Mali coup leader parlays power grab into promotion

By Krista Larson

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 30 2013 9:39 a.m. MDT

In this March 31, 2012 file photo, junta leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo speaks to journalists at his headquarters in the Kati military camp, just outside Bamako, Mali.

Rebecca Blackwell, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

BAMAKO, Mali — Amadou Haya Sanogo's rise through the ranks in Mali's military hadn't exactly been meteoric. He'd failed officer exams, and was living in army barracks with cement walls and a tin roof when he launched a coup. Now he's parlayed that power grab into a promotion that makes him the country's highest-ranking military official.

Sixteen months after handing power back to a civilian transitional government, the former captain has become a four-star general in an army that must work alongside French and other European forces.

Flabbergasted critics say he should be put on trial for abuses including torture and disappearances that were committed during his brief rule after the March 2012 coup, and some Malians are calling on the government to reverse the promotion.

The transitional government was already paying Sanogo $8,000 a month heading "security sector reforms," an astronomical amount in a country that ranked 182 out of 186 countries on the U.N. Human Development index, which measures a range of indicators from living standards to life expectancy. Sanogo stepped down from that post this week, ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in September.

Sanogo's spokesman Lt. Mohamed Bou Coulibaly told The Associated Press that the general would not comment further on his promotion, saying "he wants to stay outside of Mali's political life." In an interview with pro-junta local media, though, he indicated that his promotion came on merits.

"It's not as though the captain promoted himself," Sanogo told Malian newspaper L'Enqueteur, referring to himself in the third person.

Sanogo — who traded in his fatigues and beret for a general's hat and uniform full of medals — was tapped for the post just two days after Keita won the election.

In the history of Mali, there have only been two other four-star generals: Former presidents Moussa Traore and Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown by Sanogo.

Sanogo, 41, is now at the helm of a military that is being bolstered by French and regional troops and is also undergoing training from the European Union.

It's unclear how deep his role is in running the armed forces. If he assumes operational command there might be a considerable opposition, especially from international donors essential to Mali's economic recovery, said Bruce Whitehouse, a Mali specialist based at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

This West African nation was ripped by a Tuareg rebellion in the north, a coup in the southern capital and an Islamic insurgency in the north all within a year's time. The jihadists fled only in the face of a French-led military intervention but still pose a threat and European countries are helping to fortify Mali's army.

French Gen. Bruno Guibert, commander of the 23-nation European Union training mission for Mali, said he doubted Sanogo would have any official responsibilities. The French general pointedly did not refer to Sanogo as a fellow general, saying "very clearly, I don't have any contact with the ex-captain."

"The Malians want to turn the page on that (Sanogo) era," Guibert said. "They say it very clearly: They want to move forward, to rebuild their army. That's what they want today, and that's what we're doing with them."

Outgoing transitional president Dioncounda Traore insists that Sanogo and his fellow coup leaders "have acknowledged their mistakes and asked for a pardon from the nation."

"We must turn this sad page in our history and move toward forgiveness," Traore said. "Without forgiveness, we can't build the future."

But many ordinary Malians are finding it hard to forget that Sanogo's power grab helped stoke more chaos.

"He played no role in the liberation of the north and he doesn't deserve this promotion," said Sababou Mohamed Cisse, 30, an unemployed accountant in Bamako. "It's an insult to the memory of the fallen soldiers on the battlefield."

Already an anti-junta group known as FDR has called publicly for Sanogo's elevation to be overturned. In an open letter they addressed to the transitional president, they cite Article 77 of Mali's constitution, which stipulates that no one can become a general without first completing the necessary training.

Human Rights Watch says it documented the disappearances of at least 20 people who are presumed dead after allegedly being linked to a countercoup attempt against Sanogo's regime last year. Two witnesses said they saw Sanogo at the military base where the victims were tortured, said the rights group.

"One witness said he saw Sanogo kick one detainee who has since disappeared, and heard him threaten several others," the group's report said.

Sanogo has said that he has no future political ambitions, though doesn't appear to be ruling it out completely. In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel in March, Sanogo was unapologetic for overthrowing Mali's democratically elected president, derailing elections in this formerly stable nation about a month before they were scheduled.

Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.

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