"I pledge and take an oath before our people, before our youth, to leave as soon as the situation returns to normal, as soon as a president of the republic is elected through democratic and regular channels.
“Let those who do not want to leave, let them drop their military stripes and commit themselves to politics. After the election of a new President, the army will no longer be involved in politics, the army will return to its barracks, the army will be the guarantor of the constitution, the army will be under the authority of the public power in place, the army will be at the service of the Malian people. Period".
ATT, April 1991
November has been a tough month for us baby boomers as we bury our peers one after the other. Two days before JJ Rawlings of Ghana, it was the turn of Amadou Toumani Touré, the former president of Mali, who died on November 10 in Istanbul of heart stroke due to a blocked artery. He had turned 72 years old on November 4. Below, a tribute in form of a testimony.
Malians love to call their great men by the acronym of their name: Thus Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is "IBK" and Amadou Toumani Touré was "ATT". Born in Mopti and raised in Timbuktu, ATT was trained in his first life as a primary school teacher at the Badalabougou Secondary Normal School in Bamako. When ATT began his studies in 1966, Modibo Keïta, also a schoolmaster, was still president of a Mali on the road to socialism, trying to escape the clutches of Françafrique [French neocolonialism in its former colonies] by developing relations with Nkrumah's Ghana, Sékou Touré's Guinea, Ben Bella's Algeria, Nasser's Egypt, Nehru's India, the USSR and China. From the corner of the Elysée Palace, where the sinister Jacques Foccart officiated at the head of the Africa Cell, this evoked a hostile reaction. Françafrique had already sabotaged the project of a Federation of Mali between Senegal, Upper Volta (future Burkina Faso), Dahomey (future Benin) and what was then called French Sudan, and Foccart had taken over from Mitterrand and Defferre the responsibility for France’s control of political life in West Africa, with one difference: Mitterrand and Defferre had pursued a policy of "peaceful" intervention in the affairs of the US-RDA (Sudanese Union, the Malian section of the African Democratic Rally), Foccart would use armed violence to eliminate all those who wanted to leave the French orbit, for example, those who would create their own currencies outside the franc zone. In 1963, Togo's President Sylvanus Olympio was killed by a commando of former colonial riflemen led by Staff Sergeant Eyadéma, who had fought to keep Algeria French. In 1966, Nkrumah was overthrown in Ghana by CIA-supported military officers. In November 1968, Modibo Keïta was overthrown by Lieutenant Moussa Traoré, son of a colonial rifleman and himself enlisted in the French army in 1954 and trained at the Fréjus officers' school. Keïta died in prison in 1977, presumably murdered.
In 1969, ATT joined the army, starting at the Combined military academy, the former military “Prytanée” of the colonial era, in Kati. He joined the Red Berets, the 33rd Parachute Commandos Regiment, which was the elite force of the Malian army, of which he became commander in 1984, after having trained in France and the USSR. The 33rd RCP was to become the Praetorian Guard of President Moussa Traoré and ATT, who became a lieutenant-colonel, the head of the presidential guard. It was he who, on Friday, March 26, 1991, led his boss to a "safe place": the Bamako prison. This episode is generally referred to as a 'coup d'état'. In my view, this is a mistake. What took place in March 1991 in Mali was a popular revolution, with ATT taking the role of its armed wing, an act that earned him the nickname of “soldier of democracy”.
A look back at a revolution
It all began in October 1990. Young street vendors revolted in downtown Bamako against a forceful police eviction operation. There was destruction, injuries, and arrests. Mali was then under the regime of the single party and the reign of the truncheon. The opposition was clandestine and/or in exile. Over the years, a movement of university and high school students had been structured under the impetus of groups led by militants who identified themselves as Marxist-Leninists. Modibo Keïta's old US-RDA generation was silenced but active in the shadows. When the clashes of October 1990 broke out, several semi-clandestine associations began to emerge: in quick succession, the National Committee for Democratic Initiative (CNID), the Association for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA) and the Association of Pupils and Students of Mali (AEEM) were born.
The CNID was created by lawyers Mountaga Tall, born in 1956, descendant of El Hadj Oumar Tall, founder of the Toucouleur Empire and head of the Tidjaniya brotherhood, and Demba Diallo, born in 1925, founder of the Malian Association of Human Rights (AMDH) in 1988 and bearer of the anti-colonial and pan-Africanist memory, since he was a close collaborator of Sékou Touré in Guinea, advisor to Patrice Lumumba in Congo and defender of Moroccan trade unionists as well as Aït Ahmed, tried under Ben Bella in Algeria. ADEMA was founded by Abdrahamane Baba Touré, born in 1928, founder of the Sudanese section of the African Party of Independence, which in 1966 became the Malian Labor Party (PMT), serving as a communist party, and Alpha Oumar Konaré ("AOK"), born in 1946, also a primary school teacher, who became a doctor of history at the University of Warsaw, Poland, in 1975, and a militant of the PMT. AOK was Minister of Youth, Sports, Arts and Culture under Moussa Traoré from 1978 to 1980. As for the AEEM, its main founder is Oumar Mariko, born in 1959, then a medical student and a young veteran of high school and student struggles.
To simplify, we could say that the CNID would be more "pro-Chinese" and ADEMA "pro-Soviet". Curiously, when ADEMA, which had become a political party, presented AOK's candidacy for the presidential election of April 1992, the latter adopted red and white, the colors of the…Polish flag for its ballots.
But let's go back to 1990: joined by other youth associations created on the spot, the three above-mentioned groups organized marches to demand multipartyism and democracy in December, each time gathering more and more participants. The first deaths were counted. The movement continued in January, despite repression and bans. My Malian comrades in exile in France were no longer able to maintain contact with their comrades back home. It should be remembered that at that time, the only means of intercontinental communication was the fixed telephone and it was easy for dictatorships to cut off international communications. The activists of the CNID in Paris therefore asked me to go to Mali to report to them on the situation. And here I was landing in Bamako. The cop at the airport, who is skimming my passport, asks: "Profession? "I stammer: "Writer". The cop: "Children's books? ». Me: "Yes, exactly”. You bet. So I spend three weeks in Bamako and Ségou, meeting a series of militants more or less clandestinely, after having given the slip to the obvious agents following me. I pleaded with my comrades to try to overthrow the self-promoted General Moussa Traoré while I’m there. They laughed and told me they were doing what they could. They laughed even louder when, after doing a reconnaissance tour around the presidential palace of Koulouba, the former palace of the colonial governors on the heights overlooking the city, and seeing that only one road led to it, I asked them: "Does he have a helicopter, Moussa Traoré? ».
"Yes," they reply, "but it can't fly, it lacks spare parts," adding, "Oh, you thought of that, too?" It was obvious: on D-Day, when the crowd would go up to the palace, the tyrant would have no escape route.
Monument of homage to the martyrs of March 22, 199
And so it happened: on Tuesday, March 26th - on Friday, March 22nd, the repression had caused about a hundred deaths -, warned by coded messages broadcast at 6 a.m. on national radio ("Mr. Mamadou Sanogo announces his marriage with Miss Aminata Diawara..."), the protesters began to gather to go up to the palace. A trembling Moussa Traoré, accompanied by his no less trembling wife Mariam, did not hesitate for a second when the commander of the Presidential Guard, Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré, came to him and said: "Mr. President, we will get you to safety". And the couple was taken to...the central prison.
Appointed President of the Transitional Committee for the Salvation of the People, ATT was to follow to the letter the calendar set by the National Conference. One year later, the first free presidential and legislative elections in the history of Mali took place. A new opportunity for me to go to Mali, this time without having anything to hide, but invited as an international election observer. I found myself teaming up with a Tanzanian judge, more British than African, whom I initiated into various habits, such as eating with your hand, drawing semolina from the common dish, or sleeping on a terrace under the stars to avoid dying of heat, devoured by mosquitoes, in a hotel room without air conditioning.
I quickly realized that the conditions were far from being in place for us to be able to speak of true democratic elections: in a country two and a half times the size of France, national television was only received within a radius of 150 km around the capital and three-quarters of the population could not read or write. In a village near Djenné, I noted that most women did not know how to vote and seemed to hold paper - the envelope and the 9 badly printed ballots - in their hands for the first time in their lives.
My conclusion, which I shared with my Malian friends, is that there should have been a transition of from three to five years instead of one, during which time a massive Cuban-style literacy campaign could have been carried out and the broadcast radius of national television extended to the entire country to create the conditions for real elections. At the press conference of the international observers the day after the first round of the elections, I was the only observer to make negative remarks, reporting on the five shortcomings that I had observed. None of the other observers found anything wrong. Having heard of my intervention, ATT asked to see me.
And here I was, joining the queue at the office of the transitional president on Saturday, April 18, 1991. Finally, it was my turn. All the years spent under the red beret had in no way diminished the courtesy and gentleness of the man. He told me, among other things, how at dawn on March 26th, he was awakened by noise in the kitchen, where he found his sons rummaging around looking for "sharp knives". "What's going on? "he asked them. Answer: "Well, today's the big day! "The great day of what?" "The great day of the revolution! "They had heard the coded message on the radio and were preparing to march on the palace, risking their lives. ATT, as a leader of the presidential guard, had no idea what was going on. He found himself appointed president of the Transition Committee by the revolutionaries who were enthusiastic about his gesture of leading the Traore couple to prison. During the months of the brief transition, he had to learn at an accelerated pace to navigate between old foxes and young wolves. What he hated the most was the " gèrè-gèrè ", in other words, internal discord, fitna, zizany. Always, in the years to come, he would seek consensus, which would undoubtedly cause his downfall in 2012, after 10 years as the elected President. He certainly lacked the Bonapartist dimension - the art of practicing brutality by applying a military strategy - that was characteristic of strong men who have known how to endure against all odds, like Mugabe, Museveni or Dos Santos, but ATT did not have the military and political experience of guerrilla warfare like them, he had to learn the art of politics on the job.
Like every Saturday, after his hearings granted to anyone who requested them, ATT made his weekly flying inspection tour. That day, he took me on board. There were three stages. First stage: a construction site for the building of four small houses for military personnel. ATT asked the foreman: "How much was the initial estimate? "60 million”. “And how much is it going to cost us in the end?” “6 million”. Mali was in the process of discovering the art of managing public affairs properly, without envelopes or bribes under the table. Second step: a private kindergarten. The staff and children, lined up and dressed to the nines, ceremoniously welcomed us. Suddenly, a disheveled plump woman in a dirty white suit, armed with a big dirty white bag, suddenly arrived, running, faced ATT and started to sing. She was a griot, a traditional singer of praises. The president's team gives her murderous glances and one of the men gives her a dry order in bamanankan. She immediately stops singing and runs away. Once back in the car, I ask what happened; they explain: "This idiot had forgotten to change the record: she started singing to the glory of...Moussa Traoré!" 23 years of dictatorship leaves enduring traces. Last stop: the central prison, in an advanced state of disrepair. ATT engaged in a dialogue with a common law prisoner, who, to see ATT, lies on the floor of his cell, looking out through the narrow space between the bottom of the iron door and the floor. Inmates were not the only ones with grievances. The guards also had grievances, as their living and working conditions were only slightly better than those of the inmates. In short, there's work to be done, ATT tells me. I would have liked to visit the zoo, but it wasn't on the day's program. My comrades had told me that the revolution had saved the lion, which was starving: the guards were stealing the meat intended for it.
Farewell to the Red Beret, whose heart was too tender to hold out in this brutal century.