As events have been unfolding since Mali’s coup d’état last week, observers have been looking for clues about Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the coup's leader and President of the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR).
The CNRDR is the military body that has taken it upon itself to dissolve Mali's existing government institutions and enact a new constitution, with the ostensible aim of guiding a transition to a democratically-elected regime at an unspecified future date.
Captain Sanogo, 39 (or 40 by some accounts), was working as an army English instructor prior to the coup. He had earlier served on the training staff at the Ecole Militaire Inter-Armes in Koulikoro, Mali's officer training school, but was dismissed last October along with the rest of the staff after a hazing incident that left five officer candidates dead. (Sanongo himself was not present on the day of the incident.)
In an interview with a Malian newspaper, Sanogo said he began his army career as an enlisted man, attending training at the US Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, before receiving infantry and English language training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He subsequently was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and attended further US-based training.
As described in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, Sanogo attended the Defense Language Institute (Lackland Air Force Base, Texas) and gained intelligence training at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Sanogo also claims to have undergone US-sponsored counterterrorism and crisis response training in Morocco and elsewhere on the African continent.
Sanogo's experience in the US appears to have left its mark on him. Since the coup, Sanogo has appeared with a US Marine Corps ‘eagle, globe and anchor’ pinned prominently above the right breast pocket of his fatigues, as shown in the image below from March 22, the day after the coup, on Africable TV.
Sanogo wears standard-issue camouflage fatigues and the green beret worn by soldiers in all regular units of the Malian army. In this early appearance, you can also see a white t-shirt beneath his uniform.
What does the Marines pin signify? Think Africa Press contacted two experts on US military insignia and asked whether a member of a foreign army would have a legitimate right to wear the emblem.
"I guess when you are the new dictator of some other country you can wear whatever you want," one of them replied.
Both experts agreed, however, that Sanogo would not have been issued the pin – which is in fact a hat badge – by the Marines, irrespective of any training he had completed with them. It appears that he is wearing it not as a regular part of his uniform, but as a distinctive symbol, a way of personalising his individual appearance.
Last Friday, the second day after the coup, Captain Sanogo began to adopt some other elements into his wardrobe. In the image below, he wears the same uniform, beret, insignia and white t-shirt, but there is also now something else visible between his t-shirt and fatigues.
What is this new brown garment? My suspicion – one shared by many Malian viewers – is that it is a dyed cotton shirt known as dozofini, which literally means “hunter’s cloth”. As Florida State University anthropologist Joseph Hellweg illustrates in his absorbing ethnography Hunting the Ethical State, hunters in West Africa are renowned not only for their prowess at killing game, but also at controlling the mystical forces of the bush.
Those who are initiated as hunters are believed to possess occult powers, such as the ability to become invisible or to transform themselves into animals; their smocks contain amulets that can supposedly render them impervious to bullets or blades. Think of the dozofini as a local version of body armor.
In donning this garment, Captain Sanogo is sending a message to Malians that he is powerful and can withstand attempts to kill him. Interestingly, he was first shown wearing it on Friday evening after rumors circulated that he had been shot dead in a counter-coup. The CNRDR felt compelled to broadcast statements that he was alive and well. In subsequent television appearances, a dozofini has often been visible under his uniform.
Furthermore, 8 minutes and 33 seconds into last Friday night’s ORTM news broadcast, while Sanogo was alleging that ill-intentioned individuals somehow acquired military uniforms and looted parts of Bamako in a bid to tarnish the CNRDR’s image, the frame descends seemingly accidentally to Captain Sanogo’s lap, before moving back up to his face nine seconds later.
On the left side of the image above we can see a kind of wooden stick, known as a bèrè. It reappears in every subsequent shot of Sanogo during the newscast, such as when he is addressing civil service directors (below).
Even during a meeting with visiting dignitaries on Saturday, his bèrè is visible leaning against the shelves next to him.
Some viewers speculate that this is no mere stick; it is a kind of power object, a haya, from which he derives strength and protection. A haya can come in many forms including wood or iron.
Art historian Patrick McNaughton, for example, describes in his book The Mande Blacksmiths, a solid metal nègè haya amulet that “can protect its wearer from being pierced by any weapon composed wholly or partially of iron”. It may be that Sanogo’s stick is meant, like his dozofini shirt, to convey that he carries special powers. (Incidentally, what appears to be a leather amulet is also visible on his left wrist in the above photo.)
All this speculation about the haya could, however, be misplaced. It could simply be that Sanogo likes the flair of his bèrè. Maybe he is unconsciously imitating the style of pre-colonial kings in this region, who often carried such sticks, or of post-colonial strongmen like the late Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of Congo), whose carved walking stick topped with an eagle became part of his public image.
I suspect, however, that Sanogo is consciously displaying all these items (the US Marine Corps pin, the dozofini, and the bèrè) in front of the cameras as props to boost his authority, and to dissuade potential enemies from trying to harm him – just as Mobutu did (see right).
Whatever skills he may have acquired from his military training in the United States, it is obvious that Captain Sanogo remains adept in the subtleties of his native Mande culture, from which it appears he is drawing a great deal of symbolic strength. After all, Sanogo’s middle name, Haya, literally means 'power’.
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