Pushing all the right buttons

Mali’s strongman is a skillful communicator

Mural on a Bamako business depicting Capt. Sanogo; the text reads, “Mali cannot be divided / Mali is one and indivisible / A Mali without corruption, a landmark for youth”

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.

Still image from Africable interview showing Sanogo’s office; note AK-47 sticking out next to portrait

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.]

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16 Responses to Pushing all the right buttons

  1. AA says:

    Bruce, thank for giving name to the thing that was disturbing me when it comes to Sanogo : “self-importance”. At the beginning his arguments were appealing to me, but one day instead of listening to him I looked at him. I then perceived that disturbing thing I could not name. The only conclusion I come to no matter what he says is : “il est en train de berner les gens”. The worse is that he is successful in doing so. Did you notice that media are now writing “Ex-junta” ? even though, in fact, it is not “Ex” at all

  2. Adam says:

    Did Sanogo give any indication when he might liberate the north?With the rape, child soldiers, burning of world heritage sites and the thousands of displaced Malians he might want to actually lead a liberating force rather than sit in his “self important” white house in Kati. He would be more of a hero to the people of Mali if he actually led troops to the north rather than meddling and trying to influence a democratically elected government. Surely the people of Mali see him as a power hungry dicator who has no interest in the welfare of the Northern citizens.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      In Sanogo’s narrative, the coup d’état has boosted the army’s morale to never-before-seen heights, the only thing the army needs now is better equipment (because ATT and those dirty politicians kept them from getting any). As soon as they have the equipment, they’ll take on the rebels. That’s the story. As you can imagine, I’m skeptical. That’s just my nature. I don’t think most ordinary Bamako residents see him as a “power-hungry dictator” yet, but as I wrote in the post, Malians are getting impatient that the army hasn’t yet done anything about the north, and Sanogo’s button-pushing can only satisfy them for so long.

      • john says:

        I think those that could aid Sanogo with weapons are afraid to give them to him noting his behavior and character so far. If you give him weapons and he actually fights in the north and wins – I really doubt he would ever give up power at that point. He would be better armed then and also the population would love him for defeating the rebels in the north. It is a catch 22 actually. The only way out is Sanogo out.

  3. nienke says:

    Thanks again for your clear-cut analysis of Sanogo’s narrative and how it is received in Mali. Please stay skeptical. Just one remark considering the Africable journalist Barry. He once did an amazing interview with Moussa Dadis Camara of Guinea, not long after he seized power. In this interview Dadis even showed his bedroom and toilet to Barry, in front of the camaras of Africable! I failed to find it via youtube, unfortunately. What I did find is an interview the same Barry did later on (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsPKz4LqLZI&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PL3B44BD3C32A9869C).

  4. Coleman says:

    Thanks for keeping up the interesting analysis and posts. I’m interested in the N’ko script at the top. I’m curious if you have any more pictures or perhaps any information on the mural’s location or artist. Would also like to know if you read/write N’ko and if you have knowledge of the movement in Mali. Thanks!

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I studied N’ko briefly when I was in Brazza but haven’t kept up with it; I’m more comfortable reading/writing Bamanan with the international phonetic alphabet, and don’t know much about the movement (though Jean-Loup Amselle has written about it). The two murals pictured are in Lafiabougou but I don’t know who the artist is.

  5. Coleman says:

    Thanks for getting back to me. I’m familiar with Amselle’s work on the subject. I’m currently studying Manding and N’ko with Valentin Vydrin in Paris. I was hoping to head to Mali this summer to research the spread of N’ko out of Guinea into the other Manding areas and in particular the evolution of the written Maninka standard when present in areas dominated by Bamanan or Jula. Unfortunately I may concentrate on just Burkina and Côte d’Ivoire this summer given the situation. Would love to see more of the murals if you come across any. Ń ká bámanakan fána, à jɛ́ya ká fìsa n’à sɛ́bɛra tàn! Ála k’í ní í sómɔgɔw tànga kójugu mà Màlí lá. Í ní cé!

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Nba ! Can you confirm my suspicion that the N’Ko spelling in these murals is a little off?

  6. Coleman says:

    The transcription with tone is : Màlí ̀ tɛ tála.

    The typical Bamanan and Jula form for the verb is tíla(n). Though some of my Burkinabè sources indicate it as being tìlá (with a an ascending tone). Not sure if it’s an error or one of the very view instances that I know of where a word’s tone differs between Bamanan and vehicular Jula.

    Anyways, seeing as N’ko typically uses the Maninka of Kankan, I’m not sure if tála is a typical or accepted form for N’ko users. The other possibility is that the author/artist transcribed directly what he says in Bamanan, that is [tlá] where the initial vowel, i, that is typically written is facultative. This happens relatively frequently in texts and was even the official written convention in Jula of CI and BF for a while. In N’ko there is a rule for omitting the first of identical vowels of the same tone when there is a consonant in the middle (tálá —-> tlá) so the Bamanan author could have erroneously “adapted” this N’ko rule to fit his own prononciation. But then again, tála may just be a standard form in Maninka. I’ll see what I can find out and let you know.

    A perfect example of what I am interested in either way!

    • Coleman says:

      Just to follow up — I checked with some other sources and in Maninka it is in fact said tálá(n) so in the end no error in the N’ko script. For precisely this reason, it’d be interesting to know if the artist/author is a Maninka speaker or if he is a Bamanan speaker who is defaulting to the N’ko standard of Maninka de Kankan.
      Í ní cé!

  7. Pingback: Africa Blog Roundup: Caine Prize, Libya, Captain Sanogo, and More | Sahel Blog

  8. Ahmed says:

    These soldiers will disappear ASAP if not aided by highly-skilled technocrats. Why on earth will someone like Diarra, former NASA astrophysicist, serve under them.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      The answer in my view is pretty simple: They have the guns. He doesn’t.

      • Ahmed says:

        But nobody put the gun to their head. Maybe he was out of the country working for major organizations. The junta reveres the former BIG MAN Musa Troure and he is married to the daughter of Troure. If Technocrats like him reject serving under usurpers of power, the junta will be naked. Perhaps it has something to do with the clan/region animosity bedeviling almost all the African countries.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        Not sure what clan/region animosity you might identify in the Mali case, where politics has been free of ethnically or regionally based factionalism. I think Diarra took the PM job thinking he would actually be given a free hand to govern. There are reports he’s been quite frustrated by the junta’s refusal to get out of the way.

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