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By - Adedoyin Shittu

Posted - 13-06-2019

Mali and Burkina Faso are the recent country in Africa to be struck by violence bothering on ethnicity and religion.

An attack on the Sobanou-Kou village of the Dogon ethnic group on June 10, in central Mali, which left an estimated 100 people dead, including at least 24 children shot at the back. Attackers believed to belong to the Fulani ethnic group raided the village killing about a hundred people and burned houses to the ground.

The attack on the Dogon ethnic group was in retaliation of the attack carried out in the predominantly ethnic Fulani villages of Ogossagou and Welingara in central Mali. More than 150 lives were lost in the attack and scores of livestock were slaughtered.
Although the Dogon ethnic group denies carrying out attack on the fulani settlements.

Also, unidentified assailants killed 19 people and wounded 13 in an attack on Sunday in and around the town of Arbinda, in northern Burkina Faso, where a mix of Malian and Burkinabe jihadists and allied criminal gangs have stepped up attacks since December.

Ethnic groups in Mali have lived in relative peace for many years, periodic, violent disputes usually occur between the multiethnic government in the south and the minority Tuareg population in the north, some of whom sought to secede and become a country called Azawad.

The Tuareg just like the Fulanis are nomadic farmers. They have managed to stay away from the modern national states formed around them. In Mali’s dysfunctional political system, the north has historically been marginalised. The economy in the region thrive on illegal trade such as kidnapping , selling of contraband cigarettes and exerting payoff from migration routes and this has not stopped the government from exerting patronage from this informal economy and they do this with impunity.

Islamist in Mali used this to their advantage and began to raise funds through kidnapping and also recruiting the Tuareg into the Islamist group.

A turning point in the region was the death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. With his demise, many Tuareg from the region who had fought as mercenaries for Gaddafi returned home, bringing with them the contents of Libya’s looted armouries.

Following a Tuareg rebellion and a coup which overthrew the democratically elected president in 2012, the country descended into a state of instability and National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad ( MNLA ), a Tuareg-led secessionist movement, took advantage of the chaos to rapidly expand its control in the north by seizing key towns. But al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its local affiliates quickly hijack the movement and soon controlled the region.

The intent of the AQIM was to establish their caliphate in Mali (a country of more than 90% Muslims). It will achieve this by holding Northern Mali as its territory, move central to evict political elites and finally southwards and hijack the government at the country’s capital.

This prompted the French intervention in 2013 to prevent the expansion of the Islamic militant into central and Southern Mali. This also paved the way for the deployment of the United Nation peacekeeping mission that same year and a peace accord that was signed in 2015 between a coalition of separatist Tuareg rebels, pro-government groups and the Malian state.

In 2014, the leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso formed the G5 – a regional organisation to strengthen cooperation on development and security in the Sahel but it seems the G5 are capable of tackling the insurgents in the region.

After three years, AQIM’s plan changed, According to Jean-Hervé Jezequel, the senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group, “The new strategy is that instead of managing territory, they want to show they can impact a much larger area by attacking the capitals of countries collaborating with Western forces.”

The group capitalised on the non governmental presence in the Sahel region and the security forces absence in local communities in central Mali and tried to map out a region of operation for themselves.

In 2015, Amadou Kouffa, leader of the Macina Liberation Front (or Katiba Macina), claimed that his group had launched several of the attacks on government outposts. The group is named after the Macina Empire, a 19th-century Fulani kingdom in central Mali, and has allied with AQIM and the local Tuareg-led jihadist organization (Ansar Dine).

Koufa was once a moderate Islamic preacher but became suddenly radicalised when he came in contact with the Tuareg led jihadist organization (Ansar Dine).

By 2017, these groups merged to form the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). JNIM has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in central Mali and Katiba Macina remains for the moment one of the most formidable threats for the countries of the region and for the French army present on the spot.

It is alarming to see a local armed groups openly establishing ties with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of the Middle East and this is exactly how al-Qaeda and ISIS operate. They see a crack in the system or a region highly neglected by the sitting government, identify with the grievances of the people there, assist them, indoctrinate them and finally recruit them to cause mayhem and chaos and finally uprooting the sitting government.

Their major tool in the Sub -Saharan region is the Nomadic farmers (Fulanis and Tuareg). They have succeeded in recruiting mostly Fulanis among other tribes in the region to cement their grip in the continent.

The Sahel today is also one of the area of interest to Islamic militant and it is the area where Islamist terrrorism is fast growing. The porous nature of borders in the Sahel region means terrorist groups such as AQIM are able to operate across borders and carry out attacks anywhere in the region and countries in the region.

Since 2015, countries in the Sahel region has been confronted with increasingly deadly and recurrent jihadist attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine, the Movement for the Uniqueness of the Jihad in West Africa (Mujao). ), Al-Mourabitoune, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM, linked to al-Qaeda), the Islamic State in the Great Sahara, Katiba Macina or Ansar-ul Islam, linked to Daesh. 

What makes the Sahel attractive to Islamic militants
The Sahel region is the transition zone between the Sahara Desert to the north and the savannah plains to the south. The region runs from east to west through large parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan,and into the Horn of Africa.

The combination of weak central governments, porous borders, and vast open land allows terrorist groups such as AQIM and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun to operate with few restraints in the region.

Also, the failure of African states to adequately address their racial, ethnic, cultural, religious and economic differences provided the fertile ground on which rebel groups now prosper.
The gap between the basic principles of democracy and political participation, and their non-implementation, has contributed to the stand-off between government and individual ethnic, cultural and religious groups.

The Islamic militants exploit the local grievances of communities and step in when the state have failed. They provide public services and provide job opportunities for the youth in these communities. They even provide basic things such as water, housing and food for these communities.

Government officials have also contributed in pushing the people toward acceptance of the religion extremists. This is because the officials have allowed corrupt practises to alienate the people from them. For instance, land use conflicts to go unresolved in this region because government officials take payments from both parties to support their claims. Another example is the Forest Service randomly fining women collecting fuel wood and herders grazing livestock. When religious extremist wade in, the convince the people that the solution to their problem is the elimination of anything that represent government because the government is synonymous to corruption.

Resource control has also been a problem in this region, due to the limited amount of water and food as a result of elongated drought, this region have suffered from regional and local conflict.

It is also important to note that the Sahel is an oppressed region, years of siphoning of regional resources without impacting the people have left them poor and distrustful of the government and also of western intentions. The wide gulf between the political elites and the government and the people have created resentment within the people. This sits well with the extremists whose core message is to topple the sitting government, wade off western influence and create an Islamic caliphate.The people can easily connect their personal life stories with a global discourse around the idea of justice and injustice and also trust the extremists to make it right.

According to a report, there was more jihadists in 2018 than in 2001, but more of them are fighting locally in the region.

Role the Fulani tribe play in the spread of Jihad in the region
Africa has seen a rise in Islamic militants violence affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda in recent years. Most of these violence are carried by nomadic farmers namely the Fulanis. Many of these violence goes unreported because it occurs in rural areas where the influence is not felt.

Does this make Fulanis terrorists?
In Africa there are about 40 million Fulani also called Fulbe, Halpular, Fulani or Fellata, depending on the country), present in about fifteen countries in the Sahel and West Africa. The fulani have existed with other tribes in the continent in relative peace. Although Conflicts and violence between them and their host communities are organised around resource control. This is because land and water is fast becoming scarce due to rapid population growth and climate change in the region. Nevertheless it has never result to full blown violence as seen of recent.

Of recent, the tribesmen have organised full blown massacre to desecrate communities and render thousands homeless and useless in countries in the sub Saharan region.

The name Jihadist is associated with the tribe, but how true is this? Are Fulanis Jihadist or extremist?
Some of the messages of the Islamic militants fit the grievances of the Fulanis.

These tribes are majorly Muslims and are nomads. The Fulani travel southwards of the Sahara in search of pasture for their cattle. They are familiar with the land terrain in the Sahara and know how to mix in a host communities due to their choice trade. This has made them effective tool in the hands of the Islamic terrorists.

The history of the Fulani people includes waves of radicalization combining the conquering of land with their religion. The Fulani have also played a role in the jihad in different states in the region namely, the Sokoto caliphate, that lasted until 1903.
In recent decades, the Fulani have again grown increasingly radical due to the influx of extremist Islamic preaching by missionaries from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

What makes them susceptible to susceptible to turn against their host communities is because of their grievances.

There is widespread anger in the Fulani community as they are victims of cattle rustlers and biased judgement in land disputes between them and local farmers. Governments and security forces frequently eye the Fulani communities with suspicion due to their high mobility and have been unable and often unwilling to compensate this breakdown of inter-communal relations. The Islamic militants saw this shortcoming ad capitalised on it by portraying themselves as the guardians of overwhelmingly Muslim Fulani communities. The nomadic activities of the Fulani is also an added advantage to the Islamic militants who seek to spread their ideology and build their caliphate.

Just like Mali, other countries in the region have associated Fulani and herdsmen with the tag “terrorist”, even though only a fraction of all Fulani are actively supporting such groups. This propaganda has succeeded in associating whole communities of fulanis with these violent actors, further escalating the circle of violence and making the sahara region degenerate into chaos. 

(It should be noted that NOT all Fulanis are Jihadist and NOT all Jihadists are Fulanis)

If deep seated issues are not addressed in local communities, then all actors will continue to play into the hands of extremists.

Islamist groups seek to benefit from these widening cracks in the social fabric by presenting themselves as the liberators not only to the Fulanis thereby supporting the agitation of grieving communities thereby fuelling conflicts.