy by ousting an elected government. In fact, it is he who rescued true democracy from the clutches of a corrupt clique of power-hungry elitists who would stop at nothing to subvert the will of the people. It was not he who upended the institutional foundations of the state (e.g., elections); in fact, he acted to restore institutions already fatally weakened by irresponsible politicians. He did not instigate the political violence that has befallen Bamako since the coup; in fact, he headed off an even bigger threat — a looming “civil war.”
Whatever you think of Sanogo’s narrative, it is a compelling one for a large cross-section of people in Bamako disappointed with their government’s failures over the last several years. In a future post I hope to engage with the classe politique-as-vampire-squid notion that has become so widespread here since the coup. These narratives have caught on for good reason, but they also do not tell the whole truth.
Whether Sanogo sincerely believes these narratives is an open question, and an important one. Whether he sincerely desires to give up power is another: he shows growing signs of self-importance (third-person references to himself, his very presidential-looking framed portrait, his insistence on his men calling him “Président“).
For now, though, one thing we can say with certainty is that the captain is extremely effective in delivering these narratives, adapting them to fit the situation, and ultimately reframing the terms of Mali’s political debate.
[Postscript: A not-quite-complete transcript of the original interview has appeared on the website Abidjan Direct.]