SEGOU, Mali – On the morning three months ago when the fate of Mali was irrevocably changed, Mamadou Sanogo awoke in the house here where he and his wife had raised six children, including a 39-year-old son, now a captain in the nation's army.
It was still dark outside. The elderly man got up and turned on the TV, setting the volume to low so as to not disturb his sleeping wife, according to relatives and friends. What he saw next made him shake her awake. "Come see what your imbecile son is doing," he yelled.
Instead of the normal newscast, they saw a group of soldiers huddled in front of the TV camera. It took them a moment to recognize their son, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, who was announcing that the military had overthrown the government of Mali.
If the coup was a shock to his parents — his mother subsequently fainted — it seems also to have come as a surprise to Sanogo himself, who by all accounts had no plans for it. Perhaps most of all, it was like a bucket of ice water over the heads of Mali's 15.4 million people, who saw two decades of democracy collapse in just a few hours into what is rapidly becoming an ungovernable hole and a haven for al-Qaida-linked terrorists.
The ease of the takeover, just six weeks before a presidential election, shows how quickly the course of a nation in this part of the world can change, despite or even partly because of funding and training from the West. And it underscores how fragile democracies remain in Africa, and how the fate of an entire country can still be bent by the ambitions of a single man.
"This is considered a thing of the past in Africa. If you look at the video, it looks like a caricature of a 1970s coup," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This is why this is so tragic and disappointing — the trend for this kind of ham-handed power grab has been, fewer and fewer."
Mali is a landlocked nation twice the size of France that has long taken pride in its democratic track record, despite chronic poverty and repeated rebellions in the north.
In the past decade, the U.S. alone has poured close to $1 billion into Mali, including development aid as well as military training to battle an al-Qaida offshoot in the north. In doing so, the U.S. unwittingly also helped prepare the soldiers for the coup: Sanogo himself benefited from six training missions in the U.S., the State Department confirmed, starting in 1998 when he was sent to an infantry training course at Fort Benning, Ga.
He returned in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2010 to attend some of the most prestigious military institutions in America, including the Defense Language Institute at the Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. He took a basic officer course at Quantico, Virginia, and learned to use a light-armored vehicle at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Just a few weeks before the March takeover, Sanogo made a trip to Segou to say goodbye. He'd been accepted into a peacekeeping training course abroad and was due to leave sometime in April, said his cousin, Salif Sanogo.
What happened next is described by those who know him as an "accidental coup."
It started at the Kati military camp, where Sanogo lived in a decrepit housing unit with cement walls and a tin roof, just 10 kilometers (6 miles) over a barren hill from the presidential palace.
Sanogo, an English-language teacher at a military college, had failed several exams in officer school, according to Lt. Col. Oumar Diawara, an officer also stationed at the camp. However, because of his training in the United States and because he spoke and taught English, he gave off a worldly air. The rank-and-file soldiers looked up to him because he frequently socialized with them, unlike other officers who adhered to the strict hierarchy of military life.
Sanogo, officers said, was among the instructors fired last fall at a military college where five recruits died in a widely publicized hazing incident. He was sent back to Kati, said Diawara.
"He was there with no function," he said. "He had absolutely nothing to do."
In the meantime, anger was growing at the corruption that had spread like a tumor across the arteries of Mali's government and military: In recent years, the country dropped from No. 78 out of 182 countries to No. 118 on Transparency International's index tracking corruption.
In the military, generals sat in lavishly decorated offices while soldiers were routinely sent to the battlefield without proper boots. Earlier this year, an entire company of several dozen soldiers was wiped out after fighting a new rebellion in Mali's north without enough ammunition.
The troops at Kati started to plan a march to protest how the government had handled the rebellion. At around 1 p.m. on March 21, Minister of Defense Gen. Sadio Gassama came to the Kati barracks to ask them to call it off.
Soldiers who were present said the general talked down to them, and the crowd became angry. The mutiny erupted when the minister's bodyguard shot into the air in an effort to push back the mob.
"The minister spoke in a way that was not polite," said George Coulibaly, a civilian who lives in the Kati camp and accompanied the soldiers during the coup. "He said things like, 'You want to march? You're a bunch of uneducated people. I'll educate you.'"
The renegade troops stoned the defense minister's car as his driver floored the gas to get away. They forced the doors of the armory and emptied it out. Then they began hunting down the other officers, nearly all of whom fled or hid — except Sanogo, whose recent dismissal as an officer had given him credibility with ordinary soldiers.
The crowd, led by Sanogo, initially planned to march to the palace to dress down President Amadou Toumani Toure, said several soldiers. Instead, the president fled. They found themselves inside the seat of government.
"Our objective was not a coup d'etat," said Lt. Samba Timbo, one of the leaders of the putsch. "Not at first."
By late afternoon, around 100 soldiers had arrived at the state television station. They sent the employees home, and television screens across the country went black.
"The presidential palace fell in their laps," said the cameraman who helped them broadcast their first message, and who requested anonymity for his safety. "For two hours, not a single person, not a single interlocutor, tried to contact them to see what they wanted. To negotiate. It was after that they got the idea for a coup."
By the time Sanogo's father turned on the TV the next morning in Segou, some 240 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of the capital, the intentions of the soldiers had become clear. So had their leader.
When his mother saw him on TV, she at first refused to believe it was her son, called "Bolly" by friends and family. Shaken, she left the house and crossed a sandy courtyard to the home of his cousin, Salif Sanogo.
Salif Sanogo was brewing his morning tea on a bed of charcoal when she knocked. "She asked, 'Is it true? Is it true that Bolly did this?'" recalled the cousin. "We said, 'Yes, Ma. It's true.'"
She screamed. She got hysterical, and then she fainted. They carried her in and fanned her until she woke up.
If Sanogo's parents were initially mortified, they quickly became used to their new status. Just days after the coup, visitors started to line up outside their house on Road 270 in Segou.
In the capital, the soldiers were looting government buildings. A businessman with ties to the junta estimates that they raked in between $2 and $3 million in the first three days after the coup, from government safes they pried open.
Most of the ministries no longer have computers. And the normally 1 1/2-hour-long evening news hour is now just 40 minutes because all but a few of the cameras at the state television station were stolen.
Even while Sanogo said the army had only seized power to address rebellion in the north, the rebels took advantage of the confusion to seize half the country. Among the groups that invaded the north is Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith," an Islamic faction with ties to al-Qaida.
In the capital, Bamako, Sanogo and his men quickly made themselves at home. The captain held court from the office of the Zone 3 commander at Kati, a rundown colonial structure that became increasingly well-equipped. Each week, construction crews poured cement, updated the electrical wiring and hauled in new office chairs, their metallic legs still covered in plastic.
Months later, the future of both Mali and Sanogo remains uncertain.
A poll of 1,100 residents of the capital found that after the initial shock, about 60 percent were either "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the coup because it put an end to a regime viewed as corrupt.
"Our democracy? It was a facade," said 54-year-old Soumara Kalapo, who took part in pro-coup demonstrations after the putsch. "Our democracy needed this coup so that it could right itself. ... It was a democracy run by, and benefiting, a mafia."
But in his last blog post before leaving Mali for the U.S., anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse lists the disastrous consequences of what happened, including the suspension of more than a billion dollars in aid, the closing of Bamako's flagship Grand Hotel and the government's loss of control of half its territory. Last month, Islamic fundamentalists announced that they now hold the major towns in the north.
"In the 90 days since the coup, it's hard to look at any area and see anything good," said Whitehouse, an assistant professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn. "Some of us were looking for a silver lining. Months later, we can't see any reason for hope."
After countless diplomatic interventions, a round of sanctions and a library's worth of condemnations from world leaders, Sanogo finally agreed to step aside on April 6. But the young captain continued to meddle in state affairs until May, when he signed a second agreement promising to leave in return for the status of a former head of state. A diplomat versed on the matter said that status includes a salary of $9,000 a month, more than 30 times the salary of an army captain.
The former head of the national assembly, Dioncounda Traore, took over as interim president of a transitional government. In May, a mob of pro-Sanogo youth forced their way into his office and beat him. Traore was evacuated to France for treatment on May 23, and has not returned since.
Even the Wikipedia entry on Mali is confused about who is now in charge. In the box naming the head of the government, the online encyclopedia lists both Sanogo, as chairperson of the military junta, and Traore, as acting president.
Repeated attempts to speak to Sanogo for this article were unsuccessful.
On Wednesday, the body representing nations in western Africa sent notice that it does not recognize Sanogo's status as a former head of state, and threatened sanctions against him if he continues to obstruct the return to constitutional rule. But diplomats say businessmen are still waiting in front of the former commander's office to see him, with the customary suitcase of cash, a sign of his enduring influence.
Those around him still call him "Le President." And a framed portrait on the wall shows Sanogo, a green beret cocked to one side, next to the title, "Head of state."
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Bamako, Mali.