Corrupt police blamed as jihadists return to Mali's streets
17 October 2013, 10:02
Gao, Mali -The city of Gao is once again under attack by Islamists, but Malians' anger is increasingly directed at allegedly corrupt security services and a government failing to address grinding poverty.
In the latest spate of attacks, jihadists wounded two civilians when they blew up a bridge a week ago, a day after shelling the town and injuring a soldier.
But while the residents of Gao have become used to living under fire, many say they were unprepared for the jihadists acting with near-impunity, regularly let back on the streets by police for the sake of a small bribe.
Ousmane Maiga is a member of "We won't move", a youth group that sprung from two recent demonstrations against a lack of security and an absence of political will from the central government in Bamako, where President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected in August on a platform of national unity.
"They can fire on us from 15 kilometres away," said Maiga, strumming away at a guitar. "Inside the city, we have no idea what is going to happen."
Sitting in the courtyard of a house with Mahamane Alpha, a friend who runs his own youth organisation, "Patriotic Movement", Maiga absentmindedly framed the chords of a tune.
"Jihadists are generally coming back either by infiltrating or because they know the security guards will let them in, once they've paid them off," he said.
For months in 2012 the northern Malian city was under siege by Al Qaeda splinter group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which imposed a brutal version of Islamic law, carrying out amputations and executions.
The extremists were removed only after a January intervention by the French army and Malian soldiers.'Jihadists go free for bribes'
Regarding the new face of the Islamist threat, Alpha agrees with his friend.
"We called for the removal of the police and gendarmerie chiefs. Why? Because on many occasions, we, the citizens of Gao, have taken jihadists to the police, without touching a hair on their heads, and they have got off scot-free after paying backhanders."
What's worse, the young man said, when the extremists are released the lives of those who have taken them in "are in danger".
"For us, it's Mali and its leaders that must make that a priority, because it's their country," Maiga interjected.
"It's up to them to keep the country secure because however long foreign armies are in Mali they've got to leave one day."
French soldiers and a special UN brigade have stepped up their patrols with Malian forces in Gao and its surrounds, but security is far from the only concern for the city's population of 90,000.
In Independence Square, briefly renamed Sharia Square and used for executions by the jihadists during MUJAO's occupation of the city, protesters also rail against the high cost of living and lack of electricity.
"Life here isn't easy," Alpha said, adding that while he didn't miss it, life was a lot cheaper when the extremists ran things.
Basic staples shot up in price when the French arrived, and, he said ruefully, "it's the people who suffer."