Mali's Coup Leader: Interview with an Improbable Strongman

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Habibou Kouyate / AFP / Getty Images

Mali junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo speaks at the Kati Military camp, in a suburb of Bamako, March 22, 2012.

Under a sickle moon a large man with dreadlocks, a sparkling purple cloak and white moccasins climbed the stairs of the house that has become Mali's new nerve-center. He was a marabout — a West Africa holy man — summoned by the 40-year-old army captain everyone in Kati is now calling le President. The new power in Mali is Amadou Sanogo, a career soldier whose improbable coup d'etat has upturned one of Africa's strongest democracies. On Monday night he sought strength from the spirit world. He needs whatever help he can get.

It is a week since Sanogo led a mutiny at the garrison in Kati — a sleepy commune of cinder-block bungalows just north of the capital — that intensified into a coup. Swiftly condemned by the international community for daring to upset a rare — if perhaps superficial — African success story, Sanogo and his junta, the self-importantly named Comite national pour le redressement de la democratie et la restauration de l' Etat (CNRDRE for short), must work out quickly how to cope with a sudden halt in economic and military assistance at a time when Tuareg rebels wage a devastating blitzkrieg in the north, protesters march and public figures bewail democracy's death.

At the two-story house in Kati, formerly the camp commandant's headquarters, Sanogo meets with a flurry of diplomats, soldiers and power-brokers, who wait on a first-floor verandah lined with ornamental plants. He smiles bashfully as he shakes the Algerian ambassador's hand, as though he's still growing into the role he's plucked for himself. There's a hint of the young Vladimir Putin, trying to project a persona that's bigger than he is, and it's easy to see why his American mentors (he attended multiple training programs in the U.S.) never marked him out as future leadership material as, apparently, is the case.

Outside, soldiers heat tea on braziers, a baseball cap hangs off the barrel of a light machine gun, and a man in civilian clothes grapples with electric wires hanging out of the faded yellow wall. Troops are resplendent with shiny badges pinned to their uniforms, proclaiming "Capitain Amadou H Sanogo — President of the CNRDRE." "We've taken power to protect the nation and for national unity," says one soldier, lounging in the shade. "To bring peace to all Mali." The good spirits are almost palpable. Here and there are half-empty basins of rice and thick pools of fresh blood, where troops have butchered a cow.

In the windowless room where Sanogo holds meetings, there's a glass coffee table, a miniature globe and a portable TV switched to silent. Vinyl sofas and easy chairs are packed against the walls. In the rasping voice that has become his trademark, Sanogo insists that his coup d'etat is for the good of the country, that he wants "to set up a government which is accepted by, you know, everyone, civil society, political parties, everyone, everyone," he tells TIME. "Political parties, civil society, as I said, that are proud together, and to find a forceful prime minister, and make a good team." It is one of the first glimpses inside Mali's new junta. However much military discontent may have sparked this uprising, it seems that wholesale reform is what's now on the cards.

To diplomats who insist Mali go ahead with elections scheduled for April 29, Sanogo says it's just not plausible, refusing to set a timetable for a return to democracy. But he insists: "We are not here to hold power. That's the most important for me." When asked why people should believe this, he dodges the question: " Okay, it's a question of time. If I say I'm not going to hand [over], and if I do, and then — what will happen?"

There is a sense that Sanogo and his mutineers are making this up as they go along. His interview was seasoned with evasive platitudes about what is actually happening. "The situation in Mali is... moving as I want," he claimed, hours after 1,000 people poured onto Bamako's streets, burning tires, chanting "Down with Sanogo" and demanding the restoration of democracy. "Moving as I prepared... allowing me to engage, to start with my processes."

Suggesting once again that he intends to build a legacy of no little reform, Sanogo says he's "listening to everyone. And the government I'm going to set up will take part in every single area of... civil society. And I tell you what, in this country again, I'm not the one who is going to tell to citizen[s]: 'Don't say it.' It's your right to say it; it's your right to not like what I do. But I need everyone to come to make this country better." It's a sentiment he might do well to share with junta spokesman Lt. Amadou Konare, who has, ominously, warned protesters to "exercise prudence." Marches, meanwhile, have been met with a heavy military presence in the city center.

Sanogo always wanted to be a soldier, he says, and has 22 years of military service. He intends to restore pride to the Malian army, reeling after a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of Tuareg rebels, and turn it into a force for stability across West Africa's Sahel region. If he can "get a better life for my soldiers, I get a well-prepared army, I get a proficient army ready to serve my country, to serve the Sahel region," he would be satisfied. He's proud of his sojourns in America, which saw him study English at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, undergo an intelligence course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona and take infantry officer basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia. He also did a stint with the U.S. Marine Corps at Quantico in Virginia, he says, and wears a USMC pin on his uniform. Poking out from beneath his smock is what looks like a dozofini — a kind of t-shirt worn by traditional hunters called dozos, mystics reputed to commune with the spirit world.

Whatever your thoughts on the putsch, it's hard to dismiss the motivations underlying it. Diplomatic cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako and published by Wikileaks testify to a casual disdain by the Malian establishment for soldiers fighting and dying in battles with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — and a chronic lack of equipment and training. In one incident Malian soldiers were forced to abandon military vehicles to AQIM fighters because the only troops who knew how to drive were dead. In another cable the then U.S. Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic writes that Malian troops had reported to their U.S. trainers "ill-equipped, without proper uniforms and boots, with broken rifle stocks and with a maximum of one rifle cartridge per soldier." Simonov rifles, a Soviet weapon taken out of service by Moscow in the 1950s, are widely used by Malian troops. This neglect is "the main reason for our intervention," Sanogo says.

Yet the conditions in which Malian soldiers are sent into battle point to a deeper political rot. It was no secret in Bamako that officials close to ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré made fortunes out of cocaine trafficking through the Sahara; leaked diplomatic cables also talk of government "involvement in northern Mali's rampant drug and gun trade." There are even suggestions of complicity with al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, webs of nepotism and graft left many Malians cynical about the country's political establishment even as the West saw it as a lighthouse in a troubled region. Whatever they think about Sanogo, few are sad to see the back of Touré, who has not been heard from in over a week. The word is that he's under the protection of the "Red Beret" paratroopers, the crack troops trained by U.S. Navy SEALs who formed his bodyguard. But if anyone knows — Sanogo included — they're not saying. Few would seem to care: in a public garden overlooking Bamako, someone has taken a pick to a monument to Touré, rendering it all but unidentifiable.

Perhaps because of this disenchantment with life under Touré, there has been far less of a popular backlash than was expected. Banks re-opened Tuesday, children returned to school and traffic clogged Bamako's highways. "People want the military to cede power but it's impossible in less than three to six months," says Habibou, a 40-something businessman, who only gives his first name "They need to clean out [the political rot], put down the rebellion by Tuareg terrorists and then restore democracy as fast as possible." It seems to be a widespread sentiment. Whether Sanogo will last long enough to attempt such challenges is an open question, but for now he's the only show in town.