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Mali’s coup leader: ‘Coup isn’t a nice word’

Mali's leader by virtue of a military coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, on left. (HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Just over one year after Captain Amadou Sanogo staged a military coup to take leadership of the vast West African nation of Mali, he has granted an interview to Der Spiegel magazine. Sanogo's year in office has not gone very well: rebels in the country's north, some of them Islamists and some of them ethnic Tuareg who had long sought their own country, took advantage of the chaos to seize entire regions of the country. French troops were able to expel the rebels, but Sanogo is under strong international pressure to allow democracy to return to Mali. In other words, he's not on anybody's short-list for leader of the year.

Here are some highlights from the interview.

Sanogo doesn't deny he led a coup, but, like most coup leaders from throughout history, says it was for the good of the country.

Sanogo: Coup isn't a nice word. I prefer to say that I performed a necessary medical operation. The former president, Amadou Toumani Touré, didn't recognize that the country was sick and needed to be healed. But a patient who refuses to take medicine will die. And that's what happened in Mali. The old regime was sick and now it's dead. I helped it die more quickly in order to make a new beginning possible.
SPIEGEL: What was the sickness?
Sanogo: Touré was no democrat. It was already clear before the elections that he was going to be president, and he rigged the election. Where is this sort of thing done? So I overthrew him and appointed a transitional president, and now we are waiting for truly democratic elections.
SPIEGEL: That isn't quite true. Although voter turnout was low, observers concluded that it was a fair election.

He really likes America.

SPIEGEL: You yourself were trained in the United States.
Sanogo: I attended an infantry school, completed various military courses and worked as an interpreter. America is great country with a fantastic army. I tried to put all the things I learned there into practice here.

Though he has previously opposed the French-led intervention against the rebels, he now says he's "pleased" with it.

SPIEGEL: Still, you didn't manage to liberate the north from the Islamists. For that reason, French troops have been in the country for the last two-and-a-half months, and now the German military is also going to train Malian soldiers.
Sanogo: The French are welcome, and so are the Germans.
SPIEGEL: That hasn't always been your position.
Sanogo: You shouldn't believe the media. I'm pleased about the foreign soldiers, and it doesn't bother me that they are from the former colonial power.

He thinks all Islamists are terrorists. This is not an unusual position in military-run countries that have faced Islamist insurgencies (for example Algeria, or previously Egypt) but it's also an ominous indication that Sonogo's government could potentially, like other military governments in Muslim-majority countries, crack down on non-militant Islamists. In other countries, this has tended to lead to human rights abuses and only worsen insurgencies.

SPIEGEL: Do you see differences between the Tuareg and the terrorists?
Sanogo: If a Tuareg joins an Islamist group, he is a terrorist. It's that simple.

He believes he is beloved by Malians. This is harmless if he really does allow elections and doesn't run himself, but it's not usually something you want in an interim military dictator, often because they don't tend to stay "interim."

Sanogo: If the elections are conducted correctly, I'll stay out of it.
SPIEGEL: You won't run for office?
Sanogo: I have no political ambitions, and I won't run. But if I did, I would stand a good chance of winning, because I'm very popular with the people.