My colleague Andrew Lebovich and I were at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida last week. I mention this not only to highlight the work the Center is doing, including on the Sahel, but also because a number of conversations I had with students and faculty there have affected my thinking on current issues in the Sahel. One conversation dealt with the contrast between Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, recently in the news after soldiers shot him, and Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of the March 22 coup in southern Mali. The contrast raises important questions about how leadership structures in the Sahel evolve and how they interact with international norms.
General (now President) Abdel Aziz and Captain Sanogo both led military coups. Yet the differences between Abdel Aziz and Sanogo are large. The former was a senior officer, the latter a mid-level one. The former participated in a well-organized, premeditated, and successful coup (in 2005) before leading another successful one in August 2008; the latter came to power in what many view as an “accidental” coup. Within days of their respective coups, Abdel Aziz and Sanogo both promised that elections would be held quickly; but while Mauritania’s military leadership was willing to weather a period of international economic sanctions as it planned a transition, Mali’s junta rapidly gave in to economic and political pressure from the Economic Community of West African States and agreed on April 6 to hand over power (at least nominally) to a transitional civilian government headed by interim President Dioncounda Traore.
Abdel Aziz outlasted international pressure and legitimated his rule, at least formally, by winning the July 2009 presidential election as a civilian. Foreign donors began to resume aid within months of the election. Abdel Aziz has received important visits from European and American government personnel and military commanders interested in seeking his opinion and cooperation on security issues. International powers, in contrast, have been keen to sideline Sanogo in favor of civilian politicians. Abdel Aziz has (until now) wielded clear authority in Mauritania, partly due to outside powers treating him as a legitimate ruler, while the question of who rules southern Mali has remained blurred since April. Sanogo is, along with President Traore and Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra, one of three key political figures in southern Mali, but his formal role is heavily circumscribed.
Why did Abdel Aziz attain the status of a recognized president while Sanogo did not? Abdel Aziz’s path was undoubtedly made easier by the fact that his country did not face a major armed rebellion as Mali did when Sanogo took over in March 2012. I would also suggest that Abdel Aziz had a more sophisticated understanding of the international system and a more organized approach to taking and maintaining power. Abdel Aziz stressed his resolve to combat terrorism, projected a sense of direction and organization, and moved through a political transition which, even though some regarded it as mere pageantry, proceeded in an orderly fashion. Sanogo and his clique offered democratic verbiage (naming their junta the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and the State) and promised to reunify Malian territory after military triumphs by Tuareg separatists in the north. Yet the Malian junta projected an image of disorganization and inexperience, and regional and international actors quickly decided that it lacked credibility.
Another difference I would point to is the different expectations and perceptions outsiders may have held concerning these two countries. Mauritania was under military rule from 1978 to 2007, and experienced numerous coups. Mali, in contrast, had been considered a model for West African democracy since 1992. The coup in Mali horrified international observers, and attracted their attention, to a degree that the 2008 coup in Mauritania did not. International actors were probably less prone to “forgive” Sanogo than Abdel Aziz.
Finally, one should note that the “success” of coup-leader-turned-legitimate-President Abdel Aziz in Mauritania may prove fleeting, or at least vulnerable to the bullets of soldiers plotting a new coup, terrorists attempting an assassination, incompetents firing irresponsibly, or some combination of the above. If one lesson is that some coup leaders are more successful than others based on circumstances, background, and strategy, another lesson is that no one is invulnerable.