The leader of the military junta that seized power in Mali last week has told The Times that his priority is restoring the nation’s 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.
In an interview at his headquarters in the cantonment town of Kati, Captain Amadou Sanogo said that 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 consider his leadership a sucess.
However, as he was speaking about 1,000 protesters took to the streets of Bamako, the capital, chanting “Down with Sanogo” and demanding the restoration of democracy. Mali had been due to hold elections next month.
The whereabouts of President Amadou Toumani Touré remains uncertain, though he is widely thought to be with loyal troops trained by US Navy Seals at a barracks on the outskirts of Bamako. France said its ambassador spoke by phone with Mr Touré yesterday, and he was safe.
It was Mr Touré’s perceived neglect of Mali’s military and his failure to properly equip it to deal with Tuareg rebels armed with weapons and vehicles acquired from the Libyan revolution that sparked the coup.
Explaining his platform, Captain Sanago said he intended to form a government of national unity, bringing together political parties that have so far opposed him, civil society and an as-yet-unnamed “forceful Prime Minister”.
He said he was “listening to everyone … I’m not the one who is going to tell to citizens: ‘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.”
As part of that process the junta yesterday offered to open talks with Tuareg rebels.
Captain Sanogo, 40, a 22-year army veteran with US training, has refused to set a timetable for his departure, saying only that he will step down when he has fulfilled his political mission. But, he claims: “We are not here to hold power. That’s the most important for me.”
Apart from his military experience, he appears to have a spiritual side, consulting with a marabout, a West Africa holy man with dreadlocks, a purple cloak and white moccasins, who lends religious counsel to the man soldiers at Kati called “le President”.
Junta spokesman Lieutenant Amadou Konaré warned demonstrators in Bamako to “exercise prudence”.