White House, State Dept. Temper Obama’s Praise of Mali Election After Coup Leader's Promotion

By Penny Starr | August 21, 2013 | 3:42 PM EDT

A Mali election worker tallies votes on Aug. 11, 2013. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Backpedaling from President Barack Obama’s initial praise of the recent election in Mali, both White House and State Department officials responded to inquiries by CNSNews.com by expressing disappointment that the same military leader who led the bloody overthrow of Mali’s elected government in 2012 might play a key role in the new government.

“On behalf of the people of the United States, I congratulate the people of Mali and President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on a successful election on August 11,” Obama said in an Aug. 20 statement from the White House.

“Through the Interim Government’s management of a peaceful, inclusive, and credible electoral process, and with the extraordinary turnout of the Malian people, this election has helped restore Mali’s democratic tradition.“

Obama called the election a “foundation for further process on democracy, national reconciliation, and addressing the security and humanitarian crises in the north” - referring to fighting between the Mali military and rebels, including al Qaeda and other Islam extremists, according to the State Department.

However, an Aug. 16 article on the BBC website called reports that Amadou Sanogo, the military leader who led last year’s coup, could be named to a post within the new government “a worrying signal.”

“Captain Amadou Sanogo, the leader of the March 2012 coup, was promoted to lieutenant-general on 8 August, a move seen as preparing him for a ministerial post,” the article states.

In the same article, the BBC also reported that the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that instead of being promoted, Sanogo should be investigated for “his role in a range of arbitrary arrests, attacks on journalists, torture and disappearances.”

When CNSNews.com asked White House and State Department officials if they found this development troubling, they both responded by saying that they were “disappointed” and had “zero tolerance” for coup leaders.

“The United States was disappointed by the Malian interim government’s decision to promote Sanogo, which runs counter to the Economic Community of West African States’ principle of zero tolerance for coup leaders,” one administration official told CNSNews.com. “In order to ensure peace and stability in Mali and to build on the security gains made by French and African forces since January, the new government will need to take tangible steps to exert civilian authority over the military and marginalize the influence of Sanogo and his supporters.”

After CNSNews.com also asked State Department officials whether Secretary John Kerry would be issuing a statement, one was subsequently posted on the department’s website Tuesday that alluded to the Sanogo conroversy.

Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo addresses media in April 2012. (AP)

“I join President Obama and all Americans in congratulating Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on his election as President of the Republic of Mali,” Kerry said, calling the election “peaceful, inclusive and orderly” and urging Mali officials to hold legislative elections.

However, Kerry also mentioned the necessity of “civilian control” and keeping military power at bay.

“To ensure the best possibility of consolidating this progress, Mali’s new government must address the country’s most pressing challenges, including national reconciliation and security sector reform, which is why we particularly emphasize the importance of Malian civilian control and oversight of the military,” Kerry said.

Echoing the White House response, State Dept. officials said they were “disappointed” and cited their “zero tolerance” for coup leaders. The department’s own Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012 describes the turmoil caused by the coup:

“A transitional military government ruled Mali following a coup d’etat on March 22,” the report states. “On that date the armed forces overthrew the civilian government of President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was elected in 2007 in an election considered free and fair, albeit with some administrative irregularities.

“On December 10, security forces loyal to coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo abducted the interim prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, forced him to resign, and dissolved his cabinet,” the report states. “Within a week, a new interim prime minister, Django Cissoko, and a new cabinet were announced.

“As the year closed, a triumvirate comprised of the junta, interim President Dioncounda Traore, and interim prime minister Cissoko governed the country. While military forces nominally reported to civilian leaders, the interim prime minister’s forced resignation indicated that the junta remained a potent force in the country’s governance,” the report states.

“Junta soldiers reportedly committed arbitrary arrests and detention, threats, beatings, and torture.” the report summary continued.

(See Country Report - Mali.pdf)

“The United States is disappointed with the decision of Mali’s interim government to promote coup-leader Sanogo to the rank of General,” one administration official told CNSNews.com. “Such a move violates the Economic Community of West African States’ principle of zero tolerance for coup leaders.

“In order to ensure peace and stability in Mali and to build on the security gains made by French and African forces since January, the new government must take tangible steps to assert civilian authority over the military,” the official added.

In a March 24, 2012 BBC video report, Sanogo claimed that any wrongdoing following the coup was not the responsibility of the military. “The primary mission remains the defense of territorial integrity and the security of people and their belongings,” Sanogo said. “I deplore acts of vandalism and pillaging, which have happened.

“Yesterday I had concrete proof that individuals with bad intensions were wearing police and army uniforms to break this coup just to push our people to be against the coup,” Sanogo said.

But Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at HRW, said in a statement that Sanogo's "promotion to the rank of Lt-General is outrageous.”

"Sanogo and forces loyal to him have been implicated in extremely serious abuses including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, attacks against journalists, and torture.

“Most of these crimes were committed during 2012 in the months after the March 2012 coup d'état. “Instead of being rewarded with this promotion, Sanogo should have been investigated for his alleged involvement in these acts.

“Mali has long suffered from a culture of impunity for all classes of abuses; Sanogo’s promotion sends just the wrong signal to would-be perpetrators and represents a very worrying step backwards in the struggle to improve rule of law in Mali,” she added.