By - Adedoyin Shittu
Ethnic tensions in Mali are getting more tensed than ever. Violent clashes between groups have been the cause of dozens of deaths in recent months. These disputes, mainly between members of the Fulani and Dogon ethnic groups, are complex, with both internal and external origins. Moreover, peacekeeping efforts have been largely unsuccessful, as mission leadership has struggled to grapple with the political complexity of Mali’s conflict. Rather, external interference has at times only exacerbated the conflict.
In 2012, insurgent groups with links to terrorist bodies – most notably al-Qaeda – captured territory in northern Mali. This prompted France to deploy troops to the country the following year. France hoped to reduce the presence of terrorist groups across Mali. Following a campaign that was believed to be successful by French authorities, international presence in the region was reduced. Despite a period of relative peace in the following months, underlying tensions remained. This became evident as violence resumed within a year.
This year, On 23 March, 160 people were massacred in the village of Ogossagou, in the Mopti region of central Mali. An armed militia of men belonging to the Dogon ethnic group came to inflict their terrible toll, razing huts and leaving behind the charred remains of Fulani women and children.
Gunmen attacked the villages of Ogossagou and Welingara in central Mali, killing 160 people. The attack was one of the deadliest in recent years. The villages are home to the Fulani ethnic group, who are seminomadic herders, while the attack was allegedly carried out by fighters from the Dogon ethnic group, escalating an ongoing conflict between the Dogon and Fulani.
According to the U.N, more than 200 people have been killed in inter-ethnic violence in Mali in 2019. The conflict between the Dogon and Fulani has become increasingly violent since 2012 following a militant Islamic uprising in the northern part of the country.
Responding to the attacks, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita disbanded an anti-jihadi vigilante group and fired two generals in the military. On Wednesday, the United Nations announced that it would send a team of experts to investigate the attack. The International Criminal Court will also send a team to Mali to investigate and assess whether the crimes fall within its jurisdiction.
Mali’s Mopti region has seen a drastic rise of violence since 2015. Last year at least 202 civilians were killed in 42 incidents. In March this year more than 150 were killed in attacks against two villages in this central Malian region.
The attack on the Mopti region was launched by alleged Dogon hunters. The Dogon are one of the largest ethnic groups in the region.
Most of those killed in Mopti were from the Fulani ethnic group. Also among the targets were staff involved in demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of local “self-defence groups” stationed in one of the villages.
Donzo hunters are part of the Bambara, Mali’s largest ethnic group. The semi-nomadic Fulani people are dispersed throughout the Sahel region and West Africa.
Mali’s recent history, which starts with a long-simmering secessionist movement in the north led by the nomadic Tuareg ethnic group, is rife with grievances ready to be exploited by terrorist groups. In 2012 a military coup sparked by the government’s failure to quash a Tuareg liberation movement led to a leadership vacuum in the capital. Some of the rebel groups joined forces with Islamist terror groups in the region, managing to take over half the country.
The French government came to its former colony’s aid in early 2013 and eventually confined the rebel groups to a few redoubts deep in the Saharan desert, but criminal gangs, separatist groups and terrorist networks still flourish. The conflict in Mali today is part of ongoing tensions that go back decades despite the country’s democratic reputation.
Mali was considered a model democracy prior to the March 2012 coup d’état. Since independence, various Tuareg groups pushed for autonomy and the creation of an independent state of Azawad. The Tuareg are not the only ethnic group living in northern Mali, in fact, they are a minority, which complicates the creation of Azawad.
Last month’s attack is believed to be the latest in a series of clashes between the communities of Donzo and Fulani – also known as Peul – that have left dozens dead in recent months. In January, Donzo hunters were blamed for the killing of 37 people in a Fulani village.
The violence is incited by accusations of grazing cattle on Donzo land and disputes over access to land and water, but the area is also troubled by the influence of armed groups, who the Fulani are accused of being tied to.
Armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) have exploited ethnic rivalries in Mali and its neighbours Burkina Faso and Niger to boost recruitment and render vast swaths of territory in the Sahel region virtually ungovernable.
Conflicts and violence between Fulani, who rear and herd much of West Africa’s livestock, and other communities organised around farming have become common not only in Mali. Competition over grazing corridors and water have been exacerbated by the effects of climate change, land degradation and population growth. It is now stretching traditional conflict resolution mechanisms to breaking point.
Governments and security forces, who frequently eye Fulani communities with suspicion due to their high mobility, have been unable and often unwilling to compensate this breakdown of inter-communal relations through increased investment and presence.
Islamist groups are seeking to benefit from these widening cracks in the social fabric by presenting themselves as the guardians of overwhelmingly Muslim Fulani communities. Even though only a fraction of all Fulani are actively supporting such groups, this propaganda has succeeded in associating whole communities with these violent actors, further escalating the circle of violence.
Meanwhile, the UN prevention of genocide office confirmed “a serious upsurge in inter-communal violence as well as negative impact of counter-terrorism operations conducted by community-based armed groups on the civilian populations in the region”. The office further noted that “there is growing ethnicization of the conflict in central Mali, in which entire communities are being stigmatized as terrorists or as affiliates of armed groups”.
The community-based armed groups and other armed actors have been carrying out targeted attacks against civilians in the context of the fight against terrorism, committing “serious violations and abuses of human rights including killings, destruction of property, arbitrary detention and de facto embargos on villages, restricting movement of civilian populations,” the UN genocide prevention office stated.
The statement deplored that these developments and dynamics are “not sufficiently recognized neither by national authorities nor by the international community, who are focusing mostly on the peace process in the North and on the threat posed by jihadist movements”.
“Over the recent months, violence has reached unprecedented level amid retaliatory attacks and serious violations of human rights in central Mali impacting on all communities,” Special Advisor Dieng said. “Unless these concerns are immediately addressed, there is a high risk of further escalation of the situation in which atrocity crimes could be committed,” he warned.
To prevent further escalation of violence, Mr. Dieng urged the Malian Government – with the support of the international community, and the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSMA – to immediately address the current grave upsurge of violence in central Mali and to provide, with no further delay, protection as well as assistance to vulnerable population.
“I call on the Malian government to urgently investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the recent attacks as well as those responsible for serious violations and abuses of human rights.” he said, adding that the authorities and all Malians should “prevent and refrain from stigmatizing entire communities”.
The UN office on the prevention of genocide said it stands ready to provide support to local reconciliation and inter-communal dialogue processes, with the aim of promoting inclusivity, strengthening resilience and social cohesion.
Human rights expert Alioune Tine also called for “a thorough, prompt and impartial investigation and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. The protection of lives and the well-being of civilians is at stake.”
“It is crucial that these inter-communal tensions, and this cycle of violence, are addressed urgently if the risk of crimes against humanity is to be averted,” he insisted.
The extent to which tensions have increased in the past decade is a result of the enduring rivalries between the shepherds and the farmers, combined with the political and economic instability of the Malian state. This precariousness was further highlighted by the 2012 rebellion that invited a lasting and strong jihadi presence to the nation.
Its resources stretched by civil war and ethnic conflict, the state has left many of the affected communities to fend for themselves. The government’s inability to provide relief is why groups like the Dogon have turned to subsistence hunting and inter-ethnic violence.These vulnerabilities have also allowed groups like al-Qaeda to flourish within Mali’s borders.
The disputes between the Fulani and Dogon ethnic groups
Nomadic Fulani shepherds and farmers and hunters from other groups have challenged one another over access to resources including land, water, and livestock for many years. Most recently, armed Fulani warriors have been able to successfully prevent Dogon farmers from reaching their fields. However, with few lands of their own, the Dogon have been unable to sustain themselves through agriculture and many are at risk of starvation.
This has caused some men of the group to return to traditional hunting customs, becoming what are known as Donzo hunters. However, in addition to providing food for Dogon communities, the Donzo have been directly responsible for violent attacks against the Fulani. For example, on January 1st, 37 Fulani citizens were killed by a Donzo militia.
Since 2016, more than 12 000 people have been displaced, 287 civilians killed and 67 kidnapped, and 685 schools closed in Central Mali, especially the Mopti region. The upsurge of inter-community conflicts between the Fulani herders and the Dogon and Bambara farmers, intra-community conflicts among the Fulani, and attacks by violent extremist groups have all contributed to the rising instability.
The dynamics of the conflict in this region are multidimensional, rooted in successive droughts and state-promoted development policies. Structural factors linked to the disruption of agriculture, livestock farming and fishing following drought in the 1970s and 1980s destabilised production systems, the bedrock of socio-economic relations between the different communities.
Most conflicts are concentrated in the central delta of the Niger River, in districts such as Djenné, Mopti, Tenenkou and Youwarou, and the Dogon Plateau where agro-pastoral resources are central to the economy. The pressure on arable land, due to the combination of climatic factors and the emphasis on state-supported agriculture backed by Mali’s international partners, has affected Fulani pastoralists, making access to land a source of tension.
Conflicts between Delta herders and Dogon Plateau farmers revolve around, among other things, the occupation of cattle trails by farmers and disagreements over agricultural and transhumance calendars – that is, the seasonal movement of livestock for grazing. In 2012, hunters claiming to belong to the Dogon community killed over 20 Fula people, burnt 350 hamlets and carried away livestock following a conflict over an animal corridor between Koro and the Burkina Faso border.
Most of these conflicts had previously been settled through community-based mechanisms, including traditional authorities. These mechanisms are now strained following tensions between communities and traditional authorities such as Dioros (pasture managers), whom they accuse of paying state authorities to win disputes. The conflicts are also becoming more complex, exploited by both militias and violent extremist groups. Another issue is that in some villages, chiefs are not traditional chiefs – they have been placed there by the administration.
Peace in Mali requires a shift from the current narrow approach of state dialogues with willing armed groups to a broader and more inclusive national dialogue. This would lay the foundation for agreement on common principles for a new social contract between the state and society.
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