France’s military camps in Mali are going quiet as Paris winds down its security presence in the restive West African country, but there is one notable exception.
Menaka is bustling with activity, boasting brand-new tents, freshly dug trenches, and choppers taking off and landing in a constant ballet in the sky.
What was once a quaint army base in France’s Barkhane anti-jihadist operation is rapidly turning into a cornerstone of Takuba, the European force that is to pick up the slack from France’s partial disengagement.
The footprint of the camp in northeast Mali has already grown to 30 hectares (75 acres) from the eight it had before, said Captain Josselin as he navigated his way through the busy construction vehicles.
Takuba, made up of European special forces, is based on an initiative by France, eager to share the burden of looking after Mali’s security with its partners.
Takuba’s 900 soldiers are to help Mali’s army acquire the combat skills necessary to become self-reliant, a daunting task given the volatile situation on the ground.
Even after years of a foreign troop presence, jihadists in this border region of the Sahel between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso continue their incursions and harassment actions.
A week ago, a rocket landed in the camp, though it failed to explode. The day before another multi-national camp, at Gao, became the target of a mortar attack.
Menaka, usually flooded during the rainy season, has seen some major renovation work.
The camp is now crossed by long, well-kept paths. Apart from the usual conversations in French, there is now Czech, Danish, Italian and English heard in the camp, a sign of its international status.
At the new air transport zone, heavy Chinook helicopters from Italy and Swedish Blackhawks share the space. A few kilometers away, an abandoned landing strip has been renovated, ready for the army’s air operations.
Well-equipped fitness rooms, catering areas with TVs, and a foyer — cleverly called “Takubar” — are to help make the soldiers’ tour as agreeable as possible in this semi-desert environment.
French President Emmanuel Macron, eager to draw down France’s troops in Mali after nine years of presence here, ordered the evacuation of the three northerly camps, Timbuktu, Kidal, and Tessalit, whose tasks are to be taken over by a joint fighting force.
Takuba, which after Menaka and Gao may get more bases such as Gossi in the northeast, spearheads French efforts to commit its European partners to the anti-jihadist fight.
The head of Takuba’s operations, a French lieutenant-colonel named Gregory, said it advises, assists and accompanies Malian forces who are hoping to win back areas over which the central government lost control.
“All member nations have understood the idea of the mission, although they come from different backgrounds,” he told AFP, giving only his first name as is custom among military personnel.
Meanwhile, in a neighboring Malian army camp, a group of French special forces was training local soldiers how to carry out checks on a vehicle transporting potential hostiles.
“Move! Hands in the air! Turn around!” one soldier shouts at another one who plays the suspect’s part, with a masked instructor advising him on body search procedure and safe distances to be observed.
Marine Lieutenant Rozen, head of the French-Czech task force operating here, said it accompanied the Malian forces six months at a time.
“We train them, and then we accompany them on increasingly complex missions,” he said, such as disarming improvised explosive devices, discreetly patrolling villages, and searching potential hideouts.
The troops’ morale is intact despite tensions with the regime in Bamako, which has rejected an offer of additional UN peacekeepers.
The government is instead looking to the Wagner Group, a private Russian paramilitary unit that is the target of US and European Union sanctions.
Any actual deployment of the Wagner mercenaries on the ground here could well be a deal-breaker for the European allies.
Macron is trying to talk the government in Bamako out of such a plan but until he succeeds, there is a huge question mark over Takuba’s future.