On a mission to rebuild Mali’s army

Will the EU training programme be able to bring the country’s military up to scratch?


Col Mamadou Mangara has one of the toughest jobs in Mali – and one of the most dangerous. As regional governor of Timbuktu, not only does he have to pick up the pieces of a society left fractured after 10 months of jihadist rule here last year, he also has to oversee an area of some 500,000sq km into which the militants vanished following a French-led intervention in January.

Now, however, the jihadists are coming back, mounting attacks, including suicide bombings, in Timbuktu and other northern towns. In early April the hotel Mangara used as a base was targeted during hours of fighting in Timbuktu. “The enemy we face is a very difficult one,” he told me just days after the attack. “These people are ready to do anything, even blow themselves up, to destroy all the symbols of the Malian state and create chaos.”

Outside, a few dozen Malian soldiers, their AK47s close to hand, sit in the shade next to pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weaponry. During the last attack, they took on the jihadists before calling for support from French forces stationed at the nearby airport.

But what happens when Paris withdraws most of its 4,000 soldiers from Mali’s northern belt, as has started in recent weeks? French president François Hollande has said that the number of French troops on the ground, currently backed by soldiers from other African countries including Chad, will be down to 2,000 by July, and reduced to 1,000 by the end of the year.

Those who remain will most likely form part of the mooted UN mission France has been clamouring for.

Military coup
Where does that leave the Malian army, a force that was so disorganised and demoralised after Tuareg separatists allied with well-armed jihadists drove it from the country’s northern flank last spring that it prompted a military coup in the capital Bamako?

This is what worries many in Timbuktu, where the euphoria that followed the militants’ routing in January has evaporated, replaced by fears of a long, drawn-out insurgency. “I feel safer, but not safe,” as one local woman puts it. “It will take years to return to life as we once knew it.”

Few here have much confidence in the Malian soldiers, many of them poorly equipped, who they see patrolling the streets. “They are not even fit to fight a normal war let alone face jihadists who fear nothing, even death,” says a Timbuktu business owner.

There are stories of the army harassing and intimidating those suspected – often on the flimsiest of grounds – of sympathising with the jihadists. One aid worker says he had to leave Timbuktu this month following death threats related to his research on military abuses, including alleged summary executions. Human rights groups have highlighted similar cases across northern Mali.

This is the dense knot of challenges a recently launched EU mission, aimed at improving Mali’s ragtag forces, seeks to address. The mission, known at EUTM, will train some 3,000 soldiers – about half of what is estimated to remain of the Malian army – over a 15-month period. The 500-strong EU team includes eight members of the Irish Defence Forces.

Army failings
“The Malian authorities are well aware of the need to reconstruct the army, very aware that Mali almost disappeared due to the failings of the institution,” French general François Lecointre, who is leading the mission, said last month. “Objectively, it must be entirely rebuilt.”

Missing from Mali’s military is a clear hierarchy or chain of command and any esprit de corps, according to Lecointre. What little equipment it boasts has been cobbled together from materiel donated by other countries. “Mali accepted equipment from any country offering but it doesn’t function as a whole and often can be either obsolete or over-sophisticated,” said Lecointre.

The EU training takes place at a pre-existing military academy in the town of Koulikoro, 60km west of Bamako and some 600km south of Timbuktu’s troubled streets. The mission, which will cost €12.3 million, is drawn from 23 EU member states, and includes 200 instructors and a protection force of 150. Some 150 others provide medical and logistical support. France is providing the largest number, followed by Germany and Spain.

The Irish Defence Forces personnel are serving in a joint contingent with troops from Britain’s 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment.

After 10 weeks of training, the first battalion – nicknamed Waraba, meaning “Lions” in the Bambara language – is expected to be ready for combat and deployment to northern Mali. Some observers argue the timeframe is unrealistic but the instructors are optimistic.

“Around 75 per cent of them are already fit for the role but it’s about smoothing out the rough edges and instilling a sense of cohesiveness,” says one trainer. “Morale is higher than what you might expect, these men are keen to be trained.”

Under a searing morning sun, the Malian troops practise basic drilling and weapons handling using AK47s provided by Cyprus. “We are trying to standardise their drills and train them in different firing positions,” says Lt John Gaffney of the Irish Defence Forces.

“There is a range of experience – one man has been in the army 27 years, others just two or three.”

His colleague Sgt Denise English, who has served in Lebanon and Bosnia, watches over the trainees. “They are all fairly proficient,” she says.

A number of UN agencies are participating in the human rights element of the programme. “The areas of focus are protection of women and children in armed conflict, gender-based violence, sexual violence in armed conflict and the protection of returnees and displaced persons, as well as a large emphasis placed on international humanitarian law and the treatment of detainees,” says James Cahill, a civil military co-ordinator working for UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs on secondment from Irish Aid.

Fear of reprisals
Malian army commander Aminata Diabate, who is also contributing to the human rights training, claims allegations of military abuses are “exaggerated” by what she calls “rebel lobby groups”.

But Diabate says investigations against some individuals accused of violations have begun. “It is necessary to improve awareness of human rights issues because one of the biggest fears is [army] reprisals. We don’t want to see a cycle of revenge.”

Sceptics question what the EU mission can achieve in such a limited time, given the shortcomings of the army and the challenges it faces in the north. Mali’s defence minister has complained that the 15-month programme is not enough. It is not the first time outsiders have attempted to bring Mali’s military up to scratch.

Among those who received US training as part of counter-terrorism efforts in recent years was Capt Amadou Sanogo. When he appeared on state television in March last year to announce the coup he had just orchestrated, he wore a US marine corps pin on his uniform.

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