Ah, Mali. From bad to worse. Monday, “protestors” found a seventy-year old man sitting in his office and beat him unconscious. Preliminary reports had him lying in hospital with head wounds. Apparently he’s been released, but after such a beating, he might never be the same again. Will the country?
That man is Dioncounda Traore, interim president of what used to be a Republic, and former speaker of the National Assembly. While he was taking blows to the head, the offices of the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were being ransacked. Like the Ministry, the offices of the President sit isolated on a high hill outside the capital. The place could not be easier to defend from what are reported to have been unarmed attackers. The Republican Guard, those charged with its security, had to step aside to let this happen. Why did they? Because they sided with the crowd, because they feared them, or because they feared their backers? Were they thinking of the last time we thought Bamako had hit bottom—three weeks ago, when a mini-war broke out between the Green Berets of the junta, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, and the Red Berets of the former presidential guard? My guess is that they were, and that the Guards were not going to fire on supporters of Sanogo for fear of his riposte.
Over the weekend, we were waiting for the storm to break. Traore’s constitutionally-mandated forty days as interim president were coming to a close, and the crisis of succession was coming to a head. One of the country’s most revered Muslim leaders had visited Captain Sanogo in the garrison town of Kati, apparently to counsel calm. The griots and other nyamakalaw (casted artisans) had sent a delegation to remind Sanogo that he was abandoning his compatriots in the North. ECOWAS’s negotiators were running out of patience. Would they, Captain Sanogo, and Mali’s divided political class come to an agreement over what to do next?
Lo so many days ago, Sanogo had said clearly in French—and even more clearly in Bambara—that when Traore’s time was up, the junta would determine what steps to take next. From that moment on, as if they hadn’t heard what the man said, the international media insisted on calling him and his comrades the “ex-junta.” It was clear there was no “ex” about it. Instead, Sanogo and co. had effectively taken the capital hostage, and with it the country. The ransom? The National Assembly, which Sanogo’s men had barred from their chambers for many long days, voted a total amnesty for the junta. As for the good Captain Sanogo, he made off with the title of “former head of state,” a title accompanied by a villa, a security detail (oh, the irony), and the tidy sum of 4,500,000 CFA (9,000 USD) per month. That last figure might be chump change on Wall Street or in the Sahara, where European governments pay millions of euros to terrorists, bandits, and ‘negotiators’ for the lives of their citizens taken hostage, and where transport planes once loaded with cocaine have been found burnt out and abandoned. Still, it represents 9x the salary of Mali’s highest-ranking civil servants, when they get paid.
Sanogo’s old day job was as a captain—1/50th the pay, says Bruce Whitehouse!—and rumor has it he was never a brilliant student, even in military school. Does that explain why he seems to have three tactical moves, but no grand strategy? First tactic: under extreme pressure from abroad, cede something to the outside and flex some muscle on the inside. For instance, when Sanogo backed down in face of ECOWAS sanctions and allowed constitutional rule to be reinstated, he also arrested several leading political figures—hard to be appointed minister when the junta’s got you locked up. Journalists, student leaders, and the rector of the university have been locked up without the fore-knowledge of the civilian leadership. Now Sanogo cedes again to demands for a civilian transition, but demonstrates that real power is with the army. Second tactic: send different signals in French and in Bambara, adopting a harder line in the latter. Since people use Bambara (Dioula) in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, too, it’s not the ECOWAS mediators he’s trying to fool, but the Western journalists. He’s also trying to keep his populist profile alive, which will be harder to do when he starts cashing those pay checks. Third tactic: talk about staging a national conference of the soldiers, politicians and the “forces vives” (religious leaders, trade unionists, local NGOs…). The idea here is not to have the lions lie down the lambs—or even the hyenas—but to bang the populist drum by calling for Malian solutions to Malian problems and opposing foreign mediation, which is always cast as intervention. If the politicians won’t play Sanogo’s game—as they have largely refused to do—he can blame them for failing to cooperate and forge on without them. If they do join the conference and it fails, he can step in to play the hero.
Over the last couple of days, the major parties, including Traore’s, refused Sanogo’s latest invitation. A few of the radicals acceded to it, hoping to come out holding the ring. They’re pushing Sanogo to go harder, faster, further in defending Malian sovereignty. A now-familiar idiocy prevails: the idea that Mali’s sovereignty is under greater threat from Abidjan and Ouagadougou than from the rebel and Islamist movements in the North. What does it bring? A political stand-off. Condemnations of ECOWAS for having ‘imposed’ Traore, and of Sanogo for having sold out. Calls to violence. Demonstrations, tires burning in the street, and an assault on the presidency and the president. As Yeats wrote “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.”
As news of Traore’s beating spreads, phones ring in Paris. Malians abroad, calling each other. What a shameful moment for the country, they say. The country is being run by idiots, fools, and venial men. Mali used to have a noble battle cry: “Better death than shame (Saya kafisa ni malo ye).” Those were the days. Now Mali’s problem is not so much child soldiers, it’s soldiers acting like children.