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Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
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.

In this file photo taken on 18 September 2020 Colonel Assimi Goita (C), president of the CNSP (National Committee for the Salvation of the People), arrives at the funeral of former Mali President General Moussa Traore in Bamako. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Q&A / Africa

Mali, a Coup within a Coup

Des militaires ont arrêté les chefs de l’Etat et du gouvernement de transition maliens installés suite au coup d'Etat militaire d’août 2020. Dans ce Q&A, l’expert de Crisis Group Jean-Hervé Jezequel détaille les retombées possibles de ce second putsch dans un pays déjà fragilisé par le conflit avec les jihadistes.

What do we know about this coup in Mali, the second in nine months?

On 24 May, the interim president Bah N’Daw, his prime minister, Moctar Ouane, and several other Malian officials were arrested and taken to the Kati military camp near the capital Bamako. The arrest came shortly after the appointment of a new government, the composition of which had been bitterly negotiated for more than a week, but which no longer included Colonels Sadio Camara and Modibo Koné, respectively the ministers of defence and security. These two national guard officers are also leading members of the former National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), the group behind the 18 August 2020 coup d'état. The CNSP officially dissolved in January 2021.

The day after the arrests, Colonel Assimi Goïta, ex-head of the CNSP and current vice president, issued a statement on national television announcing that he was “removing the prerogatives of the president and his prime minister”. He accused them of incompetence and above all of forming a new government without consulting him – which is unlikely given the length of the negotiations – thus violating the transitional charter. This text, adopted in September 2020, gives Goïta certain authority in defence and security matters but no power to suspend the president or prime minister. As such, the ex-CNSP officers’ takeover is an attempt at a coup d’état to regain control of a transition that was slipping from their grasp.

In the days before the putsch, relations had become strained between the ex-CNSP figures, on one hand, and N’Daw, himself a retired military officer, and Ouane, on the other. The latter intended to set up a more inclusive government to build greater unity behind the transition amid social tensions including a general strike called by the country’s main trade union. N’Daw and Ouane also took the opportunity to try to curb the ex-CNSP’s strong influence over transitional institutions. According to several sources consulted by Crisis Group, this influence considerably limited the head of government’s room for manoeuvre.

It sometimes seems that Mali is making a worrying return to square one.

The tensions between the civilian transitional authorities and the ex-CNSP men are strangely reminiscent of another putsch ousting Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra in December 2012, a few months after a group of lower-ranking officers mounted a coup d’état against President Amadou Touré. The ex-CNSP officers, whom Western officials described as “enlightened” a few months ago, are now behaving no better than the non-commissioned officers who took power in 2012. It sometimes seems that Mali is making a worrying return to square one. 

What risks does Mali face? 

The CNSP’s removal of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020 led to very little violence. The regime was exhausted, and large parts of the population greeted Keïta’s departure with relief after weeks of mass demonstrations. This time around, the officers have seized power with far less popular support. There are rumours of tensions in the army, where this “coup within a coup” lacks unanimous support. So far, the barracks have remained quiet, but fratricidal fighting among security forces, as occurred after the March 2012 coup, cannot be ruled out. For the time being, no civil society association has taken to the streets to defend the suspended authorities, though several such groups, political parties and other public figures have spoken out to demand their release. Conversely, few Malian organisations have expressed support for the officers' actions. Many, such as the Coordination of Movements, Associations and Sympathisers of the influential Imam Mahmoud Dicko, are reserving judgment or conducting intense negotiations with the ex-CNSP military officers, no doubt in the hope of gaining positions of influence in a future government. 

Indeed, if the forced resignations of N’Daw and Ouane on 26 May are confirmed, the ex-CNSP figures will seek to consolidate their coup by appointing a new transitional prime minister and president. They may find a head of government within the 5 June Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), a diverse coalition of parties and associations that played a key role in overthrowing President Keïta but was later shunted aside by the CNSP when it created the transitional institutions. The ex-CNSP men are counting on such an alliance to convince outside powers to let them pursue the transition themselves. In an attempt to appease international actors, after N’Daw’s arrest Colonel Goïta announced his intention to complete the transition in accordance with the timetable negotiated with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in September 2020.

Regardless of the outcome, the new crisis highlights the absence of a strong coalition supporting the actions of the transition, notably its declared ambition to reform the Malian political system.

The coming days will therefore be decisive, and political deadlock remains possible. But regardless of the outcome, the new crisis highlights the absence of a strong coalition supporting the actions of the transition, notably its declared ambition to reform the Malian political system. This aspect is perhaps the most worrying: after having undergone all these crises, Mali still does not know which political forces are capable of bringing about the change that the country needs.

How has the international community reacted?

International condemnation has been firm and unanimous so far. The main partners in Mali’s transition – ECOWAS, the African Union, the UN mission in Mali, France, the European Union and the United States – have rejected the attempted coup. The ex-CNSP officers were probably expecting this reaction but risked the takeover anyway, perhaps believing that the same international actors who recently allowed a junta to seize power in Chad after President Idriss Déby’s death will also end up accepting them, as they did last August. 

Mali’s international partners know that the means of pressure at their disposal are double-edged.

An ECOWAS mission has arrived in Bamako to meet with the various protagonists and attempt to resolve the crisis. But Mali’s international partners know that the means of pressure at their disposal are double-edged. As in August 2020, ECOWAS could suspend Mali from its institutions and impose economic sanctions that weigh heavily on Malian decision-makers’ minds. But these measures also hurt the Malian population and risk aggravating internal tensions, potentially leading the population to resent the external intervention. In 2020, sanctions made it possible to extract important compromises from the CNSP officers, but without drawing them away from the real seat of power. International actors could also impose sanctions targeted at the coup leaders. Such measures, however, are unlikely to make a short-term impact and could even lead the Malian authorities to suspend collaboration with the country’s partners if the sanctioned figures remain in power. Many donors were already dreading a suspension of various programs following the August 2020 coup d’état. 

International actors should continue to reject the ex-CNSP’s power grab and press for a return to civilian rule free of the officers’ influence. But their words can carry weight only if they stand united. In August 2020, some of Mali's partners were too quick to send the officers signals that they could retain a decisive say in national affairs. 

International partners now face two main options, neither of which is without risk. One option is to stand firm and demand the reinstatement of President N’Daw and Prime Minister Ouane, whose resignations were clearly coerced. That stance would lead to confrontation with the ex-CNSP and a political stalemate whose outcome would be uncertain. It would also, however, give the outside powers a better chance of breaking the officers’ stranglehold on power in Mali. 

The other option is to condemn the arrests and call for an immediate shift back to civilian-led transition, but without demanding that the president and prime minister return to office. This course would open the door to negotiations with the junta to reinstate civilian authorities. As in August, however, the ex-CNSP could exploit the talks to establish the semblance of civilian authority while retaining real power. In its 26 May press statement, the UN Security Council nevertheless appears to be advocating this second option. If Mali's other partners, notably ECOWAS, also support this option, then this time around they should attach conditions to negotiations with the ex-CNSP that curb its political influence so that it can no longer hold the civilian authorities hostage. In any case, the effectiveness of international pressure will depend on the strength of its connection with the domestic movement rejecting the coup, slow as that movement has been to gain momentum.

Will the political instability affect the conflict with jihadists? 

The repeated political crises in Mali undermine the state’s credibility as it faces several insurgencies.

The repeated political crises in Mali undermine the state’s credibility as it faces several insurgencies. To people living in conflict-affected areas, the return of a state mired in infighting in Bamako looks increasingly unlikely. Jihadists and other armed groups are thus better able to present themselves as de facto alternative authorities. Furthermore, there is a distinct possibility that this new crisis will undermine the already fragile confidence in the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreement, whose main provisions on security and decentralisation have yet to be fulfilled. A few months back, the transitional authorities were praised for developing better relations than their predecessors with the armed groups that signed the agreement, in particular those of the Coordination of Azawad Movements. But the current crisis in Bamako may convince some of these same signatories that their best option is to spurn a weak state unable to honour its commitments. These tensions may heighten further as the M5-RFP leadership, whom the ex-CNSP could call upon to form the next government, includes figures known for their hostility to the 2015 agreement.