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Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Mali: Staying Engaged Despite Souring Relations
Mali: Staying Engaged Despite Souring Relations
Fulani people protest during a silent march organized by the Mouvement Peul et allies pour la paix, an organisation of ethnic Fulani people on June 30, 2018 in Bamako in response to a massacre in Koumaga, Mali. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Q&A / Africa

Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing

An attack against Fulani communities in the Mopti region on 23 March killed at least 134 people, the latest episode in a series of violent intercommunal clashes. In this Q&A, our Sahel Project Director Jean-Hervé Jézéquel calls on the Malian authorities to curb the spiral of ethnic cleansing. 

 What’s new?

On 23 March 2019 – just as the UN Security Council was beginning an official visit to Mali – 100 armed men attacked the village of Ogossagou-Peul, about a dozen kilometres from the town of Bankass (population 30,000), in the country’s centre. The inhabitants of this village are nearly all members of the Fulani community, which comprises many herders but also sedentary farmers. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) initially reported that at least 134 civilians were killed, including women and children. The situation remains confused and the death toll could rise. Other villages with a Fulani majority near Ogossagou have been threatened and some have reportedly been attacked.

This massacre took place in the context of a worrying upsurge in intercommunal violence in central Mali in recent months. On 1 January 2019, a similar attack targeted Koulogon, another village in the Bankass district, leaving at least 37 Fulanis dead, including women and children. The violence is affecting mainly Fulani civilians in the region. Other ethnic groups, especially the Dogon and Bambara, have also been hit by violent attacks. These have so far happened on a lesser scale but they have been fuelling a cycle of reprisals. Two weeks before the Ogossagou attack, suspected armed Fulanis targeted at least two Dogon villages in the region.

Intercommunal violence is no longer confined to the Mopti region and now threatens the stability of Mali as well as neighbouring Burkina Faso.

Who is responsible for the attack and what are their motives?

The identity of those responsible for the attacks has not yet been established, but the finger is being pointed at the Dozos (the alternative spelling Donsos is sometimes used) armed groups present in several districts of the Mopti and Ségou regions. In Bankass, one of the Mopti region’s eight districts, they mainly recruit from the Dogon community, who are predominantly sedentary farmers. In late 2016, many Dozos joined together to form Dan an Amassagou (“Hunters who Trust in God” in the Dogon language), an organisation that has both a political and a military wing.

Originally, Dozos were hunting associations responsible for managing the bush around their villages. Current groups of Dozos have, to a large extent, become paramilitary groups equipped with weapons of war. They have established bases in towns and villages in full view of the Malian authorities. They say they need to organise to protect their communities given that the Malian security forces are unable to hold back the growth of jihadist groups.

The availability of weapons of war and the pretext of fighting jihadist groups have opened the floodgates to a level of ethnic-based violence that is without precedent in the region.

The Dozos often accuse their Fulani neighbours of supporting the jihadists, especially the Katibat Macina, which has strong roots in other districts of the Mopti region. But tensions between local communities go back a long way and stem in part from rivalries between herders and farmers and struggles for local power and especially access to land. The availability of weapons of war and the pretext of fighting jihadist groups have opened the floodgates to a level of ethnic-based violence that is without precedent in the region. One of the main issues at stake is the control over agricultural land and pastures.

The commanders of Dan an Amassagou reportedly decided, at a meeting on 13 March, to force out the Fulani communities from the area between Bandiagara and Bankass (located less than 30km away from each other). This meeting allegedly followed attacks on two Dogon villages in the Bandiagara region, in the course of which the assailants burned granaries and executed at least one person close to the Dozos. It is difficult to verify this information, but Dan an Amassagou announced on 20 March that it would conduct security patrols in the area. 

Why haven’t the Malian and international forces present in Mopti intervened?

The Dozos have an ambiguous relationship with the Malian security forces. In 2016, when the Dozos were organising to defend their communities, some of the area’s political and military authorities tolerated and even encouraged their development in the hope that they would help to fight jihadist groups in the rural areas of central Mali where the state is weak. These groups’ activities then overwhelmed the political and military authorities. The Dozos quickly took advantage of the balance of power to settle scores and consolidate their influence on local affairs. The army has made a few attempts to disarm Dozo groups, especially in July 2018, but these measures have provoked a lot of resistance and anger among Dozos, who are supported by some sectors of the population. Malian security forces, already under pressure due to jihadist groups’ activity in the country’s centre, now fear confrontation with Dozo groups, who have so far supplied intelligence to the army and officially share the same enemy. In reality, the Dozos have attacked unarmed civilians more often than jihadist groups, except for a few direct clashes with the latter, such as recently in the Djenné region of the Niger Delta in central Mali.

International forces are also active in the country’s centre, but MINUSMA has concentrated its resources on Mopti and its mobility is compromised by security rules and a lack of resources. Meanwhile, the French military Operation Barkhane has an anti-terrorist mandate and focuses on combatting jihadists rather than protecting civilians. Some communities in Mopti find this hierarchy of priorities incomprehensible, saying that in their experience, the Dozos terrorise the civilian population more than the jihadists do. While the latter have targeted civilians, they have never, in this region, carried out massacres on the scale of the killings in Ogossagou and Koulogon. Many Fulani intellectuals interviewed by Crisis Group in recent months said their community does not enjoy the same level of protection as others because many political and security actors, including among international partners, believe they have close links with the jihadists. The more these communities feel stigmatised, the more they might be tempted into turning to jihadist groups for support.

Was this an isolated event? Does the current violence reflect attempts to organise ethnic cleansing?

The Ogossagou massacre was anything but an isolated event. Fulani civilians have now been targeted for several years in central Mali and more recently in Burkina Faso. In 2016, a Crisis Group report raised concerns about the violence suffered by the Fulani communities in central Mali. In May 2012, a land dispute led to the massacre of at least sixteen Fulani pastoralists by Dogon farmers in Sari, Koro district, near Bankass. This episode, which remains unpunished, was instrumental in encouraging Fulani nomads to arm themselves in the following months; some of them joined jihadist groups. Several reports, including by Human Rights Watch, have accused Malian security forces of arbitrary arrests and alleged extrajudicial killings of Fulanis suspected of complicity with the jihadists.

This violence qualifies as ethnic cleansing, an unprecedented crime in this region of Mali.

In recent months, the incidence of massacres has increased rapidly. Violence is now taking place on a different scale and the nature of these attacks is no longer in doubt. The aim is not just to kill young men in order to steal their herds or stop them from joining jihadist groups. By killing women and young children and by burning down homes and granaries, the attackers are trying to terrorise the civilian population and force a particular community, the Fulanis, to leave the area. This violence qualifies as ethnic cleansing, an unprecedented crime in this region of Mali.

There is a danger of recurring violence and this may further encourage the various communities to align themselves with the side that claims to be their protector. Fulani communities do not naturally align with the jihadists of Katibat Macina, however. In his first announcements as jihadist chief, Katibat Macina’s leader Amadou Koufa, who was also one of the founders of the jihadist coalition Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), expressed extreme reluctance to defend the Fulani cause. Such a position could indeed prejudice his insurrectional objectives and interests much broader than those of any single ethnic group. As from December 2018, however, under pressure from his own combatants, whose families were victims of violence, and no doubt also following a strategic discussion among the GSIM command, Koufa presented himself as the standard-bearer for Fulani communities in the Sahel under the banner of jihad. Events like those at Ogossagou can only incite young Fulanis, disoriented and furious at the violence suffered by their families, to rally to this call.

Finally, the violence against Fulani civilians has spread beyond central Mali. In July 2018, a Crisis Group report described how nomadic Fulani communities along the Mali-Niger border had become the collateral victims of the war between French forces in Operation Barkhane and the region’s jihadist groups. More recently, collective violence has hit Fulani communities in Burkina Faso: on 23 March, the day of the Koulongo massacre in Mali, Koglweogo self-defence groups, which have similarities with the Dozos in Mali, killed about 100 Fulani civilians in Yirgou, 200km to the north of Ouagadougou. A recent report by the Burkinabe Human and Peoples’ Rights Movement (MBDHP) documented the arbitrary killings of several dozen Fulanis by Burkinabe security forces in the Kain region, close to Bankass in Mali, in February 2019. In central Sahel, there are fears that the jihadists are no longer the only group guilty of terrorising the civilian population.

How to stop the violence spreading?

The government seems to have realised the significance of the massacre. On the day after the event, it convened an extraordinary council to announce a reorganisation of the army’s high command and the dissolution of Dan an Amassagou. It is crucial and urgent to enforce this measure on the ground. The government must disarm the groups implicated in the recent massacres. Their impunity in recent years has been instrumental in the rising tide of violence. In the coming months, the judiciary must also play its role. It must send a strong signal by identifying, arresting and punishing the main perpetrators of these atrocities. After months of equivocation that has allowed these groups to consolidate their position, the Malian security forces might, however, find it difficult to reassert their control over the area. According to unverified reports, Dan an Amassagou’s military commander, Youssouf Toloba, has refused to dissolve his group.

The international community can support the Malian government’s efforts to restore order in Bankass, Koro and Bandiagara districts, which are the most affected by the recent violence. In the first instance, this is the responsibility of the MINUSMA, which has a mandate to protect the civilian population and provide advice and support to the government. Provided that the Malian authorities agree, it could, in the weeks to come, establish a base in Bankass with a strong police presence and a military contingent that includes a rapid reaction force (as in Mopti).

Intercommunal mediation initiatives will also be necessary in the near future, but they must not hinder either the judiciary’s work or the dissolution of the armed groups implicated in the massacres. Mediation with the Dozos has already been tried a few months ago. In September 2018, Dan an Amassagou’s military commander signed a unilateral ceasefire agreement before suddenly breaking it two months later. If such mediation is to resume, all relevant communities must be represented, contrary to what happened in 2018. Reconciliation between communities will remain a dead letter unless the authorities get more involved in resolving land conflicts, one of the main triggers for recent violence. In particular, the state should recover its capacity to regulate land conflicts in a peaceful way that is acceptable to all. This is a crucial issue and undoubtedly more important than reactivating the development projects that sometimes exacerbate pre-existing land conflicts.

Beyond central Mali, all actors involved in the struggle against jihadist groups, including Sahelian countries and international forces, must learn lessons from the recent intercommunal violence and avoid involving ethnic-based non-state groups in their counter-insurgency strategies. At best, this only leads to Pyrrhic victories. It may weaken or contain jihadist groups but undermines the state’s legitimacy and fuels dangerous intercommunal resentments. Sahelian countries and especially their international partners must also accept that the jihadists are not the only and not even necessarily the main threat to the security of the population.

Finally, a specific effort should be made to reach out to the Fulani communities affected by the violence in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The sub-region’s governments should publicly condemn all attempts to stigmatise and attack these communities because of their alleged association with the jihadist cause, including when national security forces are responsible. Meanwhile, Western forces involved in the Sahel should urgently review their concept of a “pan-Fulani jihad”. Fulani communities, nomadic or otherwise, are not natural supporters of the jihadist cause. They only become so when policies stigmatise them or generate unacceptable levels of violence against them. Helping to protect these communities is the best way to avoid them turning to the most radical groups for support.

Commentary / Africa

Mali: Staying Engaged Despite Souring Relations

The Malian government’s battle with jihadist insurgencies goes on after two coups in Bamako in the last two years. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to endorse talks about a return to constitutional rule, increase support for civil society and back electoral reform initiatives.

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The Malian government’s conflict with jihadist insurgents has entered its tenth year with no resolution in sight. The government that came to power in 2021 has adopted a populist, anti-Western stance, blaming France, its long-time ally in fighting the militants, for the deadlock, while doubling down on offensive military action that has resulted in a surge in civilian casualties. Alienated by Bamako’s rhetoric and its decision to bring in the Russian private security company Wagner, France and other EU member states are withdrawing their troops from Mali, except for those deployed in the UN’s mission there. Although the Malian army has recently won limited victories in the country’s centre, the departure of its best equipped allies could shift the conflict’s momentum, energise militants and worsen the protracted humanitarian crisis. The authorities in Bamako have thus far shown little inclination to revive a 2015 peace agreement the government made with (non-jihadist) armed groups in the north. Meanwhile, the state has stepped up prosecution of political opponents, space for public debate is shrinking and online attacks on independent media are proliferating.

Bamako’s actions have greatly complicated the task for outside actors concerned with stability in the Sahel. Though the government’s feud with France has seemingly won it broad domestic support, it has worried neighbouring countries struggling to contain jihadist violence on their own soil. Bamako has also taken a hardline stance against scheduling elections that, per the previous transitional government’s agreement with other West African capitals, were to occur in early 2022. Its ties with most of its neighbours are at an all-time low since the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed trade restrictions on Mali over the authorities’ refusal to compromise on the elections issue.

Despite the withdrawal of French and European troops now under way and Mali’s growing opposition to the West, the EU and its member states must endeavour to keep channels of communication open. They should avoid public disputes with Bamako that could undermine the ECOWAS efforts to help restore civilian rule in Mali, while working quietly with regional partners to nudge the authorities toward a consensual transition.

To these ends, the EU and its member states should: 

  • Endorse ECOWAS-led talks to forge consensus on the timeframe for Mali’s return to constitutional rule, urging the parties to de-escalate polarising rhetoric and find points of compromise.
  • Increase diplomatic and financial support for Malian civil society, particularly for groups that support the freedoms of movement and expression and monitor restrictions on those rights.
  • Make available and, where appropriate, provide support for electoral reform initiatives, including by working with civil society organisations and relevant authorities as opportunities arise. An important improvement, which the EU and member states should support, would be to establish an independent electoral body.

Mali Alienates Traditional Partners after Second Coup  

After the military overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020, it put in place a largely civilian government that forged good working relations with foreign partners and neighbouring countries, but the arrangement proved unstable. Military leaders continued to pull the strings of government decision-making, causing civilian officials to chafe. The government’s attempts to free itself from military influence prompted army officers to stage a second coup in May 2021, installing Colonel Assimi Goïta, who had been vice president, as interim president and Choguel Kokalla Maïga as prime minister. The latter exploited hardening anti-French sentiment – the result of grievances built up over the course of years of France’s military presence – by ascribing the continued deterioration of security wholly to Paris’s stabilisation strategy, which since 2014 has centred around a military counter-insurgency campaign called Operation Barkhane.  The new government has also significantly slowed down talks aimed at implementing the important 2015 peace agreement signed with northern armed groups, and backed by the EU and other international actors.

A series of escalating verbal clashes then set Mali on a collision course with Western and regional partners.

A series of escalating verbal clashes then set Mali on a collision course with Western and regional partners. Fierce objections by the former to Bamako’s plan to bring in mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group led to a standoff. At the same time, the government reneged on an agreement between ECOWAS and the previous transitional government that elections would be held by February 2022. In January, in response to what it saw as Bamako’s provocative proposal to extend the transition by up to five years, ECOWAS restricted regional trade with Mali and froze the country’s financial assets. Additionally, the bloc imposed individual sanctions on senior government officials. These penalties deeply aggrieved Mali’s leadership, which called for street protests and alleged that ECOWAS was acting under foreign pressure. The regional standoff affected another grouping, the G5 Sahel, which aimed to promote security and development in the five countries, although in fact little has been achieved. Mali effectively left the group in mid-May when its partners refused to hand its rotating presidency over to Bamako’s military leaders.

Against this backdrop, relations between Mali and European partners quickly worsened. On 24 January, authorities told the Danish government to immediately withdraw a 90-strong contingent that was to operate within Takuba, a European task force that France had helped assemble to complement Operation Barkhane. The Malian authorities claimed Denmark had flouted procedure. A week later, angered by the French government’s disparaging remarks about the transitional authorities’ legitimacy, Bamako expelled the French ambassador. At that point, and following in ECOWAS’ footsteps, the EU on 4 February imposed travel bans and asset freezes on five prominent officials, including Maïga, for undermining the transition.

Since then, the rift has widened further still. As it became clear that Russians in camouflage gear were indeed arriving at military bases in central Mali – despite the authorities’ emphatic denials that they were working with Wagner – French President Emmanuel Macron said the French counter-terrorism force’s presence in the country had become untenable. On 17 February, he announced that French and other European troops part of the Barkhane and Takuba operations would withdraw and redeploy to other countries in the Sahel by June. In April, the EU suspended its training of Mali’s army, though it has kept offering humanitarian law courses, and giving strategic and organisational advice to the military command and the government, especially the defence ministry. Around the same time, the country’s centre saw a modest improvement of security following army pressure on jihadist groups, allowing for a return of some displaced people and some timid renewed economic activity.

The Malian government says security has improved because it is “diversifying partnerships.”

The Malian government says security has improved because it is “diversifying partnerships”, arguing that its efforts will create an enabling environment for eventual elections. Authorities appear to genuinely believe that Russian assistance, which includes rapid delivery of arms purchases and the presence of Russian paramilitaries alongside the national army in combat situations, can help respond to the Malian people’s desire for progress in the counter-insurgency campaign. They attribute the improvement in security in some areas to new military equipment and Russian “instructors”. The army has amplified news of its advances through a vigorous communications campaign.

But it is far from certain that the army will be able to keep its new foothold in the centre. Recent history shows that the army lacks capacity to hold areas for any length of time and that jihadist groups quickly return, often bent on revenge against civilians perceived as having helped the authorities. Meanwhile, insecurity still plagues other parts of the country. The impending departure of Barkhane and Takuba forces could see jihadist groups opportunistically expand their operations, while the UN force will be weakened as it previously relied on air cover, as well as medical and logistical support from the French. The humanitarian situation remains dire, in terms of both displacement and civilian casualties. In addition, while the French mission drew its share of human rights complaints, Wagner’s track record gives reason to believe that abuses will get worse with the European troops gone and Wagner “instructors” influencing the army’s behaviour.

Indeed, recent Malian military actions point to soldiers’ disregard for the requirements of international humanitarian law and a heavy toll on the civilian population. In April, the army said it killed 203 militants during an operation in the village of Moura. According to multiple reports by human rights organisations and international media, the operation turned into a bloodbath as troops and Wagner mercenaries summarily executed hundreds of civilians they accused of collaborating with jihadists. The government barred the UN from investigating the incident.

There are also signs of a growing political crackdown. The judiciary has arrested or opened cases against opposition leaders, notably several who are very critical of the prime minister, for engaging in destabilising activities and inciting ethnic divisions, and jailed two politicians for criticising the head of government. (Their criticism of him is not the stated reason for the arrests.) Further, the government is using anti-Western sentiment as justification for circumscribing the space for public debate – accusing its opponents of siding with foreign powers. Activists, journalists and members of the political opposition are expressing growing concerns about their ability to work freely or counter official narratives.

How the EU Can Stay Engaged

The EU has long sought to take a comprehensive approach to the situation in Mali, emphasising political solutions to the challenges the country faces, good governance and social, environmental and economic development. It has in the last several years promised a surge of support for civilian leaders across the Sahel to assist them in promoting good governance, but with violence rising, that proved hard to implement. Now, the standoff with Bamako has left European diplomats at a loss, not just about how to put its strategy into practice, but also how to salvage relations. Staying engaged at member state level in the UN mission in Mali, in line with the German government’s 11 May announcement that it would boost its troop contribution, is a good step. In addition, there are three important things they can and should do.

The EU should use its good offices to help these negotiations move toward consensus.

First, the EU and its member states should throw their weight behind ECOWAS diplomacy as the bloc tries to persuade Bamako that it must agree to a deadline for a return to constitutional rule. Recent statements by the two sides indicate that tensions between Bamako and the bloc may be easing, raising prospects for an agreement. Through quiet diplomacy and (when appropriate) public support, the EU should use its good offices to help these negotiations move toward consensus. At this point, further EU sanctions would likely complicate an already delicate negotiation. Rather, the EU should signal its willingness to start dialling down sanctions if progress is made with the West African body.

Secondly, the EU should build on its existing support for Malian civil society organisations to counter tightening restrictions on freedom of expression. With international rights groups and foreign media finding it increasingly difficult to work in Mali, domestic groups will play a vital role in highlighting abuses and restrictions and in ensuring a healthy public debate, but they are facing mounting pressure. The EU’s diplomatic and financial support can help them sustain their activities, which are valuable both in the short term and in the run-up to eventual elections. While there is some risk that Western funding will undermine the credibility of local NGOs, the EU can at least partly mitigate it by working with groups that are well-established in their locales and sectors, including the many vibrant women’s groups working outside the capital. For the moment, given the tense political atmosphere, the EU should avoid highly visible initiatives.

Thirdly, the EU and its member states should offer their support for electoral reform initiatives. Many European diplomats in Brussels and the Sahel understandably worry that the authorities will use promises of major reform, and potentially constitutional amendment, as a pretext for delaying the transition to constitutional rule. Nevertheless, there is wide agreement that some reforms are needed and the EU should make clear that it is ready to help flesh out necessary restructuring to move toward elections. Perhaps most important among the reforms under discussion is the establishment of an independent electoral body, which the EU and member states should support. Such a body would both absorb the territorial administration ministry’s role in organising elections and limit the constitutional court jurisdiction for the arbitration of electoral disputes. Both steps would be important for increasing public trust in election integrity, as many Malians accuse the territorial administration and court of meddling in 2020 parliamentary contests in favour of the ruling party. While there appears to be solid domestic support for establishing an independent elections authority – it was identified as a priority in forums like the 2019 national inclusive dialogue, the 2020 national concertation days and the national refoundation meeting of December 2021 – actually creating one will be a significant undertaking.  It will require complex legislative changes and additional resources. The EU should make clear that it can and will help with both technical and financial support.