In a church in San, a town in central Mali, the priest is delivering his sermon. It’s the summer of 2017, and it is stiflingly hot.
Suddenly, a pile of cardboard boxes in the corner of the nave starts to shift. A rifle pokes out and there are flashes of uniform. Members of the congregation scream and flee the building, fearing a terror attack.
But the young man who had been hiding behind the cardboard is even more afraid. He is a deserter from Mali’s army. His unit was sent up north but he sneaked away during a lunch break.
The priest handed the soldier over to the police. He says such incidents are nothing unusual.
Similar stories are being told all over Mali. Since January 2012, Mali’s government has been involved in fighting in its northern regions against a number of separatist and Islamist organisations. Alongside them are troops from France, and a large contingent of United Nations peacekeepers.
But Malian soldiers are weary of war, especially when it is accompanied by extreme danger, miserable living conditions and poor pay. For some, these risks outweigh the risks of desertion.
A ‘failing institution’
Ali Toure, who prefers not to use his real name, deserted a decade ago but his complaints mirror those of newer recruits. The Mail & Guardian spoke to him in his front yard in Bamako. Surrounded by hens, he watches the military base that is just across the road and explains the inner workings of the Malian army.
“To enter into the army, you have to have deep pockets or friends in high places,” he said. Unless you have family connections, the going rate to enlist is between one and two million CFA francs (R22 000 to R44 000).
The struggle to get recruited, encapsulated by the sight of would-be soldiers sleeping outside army recruitment offices, was the subject of a documentary by Malian journalist Malick Konaté.
This flawed recruitment process weakens the commitment of new soldiers before they have even signed up, said Konaté. “[The army] is a completely failing institution. Naturally the soldiers take to their heels as soon as they’re attacked. They’re not about to risk being killed by terrorists, rebels or bandits if they can’t even pay off their debts.”
Toure agrees. “Food was our biggest problem. We were provided for in the camp but not on deployment.”
The last straw for Toure came in 2008, when he was transferred from Bamako to Kidal. For a week’s bus journey, he said he received just 750 CFA francs (R16.60).
“Impossible. You can’t even eat for a day with so little money,” he says.
Low pay forces Malian soldiers to make uncomfortable compromises — including, at times, relying on the largesse of the enemy.
“When I was at the Algerian frontier, a former Algerian colonel who was now part of Aqim [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] handed out food and water. We didn’t mind; we were almost friends with Aqim, for food,” Toure says.
He confirms the accounts of other soldiers, who have said that Aqim would, on occasion, provide petrol for Malian army vehicles
Toure tries to remember what he was paid. He does some hasty arithmetic: about 65 000 CFA a month (R1 440). From this sum he had to subtract the cost of his uniform, “which should have been free but which the officers would sell on”.
“The conditions were by no means ideal for a front-line soldier. But it wasn’t really about the money — I was in the army for 15 years, despite everything. And there have been pay rises recently. Now the salary is around 100 000 CFA (R2 220),” he says.
Living conditions were atrocious. “I was just a soldier in the National Guard. I was sent to the Algerian border, near Kidal, in 2008. There were no mattresses, no mosquito nets, no water. No doctors. Lots of men fell sick. We also lost some of our brothers to scorpion stings and insect bites.”
The soldiers were also woefully underprepared for fighting. “I only learnt what a bulletproof vest was when I saw French soldiers wearing them,” Toure says. “I’ve only seen them on TV. The president’s bodyguards wear them.”
Things improved slightly for Malian soldiers in late 2012, with the arrival of an elite French intervention force, and then the UN peacekeepers who followed shortly afterwards. Now, the soldiers have bulletproof vests, and even blankets for the cold nights in camp.
But even the French and international troops, with their far superior equipment and training, struggle to keep themselves safe. The UN peacekeeping mission, known by the acronym Minusma, is regularly subjected to shelling and rocket attacks, as well as direct enemy attacks on their camps.
Mali is considered the most dangerous posting in the world for peacekeepers, with more than 160 fatalities since 2013.
In this context, can anyone blame poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly paid Malian soldiers for losing heart?
For Toure, the breaking point came in the form of a bag of rice.
“I’d bought a bag of rice on credit in the army grocery store. Then one day, my commanding officer decided to hold me responsible for all the debts in the shop. I was sent to the Bamako camp prison for 25 days.”
But Toure never served his sentence. Instead, he packed his bags and ran. “I escaped while we were washing,” he said.
But was escape really that simple? After all, his house is just metres from an army base. Toure said that soldiers came searching for him, for appearances’ sake, but were “stopped” by his locked bedroom door. “Why would my comrades make an issue of it? Why fight? No one really bothers you when you ‘quit’ the army, unless you start selling on weapons or something like that.”
The government is well aware of the problem with deserters and is slowly trying to improve conditions for soldiers.
Last year, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta decreed that soldiers injured in action should receive a payout equivalent to five years’ salary, and the relatives of soldiers killed in action should collect double that. The operational bonus was raised from 6 000 CFA (R133) in 2013 to 50 000 CFA (R1 108) in 2017. Extra funds have been allocated to cover the cost of uniforms, camp supplies, bedding, arms and other materials.
But it’s not enough to tempt Toure back.
“The state has improved army pay, that’s one good thing, but they still have a lot to do. No, honestly, even if the army asked me to come back as a general, I wouldn’t go.”