Even though the security sensitive Malian elections are now over, Germany's Bundeswehr is still helping to train Malian soldiers. After two months, the instructors appear satisfied. Critics remain unimpressed.
"We are going to put up three barricades, one here up front, another behind the bush and another over there," said Lieutenant Benjamin Hildebrant. Corporal Christophe Bailleux translated the order into French and 30 young Malian soldiers get on with the task they have been assigned. They belong to the second engineers unit which the Bundeswehr is training as part of the European Training Mission in Mali (EUTM). In Koulikoro, a sleepy town some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the capital Bamako, around 100 German troops are helping to ensure that the Malian army is fit for combat.
The German military instructors' first impressions are overwhelmingly positive. The Malian soldiers are highly motivated and full of enthusiasm, said Bailleux. But there is one thing that troubles him and the other German troops – the Malian climate. "It is simply deadly. The temperature here often goes up to 52 degrees Celsius (126 degrees Fahrenheit)," he said. It is not easy to think clearly when it is that hot and so to avoid the worst of the heat, the soldiers now have a three hour break at noon.
Poorly trained, poorly equipped
Even so, it is still very, very hot. Sweat is pouring from the soldiers' brows. With huge hammers, they are knocking metal stakes into the ground. There are learning how to build a barricade to fend off enemy attacks. "It is a fence-like construction made of barbed wire," explained Hildebrant who is watching the Malians' progress very closely. Later, he inspects their work and tells them how they can make improvements.
It may look like a simple exercise which every soldier should be able to master with ease, but for the young Malians, it is a fresh challenge. For years, the Malian army has been poorly trained and equipped. The worst moment in its recent history was the rebellion in northern Mali at the beginning of 2012. Within three months, Tuareg fighters from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) had seized the entire region. Many of the MNLA fighters had just returned from combat in Libya. They were well-trained, well-armed and they overran the Malian army.
Posting to Kidal
Nonetheless there is a lot of interest in soldiering in Mali. Volunteers for the engineers' training went through a selection procedure. Many of the men say they enjoy being soldiers. Lieutenant Momou Saye explained that it is perhaps "something like our destiny, as we say here in Mali. I enjoy working for the army."
The newly trained soldiers could soon be posted to the north of the country. Since the military intervention in January 2013, it is now relatively quiet there. The one big trouble spot is the region surrounding the city of Kidal, which is the MNLA's last remaining stronghold. Peace there is fragile and it will be up to the president-elect, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, to ensure it is made permanent. Lieutenant Momou Saye appeared unruffled at the prospect of being sent to Kidal. "It's why we are being trained," he said shortly, as the other Malian soldiers were rolling out the barbed wire.
The last few weeks in Koulikoro have not always been so harmonious. The first rumpus was on 8 June when the first batch of Malian soldiers were supposed to have attended an official ceremony. Many of them didn't turn out, preferring instead to join a protest for higher pay.
"It was a consequence of an inner Malian discussion of an administrative nature. Apparently some of the paper work hadn't been attended to," said Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Müller-Cramer, who commands the German contingent in Mali. It did not, however, affect the training.
Nevertheless it is grist to the mill for critics of the mission. They believe that their suspicions that such a training mission couldn't possibly overhaul a whole army have been vindicated. Christophe Bailleux is unimpressed by such reservations. "I think it is a good thing that we are here. I volunteered for this mission," he told DW.