‘Why join the Islamists? Because they pay more’
By Colin Freeman, Diabaly, telegraph
In the end, Corporal Adama Toure chose to serve his country’s interests rather than his own, but it was a close-run thing.
Sitting under the shade of a mango tree in the village of Diabaly in northern Mali last Thursday, he told how he was tempted to switch sides when al-Qaeda fighters attacked the dusty farming hamlet the week before.
Not because he any particular interest in militant Islam, but for the simple reason that the pay and conditions were better.
“Look at me – in 18 years I have only moved from private to corporal, and I am still poor like a beggar,” grumbled Cpl Toure, whose army gives him a Kalashnikov and shabby green uniform but no boots, forcing him to wear tennis shoes instead. “I tell you, a lot of us soldiers have been tempted to join the militants, myself included.”
On the condition that his real name not be used, Cpl Toure spoke candidly to The Sunday Telegraph as life in Diabaly gradually returned to normal after a turbulent fortnight as a weathervane town for Mali’s future. Having fallen a fortnight ago to the Islamists, who easily outgunned the few Malian troops stationed there, it was then “liberated” again last weekend after a French aerial bombardment destroyed several of the Islamists’ gun trucks and sent them fleeing into the forests further north.
Corp Toure, whose unit was 10 miles from Diabaly at the time and was ordered to let the French do the fighting, said he later heard that among the Islamist guerrillas was one of his old comrades, who also had an older brother living in the village.
“The older brother asked him: ‘Why did you join the militant people?'” recalled Corp Toure. “He replied: ‘Because they pay well.’ He said he was earning two million CFA (£2,600) a year, plus 500,000 CFA (£750) for every day spent fighting.”
That might not sound much by Western standards, but Corp Toure said that even the basic pay level was double his own army income.
Especially after the inevitable “deductions” from his superiors, who routinely cream a bit off from the lower ranks’ earnings each month to line their own pockets. And when it came to earning the “fighting” bonus, it was probably safer to be the side of the well-armed, well-organised militants than the chronically under-equipped Malian army, who lost so many battles to them last year that it sparked the military coup in March and, ultimately, this month’s French intervention.
“I did wonder about joining them, but then I had second thoughts and decided to protect the people instead,” added Corp Toure, as he watched children playing around the wreckage of three burnt-out gun trucks. “But if you look up in Timbuktu and Kidal (militant-held towns in the north) I can tell you plenty of soldiers who have switched sides there.”
The fact that members of Mali’s security forces are willing to take the mercenary coin is just one of the challenges that the French military now faces in trying to ensure that towns like Diabaly do not fall to the Islamists yet again. In doing so, they may also have to grapple with the country’s other underlying problems, which include not just chronic poverty but almost total disillusionment with both civilian and military governments, to which the Islamists claimed to offer an uncorrupt alternative.
More immediately, there is also the risk of ethnic score-settling now that the militants are on the back foot.
Reports have already surfaced in the past week of Malian soldiers executing people deemed to have been sympathetic to the Islamists in and around the central Malian city of Severe, allegedly throwing their bodies down wells. Some were apparently ethnic Tuaregs, the light-skinned nomads of northern Mali who have long had tensions with the black Africans of the south.
“They gathered all the people who didn’t have national identity cards, and the people they suspected of being close to the Islamists, to execute them and put them in two different wells near the bus station,” one eye witness told The Associated Press.
The France-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said it had credible reports of up to 20 killings, and called for an inquiry to “determine the scale of the abuses and to punish the perpetrators”.
General Carter F Ham, the commander for Africa of the branch of the US military responsible for monitoring threats on the continent, admitted last week that not enough attention had been paid to “ethics” during US training of Malian troops in recent years.
To date, the French intervention still appears to have the overwhelming backing of most Malians, with the tricolor still being waved in many places last week. But should the French role have to expand to policing Mali’s different ethnic sects that could change, creating an opportunity ripe for exploitation by Islamists.
For while there is little overt support for the Taliban-style rule that al-Qaeda has imposed in cities such as Gao and Timbuktu in the north – where French forces were fighting on Saturday – there is nonetheless support for hardline Islam in some sections of Malian society. Preachers of Wahabbism – the puritanical brand of the faith exported from Saudi Arabia – can now fill arenas in the capital, Bamako, and in parts of the city, veiled women are now a common sight.
One Malian aid worker, who returned to the country in 2003 after nearly two decades abroad, said: “When I came I was shocked by the changes I saw in the extent of radical Islam here. There are lot more radical Muslims and radical Islamic organisations that didn’t exist before.”
In some parts of the country, the lawlessness that goes hand in hand with a weak, corrupt, coup-ridden government has also created strong support for harsh punishments, if not necessarily the religious dogma that goes with it. Abdurraham Ballo, 64, the imam of the Mosque of the New Bus Station in Segou, said the only thing that was wrong with the amputations carried out in the Islamist-held towns further north was that they cut off feet as well as hands.
“That practice is not allowed in Islam, it should only be the hands,” he said. “But the purpose of amputation is to prevent as well as punish, and if it can stop people stealing and robbing, then why not? Nowadays there all kinds of people stealing, and carrying out robberies with violence.”
Mr Ballo added that he laid part of the blame on Mali “importing Western laws”, which stopped people beating thieves and emphasised criminals’ “human rights”.
“All laws in Africa are imported from Europe these days, and they all talk of ‘human rights’,” he said. “Who is human? Only Europeans?”