An exclusive report from the city of Mopti ahead of the international military intervention that hopes to push out Islamist rebels from northern Mali in 2013. A military victory would only be a first step, as the country must elect a new government and rebuild the trust destroyed by the north-south divide
The Malian flag – a tricolour of red, gold and green – flutters in the breeze at the entrance to the Sixth Military Region’s garrison at Sévaré, outside Mopti. Behind the flagpole is a towering statue of Ba Lobbo, whose iron-fisted rule of the Fakala region in the 19th century the military still celebrates today.
To Ba Lobbo’s right, six armoured cars are parked in the shade under tarpaulins, their short gun barrels protruding from their turrets like rhino horns. A succession of junior officers bids us welcome after we show our crumpled laissez-passers from the defence ministry in Bamako.
We are driven along the dusty paths of the sprawling camp that is home to a few hundred soldiers and their families. Snatches of music by Salif Keita and Alpha Blondy waft through the windows of the barracks, children play hide and seek around camouflaged military paraphernalia. We continue our search for a senior officer who might be able to tell us about the progress of the military campaign to reconquer northern Mali.
Finally, deputy camp commander Colonel Khalifa Sodogo ushers us into his office at the edge of the camp and courteously explains why he is not authorised to talk about preparations for the military campaign. Many things are changing in the army and we will soon see positive results, he assures us without going into details about confusing developments in the capital, Bamako.
There, the army appears to be under a divided command. Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of the 22 March putsch against President Amadou Toumani Touré, has been put in charge of the reform and restructuring of the 7,000-strong Malian army. Those plans are said to include the arrival of a training squad from Europe, lots of shiny new military equipment and better communications and surveillance equipment.
But there is none of that here in Sévaré, just a few senior officers driving around in battered Mercedes. A frisson of excitement had swept through town the day after we arrived with reports that soldiers near Mopti had arrested a French national, Ibrahim Ouattara, from Aubervilliers. Ouattara and another French national had sneaked into Mali to set up a jihadist cell in Timbuktu, perhaps to help fend off the intervention or extend jihadist rule further south.
To read the rest of this article plus a detailed map of the forces in play in northern Mali, buy the December 2012- January 2013 'Africa in 2013' edition of The Africa Report, on sale now in shops or via our digital edition