Is Mali's Captain Sanogo losing control of the ship?

Since he led the March 22, 2012, coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo has been the real power in Mali. But is the French military intervention shaking up the power dynamic in the capital of Bamako?


As French aircraft pounded Islamist targets at the start of the French military mission in Mali over the weekend, the man who vehemently opposed a foreign intervention was visiting wounded Malian soldiers in hospitals.

Wearing his trademark fatigues capped with a green beret and carrying a wooden baton – a new sartorial addition rumoured to hold magical powers – Captain Amadou Sanogo was shown on state TV talking to soldiers on hospital beds.

Speaking to reporters at the hospital, the 39-year-old army captain who led Mali’s disastrous March 22, 2012, coup appeared to starkly change his tune. This time, he was positively welcoming.

“We’re congratulating ourselves for having the French by our side. They’re playing a major role in air support in today’s operations. Right now, I’m talking to you as a happy man,” said Sanogo before graciously adding, “I want to say thank you to all our partners.”

It’s questionable whether Sanogo today is a happy man or if he’s genuinely happy about the presence of foreign troops in the West African nation.

“It’s forced,” says Gregory Mann, associate professor of history at Columbia University. “Sanogo has to change his tune. When he made that trip over the weekend, he was just trying to remain relevant.”

Overnight celebrity

Over the past nine months, Sanogo has been the ultimate political authority in Mali.

In the days following the March 22, 2012, coup, which ousted a democratically elected president, the young army officer turned into an overnight celebrity, dominating the airwaves on state television, addressing Malians in their native Bambara in a populist mix of nationalist and anti-elitist discourse.

The coup unleashed a perfect storm of woes, including international condemnations, regional sanctions and the fall of northern Mali to a motley mix of Islamist groups. Nevertheless, Sanogo had a 65% favourable popularity rating, according to a May 2012 independent poll.

The subsequent swearing in of interim transitional president, Dioncounda Traoré, and the appointment of a civilian prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, did nothing to change the power dynamic – as was apparent when soldiers, acting under Sanogo’s orders, ousted Diarra in December 2012. The ouster came months after a mob of pro-Sanogo youth forced their way into Traoré’s office in May, beating the interim president and leading to his medical evacuation to France.

Real power in southern Mali, as every Malian knew, rested in Kati, the sprawling military barracks outside Bamako, where Sanogo was based.

But the French intervention in Mali is seeing a change in Bamako’s power dynamics.

“Those images of Sanogo visiting wounded soldiers in Bamako, Kati and [the frontline central Malian town of] Sevare show that he’s attempting to stay relevant and by going to Sevare, he does not want to be seen as being stuck in Kati,” said Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist at the Pennsylvania-based Lehigh University.

Sanogo’s status falls in Mali’s changing power triumvirate

Last week’s French intervention in Mali is shaking up what analysts call “the triumvirate of power” between Sanogo and the interim president and prime minister.

Overriding Sanogo’s misgivings, President Traoré issued an urgent appeal to France for military assistance after al Qaeda-linked militants seized Konna, a strategic central Malian town.

“Traoré comes out of the French intervention a lot stronger and he has more room for manoeuvre,” explained Mann. “He has now proved strong enough to ask for military aid and to receive it. Neither he nor [Prime Minister Django] Cissoko remain prisoners to the threats of the military.”

The fact that the French mission was widely welcomed in Bamako and across Mali, was a further blow to Sanogo and his nationalist discourse.

“Sanogo was confronted with a fait accompli,” said Mann, referring to the French intervention. With the Islamists heading south, “it was very clear that the Malian army does not have the capacity to withstand an Islamist onslaught.”

A weak, unprofessional army with a collapse of command-and-control

The Malian army’s weakness is by-now legendary.

The March 22 coup was sparked by military frustration over then President Amadou Toumani Touré’s failure to support the Malian army’s operations against Tuareg mercenaries returning flush with weapons from the anti-Muammar Gaddafi uprising in Libya.

Click on map to enlarge

But days after the Malian coup, the entire north – a region the size of France – fell to Islamist hands as the army simply melted away.

The post-coup breakdown of command-and-control has raised questions about battlefield coordination between the Malian and other West African troops fighting under the regional ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] mission.

Over the past few days, the Malian military’s lack of professionalism has raised concerns of human rights abuses in frontline towns and villages, where French and Malian soldiers are fighting rebels.

The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) is currently investigating cases of alleged summary executions by Malian soldiers of individuals believed to have links with the Ansar Dine Islamist group in the Mopti-Sevare region.

In an interview with the French daily, Le Monde, Florent Geel, head of FIDH’s Africa division, said the organisation was apprehensive because of the Malian army’s lack of preparation. “The Malian army is not properly trained, especially in international law,” said Geel.

How Washington helped create Sanogo

The Malian army’s lack of professionalism comes despite substantial international military aid and training in the pre-coup era.

While France, the former colonial power, has been Mali’s largest military aid provider, the US alone has poured $1 billion into Mali during the past decade in development aid as well as military training to battle al Qaeda’s North African offshoot, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).

More embarrassing for Washington though has been the USA’s unwitting help preparing some of the Malian putschists for last year’s coup.

Sanogo himself has had six training missions in the US from 1989 to 2010, according to the US State Department, including stints at Camp Pendleton, California, and the Defense Language Institute at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

“I’d say the US is not happy with the outcome of that training so far,” said Mann in a wry understatement.

Among Malian military circles, Sanogo is viewed as a worldly English-speaker. A Malian military source told the Associated Press that Sanogo worked as an English language instructor at a military college.

But according to Mann, Sanogo “speaks a minimal form of English and he’s not the brightest of students. He’s clearly crafty and charismatic and he speaks forcefully. In [his native language] Bambara, Sanogo speaks in a very direct way that resonates with the soldiers”.

It’s not however clear how well Sanogo resonates with the rest of the Malian population and, for that matter, how the latest onslaught could affect his popularity ratings.

“His popularity has diminished over the past seven months,” said Whitehouse, noting the declining security situation and rumours that Sanogo had to be bribed to step down as de facto head of state after the coup.

But like most experts, Whitehouse is not willing to predict the end of Sanogo’s influence – certainly not at a time of war. “It depends on the situation on the ground. Given his diminished political stature, the international community may not need to engage with him after the military stage is over. But if things change on the ground, it’s conceivable the international community will just have to talk with him.”

In other words, the man who brought about the downfall of his country, may be down now, but he’s not out.


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