Mali: A Tale of Two Soldiers – Mali's Past Leaders Called to Account

Bamako — As Mali embarks on a difficult period of national reconciliation and the rebuilding of a fractured state, two key figures from the recent past – former president Amadou Toumani Toure and General Amadou Haya Sanogo, who staged a coup in 2012 – are being asked to account for their actions.

Coming full circle

Amadou Toumani Touré, 65, is known to all as ATT. Often described as "the good soldier", he was the head of the presidential guard and the Red Berets, an elite parachute regiment. ATT seized power on 26 March 1991 from then-president Moussa Traoré, after a period of mass demonstrations that were savagely repressed by the security forces.

Twenty-one years later, in 2012, ATT was forced from the presidential palace in an improvised coup by junior officers from the Green Berets wing of the army. The officers were aggrieved by what they saw as a national army in collapse and a series of humiliating defeats by insurgents in the north.

Despite elections and a return to civilian rule, ATT remains in exile in Senegal, facing accusations of "high treason" for his failure to defend Mali adequately against Tuareg separatists and Jihadist militants.

In the 1990s, ATT was repeatedly called a role model for African leaders. He presided over a critical 14-month transition period during which Mali held the ground-breaking National Conference to map out its future; authorities and Tuaregs signed a national pact to resolve problems in the north; and elections were held in 1992, won by Alpha Oumar Konaré, with ATT pointedly declining to stand.

Outside of Mali, ATT's reputation was enhanced by his mediation efforts in the Great Lakes and the Central African Republic. He was associated with high-profile campaigns to eradicate guinea worm and promote children's rights.

ATT became president in 2002, after facing few serious challenges. But the 2007 elections were notably stormier. According to political observers in Mali, by the time of the coup in March 2012, ATT's base had diminished substantially.

Reputation versus reality

According to Kadidia Sangaré Coulibaly, president of the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH), ATT's reputation abroad was overblown.

"I used to attend conferences and come away embarrassed," Sangaré told IRIN. "I was always being told that our country was the model democracy, so strong on human rights. But ATT would not even meet our organization. He only wanted people bringing him good news."

Sangaré is dismissive of the "consensus" style of politics associated with ATT's presidency. "It meant there was no opposition, no criticism, no debate, and that can't be good in a democracy.

"Power is not something you cut up like a cake and hand out to people you like. He forgot that competence is what counts when choosing people. We were left with a clan running things."

For Sangaré, the coup was no surprise. "I felt like saying to people who admired Mali: 'Ha! Look at our model democracy.' I have to say the coup was bad in its way, but necessary for the greater good."

But Mamadou Samaké, an academic attached to the environmental ministry, says nepotism and massive corruption are only part of the story.

"It is legitimate to talk of 'high treason' here," Samaké argues. "Never in 53 years of enjoying our own sovereignty did Mali sink so low."

Samaké says ATT's negligence in protecting the north could be considered complicity with the enemy. "It's certain, at some level, there were deals being cut with Islamists on the release of hostages, the division of ransoms, cocaine. All this must be investigated."

"Ingratitude and hypocrisy"

But Bouba Fané, who runs a business promoting cultural and sporting events in the capital, Bamako, says the campaign against ATT is politically motivated and unfair. Fané is now involved with the civil society movement, 'Mouvement Lumière', which has warned strongly against ATT's extradition and prosecution.

"ATT was the first victim of our political crisis, and he should be listened to as such," Fané argues. "There was no reason for the coup against him, and it was an event that dishonoured the image of our country. There is a lot of ingratitude out there, a lot of hypocrisy."

Fané says ATT's achievements should be considered against the stagnation and repression Malians experienced during Moussa Traoré's 23 years in office. "That was when corruption became established in Mali. That was when enterprises were closing down, when it took three days to go from Bamako to Dakar by road. With ATT, you think of things like the roads that were built, the affordable housing, the campaigns against malaria and polio."

Fané says ATT's role as a protector of Malian democracy was made clear in March 1991 and vindicated by his refusal in April 2012 to get involved in a counter-coup. "All the journalists that write against him, they should remember that he helped create the freedoms they enjoy now."

Fané rejects charges of military negligence, arguing that "ATT would never have let an armed enemy into Mali".

He argues instead that political rivals conspired with insurgents on the timing of the rebellion, and says that France's then-president Nicolas Sarkozy gave the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg rebel movement, both a green light and weaponry in northern Mali as they came out of Libya. Several analysts have backed this claim. Fané also argues that ATT paid a high price for his past support of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.

For Fané, the national assembly's interest in bringing ATT to justice is heavy-handed. "MPs are trying to act like judges," he argues.

Legal observers say Mali does not have the mechanisms in place to stage such a trial and that any such court action would come only after a commission of enquiry.

Fané sees courtroom action as unhelpful, arguing that a full, open discussion on Mali's past is the best way forward, with surviving presidents among the participants and a full review of events going back to the era of Modibo Keita, who was president in the 1960s

The captain who came from nowhere

General Amadou Haya Sanogo, previously a virtual unknown, became the public face of the March 2012 coup. As the leading figure in the junta, he was briefly head of state, but quickly forced by international pressure into sharing power with interim president Dioncounda Traoré.

Sanogo was promoted to the rank of four-star general in August 2011, but just over 100 days later, he was in detention, accused of involvement in the abduction of Red Berets, who had been detained and, in some cases, allegedly tortured and killed after trying to stage a counter-coup in April 2012.

Press reports have regularly focused on Sanogo's alleged wealth and his attempts to secure a generous pay-off for services to the nation or for going quietly. The rumours at one stage included voluntary exile to Cuba.

Sanogo and his associates now face accusations of engaging in vicious inter-military feuding.

Current President Ibrahima Boubacar Keita, known as IBK, and his defence minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, have stressed that ending a climate of impunity in Mali means pursuing enquiries and following the evidence, no matter how influential the target.

Justice Yaya Karambé, tasked with investigating the Red Berets killings, has pursued General Yamoussa Camara, the former defence minister, and General Sidi Alhassane Touré, the former state security director, among others.

Karambé and local authorities have been directed to mass graves and other burial sites – not only of Red Berets but reportedly also of dissident Green Berets who staged a protest on 30 September 2013, demanding pay increases and promotions they had allegedly been promised by Sanogo and his entourage.

Defending the General

Etienne Sissoko, head of the political party External Relations for the African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence (SADI), is among Sanogo's defenders, although he says he has never met Sanogo in person.

While some parties opposed the coup and others came to an awkward accommodation with Sanogo's National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State (CNRDRE), SADI was explicitly in favour.

"The coup was necessary," Sissoko emphasises. "It was for the well-being of our population. Did they have food? Was their security guaranteed? Did they have the means to educate their children? No."

Sissoko says the international condemnation that followed does not bother him. "The coup opened up our eyes."

He accuses ATT of destroying the army and misrepresenting Mali as a viable democracy to naive or cynical donors. But Sissoko is equally critical of the new administration, arguing that IBK has brought back discredited politicians and is now engaging in political witch-hunts.

Sissoko accepts that coup leaders made mistakes, but says that the coup itself had been an accident. He says the Green Berets-versus-Red Berets story has been exaggerated, and argues that Sanogo had wanted primarily to bring cohesion to the national army.

Sissoko acknowledges that if atrocities were committed, they must be investigated, but says that the counter-coup attempt had political backers and that members of the current and previous political elite have questions to answer for as well.

"If they want Sanogo to stand trial, what about IBK, Dioncounda and ATT?" Sissoko asks. "Everyone has things to explain."

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]