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Report 238 / Africa

Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making?

Violence is escalating in Central Mali, often neglected as the world focuses on problems in the country’s north. Radical groups and criminal gangs are exploiting years of short-sighted security policies that have lost the state much of its legitimacy. The government needs to recognise that state authority also rests on public services and dialogue with its people.

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Executive Summary

While attention has focused on northern Mali, armed violence is escalating at an alarming rate in the centre of the country, long neglected by the state. The management of natural resources has given rise to multiple conflicts that the government and local elites are unable to control. For the past several months, a jihadist uprising has capitalised on the state’s lack of legitimacy and extended its influence. State representatives are being chased out of rural areas. Yet, violence also stems from settlings of scores, banditry and a growing number of self-defence militias. The peace agreement signed in Bamako in June 2015 applies primarily to northern regions and disregards the centre of the country. Mali’s government and its principal partners should renew their efforts to restore the state’s authority and legitimacy among all the communities of the area. Absent appropriate action, central Mali – an area more densely populated than the north and vital to the economy – risks becoming a source of protracted instability. 

The centre has long not been involved in the armed rebellions of the north, but has suffered from its consequences: banditry has surged and weapons have become more readily available since the 2000s. Marginalised groups, in particular some nomadic herding communities, see taking up modern weapons as a way to challenge existing hierarchies, and to contest the privileges of urban elites and traditional local aristocracies. The state, plagued by corruption and discredited by acts of brutality by the security forces, is struggling to retain its ability to mediate between all sides. In the circumstances, ethnic communities are closing ranks, particularly the Fulanis, who see themselves as victims. 

The 2012 crisis was a turning point for the central regions when it was partly occupied by armed groups. State authority weakened as civil servants fled, abandoning large swathes of territory. The insecurity made some of the population seek protection or justice from militias, including radical groups. The French military operation Serval chased out these groups in 2013, but when state security forces returned they committed abuses, particularly against nomadic Fulani and Tamasheq communities. Locals were also angered when corrupt civil servants regained posts. The state’s return neither restored security nor improved relations between its representatives and the regions’ inhabitants. 

A radical group has thrived on this fertile ground, dubbed the Macina Liberation Front by the media and linked to the jihadist group Ansar Eddine. Little is known about its exact nature and some even question whether it really exists, but it demonstrated its presence with deadly attacks against security forces in several places in the central regions since early 2015. The group’s leader is reportedly Hamadoun Kouffa, a Fulani Muslim preacher famous for his strong criticism of the state and local elites. Since the group’s emergence, state representatives have become targets of its actions and rhetoric, and have again abandoned their posts; violence has increased.

It is difficult to distinguish between banditry, local vendettas and the actions of radical groups in this area. The latter form a determined core, even though they are in the minority, less structured, less well armed, and with fewer links to trafficking than radical groups in the north. They are taking root in rural areas, profiting from the state’s lack of credibility and from some inhabitants’ frustrations and fears. 

Until now the government has favoured a security-focused approach, which has yielded some results. But it has not allowed state authorities to regain control over the entire central territory and its brutality has widened the disconnection between the government and the local population. Political responses have lacked clarity and ambition. The area was largely absent from the Algiers peace talks that led to the signing of the Bamako peace agreement in June 2015. Most of Mali’s international partners have had little involvement in the centre, are predominantly based in Bamako and more involved in the north.

Some authorities and local elites are tempted to try to improve security by supporting the creation of community-based self-defence militias. These militias cannot constitute a lasting solution to the real problem of local insecurity, and even less as a means to reverse the way the state has been discredited in the central regions. With inter- and intra-community tensions running high, militias have fuelled sporadic and worrying surges of violence, including between Bambara and Fulani armed groups in May 2016, which may have killed more than 40 people.

Central Mali has entered a volatile period, but heeding early-warning signals and taking preventive action could still stop the growth of radical groups. As Crisis Group’s report Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (14 March 2016) emphasised, preventing crises will do more to contain violent extremists than countering violent extremism will do to prevent crises.

The government’s response should not focus exclusively on counter-terrorism operations, which contribute to a rejection of the state by the people, especially when accompanied by abuses. On the contrary, the government, in coordination with local elites, civil society and external partners, should demonstrate a greater ambition to reestablish public services in these long neglected regions. To do this, and to demonstrate its utility and impartiality, it should plan its actions carefully, rank its priorities and recognise that restoring its authority is not only a question of keeping order, but also rests on its capacity to deliver effective justice and education. 


To prevent the security situation deteriorating further in the central regions and enable the state to reestablish its presence and regain legitimacy there

To the Malian government:

  1. Develop a strategy to ensure the effective return of the state and the restoration of its legitimacy among all parts of the population. This should include:
    1. Reform of the local police, taking a lead for instance from recent projects in Niger; in particular, security forces should recruit women and men from different ethnic groups to enable the effective carrying out of their duties, including in areas lived in by nomads.
    2. A plan, developed through inclusive dialogue, to coordinate the state’s efforts in the centre and to identify priority actions, specifically in the justice, education and natural resources management. Work on the latter should establish mechanisms to enable herders and farmers to live together more peacefully.
    3. Naming a high representative for the central regions to embody the state’s commitment to them, to work in consultation with local communities and civil society groups, and to ensure coordination with newly active donors.
  2. Avoid using community self-defence groups, and strengthen the capacity of the security services while severely and publicly punishing security service abuses against civilians.

To elites representing local communities:

  1. Take on the crucial role of mediating between citizens and the state, and in doing so, set aside intercommunal divides and individual disputes in order to cooperate with new representatives of local peoples, notably nomad chiefs and religious leaders, even those who have sympathised with armed groups since 2012.
  2. Avoid supporting armed movements and self-defence groups, which are only a short-term response to insecurity and could, in the long run, dangerously fuel intercommunal violence in the centre of the country.
  3. Conversely, promote – in partnership with the state – the development of a local police force that serves local people and whose composition is representative of the central regions’ diverse ethnic groups and both women and men.
  4. Support local conflict resolution initiatives, specifically inclusive forums in which the local population’s diverse age, ethnicity, socio-economic status and gender groups are sufficiently representative of the peoples of central Mali.

To Mali’s main partners, in particular the European Union:

  1. Assist the state to redeploy at the local level through programs aimed at supporting the development of public services in the central regions.
  2. Make the Mopti region a pilot site to test cooperative policies aimed at improving local security and specifically reforming the local police – lessons drawn from here could serve other regions of the Sahel and northern Mali in particular.

To the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA):

  1. Extend the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program so that it benefits both the north and the central regions without straying from the stipulations of the peace accord, making sure to link DDR to local police reform and avoid fuelling the creation of self-defence groups that are not strictly regulated by the authorities.
  2. Support the restoration of state authority over Mali’s whole national territory according to MINUSMA’s mandate and, in order to do so, prioritise an approach that aims to restore public services, including those of the police, as much as seeking to reinforce the international military deployment.

Dakar/Bamako/Brussels, 6 July 2016

I. Introduction

While the Bamako peace agreement was signed in June 2015 and international forces have been deployed in the country for more than three years, the crisis in Mali is far from being resolved. Armed violence is escalating in some areas. Since the start of 2015, unidentified armed groups, some of which claim to be jihadist, have attacked several towns in the centre of the country. This was surprising, all the more since almost all armed incidents had until then been concentrated in the north. Following these attacks, many civil servants fled from their posts in several prefectures of the centre. Local communities feel that the Malian state has abandoned them to their fate. Radical groups are taking advantage of the situation to establish themselves and disseminate messages hostile to the government and Mali’s foreign partners. As efforts are still focused on the north, the centre of the country remains largely neglected by the Bamako agreement that resulted from inter-Malian peace talks.

This report analyses the dynamics behind the extension of the areas of insecurity in central Mali and describes the groups that are responsible for this development.

This report analyses the dynamics behind the extension of the areas of insecurity in central Mali and describes the groups that are responsible for this development. The centre of the country is dominated by the Inner Niger Delta, a territory subject to flooding which is particularly fertile and therefore coveted; the land is shared by farmers and herders. This report focuses on the areas most affected by armed violence, namely, the administrative region of Mopti, mainly the circles (administrative division) of Ténenkou, Youwarou and Douentza, and the north of the Ségou region, close to the border with Mauritania. It warns of the dangers that threaten this part of Mali and formulates practical proposals to stop the spread of armed violence. It is based on several series of interviews with the main political and military actors, diplomats, members of civil society and religious leaders in Bamako and the Mopti region in February and October 2015 and January and March 2016.

II. Fertile Ground: Escalating Armed 
Violence in Central Mali

Unlike the country’s northern regions, there were no armed rebellions in central Mali in the 1990s and 2000s. However, the area has suffered the consequences. Banditry has increased and automatic weapons have become more readily available; meanwhile, cattle theft have been recurrent, especially in border areas; the Ntéréré, cattle thieves of Fulani origin, have become increasingly professional over the years.[fn]Sometimes described as a rite of passage for young men, this phenomenon has taken on a new dimension with the growing insecurity and eased access to firearms.Hide Footnote These developments have affected all herding communities, which are mostly Fulani in the centre.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, Tamasheq political leader from Goundam, April 2016. “All sides were responsible for raids”, said a Fulani leader commenting on the competition between Fulani and Tamasheq communities for “saline lands”, the best for livestock farming. Crisis Group interview, Fulani political leader, Bamako, October 2015.Hide Footnote  

For some years now, central Mali has experienced a worrying increase in social and political tension, punctuated by repeated episodes of collective violence.

Some of them, particularly the Fulanis, felt that successive peace agreements did not take their interests into account and compensated those who had stolen their herds.[fn]The Fulanis are a very diverse ethnic group distributed over the entire Malian territory. They are more numerous in the centre of the country. They feel a sense of injustice at the herding advantages obtained by Arab and Tamasheq communities following the rebellions of the 1990s. The development of these areas through, for example, the building of wells, has paradoxically increased tensions. Such government projects have allegedly benefited communities close to the rebels to the detriment of others who stayed away from them. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani political and religious leaders from the regions of Méma and Farimaké, Bamako, February and October 2015. Shortly after the signature of the National Pact in 1992, establishing special status for northern Mali, the president of an association of victims of the rebellion in the Mopti region, whose cattle had been stolen, asked the Malian state for compensation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani civil servant, Bamako, February 2016. The records indicate that this request for compensation was as high as FCFA2.6 billion (about €4 million). Many similar demands have been expressed but never fulfilled, strengthening among the Fulanis the sense of impunity, injustice, and animosity toward the Tamasheq nomadic communities with which they frequently compete for the control of the same territory.[fn]Tamasheq or Kel Tamasheq (literally, those who speak the Tamasheq language) is another name for the Tuareg. They are not many in the Mopti region (about 30,000 native speakers out of a population of more than 1.5 million in 2009). More live on the Gourma plains and toward the border with Mauritania, in Méma and Farimaké. “Recensement général de la population et de l’habitat du Mali”, National Institute of Statistics (known by its French acronym, INSTAT), November 2011.   

For some years now, central Mali has experienced a worrying increase in social and political tension, punctuated by repeated episodes of collective violence. It is a fertile agricultural area.[fn]The Mopti region is the country’s most important area for livestock farming – cattle, sheep and goats. It also produces 40 per cent of the country’s rice and 20 per cent of its millet and sorghum. “Etude diagnostique des secteurs économiques porteurs”, territorial administration and local communities ministry, March 2012. The exploitation of natural resources arouses envy and causes disputes, a situation aggravated by significant pressure on the land.[fn]The area dedicated to crops has increased while the area covered by pasture has correspondingly decreased. Meanwhile, herds have increased in number and so there is greater pastoralist pressure on the land. Tensions have become more acute not because of poverty but because of increased and poorly regulated competition for natural resources. This dynamic is not new: in the 1970s, the area of arable land increased by 82 per cent while the area covered by pasture fell by 29 per cent. Olivier and Catherine Barrière, Un droit à inventer. Foncier et environnement dans le delta intérieur du Niger (Mali) (Paris, 2002), p. 62.  There are frequent clashes between herders and farmers in this area.[fn]Un droit à inventer, op. cit. Mirjam De Bruijn and Han Van Dijk, Arid Ways. Cultural Understandings of Insecurity in Fulbe Society, Central Mali (Amsterdam, 1995).  Herders, often Fulani, claim that agricultural land is expanding at the cost of land dedicated to herding.[fn]However, not all Fulanis are nomadic herders. In 2009, the Mopti region had 400,000 Fula (the Fulanis’ language) speakers, or 27 per cent of the population. The Dogons, mainly farmers, form the largest ethnic group in the region, with more than 636,000 native speakers, or 42 per cent of the population. “Recensement général de la population et de l’habitat au Mali”, op. cit., p. 443.Hide Footnote Inversely, farmers accuse herders of not respecting agricultural cycles and of not using the cattle trails (burti) that protect fields from trampling by the herds. 

Most of these disputes are resolved peacefully.[fn]Community dialogues are organised by local associations in the presence of local authority representatives to peacefully resolve disputes related to transhumance, as in Dioura in June 2014. Journal de l’Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision du Mali, 26 June 2014.Hide Footnote However, some of them cause a worrying level of violence that the security forces, either absent or ineffective, are unable to contain. For example, in May 2012, a land dispute led to the massacre of sixteen Fulani herders by Dogon farmers in Sari (Koro circle), where no police officer was stationed. This violent episode, which has remained unpunished, has played a direct role in the decision by nomad Fulani groups to arm themselves; that same year, some of them joined the radical movements that were occupying Gao.[fn]Crisis Group interview, nomadic leader from the Douentza region, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote  

In the Inner Niger Delta, Fulani herders sometimes clash among themselves over access to pastures.[fn]The Inner Niger Delta is a particularly fertile area after the annual floods.Hide Footnote The conflict between herders from the villages of Sosobe and Salsalbe, which has been going on since at least the colonial period, resurfaced in the 1990s, causing 29 deaths on 8 December 1993.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former mayor of the Ténenkou circle, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote As a local security expert said, “people still get killed in disputes over access to the bourgoutières”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local security expert, Mopti, March 2016. The bourgoutières are plains subject to flooding and are particularly fertile after the floods. Hide Footnote These disputes are aggravated by the lack of legal clarity regarding land rights and by the diminishing capacity of traditional authorities to settle disagreements.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former mayor of the Ténenkou circle, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote They have become considerably more lethal following the increased availability of weapons since the 1990s.[fn] In addition to the rebellions that took place in the 1990s and 2000s, some people mention the war in Liberia as a turning point in terms of availability of firearms. One of the Ntéréré leaders in central Mali is a veteran of that war. However, access to weapons of war remains less important in central Mali than in the north. Crisis Group interviews, specialist on conflicts in the Sahel, Dakar, April 2016; member of an international NGO originally from Douentza, Mopti, March 2016. Hide Footnote Quarrels are now resolved with Kalashnikovs rather than with clubs or knives.[fn]“In recent years, everybody armed themselves to defend their livestock. We do not feel that the authorities care about cattle theft. This development may have led to cases of misconduct”. Crisis Group interview, member of the elite of Fulani origin, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote This has encouraged an arms race and the hiring of professional armed men who can help gain the upper hand in disputes.[fn]Armed groups, including former Ntéréré and jihadist movements like MOJWA, offer their support to Fulani herders to facilitate and protect the transhumance from attacks. Crisis Group interview, regional security expert, Dakar, April 2016. Hide Footnote  

Some of the current violence, hastily attributed to jihadist groups, is in fact the result of land disputes, including when the victims are state officials.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the elite of Fulani origin, Bamako and Mopti, March 2016; security expert, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote These episodes of local violence increase against the backdrop of a profound crisis of confidence in the state, whose representatives are often accused of corruption and predatory behaviour toward local communities, particularly herders.[fn]The justice system is seen as corrupt. Malian Security Forces (known by their French acronym, FDS), including water and forest rangers, are accused of abusing their powers to impose heavy fines. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, nomads from the Douentza region and researcher specialising in central Mali, Bamako and Mopti, February 2015 and March 2016. Hide Footnote The latter have mobile capital in the form of cattle, which is easier to cash in than the land on which peasants work. 

Some groups, in particular nomadic herders, also criticise the government for being manipulated by local urban elites, which allegedly use public administration resources to retain their disputed privileges. At a forum organised in Mopti in January 2016 under the supervision of the national reconciliation ministry, participants, mostly local prominent figures and civil society activists, pressed the authorities “to respect the principles of impartiality and neutrality [of the state]” and enjoined them “to avoid acts of violence against the populations”.[fn]Facebook page of Mali’s national reconciliation ministry, message posted on 29 January 2016.Hide Footnote  

In Mopti, all the people Crisis Group interviewed criticised the government for its inadequate performance and the corruption of state officials: “If the government does nothing for us, it might as well leave us alone”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani director of an NGO, Mopti, March 2016.Hide Footnote A growing minority see the government as a nuisance that they would like to get rid of. This is especially true in some communities, for example, nomadic Fulanis or slave descendants, who feel particularly underrepresented in the government and its administration.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani individual from Méma and nomadic leader from the Douentza region, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote They welcomed the departure of state officials following attacks on towns at the beginning of 2015.

Finally, the climate of tension in central Mali also results from a growing sense of ethnic victimisation among the Fulanis.[fn]Fulanis built theocratic states in the central part of the country prior to colonisation. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, nomads from Douentza and researcher, Bamako and Mopti, February 2015 and March 2016. Hide Footnote Some of them feel stigmatised and attempt to organise and defend their interests along ethnic lines.[fn]“Fulanis used to be dominant, but the whites changed all that, which causes resentment”. Crisis Group interview, Fulani director of an NGO, Mopti, March 2016.Hide Footnote Some Fulani elites and intellectuals, especially in the centre, say that the state treats their community unfairly in a way that reduces them to second-class citizens.[fn]More than a year passed before the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Malian government sent a team to investigate the massacre of Fulanis in Doungoura in March 2013. On the contrary, Fulani members of the elite note that MINUSMA and the government took action within days of the massacre of Tamasheq Imrad near Tamkoutat in February 2014. “This is unequal treatment”, say some of them, who also see it as a result of Fulanis’ underrepresentation in the Malian security forces. However, there are several senior Fulani officers in Mali, including generals. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani officer in the Malian security forces and Fulani director of an NGO, Bamako and Mopti, March 2016. Hide Footnote In fact, racism, partly inherited from the colonial period, is still strong in Mali and Fulanis are seen as a category apart.[fn]Roger Botte and Jean Schmitz, “L’archipel peul”, Cahiers d’études africaines, special edition, vol. 34, no. 133 (1994). Hide Footnote  

Fulanis say the increased terrorist threat has worsened the situation because authorities often associate them with terrorism.[fn]According to the French authorities, the majority of those involved in the attacks in Bassam, Bamako and Ouagadougou in 2015 and 2016 were Fulanis from Mali. Crisis Group interview, French adviser responsible for Africa, Paris, March 2016. As the Fulanis are an extremely heterogeneous group, this statement does not help much to understand the links between community affiliation and jihadist involvement. Hide Footnote Fulani public figures emphasise that “there are no Fulani terrorists, there are only angry Fulanis”, while warning that if “the Tamasheq were the first to rebel, the Fulanis could be the second”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani trader from Farimaké, Bamako, October 2015. Hide Footnote In doing so, they point out that their people are becoming increasingly aware of their ethnic identity. Although Fulani mobilisation in West Africa as a whole remains timid and is sometimes confined to the realms of fantasy, it worries governments, anxious to avoid the export of violence to their territory.[fn]A “world Pulaaku congress” gathering Fulanis from all over Africa and the diaspora is due to be held in October 2016 on the initiative of former members of the Fulani Tabital Pulaaku association. It is primarily a cultural and scientific initiative, but political issues might be discussed in a regional context marked by an upsurge in armed violence that affects Fulani communities. Hide Footnote In central Mali, the sense of stigmatisation is coupled with the impression that the modern state is responsible for destroying old hierarchies to the detriment of the Fulanis and conducting an aggressive policy toward nomads, of which the Fulanis make up a large proportion. 

Since the 1990s, ethnic-based cultural associations have emerged and played an important political role, especially in conflict management. For example, Tabital Pulaaku is a Fulani association created at the beginning of the 1990s, and Ginna Dogon, formed in 1992, recruits among Dogon communities in central Mali. Often headed by urban elites, they try to bridge the gap between local structures and the central government. They are testimony to the trend for communities to organise politically along ethnic lines. In the wake of the 2012 crisis and rising insecurity, some local figures asked Tabital Pulaaku to organise a response, including the creation of self-defence groups. Some Fulani intellectuals say their communities should “take up arms to defend themselves” and “gain the respect” of the government and rival communities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, Bamako and Sévaré, November 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote

However, this ethnic-based mobilisation faces several challenges. First, some acts of violence result from internal tensions among the Fulanis rather than from tensions between ethnic groups.[fn]Roger Botte and Jean Schmitz, “Paradoxes identitaires”, Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 34, no. 133 (1994), pp. 7-22.Hide Footnote Indeed, there is a feeling of distrust toward urban elites, which are suspected of playing the ethnic card to build up a client base and preserve their positions within the state apparatus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, nomads originally from the Douentza region, Bamako, February 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote Second, religion and jihad today compete with ethnicity as a driving force for identity-based mobilisation.[fn]A Fulani militiaman from Niger who was active in the 1990s regrets that Fulanis who share similar demands toward the governments of the subregion wear themselves out by fighting under the flag of the jihadists. In his view, this weakens the struggle for their own people as it provokes the hostility of Western powers and Fulanis should rather form armed movements along ethnic lines as they used to do. Crisis Group interview, former member of Fulani militias, Niamey, December 2015. Hide Footnote The two forms of mobilisation are not necessarily incompatible but their agendas and actors are different.[fn]In a recording attributed to Hamadoun Kouffa, Fulanis are called “the country’s biggest ‘cafres’ (pagans)”. Crisis Group interview, Malian officer, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote In central Mali in particular, ethnic-based mobilisation takes place within the framework of negotiations with the government over access to representation and resources. Jihadist mobilisation, for the moment, takes place either outside or against the state.

III. Central Mali in Crisis (2012-2013)

Central Mali, which separates the north, occupied by armed groups, and the south, which has remained under government control, was affected by the 2012 crisis. Parts of the Mopti region, such as the Douentza circle, were occupied by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym, MNLA) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), although neither group managed to establish a solid presence outside the urban centres located on the road between Mopti and Gao. The rebels did not occupy the rest of the centre, but state officials and some locally elected representatives fled in 2012 because of insecurity and sporadic attacks.[fn]For example, the locality of Youwarou (Mopti region) was attacked on 17 February 2012, and Té-nenkou on 2 March 2012.Hide Footnote The tourism industry, which had been flourishing for twenty years in Mopti and on the Bandiagara plateau, collapsed. The situation became particularly uncomfortable for most inhabitants of central Mali. They have lived under the threat of occasional attacks, while at the same time being suspected by the security forces of colluding with the rebels.[fn]A resident of Nampala (Ségou region, close to the border with Mauritania) said that “the MNLA came from Léré to loot the school and the town hall [of Nampala]. But the military in Nioro, where we went to get supplies, suspected us of supporting the rebels”. Crisis Group interview, public official, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote

A. Recruitment to the Armed Groups

In 2012, central Mali was partly occupied by armed groups from the north. They recruited on site to form small local contingents or encouraged these new supporters to go on military training in Gao and Timbuktu, particularly with the MOJWA and Ansar Dine, which held these towns at that time. Conversely, the pro-government militias from the north, especially Gao, found refuge in central Mali, near Sévaré, an area under government control where Ganda Izo and others recruited locals. 

Most of these combatants were young men tempted by adventure and attracted to armed groups by either conviction or opportunism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Malian public official originally from Dialloubé (Mopti region), Mopti, October 2015.Hide Footnote Armed bandits in the area also rallied to the rebel groups: for example, the Ntéréré from Macina joined the MNLA and later the MOJWA in the Léré region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, resident of Nampala and former elected representative in the Mopti region, Bamako, February 2015. Hide Footnote Finally, in response to insecurity, some communities in central Mali lined up under the banners of armed groups to obtain protection or arms, sometimes after having unsuccessfully requested the government to provide them with weapons.[fn]Some nomadic Fulani leaders went to Bamako to request arms from the defence ministry. The ministry refused, saying “it did not have arms for its own army”. Other sources indicate that the government feared that Fulani nomads would join the rebellion once they were armed. Crisis Group interviews, nomadic Fulani leader, Bamako, February 2015; former Malian official, Bamako, March 2016. Hide Footnote  

Nomadic Fulanis from the Douentza region joined MOJWA training camps in Gao in search of military training and protection against MNLA Tamasheq groups that were harassing their camps. They were also seeking to gain the upper hand against the sedentary Dogons in conflicts over land. The MOJWA traded or offered protection in order to attract new recruits. Meanwhile, some young men left their homes and fully embraced the jihadist cause.[fn]Several witnesses confirm that at the start of Operation Serval, Fulani MOJWA combatants fled the Douentza region to the jihadist stronghold in the Tigharghar mountains (Kidal region) and perhaps even to southern Algeria. Crisis Group interviews, former MOJWA member from the Douentza region, March 2016; MNLA officer, April 2016. Hide Footnote But the majority seem to have adopted an opportunist approach, joining up in order to obtain protection or arms and have a say in local conflicts. 

B. Renewed Tension with the Government

In January 2013, the advance of radical groups toward Konna and Diabaly in central Mali led to a new round of violence in the area.[fn]Konna is 65km to the north of Mopti and Diabaly is 150km to the east.Hide Footnote Operation Serval repelled the offensive but the Malian army returned in the wake of the French and committed abuses against local populations, including an unknown number of summary executions.[fn]Malian security forces, members of which were executed by Islamist combatants in Konna, accused Fulani nomads from the Mopti region of supporting the MOJWA. In retaliation, they probably executed religious leaders and some of their pupils (talibé), notably in Konna and Nyaminiama. “Exactions des militaires maliens: l’urgence d’une commission d’enquête indépendante”, press release, International Federation for Human Rights, 23 January 2013. For more on Operation Serval, launched by France in January 2013 to repel jihadist groups from northern Mali, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°201, Mali: Security, Dialogue and Meaningful Reform, 11 April 2013.Hide Footnote These events exacerbated the distrust between people, particularly some Fulanis, and the security forces.

As of spring 2013, the Malian administration redeployed in the Mopti region more quickly than in the northern regions, which were still occupied by armed groups. Despite optimistic official figures, absenteeism was nonetheless common within the civil service.[fn]According to a UN 2014 report, in the Mopti region, “99 per cent of state officials have been redeployed, 50 per cent in Gao and Timbuktu”. The same document states that all the prefects and the great majority of subprefects were back in post. “Report of the UN Secretary-General on the situation in Mali”, UN Security Council (UNSC) S/2014/403, 9 June 2014, p. 4. In fact, many state officials working for territorial administration live in the regional capital and make only short visits to the area they have been assigned to. Moreover, such visits become less frequent when security deteriorates. Hide Footnote The state’s return provoked tension with local populations. The security forces recovered small arms that some groups, including Fulani nomads, had acquired to protect themselves. This led to arms dealing, abuses and incidents, particularly in the Douentza circle.[fn]“Le cercle de Douentza pendant la crise: une étude de cas”, European Union (EU) delegation to Mali, November 2013. Crisis Group interview, nomadic community leader in the Douentza region, Bamako, February 2015. Hide Footnote Some inhabitants of central Mali had welcomed the government’s retreat in 2012, which they perceived as a temporary relief from taxation and a whole range of predatory acts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, nomadic leader from the Douentza circle, Bamako, February 2015; former elected representative in the Ténenkou circle, Bamako, March 2016. Hide Footnote Others had got used to it despite feeling that they had been abandoned at a difficult time. 

In many areas of central Mali, the government’s return in 2013 did not therefore help to restore security for people and goods. On the contrary, people have claimed that the security situation was better under the jihadists or when the state was absent in 2012.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, nomad from Douentza, Bamako, February 2015; former elected representative in the Ténenkou circle, Bamako, March 2016. Hide Footnote Indeed, serious episodes of collective violence took place following the latter’s return. In March 2013, in Doungoura, at least twenty people, mainly Fulani, were killed and thrown down a well. This case was never clarified or solved. Although representatives of the victims quickly contacted them, Malian authorities waited for more than a year before sending a delegation to support the investigation mission of the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (known by its French acronym, MINUSMA) human rights office.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Tabital Pulaaku, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote With persistent insecurity since 2013, non-state armed groups such as former Ntéréré, and even jihadist elements, rather than Malian security forces, have offered their support to Fulani herders to protect the transhumance from predatory acts.[fn]Crisis Group interview, regional security expert, Dakar, April 2016.Hide Footnote

In this context, the state’s return to central Mali after 2013 seems more theoretical than real. Its presence is weak throughout large grey areas. Moreover, following the crisis in Kidal in 2014, part of the region has again fallen under the control of armed groups, such as eastern Douentza.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher specialising in central Mali, Mopti, March 2016. In May 2014, Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara’s visit to Kidal caused major clashes between rebel armed groups and Malian security forces, which were defeated and again forced to retreat from a large part of the country’s north.Hide Footnote It is all the more worrying as the main actors in charge of Mali are neglecting this area and concentrating mainly on the northern regions. 

IV. Toward a New Insurrection?

At the start of 2015, a series of attacks against Malian security forces stationed in small towns in the centre of the country once again attracted attention to the area.[fn]On 5 January, about 30 combatants attacked the town of Nampala (Ségou region, close to the border with Mauritania) and killed at least eleven Malian soldiers. Ténenkou was attacked on 8 and 16 January. Internal document of the Malian security services on the attacks attributed to the Macina Liberation Front made available to Crisis Group. “Mali: attaque de bandits armés à Ténenkou dans la région de Mopti”, Info Mali (info-mali.com), 9 January 2015. Hide Footnote Subsequently, chronic low intensity violence appeared in rural areas. State officials and civilians said to be close to the authorities were threatened or killed.[fn]Victims were mostly “uniformed corps” (members of the security forces, including water and forest rangers), local elected representatives and individuals suspected of acting as informers for the security services. Government representatives’ homes and vehicles are regularly burned, for example on 12 September 2015 near Bankass after the attack on the police station. Crisis Group interviews, security experts, NGO managers and MINUSMA members based in the Mopti region, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote Some attacks targeted MINUSMA convoys.[fn]The first took place on 10 May 2015 near Ténenkou. On 29 May 2016, a mine decimated a MINUSMA convoy near Sévaré, killing five Togolese blue helmets. Hide Footnote Armed groups occupied unprotected villages and small towns for a few hours, time enough to preach sermons and broadcast messages, including calls for jihad. 

It is often difficult to distinguish between acts of banditry, local vendettas and attacks by radicalised groups.

The Malian and international media frequently attribute these acts of violence to the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), created in January 2015 and reportedly led by a radical Fulani preacher, Hamadoun Kouffa. On the ground, the situation is confused. The perpetrators of violence have various motives and the degree of coordination between groups is uncertain. It is often difficult to distinguish between acts of banditry, local vendettas and attacks by radicalised groups. Armed groups seem to be trying to use the endemic insecurity, local tensions and the deep distrust toward the government to achieve various objectives. 

A. Elusive Perpetrators

Hamadoun Kouffa is a relatively well-known Fulani preacher in Macina.[fn]His full name is Mohamed Alhassane Ahmadoun Barry or Ahmadoun Diallo, according to different sources. He is said to be about 60 years old and to have grown up in Sirakoro. His father was reportedly from the village of Kouffa in the Niafunké region in the centre of the country. Internal document, national security service, September 2015. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders formerly close to Kouffa, Mopti and Sévaré, October 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote After having, in his youth, recorded love poetry on cassettes, he became a preacher in the Mopti region. In the 2000s, he became known for his sermons on the Quran in the Fula language, broadcast on local radio stations. He denounced the corruption of morals and state officials, the region’s major Marabout families, parliamentarians who supported the new Family Code and President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), whom he nicknamed the “Pharaoh of Koulouba”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani public officials from Méma and Macina, Bamako, February 2015; Mopti, October 2015 and March 2016. The then president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), informed of the critiques directed against him, reportedly held back from arresting Kouffa to prevent him from claiming martyr status. Crisis Group interview, senior public official from Macina, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote Between 2009 and 2011, he joined the Tabligh Jama’at, a preaching movement born in Pakistan and known locally as Dawa.[fn]In Mali, this movement established itself especially in the Kidal region and is said to have been organised by Iyad ag Ghaly, who has since become the leader of Ansar Dine. See David Gutelius, “Islam in Northern Mali and the War on Terror”, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 2007. Sources consulted by Crisis Group say it would be a mistake to conflate the Dawa and the networks of Kouffa or Iyad ag Ghaly: “the followers of the Dawa do not completely identify with Kouffa, they have their own network”. Crisis Group interviews, former Dawa member from Nampala and religious leaders from the Mopti region, Bamako, February 2015; Sévaré and Mopti, March 2016. Hide Footnote He became its spiritual leader in the Mopti region, alienating Marabout families and some followers who began to criticise his radical choices.

At the time of the 2012 crisis, his group was in decline.[fn]Crisis Group interview, religious leader of Fulani origin, Bamako, February 2015. In December
2009, the American embassy in Bamako believed that recruitment to Dawa was weak in Mali.
“Dawa meeting in Kidal not much to talk about”, U.S. embassy Bamako cable, 21 December 2009,
as made public by WikiLeaks.Hide Footnote
He then allegedly went to Timbuktu to support Ansar Dine.[fn]In 2012, during negotiations about Malian soldiers detained by Ansar Dine, Iyad ag Ghaly reportedly accepted their release, by virtue of Islamic law, on condition they were handed over to Hamadoun Kouffa, who he believed to be a good Muslim, and not to the delegation of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HICM) with which he was in discussions. In January 2013, Kouffa was seen at the side of Ansar Dine combatants in Konna during their offensive in central Mali. He led a prayer and harangued the town’s inhabitants, announcing the arrival of “new times”. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani member of the elite in the Mopti region originally from Konna, Bamako, February 2016.Hide Footnote He was reportedly seen encouraging the population of Konna during the armed groups’ offensive but all trace of him was lost as the French strikes began. His name reappeared in January 2015 when his links with the MLF, to which most of the armed attacks in the Macina have been attributed, were demonstrated.[fn]B. Daou, “Attaques de Ténenkou: l’ombre de Hammadoun Koufa avec un Mouvement de Libération du Macina plane”, Le Républicain, 23 January 2015.Hide Footnote  

Unlike the armed groups in northern Mali, the MLF has no known military or political chain of command.[fn]Security forces and the media have mistakenly presented several individuals as Kouffa’s lieutenants. Crisis Group interviews, security officer in Mopti, Malian security ministry official, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote The armed groups that temporarily occupy towns in central Mali and preach there do not claim allegiance to any particular movement. The leaflets distributed or displayed in the mosques in the Mopti region are not signed by the MLF but by Ansar Dine, or use the name of Dina, a Fulani theocracy in the nineteenth century.[fn]For more on Ansar Dine, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°189, Mali: Avoiding Escalation, 18 July 2012. Interestingly, in an audio message released in 2015, Iyad ag Ghaly, leader of Ansar Dine, referred to combatants in central Mali without mentioning the MLF but giving words of encouragement to “the lions of Macina and Douentza”. Audio recording of Iyad ag Ghaly, 19 October 2015 (translation by Crisis Group). For more on the history of the Dina of Macina, see Ahmadou Hampâté Bâ and Jacques Daget, L’empire peul du Macina, 1818-1853 (Paris, 1962).Hide Footnote The only video posted on the internet by a group active in central Mali, which dates from 18 May 2016, was also signed by Ansar Dine’s “Katibat Macina”.[fn]“First Video of Katibat Macina”, message from Jamaat Ansar Dine, Jihadology, 18 May 2016.In August 2015, Ali Hamma, a former combatant close to Belmokhtar, one of the main jihadist leaders in the subregion and emir of the al-Morabitoune group created in August 2013, contacted Agence France-Presse (AFP) office in Bamako to claim responsibility for the attack in Sévaré, saying that “Cheikh Hamadoun Kouffa has also given his blessing to the attack”. On the same day, Al Jazeera received a message from al-Morabitoune, also claiming responsibility for the attack. “Attaque de Sévaré: les explications d’un lieutenant d’Amadou Kouffa”, L’indicateur du Renouveau, 12 August 2015; “Un deuxième groupe djihadiste revendique l’attaque à Bamako”, Le Monde, 20 November 2015. Hide Footnote The MLF, if it really exists, has claimed responsibility for few actions other than two major attacks on a hotel in Sévaré in August 2015 and on the Hotel Radisson in Bamako in November 2015.[fn]In August 2015, Ali Hamma, a former combatant close to Belmokhtar, one of the main jihadist leaders in the subregion and emir of the al-Morabitoune group created in August 2013, contacted Agence France-Presse (AFP) office in Bamako to claim responsibility for the attack in Sévaré, saying that “Cheikh Hamadoun Kouffa has also given his blessing to the attack”. On the same day, Al Jazeera received a message from al-Morabitoune, also claiming responsibility for the attack. “Attaque de Sévaré: les explications d’un lieutenant d’Amadou Kouffa”, L’indicateur du Renouveau, 12 August 2015; “Un deuxième groupe djihadiste revendique l’attaque à Bamako”, Le Monde, 20 November 2015. Hide Footnote  Finally, it is unclear whether Kouffa survived the French bombardments of Konna in January 2013.[fn]He has not circulated any video recently even though audio recordings in Fula dating from 2015 were attributed to him by people interviewed by Crisis Group. Crisis Group interview, member of the elite originally from Macina, Bamako, March 2016. Hide Footnote Dead or alive, his sermons continue to circulate and influence people. 

Little is known about the people who have rallied behind Kouffa or have been fighting in his name.[fn]According to the Malian State Security Department (known by its French acronym, DGSE), a Fulani called Hassan Dicko and nicknamed “Abou Leila” has acted as a link between armed groups in central and southern Mali. Considered to be Hamadoun Kouffa’s right-hand man, he was arrested on 5 September 2015. Internal document of the Malian security services made available to Crisis Group, Bamako, 2015.Hide Footnote His network reportedly attracts individuals from disadvantaged social backgrounds and Fulanis from the plains, seduced by his critique of traditional landowners in the Niger Delta. The financing of the movement seems largely local and to owe much less to the major trafficking networks than that of the armed movements in the north.[fn]The movement does not raise taxes from the population but it seems that herders and traders supporting it contribute financially. Fulani leaders, including an imam reputed to be close to Kouffa and a former MOJWA member together made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2015. That year, many other Fulani members of the elite made the pilgrimage with financial assistance from the Fulani diaspora in Saudi Arabia. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, individual originally from the Douentza circle, interior ministry official, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote  

Several local sources now doubt that the MLF exists or deny it is solely responsible for the violence that has affected the centre of the country since the beginning of 2015.[fn]A Fulani public official born in Mopti spoke of the “imaginary Macina Liberation Front”. An NGO director from the same region said: “We Fulanis do not believe a Macina Liberation Front exists”. Crisis Group interviews, senior public official of Fulani origin, Bamako, March 2016; NGO director of Fulani origin, Mopti, March 2016.Hide Footnote It is clear that no single group can be considered as the perpetrator of all the attacks against the state and its allies. Neither are the different entities that have been implicated clearly unified in a movement with a common agenda. The name Macina Liberation Front, popularised by the media, does not adequately reflect the nebulous nature of this assortment of small groups with uneven structures.[fn]Crisis Group research found that the existence of this group was reported on 16 January 2015 by an Arab language newspaper on the h-Azawad website, which had ceased to operate by mid-2015. The information has been published by other newspapers, such as Jeune Afrique, and then by the Malian press. Malian journalists have been the first to mention Hamadoun Kouffa as the leader of a movement responsible for the attacks. According to the press, the group that attacked Ténenkou carried copies of Kouffa’s sermons. “Mali: au Nord, la mosaïque des acteurs complique la crise”, Jeune Afrique, 16 January 2015; “Attaques de Ténenkou: l’ombre de Hammadoun Koufa avec un mouvement de Libération du Macina plane”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Armed violence in the area has complex roots and involves many protagonists; the MLF label simplifies this reality.

B. A Juxtaposition of Armed Groups

Security sources say that several groups, rather than a single organisation, target the state. These groups do not necessarily coordinate their agendas even though they are in contact with each other.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security experts, Bamako and Sévaré, October 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote The attacks on towns in central Mali at the beginning of 2015 were reportedly carried out by a group that came out of Ansar Dine and was formed along Mali’s border with Mauritania. It allegedly includes Fulani and Tamasheq combatants, some of which are officers close to Iyad ag Ghali.[fn]A native of Nampala said there were both “white” and “black men” among the group that attacked the town and that some of them spoke Fula. Crisis Group interview, individual from Nampala, Bamako, February 2015. Hide Footnote It planned to carry out a series of operations designed to impress the population and terrify the authorities, probably to facilitate the establishment of a new movement recruiting locally.[fn]Nampala suffered a similar attack in 2009, when sixteen Malian soldiers were killed. The rebellion organised by Ibrahim ag Bahanga claimed responsibility for that attack. However, local sources believe the attackers had contacts with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had a strong presence in the border region at that time. Crisis Group interview, public official, Bamako, February 2015. Hide Footnote This group then apparently withdrew to the border area (perhaps dispersing toward several destinations, such as Léré, Malian refugee camps in Mauritania and Wagadou Forest). It may be in the process of reactivating under the name of Katibat Macina of Ansar Dine and broadcast its first video in May 2016.

A second group was formed in the aftermath of the February 2015 attacks. Mainly active in the Ténenkou and Youwarou circles, it has recently recruited locally but also includes combatants who probably joined MOJWA or Ansar Dine during the crisis in 2012. Less well-armed and less well-versed in the tactics of war than the first group, it has not yet managed to take control of any town defended by the army.[fn]“These people have thrown away their clubs and taken up arms. They are not professionals”. Crisis Group interview, NGO representative from the Mopti region, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote It is quite active in rural areas, spreading its message among the local communities and harassing government informers and security forces convoys. 

Further to the east, a similar group is active, some members of which joined the MOJWA during the 2012 crisis. It is growing in the Douentza circle, to a lesser extent in the Bankass circle, and occasionally spills over the border into Burkina Faso, especially in the northern and Sahel regions. It is mainly formed of nomadic Fulanis, namely the subgroups Seedoobe (from Mali), the Djelgobe (from Burkina Faso) and especially the Toleebe (from Niger). This group has links with others that are active in Macina and along the border with Mauritania, although it is difficult to determine the extent and solidity of these contacts.[fn]Some sources even mention the possibility that they are in contact with both the Macina group and an AQIM battalion (qatiba) that is moving around in the Gourma. Crisis Group interview, security expert, Sévaré, March 2016. Hide Footnote  

In 2015, military sources estimated that each of these groups had a few dozen members. The degree to which they coordinate their activities remains uncertain.[fn]These groups circulate from east to west, between Méma, Farimaké, Macina and Hayre. Hamadoun Kouffa, who is relatively famous in the Macina and, to a lesser extent, in the Méma, is less well-known in the Hayre region. Crisis Group interviews, nomads from the Douentza circle, Bamako, February 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote Local and French security sources say a total of 150 to 200 men have basic military equipment: Kalashnikovs, grenade-throwers, motorbikes, a few 4x4 vehicles with heavy machine guns stolen from Mali’s armed forces (FAMA), and the capacity to use landmines or improvised explosive devices.[fn]Internal document of a national security service, September 2015. Crisis Group interviews, journalist and senior French officer, Paris, August 2015. Hide Footnote Nothing like the columns of 4×4 vehicles mounted with machine guns, mortars and sniper rifles commonly used in the north. This is because there is a stronger and older warrior culture in the north, the purchase of military equipment is funded by trafficking and more arms are available from Libya and stocks of weapons stolen from the Malian army in 2012.

C. The Multiple Reasons for Violence

The violence affecting central Mali involves movements inspired by the jihad, but is also the product of local disputes. The fight against terrorism should not therefore be the only response to this multifaceted violence.

Armed bandits are responsible for many incidents, notably attacks on fairs and markets, wrongly attributed to jihadist groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote Jihadist and armed gangs occupy the same territories. There might be some contact between them and they may even cooperate at times, but they are very different in nature.[fn]In the Méma and the Farimaké, Ntéréré groups who joined the MNLA in 2012 opportunely joined the MOJWA after it defeated the MNLA in Gao. It is difficult to know what remains of these links but several security sources mention contacts between these bandit groups and jihadist elements, and even a possible sharing of roles. Crisis Group interviews, member of MINUSMA, Sévaré, October 2015; security expert, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote Armed bandits have an ambiguous status in local society: some communities see them as a shield against government abuses or rival communities, while others denounce them as mere predators.[fn]They are known as “social bandits”, in the sense given to this expression by the historian E.J. Hobsbawm. “Armed men” such as the Hima brothers in the Douentza circle and Hama Foune Diallo, a native of the Macina, have a reputation for being both bandits and defenders of their communities. Crisis Group interviews, prominent figures, herders and public officials of Fulani origin, Bamako and Sévaré, October 2015 and March 2016. E.J. Hobsbawm, Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Manchester, 1959).Hide Footnote

In addition to banditry, settlings of scores contribute to the increasing insecurity. In certain cases, local people seeking revenge for abuses by the “porteurs d’uniformes” (men in uniform), rather than jihadists, are responsible for the harassment and sometimes killing of public officials.[fn]In West Africa, the expression “porteur d’uniforme” refers to members of the security forces. For example, a forest ranger was killed on 6 April 2015 in Diafarabe and an informer of a water and forest ranger was killed on 9 March 2016 in Mbesso, 5km to the south of Diabaly. It is difficult to know whether such killings are local acts of vengeance or attempts by radical groups to chase the administration out. List of security incidents in the Mopti region since 2015, Malian internal document made available to Crisis Group.Hide Footnote This reveals a local desire to chase the government out, which deliberately or not converges with the jihadist agenda. Distinguishing between local settlings of scores and “jihadist” actions is therefore difficult.[fn]Crisis Group interview with a humanitarian worker active in Ténenkou, Sévaré, November 2015. According to other sources, combatants supporting Kouffa participate in local settlings of scores targeting civilians. “It was after the attack on Dioura that we started suspecting the Dawa people. Shortly after this attack, assailants went to Sikéré Tielo, a small hamlet populated by farmers. They killed someone who was in dispute with a person from the Dawa. The case had been referred to the Dioura town council, which reportedly demanded a fine of FCFA500,000 (about €750). Kouffa was the leader of the Dawa in this area”. Crisis Group interview, individual from Nampala, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote  

However, some violent incidents are due neither to banditry nor settlings of scores. The destruction of the Hamdallaye mausoleums on 3 May 2015 and sermons hostile to the authorities and foreigners clearly denote a jihadist agenda.[fn]In an audio recording attributed to him, Kouffa reportedly called on people to chase out the Malian security forces (“the big shoes”), their local informers and their international allies. Crisis Group interview, senior Malian officer, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote In the villages they visit, Kouffa’s followers call on communities to close French schools, veil women and insist that men’s trousers do not hang below their ankles.[fn]According to other sources, they also ban cola nuts and tobacco. They refer to regional history, emphasising that “the period of idolatry before the Macina theocracy is over”. However, they also reinterpret the past, of which the Fulani communities of central Mali are proud. Kouffa vehemently criticises the prominent Marabout families, heirs of Cheikou Amadou, founder of the Dina. Moreover, Kouffa’s followers are held responsible for the destruction of several mausoleums of prominent figures in the history of the Dina, including Cheikou Amadou himself. Some Fulani members of the elite in Bamako feel this is unforgivable. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani senior public officials and religious leaders, Bamako, Mopti and Sévaré, November 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote In Hayre and around Ténenkou, similar groups ban celebrations at major social ceremonies like, for example, costly weddings. Their discourse is never exclusively religious. Its social, political and economic dimensions help gain local support.[fn] This forms part of the broader trend for religious discourse to reflect Malians’ social and political concerns. See Benjamin Soares, “Islam in Mali in the Neoliberal Era”, African Affairs, vol. 105, no. 418 (2005).Hide Footnote  

Kouffa’s criticisms of prominent Marabout families, who are large landowners, can appeal to some youths and the less well-educated population, although these families remain well-respected.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, elected representatives, members of civil society and Fulani religious leaders, Bamako, Mopti and Sévaré, November 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote For example, economically marginalised groups support Kouffa’s challenge to the Dioko – customary rights to exploit natural resources.[fn]The murder of the Mayor of Dogo is an example. The investigation is currently being carried out but this killing seems to be linked to a conflict between two Fulani groups for access to pastures. In this conflict, Kouffa’s followers have supported the Tioki Fulanis (transhumants) who have been challenging the land rights of a sedentary Fulani group in the Macina. Crisis Group interviews, members of the two communities in conflict in Dogo and in Diallube commune, Sévaré and Mopti, October 2015, March 2016.Hide Footnote The radical religious discourse resonates with older protests against the local political and social order. Generally speaking, local concerns are used to justify the call to jihad. What is at stake differs from one area to another and there is not necessarily any interest in pursuing a common agenda. And at the individual level, it is difficult to say at what point interest in the jihad prevails over more local concerns.

V. Make Central Mali Secure: Military Operations, Political Dialogue and Self-defence Groups

The government’s response has so far focused on security. Although this has had some results, violence continues to spread. Communities are taking up arms to defend themselves, probably with the support of sectors of the Malian security forces. Armed militias are undeniably becoming stronger and there is a danger that a major wave of violence will unfold.

A. The Security Response and Its Limits

Following attacks against them in February 2015, the security forces strengthened their positions in the main towns of the country’s centre, particularly Sévaré, Ténenkou and Douentza. This has allowed them to hold these small cities and avoid further defeats. However, armed groups continue to harass them in rural areas. In response, Operation Seno produced some results in autumn 2015 in the Bankass circle.[fn]Operation Seno was mounted after attacks on sedentary Dogon groups in the Bankass region. Despite having only the equivalent of a company at its disposal, the FAMA engaged and repelled an armed group reportedly close to the MLF. The clash took place in Tiébanda forest, near the border with Burkina Faso, where Islamists were trying to set up a base. Crisis Group interviews, member of the Malian security forces, researcher specialising in central Mali and MINUSMA member, Sévaré, February 2016.Hide Footnote But this type of intervention aims to contain the expansion of armed groups rather than to deal with the causes of insecurity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Malian security forces, Sévaré, February 2016.Hide Footnote Like Seno, search-and-sweep operations organised by the FAMA lead to arrests. Carried out following denunciations, they are sometimes based on false information. This causes tensions with the population and some serious abuses have been reported.[fn]Opinions diverge on the atrocities committed by the FAMA: some feel they are inevitable given the lack of resources and emphasise that they are less common today than they were in 2013; others consider that the atrocities and disappearances of suspects are still too many. Crisis Group interviews, security experts, members of FAMA and Fulani members of the elite, Bamako and Sévaré, February 2016. See also, “Mali: Abuses Spread South”, Human Rights Watch, 19 February 2016.Hide Footnote

Mali’s military partners are thin on the ground in the centre. MINUSMA has a limited presence but a new mandate, voted on 29 June 2016, provides for reinforcements.[fn]“Report of the Secretary-General on the situation in Mali”, UNSC S/2016/498, 31 May 2016, p. 17. In the Mopti region, MINUSMA only deploys one police unit in Sévaré and three Togolese army infantry companies in Douentza, more than 150km (by road) to the north east of Mopti. “Report of the Secretary-General on the situation in Mali”, UNSC S/2016/281, 28 March 2016. On 29 June 2016, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2295, increasing the number of MINUSMA military personnel by 2,049 (from 11,240 to 13,289 deployed soldiers) and the number of police officers by 480 (from 1,440 to 1,920). It asked MINUSMA to take a more robust stance and focus on prevention. Following the UN Secretariat’s strategic assessment of MINUSMA, the resolution also said the mission’s strategic priority should be the effective implementation of the peace agreement, in particular, the reestablishment of the government’s authority. “United Nations Resolution 2295 (2016)”, UNSC S/RES/2295, 29 June 2016.Hide Footnote However, there is a risk of reproducing the situation prevailing in Gao and Kidal – a larger force focused on self-protection, holed up in a fortified stronghold in town and incapable of restoring order to neglected rural areas. 

Meanwhile, Operation Barkhane does not cover the area, even though its soldiers have intervened to support Malian forces during a few joint operations.[fn]Launched on 1 August 2014 to take over from Operation Serval in the fight against terrorist armed groups in Mali, the French military force Barkhane is meant to pursue this fight within a more regional framework and facilitate its appropriation by the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad) over the entire Sahel-Saharan region.Hide Footnote It did not participate in Operation Seno, widely seen as a test for the Malian army, currently going through a process of reconstruction. More recently, when clashes with armed groups threatened to become more intense, as in the Douentza circle and along the border with Mauritania, it provided temporary operational support. From 22 February to 6 March 2016, Operation Gabi mobilised Malian, Burkina and French forces.[fn] “Les armées malienne et burkinabée font patrouille commune à leur frontière”, Le Monde, 6 March 2016.Hide Footnote The results were limited: armed groups avoided combat and went into hiding during search operations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Barkhane Force, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote Armed groups in central Mali, less structured than the political-military groups in the North, often avoid direct confrontations. The FAMA and their allies do not manage to be effective against this diffuse threat.

B. An Area Neglected by the Algiers Talks

The peace process has ignored central Mali. As a participant in the inter-Malian negotiations that took place from June 2014 to February 2015 in the Algerian capital said: “in Algiers, we did not see many Fulanis from the centre”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former member of the MINUSMA mediation team, Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote None of the armed movements’ main representatives were from this area.[fn]Meetings took place between Tabital Pulaaku and Ganda Izo, an armed group recruiting mainly among the Fulanis in the Gao region. They did not lead to a lasting alliance, the Fulanis from the Gao region remaining poorly represented at Tabital. Crisis Group interviews, members of Tabital Pulaaku, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote Some public figures from the area approached MINUSMA to try and negotiate the official inclusion of their group in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process.[fn]In December 2103, a Fulani member of the elite from the Mopti region approached MINUSMA’s DDR unit with a list of about twenty applicants for demobilisation. Suspected of wanting to take advantage of DDR funds, he was referred to the groups that signed the Ouagadougou agreement, the only interlocutors at that time recognised for the purposes of disarmament. Crisis Group interview, former MINUSMA member, Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote Underrepresented in the armed movements that signed the Ouagadougou (2013) and Bamako (2015) agreements, they have been sidelined from the peace process.[fn]The underrepresentation of armed groups from central Mali also reflects their lack of resources and military forces. Crisis Group interview, former MINUSMA member, Bamako, February 2016.Hide Footnote

The peace agreement signed in June 2015 in Bamako applies to the northern regions and contains only rare references to the centre.[fn]Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, resulting from the Algiers process, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote Many public figures there, particularly Fulani, feel that history is repeating itself: peace is being built without them if not against them. Many believe that “you need to take up arms to be heard”. Some of them argue that the armed network that supports Kouffa has emerged precisely because there was no local armed group to bring the area into the spotlight. In this context, calls for the creation of self-defence groups are becoming increasingly common. 

C. The Temptation to Form Militias

The nomadic populations of central Mali have been tempted to resort to arms for some years now.[fn]However, some Fulani members of the elite Crisis Group talked to reject the idea of taking up arms or forming a Fulani army. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, Fulani religious leader and traders, Bamako and Sévaré, November 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote The absence of government combined with insecurity during the occupation in 2012 accelerated this dynamic. In Bamako, some members of the elite close to the government supported the idea of arming and supervising local self-defence groups.[fn]Djiguiba Keita, “Après Tenenkou, l’Etat va-t-il abandonner Macina?”, Maliweb, 20 January 2016.Hide Footnote The transitional authorities were reluctant to do this because the regular army lacked equipment and because they feared they might lose control over these groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani member of the elite and nomadic leader from Douentza, Bamako, February 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote  

While the return of public officials to central Mali is most often theoretical, persisting insecurity is currently reviving the wish of some communities to form self-defence groups. In the Macina, Fulani village chiefs have been meeting since 2013 to raise funds, mobilise young people and raise awareness to the idea among the elite in Bamako in order to obtain government support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, Bamako and Sévaré, February 2o16.Hide Footnote MINUSMA mediated to bring them together in Bamako in May 2014, which temporarily helped to reduce tensions without resolving the issue of local security.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former MINUSMA member, March 2016.Hide Footnote In May 2015, a delegation of village chiefs again went to Bamako to demand “steps to ensure the security of people and their goods in the central Niger Delta”. They publicly supported the creation of local self-defence brigades. They held meetings to pass on this message in the centre. Some prominent individuals, concerned that taking up arms would aggravate local tensions and fuel criticism against existing power structures, expressed scepticism.[fn]A meeting took place in Bony (Douentza circle, about 100km to the north east of Mopti) in August 2014, but the Fulani elites in the town were opposed to the idea of forming self-defence groups and wanted to disarm the Fulani Seedoobe nomads with whom they compete. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani member of the elite and researcher, Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote

Some Malian officers and politicians favour the formation of self-defence groups in the centre of the country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, Fulani religious leader and traders, Bamako and Sévaré, November 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote Security forces are divided about whether it is useful to use paramilitary groups as local intermediaries for their operations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of FAMA and security ministry official, Bamako and Sévaré, February 2016.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, MINUSMA is uncertain about the capacity of the elites in the centre, particularly Fulani representatives of the Tabital Pulaaku Association, to reach agreement among themselves on a joint project to achieve security. It also doubts that they are representative and capable of mobilising trained combatants, which they have lacked so far. As a member of MINUSMA said: “the Fulanis have not found their Gamou”, the name of the Malian general viewed as the main defender of the Tuareg Imrad cause in Mali.[fn]Crisis Group interview, MINUSMA member, February 2016.Hide Footnote

Members of the elite from Central Mali do not share a common agenda or vision to form a unified self-defence group. Some of them believe that forming self-defence groups may help fill the vacuum left by the FAMA’s inability to make the area secure: they would go where the regular security forces are unable to go for lack of resources. Others seek to use these groups to build a local political support base or attract aid funds (DDR, funding for peace). Still others believe that the fight will be more long term: Fulani communities in the centre of the country should form a common front in order to establish a position of strength with which to regain their place in the Malian mosaic.[fn]“We need to restore the balance of power so that we will not need intermediaries to protect ourselves. No Tamasheq will respect us if we do not do this”. Crisis Group interview, Fulani member of the elite, Bamako, November 2015.Hide Footnote These agendas are not necessarily contradictory but they do not serve the same interests and do not share the same vision of local security. Worryingly, even the more peaceful elements now seem resigned to the emergence of self-defence groups to try and contain the violence.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, Malian intellectual of Fulani origin, May 2016.Hide Footnote  

Faced with the gradual expansion of the centre’s insecure areas, the government is hesitating about what response to make. At the start of 2016, members of the Fulani elite in Bamako acted as intermediaries at meetings between senior government officials and political-military leaders of small armed groups active in the centre of the country.[fn]“At the instigation of some members of Tabital Pulaaku, a National Security Council led by Modi-bo Sidibé, ex-governor of the Ségou region, was formed to identify armed Fulanis with a view to including them in the DDR program. That implies that once they have been identified, they will be cantoned, disarmed and will participate in joint patrols with other armed groups”. Facebook page of the Kisal Association. Malian authorities allegedly paid some Fulani political-military chiefs from the centre to come to Bamako and help with “assembling their groups”. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani member of the elite who participated in these meetings and senior security official, Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote Shortly afterwards, the Malian press announced, with customary exaggeration, that “several hundred elements” of the MLF were in the process of joining the DDR program.[fn]Sékou Tamboura, “Situation sécuritaire dans le Macina et le Seno: 500 djihadistes d’Amadou Koufa rendent les armes”, L’Aube, 7 March 2016.Hide Footnote Lists of combatants were produced and centralised by members of the elite in Bamako who met with the MINUSMA in February and March 2016. Negotiations also took place to enable these groups from the centre to join the Coordination of Azawad Movements (known by its French acronym, CMA) and the Platform, the two coalitions of armed groups that signed a peace agreement with the government in 2015, and therefore benefit from MINUSMA-led DDR process. However, the control of these groups and the issue of their affiliation generate worrying tensions.[fn]In June, a group of Fulani combatants close to Ganda Izo, preparing for DDR, was reportedly attacked in the Gourma region, to the east of Douentza, by the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defence Group and allies (known by its French acronym, GATIA) who either did not accept their presence or were trying to recruit them into their own ranks. The death toll from the confrontation is unknown. Behind it lies the struggle to control armed groups in the centre and gain access to DDR resources. Crisis Group telephone interviews, members of Ganda Izo and GATIA, Malian researcher, June 2016.Hide Footnote

It is unlikely that the elements concerned are the most committed militants of the Kouffa network.[fn]Indeed, militants close to Kouffa reportedly threatened young people wanting to join the DDR program. Crisis Group interviews, security expert and Fulani member of the elite, Sévaré and Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote The initiative may nonetheless help to put a brake on recruitment by radical groups and encourage the more opportunistic elements, who are responsible for some of the violence in the centre, to turn away from them.[fn]Facebook page, Malian national reconciliation ministry, consulted in March 2016.Hide Footnote But there is a risk it will cause a misunderstanding: some sectors see this initiative as an opportunity to extend DDR to the centre and begin to buy local peace by distributing funds; others are concerned that it constitutes a kind of recognition that will only encourage militias to form. In Mopti, in January 2016, a meeting of representatives of different communities supported by the national reconciliation ministry repeated an appeal “to create monitoring units composed of young people and hunters in every part of the country or, if that is not possible, to create vigilance brigades in sensitive municipalities (where access is difficult and the army cannot intervene quickly)”. [fn]Facebook page, Malian national reconciliation ministry, message posted on 29 January 2016 (Crisis Group translation).Hide Footnote

In May 2016, violent clashes between armed Bambara and Fulani groups resulted in the death of at least 30 people and hundreds of nomads fled to Mauritania’s refugee camps.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, expert visiting camps in Mauritania, June 2016.Hide Footnote Members of the security forces allegedly helped to arm traditional Bambara hunters in order to halt the advance of jihadists in the centre. Shortly afterwards, armed Fulani elements, reportedly close to the jihadists, gathered near Mali’s border with Mauritania, raising fears they would reinforce jihadists in the area. In Bamako, the authorities are concerned and have revived the idea of forming Fulani self-defence groups distinct from the jihadist groups as a way of reducing the attraction that the latter are exercising over Fulani nomads.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, member of a Fulani Association in Mali, May 2016.Hide Footnote The current rise in tensions is leading to the constitution of armed groups that are more or less controlled by the authorities.[fn]The creation of the National Alliance for Safeguarding Fulani Identity and Restoring Justice (known by its French acronym, ANSIPRJ), a new political-military movement for the defence of the Fulani populations, was announced on 18 June 2016. It is led by Oumar Al-djana, a young Fulani teacher who claims to be a former MNLA member. The creation, still largely theoretical, of a new armed movement falls within the broader context of competition between Fulani elites to form an armed movement to represent them. “Oumar Aldjana: ‘Nous avons créé un mouvement pour mettre fin aux exactions contre les Peuls’ “, Jeune Afrique, 20 June 2016.Hide Footnote  

Without efficient action to reduce tensions, the centre could quickly become the new epicentre of violence in Mali.[fn]In the words of the Malian researcher, Boukary Sangaré. “Le Centre du Mali: épicentre du djihadisme?”, Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP), 20 May 2016.Hide Footnote Jihadist elements gain from these troubles by making themselves useful to some communities and consolidating their own positions. However, tension originates less from the supposed radicalisation of any community than from the government’s lack of legitimacy and the inability of the authorities to peacefully regulate local conflicts to secure the area. 

VI. Looking Beyond the Security Challenge: 
A Test for Crisis Prevention and Management Policies

Some groups affiliated to terrorist movements already exist in central Mali, but their numbers remain small and it is difficult to ascertain to what extent they coordinate their activities. Policies designed to combat violent radicalisation should not focus on anti-terrorist operations led solely by the security forces, especially as their methods are partly to blame for local people rejecting the government. They should take into account the broader context that is fuelling the increase in armed violence, as described in this report. As Crisis Group recently highlighted, resolving local conflicts will do more to contain violent extremists than countering violent extremism will do to prevent crises.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016. Full Report only available in English.Hide Footnote

Without the armed violence that has again affected the north since 2012, it is unlikely that resentment in the centre of the country would have so quickly resulted in political-military mobilisations. The two regions are undeniably connected but there are also major differences between them. For example, joining armed groups as a form of social integration and the criminalisation of the economy, especially drug trafficking, are much less developed in the centre. Specific responses must therefore be designed in each region. The Malian government should design a special plan to respond to the specific problems and forms of violence affecting the centre. This would avoid losing too much energy trying to extend to the centre the benefits of the peace agreement negotiated for other regions by their own representatives.

A. The Objective: A Government with Renewed Legitimacy in the Territories

The danger of increased armed violence in central Mali results less from the action of terrorist organisations than from years of negligence by the authorities and what are viewed as their unfair policies. The priority for the government, with the aid of Mali’s partners, should therefore be to restore its presence in the area in order to build good relations with the local populations. It must first understand the extent of rejection of the state by local people and rebuild its legitimacy not by returning to repressive, partial and authoritarian policies but, on the contrary, by playing its role of regulator, guaranteeing access to basic services and being on hand to help the people, including nomadic groups. 

This requires results in areas where work has already begun. Justice, which is too often corrupt and at the service of the powerful, must be independent and autonomous from those who hold political and economic power. The government must guarantee the populations’ access to basic services. In addition to justice and security, which are priority fields for intervention, the government must also invest in education and natural resources management. It should rethink its presence among the population, including nomadic groups. In today’s world, it is essential, for example, to intensify efforts to create nomadic schools. 

In terms of security, the government must reassure citizens and restore public order. As Crisis Group emphasised: “Jihadists’ ability to offer protection … is … usually more central to their success than ideology”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The government must again prove it has the capacity to protect. That requires, firstly, that the security forces regain credibility in the eyes of the populations. To break the cycle of predation by the “porteurs d’uniforme”, senior officers must punish abuses in a conspicuous way. 

The government must also start working on local security as soon as possible. The Malian security forces are currently too few in number to cover the entire territory.[fn]The Mopti region, which is twice the size of Belgium, reportedly has only 753 gendarmes, police officers and National Guard members to maintain order. Crisis Group interview, MINUSMA member, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote A territorial or communal police force, funded by regional or local authorities, should be put in place.[fn]Mali and its partners could learn from recent efforts in Niger to develop a local police force in the Agadez region. This project, still at the evaluation stage, was developed with the support of the EU, the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the Danish cooperation agency. Crisis Group interview, member of the EU delegation to Niger, Niamey, May 2016. Hide Footnote It would ensure security in places where other security forces only rarely venture. It could take responsibility for affairs that are under the remit of the police. The army, which has no investigative capacity, currently secures the area, but that is not its role.[fn]The Malian Security Forces (known by their French acronym, FDS) include the armed forces (FAMA) under the authority of the defence ministry and the internal security forces (national police, gendarmerie and National Guard) under the authority of the interior and civil protection ministry.Hide Footnote In addition, local recruits to a territorial police force would further reconciliation between local populations and the forces responsible for ensuring their security. Their powers and recruitment procedures should be clearly defined. The aim is to create representative police forces that serve local people and not communal militias that serve particular communities or interest groups. 

Finally, the government should try to end divisions between local elites, by encouraging them to take part in the political debate rather than resorting to arms to resolve their differences and rivalries. It is necessary to prevent political competition from leading to the formation of the kind of armed militias present in the north. Moreover, the stigmatisation of some nomadic elites because of their recent association with groups such as MOJWA is counterproductive in the long term. It is essential to avoid a situation in which some communities, feeling excluded, would be tempted to join radicalised groups to make their voice heard. In partnership with the government, local elites can play a central role. They should accept their share of responsibility for the current turmoil and stop blaming each other and manipulating desires for vengeance.

B. A Realistic Approach in Accordance with Government Resources

The hope that the 2012 crisis would provide a wake-up call to the nation and lead to ambitious governance reform has been largely disappointed. Public resources often continue to disappear before reaching intended beneficiaries. Development partners have been largely unable to reform aid policies. Worse, because of the insecurity, it has become more difficult for development aid to reach the more remote areas. The government remains constrained by limited budgetary resources. Investments in social services suffer as a result of the priority given to defence and security. In this context, recommendations to reform public administration in central Mali do not have much chance of success. 

A realistic approach is needed, one that carefully assesses what can be done in a situation suffering from such constraints. Rather than designing major new reforms, which rarely get much further than the ministries and departments in Bamako, the government should concentrate on practical action in the field. It must identify and work with all local actors, including members of civil society and those who, by necessity, made a pact with jihadist groups. The priority now is to invest in the neglected regions of the centre.

Given the extent of the needs in different parts of this still fragile country, the centre must find its champions, for instance a consensual figure able to win the support of the local people. The government could appoint a high representative for the central regions responsible for coordinating initiatives and preparing a special plan. The peace agreement has disregarded the centre so much that it cannot be implemented there. 

The different sectors of civil society in the centre, not only armed groups or those in power, must be closely involved in the preparation of such a plan, to ensure that the elite will not take the lead. The peace agreement signed in Bamako, rather favourable to the armed movements, was not the product of an inclusive process.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°226, Mali: An Imposed Peace?, 22 May 2015. Hide Footnote Only the DDR program, which pre-existed it, could be extended to the centre of the country, along the lines provided for in the agreement, to facilitate disarmament and reduce the increasingly worrying availability of war weapons.[fn]But it would be risky to extend to central regions the appointment of interim authorities as provided for in the peace agreement. That would provoke enormous tensions between the groups that might expect to choose these transitional authorities. Moreover, appointments to the Peace Agreement Monitoring Committee (known by its French acronym, CSA) of public figures from the centre would undoubtedly lead to arguments between signatory parties, which already clashed on these issues in 2015. That would paralyse even more the bodies responsible for monitoring the agreement. Hide Footnote

Mali’s partners should allow those in their ranks who have a more detailed knowledge of these regions (European Union, Netherlands, etc.) to take responsibility for dealing with matters relating to central Mali. Duplication and pointless competition should be avoided.

Together, the government and involved partners should identify and focus on priority causes: security, justice, education and natural resources management are probably among the areas requiring immediate strategic intervention. It is less a question of developing the economy of regions that are rich in natural resources than of rebuilding the ability of the authorities to regulate conflicts and guarantee access to basic services. Finally, it is necessary to stop prioritising security solutions in the fight against radical groups. Military efforts are certainly useful but they must not be the main response. The challenge is to restore the state’s presence and ensure that the population recognise its legitimacy.

VII. Conclusion

Violent extremist groups prosper in areas of tension where the state is absent, where its authority is contested or where it is only present in the form of its security forces, especially if those commit abuses. They take hold when conflicts between communities for access to natural resources worsen and when the government is too weak and traditional authorities too contested to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes. In these circumstances, radical groups know how to win ground by making themselves useful and by supporting some groups against others. They provide protection, arms and military know-how, but they are also able to respond to strong local demands for justice, security and, more broadly, moral standard in politics. Central Mali provides them with particularly fertile terrain in which to establish themselves. They avoid big gestures but chase the state and its representatives from large swathes of territory and gradually replace them with their own people. 

It is still time to prevent and contain this phenomenon. The government is contested but not entirely rejected, even among sympathisers of radical groups. Moreover, these groups remain poorly coordinated and a minority. Much of the violence is still perpetrated by predators who have no coherent political agenda and sometimes use religious arguments. By intervening in the centre, the government and its partners must, however, focus on the correct objective. The aim is not to destroy a few dozen armed individuals. Something else is at stake: the government must restore its credibility by taking action that is fair and useful to the communities, including nomadic ones. 

It is important for the government to show that it serves all citizens and that the political system is sufficiently open to allow them to participate in the management of their own affairs and security. Central Mali could become a showcase for the implementation of local government policies and early action to avoid national states collapsing and violent radical groups establishing themselves. For this to happen, it must not be neglected any longer.

Dakar/Bamako/Brussels, 6 July 2016

A Fulani man tries to insulate his tent from water after flooding an Internally Displaced People's (IDP) camp in Faladie, where nearly 800 IDPs have found refuge after fleeing inter-communal violence in central Mali, on 16 May 2019. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Report 293 / Africa

Reversing Central Mali’s Descent into Communal Violence

Au Mali, les violences dans la zone située aux sud et sud-est de Mopti prennent un caractère de plus en plus communautaire. Les autorités de transition devraient harmoniser les initiatives de dialogue, renforcer la présence étatique et traiter les problèmes de fonds, notamment les conflits fonciers.

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What’s new? Since 2016, the south and south east of Mali’s Mopti region have seen unprecedented violence targeting Fulani and Dogon civilians. Communal armed groups have taken root, helping bring an ethnic dimension to the area’s conflicts. 

Why does it matter? As violence takes on a communal character, civilians, men and women of all ages, are more frequently targeted based on their ethnicity alone. The presence of the state is dangerously waning, with jihadists and armed self-defence groups controlling more and more territory. 

What should be done? The transitional authorities that emerged following the 18 August coup should harmonise efforts to negotiate ceasefires and rebuild the state’s local presence. They should use both carrots and sticks to encourage demobilisation of militias, and seek to resolve land conflicts that are often the root cause of violence.

Executive Summary

Since 2016, an unprecedented wave of violence has swept across an area of central Mali to the south and south east of Mopti. The attackers – jihadists, the self-defence groups mobilised against them and others – target civilians in acts of mass killing, theft and property destruction. While sporadic at first, the attacks have now become more frequent and widespread. They have also become increasingly communal in nature, pitting the Fulani against the Dogon. The Malian government is partly responsible for the discord, having focused on fighting terrorism without paying sufficient attention to communal reconciliation or the state’s other vital functions. The transitional authorities that emerged after the 18 August coup should harmonise the efforts of various state entities and mediation NGOs to negotiate local ceasefires, which should also involve regional elites and security forces. In the long term, they should create the conditions for lasting reconciliation after the transition with ambitious reform of laws governing access to natural resources, especially land.

On 18 August, a group of army officers overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, after several months of demonstrations against his rule led by a coalition of opposition parties and civil society movements. The officers, who called themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), took over in Bamako. Less than a month later, the CNSP, though retaining significant influence, transferred power to transitional authorities who are to govern Mali for eighteen months. It is too early to say whether these transitional authorities will reform the country’s governance or reproduce the Keïta regime’s abuses. Either way, these authorities have inherited the former regime’s problems, from social discontent to implementation of the 2015 peace agreement, which mainly concerns northern Mali. In addition, the transitional authorities must put an end to violence against civilians and halt the expansion of jihadist and self-defence groups in the centre of the country.

Transitional authorities will have to pay particular attention to the zone exondée south and south east of Mopti, an area in the Niger river basin that is not submerged by the river’s annual floods. This region, representing less than 5 per cent of Malian territory, is the epicentre of the communal violence among Fulani and Dogon, who together make up the majority there. The arrival of jihadist groups in 2015-2016 set off a murderous spiral. Their attacks on prominent Dogon accused of collaborating with the state led Dogon figures to create a self-defence movement, Dana Ambassagou (“the hunters who trust in God”), which declared war on the Islamist militants. Some of the self-defence fighters attack civilians, most often Fulani, whom they suspect of aiding their enemy. In retaliation, Fulani armed groups, whether jihadist or not, are attacking the Dogon. None of the handful of local ceasefires has endured.

Although violence has intensified of late, the conflict is rooted in longstanding communal rivalries.

 Although violence has intensified of late, the conflict is rooted in longstanding communal rivalries. These have been exacerbated over recent decades by a pastoral crisis that has impoverished the nomadic Fulani, pressure on natural resources – particularly land – and the inability of either the state or traditional authorities to provide viable answers to these challenges. Such tensions have made the area fertile ground for the growth of both jihadist and armed self-defence groups. The conflict’s communal dimension has been reinforced by the establishment of these armed groups, which often recruit along ethnic lines. The involvement of Fulani and Dogon activists in Bamako, as well as in the diaspora, has also aggravated the situation, as has political exploitation of the conflict, in particular during the 2018 presidential election and the legislative elections of March-April 2020.

Faced with outbreaks of violence, the Malian government and its international partners launched several initiatives, at first focused on counter-terrorism. Then, taking account of the communal nature of the tensions, they developed an approach articulated around four axes: dialogue between the conflict parties and their respective communities; protection of civilians; disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of combatants; and, lastly, efforts to end impunity. In 2019, the government established a special administrative entity called the “political framework to manage the crisis in central Mali” in order to coordinate political and military efforts. These measures have thus far proven inadequate, however. In particular, dialogue initiatives are intermittent and overlapping, without achieving lasting ceasefires. Security forces focus far more on fighting terrorism than on protecting civilians. Malian soldiers have been unable to disarm self-defence groups or to stave off the jihadist threat.

To make the dialogue and security measures more effective, Malian authorities should harmonise them and sequence them better. They should also consider using additional tools, as part of a three-phase response. 

In the short term, the authorities must halt the spiral of violence, first by emphasising and harmonising dialogue efforts to negotiate local ceasefires, and secondly by establishing local peace committees headed by a regional committee. The Malian state and its partners, in particular the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali, should step up their security efforts while facilitating these dialogue initiatives and ensuring that any resulting truces are respected. Security forces should also prioritise the protection of people and property, increasing the number of troops and enhancing their rapid response capacities in hotspots. Forces should be redeployed in coordination with advances made through dialogue and the peace committees.

To sustain this short-term stabilisation, Malian authorities and their international partners should consider a structured response aimed at restoring the state’s credibility and promoting disarmament.

Then, to sustain this short-term stabilisation, Malian authorities and their international partners should consider a structured response aimed at restoring the state’s credibility and promoting disarmament. The state should demonstrate its usefulness as a regulatory body as well as a provider of security. It should ensure a distribution of goods and services adapted to people’s needs, and severely sanction corruption and favouritism to mark a break with past practices. To encourage disarmament, the state could both initiate legal proceedings against militiamen who have blood on their hands and offer an honourable way out to leaders who have not committed atrocities against civilians, for example by supporting their transition into the political arena.

In the long term, when the violence subsides, the state should tackle the structural causes of conflict in this part of central Mali, in particular management of access to natural resources. The present mechanisms for regulating land disputes are outdated at best. Traditional mechanisms have been overtaken by social change, while state land law is inconsistent, often giving rise to contradictory interpretations. Bamako should undertake in-depth study of land management in the zone exondée, bringing the actors involved to the table and drawing lessons from the inadequacies of current mechanisms, before overhauling land law and evening out its application. 

Bamako/Nairobi/Brussels, 9 November 2020


Since 2016, an exceptionally bloody conflict has shaken central Mali. Today, the areas to the south and east of Mopti town are the epicentre of violence in the country. Unlike what is observed elsewhere in Mali, notably in the north, this violence is hitting civilians hard, mostly Fulani and Dogon, and is characterised by mass killings, arson and theft or slaughter of livestock.[fn]In the north, notably in the Kidal region, most of the casualties in armed conflicts are themselves combatants. Except in the Mali-Niger border area, clashes have not degenerated into communal violence. There are still significant numbers of civilian casualties in the north, however. See Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Mollie Zapata, “Regions at Risk: Preventing Mass Atrocities in Mali”, Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, April 2018.Hide Footnote It is perpetrated by jihadists and communal armed groups. The deadliest attack occurred on the night of 23-24 March 2019, when an armed group stormed the Fulani village of Ogossagou, roughly 15km east of Bankass town. The group killed at least 157 people, including women, children and elders, slaughtered cattle, and set fire to at least 220 homes and dozens of granaries.[fn]See “Conclusions préliminaires de la mission d’enquête spéciale sur les graves atteintes aux droits de l’homme commis à Ogossagou le 23 mars 2019”, press release, UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission (MINUSMA), 2 May 2019. Other massacres occurred in 2019, notably in Koulogon in January (37 dead) and in Sobane Da in June (35 dead).Hide Footnote Since then, similar but smaller massacres have occurred periodically throughout the region, as well as almost daily assassinations.

The Dogon and Fulani are the two major ethnic groups in the zone exondée, representing approximately 6 and 9 per cent of Mali’s population, respectively. While the Dogon are largely farmers, the Fulani are mainly herders.[fn]In 2009, the Mopti region was 43 per cent Dogon (people for whom Dogon is the mother tongue), with a large majority living in the zone exondée, 26 per cent Fulani, 10 per cent Bozo and 9 per cent Bambara. See National Institute of Statistics, “4ème Recensement général de la population et de l’habitat du Mali: résultats définitifs, Tome 1 série démographique”, November 2011.Hide Footnote Political and economic tensions, especially concerning access to natural resources, have put them at odds for decades, even centuries. But never before have these tensions reached the levels of violence observed in recent years.

Several areas should be distinguished within the Mopti region. Jihadist groups are firmly established in the flooded part of the inner Niger river delta, the heart of historic Macina. As no one contests the jihadists’ control over this territory, violence against civilians has thus far been rare. The zone exondée, however, and in particular the four cercles (districts) to the south and east of Mopti town (see the map in Appendix A), is much more disputed between jihadists and self-defence groups.[fn]These are the cercles of Koro, Bankass, Bandiagara and Douentza. In 2009, these four cercles had a population of roughly 1.19 million and an annual population growth rate of 3 per cent. Based on this data, Crisis Group estimates the population of this area to be 1.6 million in 2019. See ibid.Hide Footnote Most of the violence against civilians is concentrated within this small area (around 54,000 sq km, or 4.35 per cent of Mali’s surface area, and with a population estimated at 1.6 million inhabitants in 2019).[fn]Since 2015, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) has documented nearly 500 attacks upon civilians in the zone exondée, of which around 30 claimed the lives of more than ten people.Hide Footnote Nearly 60 per cent of all conflict-related deaths in Mali in 2019 occurred in the zone exondée, and violence there is escalating.[fn]In 2019, ACLED recorded 1,881 deaths linked to the conflict in Mali, including 1,130 in the four cercles of the zone exondée. The first half of 2020 was the most violent period since the start of the crisis in this area, with an average of ten attacks per week and a total of 877 people killed, more than double the number of deaths recorded in the second half of 2019 (416 dead). ACLED databases.Hide Footnote The state, its external partners and civil society have mobilised to bring calm, but the situation remains volatile and marked by frequent episodes of mass violence.[fn]In early July 2020, suspected Fulani assailants attacked four Dogon villages in Bankass cercle, killing 32 people, including women and children. “Nouveau massacre dans des villages dogon dans le centre du Mali”, Le Monde, 4 July 2020.Hide Footnote

This report analyses the conflict dynamics in the four cercles of the zone exondée where civilians are the victims of rampant violence. It makes concrete recommendations for halting this spiral in the short term, and it suggests other actions that can help stabilise the region in the long run. Crisis Group has already published two reports (in 2016 and 2019) on central Mali and the problem of jihadist groups.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Reports N°238, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making?, 6 July 2016; and N°276, Speaking with the “Bad Guys”: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote This report complements the earlier two by analysing violent actors other than jihadist groups, and the dynamics behind them, though the jihadists continue to play an important role. Research for this report spanned a period of over six months, during which more than 60 interviews were conducted, including in Mopti and Bamako.

A Spiral of Violence

The situation that led to the spiral of violence in the zone exondée is well known. The region is populated mainly by Dogon and Fulani communities, and has been a powder keg for decades, due largely to social divisions, land disputes and sometimes violent clashes between herders and farmers. Jihadists from the area and its surroundings established themselves here as of 2015, sparking and fuelling an escalation of communal violence.

To assert themselves, jihadists attack those they consider hostile to their cause, in particular state actors, defence and security forces, and civilians whom they accuse of collaborating with the authorities. They target notable Dogon figures – but also Fulani dignitaries – as well as Dogon cultural symbols and places of worship that they consider idolatrous and prohibited by Islam. Thus, in October 2012 in Douentza, jihadists destroyed the Toguna, a Dogon meeting place.[fn]The fighting in the zone exondée is not, however, a religious conflict between Dogon animists and Fulani Muslims. Many Dogon communities are of Muslim faith. Moreover, jihadists have attacked the mausoleums of marabouts considered sacred by many Muslims. For details of the Toguna’s destruction, see Abdoulaye Diarra, “Douentza : Les islamistes détruisent le Toguna de la ville”, LIndépendant, 10 October 2012.Hide Footnote In 2016 and 2017, they assassinated two important Dogon hunters, deepening the frustration among the Dogon.[fn]On 13 October 2016, Théodore Somboro, a renowned Dogon hunter who served as a guide for Malian army units tracking down jihadists, was killed by men believed to be Islamist militants. His assassination led other hunters to create the armed group Dana Ambassagou. Several months later, on 16 June 2017, the assassination of Souleymane Guindo, another famous hunter, sparked hostilities between the Fulani and Dogon in the north of Koro cercle. Crisis Group interview, former member of Dana Ambassagou’s political bureau, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote Dogon formed a self-defence movement in response, Dana Ambassagou, recruiting mainly from the brotherhood of hunters and today including members of other ethnic groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dogon activist defending Dana Ambassagou, Bamako, August 2019.Hide Footnote

The presence of non-state armed groups, both jihadists and self-defence movements, is fuelling a gradual escalation of violence against civilians.

The presence of non-state armed groups, both jihadists and self-defence movements, is fuelling a gradual escalation of violence against civilians. In retaliation for jihadist attacks upon Dogon, Dana Ambassagou militiamen have attacked Fulani civilians whom they accuse of supporting and protecting the jihadists, the majority of whom are of Fulani ethnicity. In Koro, where the violent spiral was set in motion, clashes intensified in mid-2017, especially in areas where Fulani and Dogon are in conflict over issues of access to land and land use.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani dignitary from the Mbana chiefdom and Dogon activist member of Guina Dogon, both from northern Koro, August 2019.Hide Footnote These areas in Koro are the places where jihadist groups and the Dana Ambassagou camps first established themselves. The violence spread to neighbouring cercles in 2018, often coinciding with the arrival of displaced people from the two communities in Koro. In villages where Fulani and Dogon live side by side, the arrival of displaced people from one community gives rise to fears within the other, especially as the displaced often come with a desire for revenge.

Bankass cercle, to the south west of Koro cercle where Dogon and Fulani communities also live, in turn plunged into violence shortly after refugees from Koro arrived in 2018. Dana Ambassagou militia camps proliferated, including north of Koro and Bankass on the Bandiagara escarpment, the historic heart of the Dogon community which remained largely sheltered from violence until 2019. As soon as an armed group settles in an area, members of the opposing community organise to protect themselves or respond to possible attacks, which contributes to local violence.[fn]According to an elected official from Sangha, a predominantly Dogon commune located on the escarpment: “Our troubles started with the arrival of the Dana Ambassagou camp. At first, the villagers opposed the creation of the camp, but the hunters insisted. Now we have become a prime target, as shown by the attack on Sobane Da, in June 2019, when at least 35 Dogon were killed”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, November 2019.Hide Footnote

The violence is widening ethnic divides between people in the zone exondée. The Dana Ambassagou armed group thus prohibits the Fulani from going to certain villages with a Dogon majority, depriving them of access to markets, schools and health centres.[fn]Since the start of the 2017 school year, these measures have also affected Fulani students at Lycée Abiré Goro in Koro, who have had trouble finding accommodation due to the blockade imposed by Dana Ambassagou. In the Mondoro area, at least five Dogon villages have been blocked off by Fulani armed groups. Crisis Group interviews, former elected official from Koro and Dogon activist, Bamako, August 2019.Hide Footnote The armed group also forbids the Dogon from entrusting their cattle to Fulani herders or from hosting Fulani in their homes. In retaliation, Fulani armed groups impose blockades on certain Dogon villages, prohibiting their inhabitants from going into the bush and depriving them of access to crops.[fn]Not only do these measures widen divisions between Fulani and Dogon, but they also adversely affect the local economy, including depressing the income of women in both communities. Fulani women go to the market to sell or barter milk for cereals, while Dogon women are generally responsible for collecting and selling firewood. Crisis Group interview, Fulani and Dogon activists, Bamako, August and September 2019.Hide Footnote The cycle of fear and revenge forces everyone to take sides. Fulani and Dogon withdraw into their communities’ strongholds under the protection of their respective armed groups, thus creating a de facto separation between communities. Meanwhile, both sides engage in large-scale theft of animals, turning rustling into a weapon of war.[fn]Moïse Keïta, “Vols de bétails et destruction de greniers en pays dogon: Guina Dogon tire la sonnette d’alarme !”, Le Sursaut, 21 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Moïse Keïta, « Vols de bétails et destruction de greniers en pays dogon : Guina Dogon tire la sonnette d’alarme ! », Le Sursaut, 21 octobre 2019.Hide Footnote

The violence has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis.

Finally, the violence has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis. In addition to the killings, food insecurity is growing at a worrying pace in the zone exondée. The violence has caused massive displacement, with entire villages and hamlets razed to the ground and the populations forced to flee. In February 2020, there were over 56,000 internally displaced people in the area, of an estimated total population of 1.6 million.[fn]See “Mali: rapport sur les mouvements des populations”, UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), February 2020.Hide Footnote

Since June 2020, the levels of violence have dropped significantly.[fn]With only 28 deaths, the month of August 2020 was the least violent in almost two years. Although the end of 2019 was marked by unprecedented peaks in violence, the last quarter (July-September 2020) was far more peaceful. ACLED database.Hide Footnote The lull can be partly explained by the rainy season, which usually corresponds to a period of relative calm. Jihadists have also gained the upper hand in several communes and imposed their own peace initiatives (see Section V), which communities have generally accepted in order to start the farming season that runs from June to October.

A Space in Crisis: Roots and Recent Developments

To understand how such levels of violence against civilians have become possible, the profound social, economic and political changes affecting this part of Mali’s zone exondée must be examined.

A Difficult Cohabitation

The coexistence of Fulani and Dogon in the same region has long given rise to both confrontation and collaboration. In the 19th century, theocratic states dominated by Muslim Fulani imposed their rule over much of the region, creating strained relations with the Dogon, some of whom submitted, while most settled on the Bandiagara escarpment for protection.[fn]Military alliances crossed ethnic lines. Thus, the conqueror El Hadj Oumar Tall – of Toucouleur ethnicity, a Fulani subgroup – was defeated in 1864 by a coalition uniting the Fulani of Macina with the Dogon of the Bandiagara region. See David Robinson, La Guerre sainte d’Al-Hajj Umar: le Soudan occidental au milieu du XIXe siècle (Paris, 1988).Hide Footnote French colonisation led to the defeat of the theocratic states, disrupted power relations and ended the era of Fulani dominion. The colonial era also opened a long period of sub-regional migration, allowing Dogon groups from the Bandiagara escarpment to descend into the plains, where they settled with the support of the colonial administration, and with or without the consent of indigenous landowners, including Fulani.

Living in the same places created economic and social ties that eventually took precedence over ethnicity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani and Dogon representatives, Bamako, August-September 2019.Hide Footnote Local alliances often linked Dogon farming families to Fulani herdsmen on the basis of complementary economic practices. A local saying was that “every Dogon has their Fulani, just as every Fulani has their Dogon”, highlighting the fraternal and reciprocal nature of the ties between the two communities.

The period of confrontation in the 19th century left a deep imprint upon local memories, still fuelling resentment to this day.

Nonetheless, the period of confrontation in the 19th century left a deep imprint upon local memories, still fuelling resentment to this day.[fn]To justify his entry into war, Youssouf Toloba declared: “As long as I live, the Dogon country will not be enslaved!”, in reference to the era of Fulani dominion, when many Dogon were captured and enslaved. As for the Fulani, some are nostalgic for their theocratic states of the 19th century, which they consider a glorious era that colonisation brought to an end. For details of Toloba’s declaration, see Aïssatou Diallo, “Mali: accusé du pire, le chef de milice Youssouf Toloba ne désarme pas”, Jeune Afrique, 14 May 2019.
 Hide Footnote
After decades of relative calm, the local equilibrium is once again being put to the test. Environmental and socio-economic changes, many of which relate to the land and its exploitation, are placing great strain on local societies and rekindling old communal antagonisms. Recurring droughts and population growth put ever-increasing pressure on natural resources, especially land, water and pasture. It has become difficult to combine different forms of production, such as farming and livestock breeding, in the same area. Since the end of the 20th century, these tensions have revived latent conflicts that have degenerated into open violence in recent years.[fn]According to data on land conflict cases handled by the Mopti Regional Court of Appeals in the period 1992-2009, the most frequent conflicts are between farmers, totalling 573 cases or 69.9 per cent. After that come disputes between farmers and herders, with 100 cases (12.2 per cent), and then conflicts between fishermen and farmers, with 63 cases (7.7 per cent). Conflicts between farmers and herders often pit Dogon against Fulani or Bambara against Fulani. Tor A Benjaminsen, Koffi Alinon, Halvard Buhaug and Jill Tove Buseth, “Does Climate Change Drive Land-Use Conflicts in the Sahel?”, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 49, no. 1 (2012).Hide Footnote

Selon les données sur les cas de conflits fonciers traités par la Cour d’appel régionale de Mopti entre 1992-2009, les conflits les plus fréquents opposent des agriculteurs entre eux, avec 573 cas, soit 69,9 pour cent. Ensuite, viennent les conflits opposant agriculteurs et éleveurs, 100 cas (12,2 pour cent). Puis les conflits entre pécheurs et agriculteurs, 63 cas (7,7 pour cent), etc. Les conflits entre agriculteurs et éleveurs se traduisent souvent par des conflits entre communautés dogon et peul, ou bambara et peul. Tor Arve Benjaminsen, Koffi Alinon, Halvard Buhaug et Jill Tove Buseth, « Does climate change drive land-use conflicts in the Sahel? », Journal of Peace Research, vol. 49, no. 1 (2012).Hide Footnote

The Pastoral Crisis

While everyone in the zone exondée is suffering from the consequences of environmental change, the herders – a large majority of whom are Fulani – are the worst affected. More than others, they suffered from the droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, which decimated livestock in the zone exondée. The lack of adequate support from the state has made the process of rebuilding their herds both long and complex. For their part, farmers – many of them Dogon – also suffered from droughts, but since the 1990s the overall trend has been rising agricultural production.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°154, The Central Sahel: Scene of New Climate Wars?, 24 April 2020.Hide Footnote The authorities have tended to support development policies that favour sedentary farmers over nomadic herders, the latter often being associated with an obsolete world of cross-border transhumance, a practice less compatible with state laws and regulations.[fn]According to a study by the Association for the Promotion of Livestock in the Sahel and the Savannah (Association pour la promotion de l’élevage au Sahel et en Savane, APESS) between 2000 and 2010 in Mali, the livestock sub-sector received less than 8 per cent of budgetary spending in the agricultural sector. Yet livestock contributes between 25 and 33 per cent of agricultural GDP, depending on the year. “Élément de bilan du soutien public à l’élevage au Mali depuis Maputo”, APESS, 2014.Hide Footnote

This lack of support from both the government and international donors is also explained by the weak representation of nomadic herders at the local and national level.[fn]The Fulani populations of the zone exondée are very poorly represented in the Malian National Assembly. Between 2013 and 2019, only one deputy of twelve from the zone had a Fulani surname. In the 2020 legislative election, no Fulani candidate was elected in the zone exondée. Among the twelve deputies, ten have Dogon surnames and the other two have Tuareg and Songhai surnames, respectively. See Decision Nº2020-04/CC-EL 30 April 2020 affirming the final second-round results for the election of deputies. The lack of support for livestock farming is relative, however. Several development projects have supported livestock farming in the Mopti region, including the Livestock Development Operation in the Mopti Region (ODEM) and the Liptako-Gourma Livestock Development Project. But these projects were insufficient to compensate for the drought’s negative impact. For details of ODEM’s failures, see Mirjam de Bruijn and Han van Djik, Arid Ways: Cultural Understandings of Insecurity in Fulbe Society (Wageningen, 1995).Hide Footnote Although they have developed various mechanisms to cope with the crisis, such as becoming sedentary, practising agro-pastoralism or herding livestock over long distances, the economic situation for a large number of the region’s mostly Fulani nomads has become precarious.[fn]For a detailed analysis of the precarious situation of nomadic populations, see Mirjam de Bruijn, “Rapports interethniques et identité : L’exemple des pasteurs peuls et des cultivateurs hummbeebe au Mali central”, in Y. Diallo and G. Schlee, L’ethnicité peule dans des contextes nouveaux (Paris, 2000). Having lost many of their livestock, many have become simple salaried herders, looking after the herds of sedentary people who, thanks to agricultural surpluses and disposable income, have invested in cattle.

The Fulani have gone from being the region’s dominant political and economic force at the turn of the 20th century to its most marginalised group today. Children of nomadic herders receive less education than those of sedentary communities like the Dogon, meaning that adults get fewer of the professional opportunities offered by economic diversification and the extension of public services.[fn]In nomadic societies, schools are often shunned, in part because they are poorly adapted to the demands of a nomadic lifestyle, notably the transhumance calendar. Crisis Group interview, zone exondée residents, Bamako, August and September 2019.Hide Footnote These changes have deepened the divide between nomadic and sedentary communities, sowing mutual resentment.

The Land Rush

Competition for access to land intensified from the 1980s, particularly around the plains of Seeno-Gondo, vast areas suited to agriculture and livestock farming that extend from the foot of the Bandiagara escarpment to Burkina Faso.[fn]For details of early cases of land conflict, see de Bruijn and van Djik, op. cit., pp. 94-95Hide Footnote These plains have always been highly sought-after due to their ample pastures and agricultural spaces. In the past, the abundance of land ensured more or less peaceful cohabitation. But with the combined effects of population growth, Dogon migration from cliffs to plains, agricultural mechanisation and the impoverishment of former nomads who became sedentary, the demand for land has increased considerably in recent decades.[fn]For instance, many inhabitants of Sangha, on the escarpment, have been descending to the Gondo plain for decades in search of land to cultivate. One Sangha resident describes the situation as such: “We, the people of Sangha, had land all along the foot of the cliffs. But it was not enough. So, we tried to get more. In the 1960s, my father gave four granaries to a Guindo slave of the Fulani in exchange for 45 hectares in the plain, in what is today the commune of Madougou (Koro cercle)”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, November 2019.Hide Footnote

The rush for land has had destabilising effects, notably fomenting tensions between farmers and herders.[fn]It should be noted that a growing number of Dogon are investing in livestock and becoming de facto “herders”, while more and more Fulani are working in agriculture. Crisis Group interview, residents of the zone exondée, Bamako, August and September 2019.Hide Footnote The search for new spaces to cultivate has led farmers to occupy grazing reserves, animal corridors and areas surrounding wells. Their fields of crops hinder the movement of livestock trying to reach pastures and watering holes. Such land pressure threatens the pacts binding indigenous communities that own the land to the non-indigenous communities that merely exploit it.[fn]According to customary law, land belongs to the person or group who first settled on it (or is considered as such). Anyone who subsequently settles there must request permission from the first settlers to occupy and cultivate the land in the form of loans, often in exchange for a symbolic share of the harvest. Crisis Group interview, expert in Malian land law, Bamako, August 2019.Hide Footnote Thus, in the zone exondée, a growing number of indigenous landowners are seeking to evict non-indigenous communities that have occupied their land for generations, often going to court to do so.

These land disputes incite violence that is taking on a new dimension with the presence of armed groups, making conflicts more lethal.

These land disputes incite violence that is taking on a new dimension with the presence of armed groups, making conflicts more lethal. The conflict between the Fulani of Sari village and Dogon from Dinangourou (Koro cercle) is one of the most famous land disputes. In 2012, it led to the massacre of over 40 Fulani, the destruction of Sari and the exile of more than 200 villagers to Burkina Faso. Other conflicts in the centre of Koro, notably in Karakindé and Bembé/Anagadia in Madougou commune, have also fuelled the violence.[fn]These conflicts, some of which go back several decades, have been the subject of legal proceedings but have resulted in no lasting solutions. Guina Dogon, an association that works for the promotion of Dogon culture, has drawn up a list of the most well-known land disputes in the zone exondée. Copy on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

In the north of Koro cercle, the Dogon of Gondogourou and the Fulani of Mbana have faced off for decades. Here, tensions between the two communities stem from the Dogon farmers’ use of the Tolodié grazing reserve, which the Fulani control. These tensions escalated in 2002, prompting the Dogon to attack the Fulani village of Mbana, where they killed at least five people including the village chief.[fn]Crisis Group interview, dignitary from the Fulani chiefdom of Mbana, August 2019.Hide Footnote Despite several court rulings, the conflict was never resolved. In 2017, tensions resurfaced when armed groups, composed mainly of Fulani and Dogon, established themselves in the area, giving rise to new clashes that resulted in the assassination of the hunter Souleymane Guindo, a fervent defender of local “Dogon interests”. His death contributed to the outbreak of violence that eventually engulfed the entire region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, members of Dana Ambassagou, August and October 2019.Hide Footnote

Entretien de Crisis Group, membres de Dana Ambassagou, août et octobre 2019.Hide Footnote

The Governance Crisis

If tensions around land and natural resources are worsening, it is also because neither traditional nor state mechanisms for regulating conflicts are sufficiently effective or legitimate. Not only has the state been unable to settle disputes over access to resources or provide adequate public services, but it has also abused its authority.

Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms have become antiquated in the face of intense spatial and social transformation. Customary law is made up of unwritten rules that are subject to interpretation, and it sometimes lacks precision in its demarcation of land. It is also based on principles such as communal ownership of land that discriminate against the youngest or most vulnerable, like migrants and women.[fn]Moussa Djiré and Amadou Keita, “Cadre d’Analyse de la gouvernance foncière au Mali”, final report, Bamako, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The central authorities also seek to regulate access to land, but their interventions are often incoherent and do not reflect the realities of land ownership.[fn]Public land law recognises only landowners who hold deeds, yet very few landowners have these documents because acquiring them is a long and complicated process. The rights of the vast majority of landowners are guaranteed only by customary law. Hence, the systematic recourse to traditional authorities in the event of disputes, to the detriment of the public justice system. Crisis Group interview, expert in Malian land law, Bamako, August 2019.Hide Footnote Adjudicating land disputes is particularly difficult because of the overlap between public law and customary law. In 2006, the government adopted an Agricultural Orientation Law, which sought to harmonise the two types of law through local land commissions responsible for settling land disputes. These commissions have had a mixed impact, since customary law, despite all its above-mentioned shortcomings, always prevails.[fn]Téssougué Moussa and Dembélé N’dji, “Les organisations foncières coutumières à l’épreuve de la décentralisation: le cas du pays Dogon dans le cercle de Bankass (Mali)”, Alliance for Rebuilding Governance in Africa, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Téssougué Moussa et Dembélé N’dji, « Les organisations foncières coutumières à l’épreuve de la décentralisation : le cas du pays Dogon dans le cercle de Bankass (Mali) », Alliance pour refonder la gouvernance en Afrique, septembre 2017. Hide Footnote

The Malian state has never been sufficiently present in peripheral rural areas, including in the zone exondée.

More generally, the Malian state has never been sufficiently present in peripheral rural areas, including in the zone exondée. There are not enough public services, such as schools, clinics and courts, to meet local needs. Moreover, local populations do not place much trust in state actors and institutions, viewing them as predatory and corrupt.[fn]Mamadou Bodian et al., “The Challenges of Governance, Development and Security in the Central Regions of Mali”, SIPRI, March 2020; “6e tour de l’Afrobaromètre, Enquête au Mali 2014: Résumé et Résultats”, Afrobarometer and GREAT, 2014.Hide Footnote

The justice system is among the most criticised for its poor governance. Its dysfunction is due just as much to the predatory behaviour of magistrates as to a lack of resources and the complexity of certain legislation, including land law.[fn]Each of the four cercles in the zone exondée has an arbitration court, in which a single judge is responsible for investigations, prosecutions and judgments across the jurisdiction, with very limited human and material resources. Crisis Group interview, former justice of the peace in Koro, September 2019.Hide Footnote The ambiguity inherent in these texts helps explain judges’ contradictory decisions, which local litigants view as corruption.

Not only is the state struggling to convince people of its usefulness, but its representatives, in particular those in uniform (gendarmes and water and forest officials), are responsible for numerous abuses against civilians. Law enforcement agents such as rural market police and environmental protection officers are often accused of collecting excessive taxes and fines. They are also said to wrongly enforce laws that local populations are largely unfamiliar with. These abuses lead to discontent that is at the root of the state’s poor reputation and even rejection by citizens.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani activist from Dioungani, north of Koro, and local political actor from Baye, south of Bankass, Bamako, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote

Since the start of the crisis in 2012, and even more so since the outbreak of violence after 2017, the state’s presence in the zone exondée has waned. In rural areas where the state is passive if not entirely absent, various armed groups are expanding their authority in the areas of security, justice and even taxation. Village chiefs, mayors, prefects and sub-prefects are still present, but their powers are reduced or subjected to the “men with guns”. The situation accustoms local populations to the presence of these new authority figures, and consequently to the absence of the state, whose return appears ever more complicated.[fn]As a former prime minister asserts: “We see that with the current crisis, the state is gradually fading from the sight of local populations, and as the crisis continues, the authorities in Bamako are distancing themselves and losing touch with the ever-changing realities on the ground”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Comme l’affirme un ancien Premier ministre : « Le constat est qu’avec la crise actuelle, l’Etat est en train de s’effacer progressivement aux yeux des populations locales, tout comme à mesure que la crise perdure, les autorités à Bamako s’éloignent et perdent le sens des réalités du terrain, qui évoluent constamment ». Entretien de Crisis Group, Bamako, décembre 2019.Hide Footnote

An Increasingly Militarised and Communal Conflict

Rising tensions in the zone exondée have created fertile ground for the emergence of armed groups: those affiliated with jihadist movements in central Mali, notably Katiba Macina; the Dogon Dana Ambassagou self-defence movement; and Fulani self-defence groups.

These groups were responsible for the first flare-ups of local violence, which then evolved into large-scale clashes between entire communities of Fulani and Dogon. Through their rhetoric and practices, armed groups fuel the communal dimension of the conflict. They isolate people on both sides by imposing embargoes on the opposing community, and increasingly target individuals based on ethnicity, including women, children and the elderly. They even attack people within their own communities who oppose the communal nature of the conflict, accusing them of colluding with the enemy.[fn]For instance, when the Dogon village of Sogou, in the commune of Kassa, refused to have a Dana Ambassagou camp in their village, the militia imposed an embargo for 29 days and set the village a ransom of 1,800 million CFA francs ($3,000). Crisis Group interview, Dogon activist from Kassa commune, September 2019.Hide Footnote

The extent to which the conflict has become communal varies from one zone to another. The most prominent cases of ethnically motivated violence appear to be occurring in the north and centre of Koro, in Mondoro commune in the south of Douentza, in the centre and south of Bankass, and in certain areas around Bandiagara. In these zones, armed groups are often killing people on the basis of Fulani or Dogon ethnicity.[fn]See “How Much More Blood Must Be Spilled?”, Human Rights Watch, February 2020.Hide Footnote Most communities in these areas have withdrawn into their respective strongholds.

Jihadists: From Unifying Rhetoric to Communal Violence

As early as 2012, when jihadists from northern Mali were moving toward the centre of the country, many nomadic Fulani from the zone exondée were joining their ranks. The Fulani had several reasons for doing so: frustration with the state; tensions with other nomadic groups who had taken up arms within a largely Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad; and desire to reverse economic and political trends that were favouring sedentary over nomadic populations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former jihadist from Douentza circle, Bamako, 2016.Hide Footnote

From 2015, the creation of the jihadist group Katiba Macina sped up the recruitment of Fulani from the zone exondée.[fn]For details of the establishment of jihadist groups, particularly Katiba Macina, in central Mali, see Crisis Group Report, Speaking with the “Bad Guys”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Firmly established in the inner Niger river delta, where the Fulani are a large majority, Katiba Macina attracts sympathisers from the zone exondée, in particular Fulani nomads, by exploiting local dynamics: intra-communal tensions; land disputes between nomads and sedentary groups; and the impoverishment of non-indigenous groups by the great Sahelian droughts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mondoro, Koro and Bankass residents, Bamako, August, September and November 2019.Hide Footnote Although the majority of jihadists in the zone exondée are Fulani, a number of Dogon have also joined up.[fn]In April 2020, a video was broadcast on social networks and the media, in which a jihadist identified as Oumar Ongoiba is surrounded by armed militants and preaching to dozens of civilians in the Dogon dialect. See “Mali: Oumar Ongoiba, le nouveau visage dogon des djihadistes liés à Al-Qaeda dans le centre”, Nord-Sud Journal, 24 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Nevertheless, by exploiting local issues, jihadist groups are also drawn into conflicts that do not necessarily reflect their priorities.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Speaking with the “Bad Guys”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Thus, combatants from the zone exondée who had joined the founder of Katiba Macina, Hamadoun Koufa, in the inner delta, pressured him to protect their co-ethnics threatened by Dogon hunters. Since 2019, Fulani jihadists, in particular those from Seeno (the sandy plains to the east and south east of the Bandiagara plateau, between Bankass and the south of Koro), have at least temporarily left Katiba Macina’s stronghold in the delta to combat groups of hunters threatening their communities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani communal and associative leaders from Macina and Bankass, Bamako, August, September and November 2019. Hide Footnote

Entretiens de Crisis Group, responsables communautaires et associatifs peul issus du Macina et de Bankass, Bamako, août, septembre et novembre 2019.Hide Footnote

Although jihadist leaders claim to be opposed to communal violence, in reality they find themselves increasingly forced to engage in it.

Although jihadist leaders claim to be opposed to communal violence, in reality they find themselves increasingly forced to engage in it. At first, they openly rejected ethnic discourse, stressing that their foremost ambition was the universal application of Sharia law.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Speaking with the “Bad Guys”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Nevertheless, they do not have full control over the fighters in their ranks who take part in such discourse and violence, either to protect their communities or to attack Dogon villages. As a result, the jihadist leaders’ rhetoric has evolved.[fn]Ibid. Between 2015 and 2018, messages from Koufa and his supporters suggested a desire to overcome ethnic divides and form a broad inter-ethnic coalition in central Mali promoting jihad and Sharia law. In September 2018, Koufa broke with this rhetoric and shifted toward an ethnic discourse, calling on all Fulani in Africa to join the jihad. He was likely influenced in this move by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, GSIM), which at that time wanted to enlist more Fulani combatants. Since March 2019, Koufa has supported the jihadists’ growing involvement in the communal conflict in central Mali.Hide Footnote Today, it takes on a more openly Fulani perspective, defending these communities against attacks by hunters, whom jihadists accuse of siding with the Malian state.[fn]In an audio message, Koufa justified jihadist engagement against the hunters in the following manner: “The state armed traditional hunters to wage war against us in its place. When they failed, they started attacking the Fulani to exterminate us, since most of our fighters come from these communities. ... The hunters began attacking Fulani villages, and we have decided to support the latter since they are the victims of injustice”. He added: “We are helping the Fulani, since they are being massacred because of us”. Audio recording on file with Crisis Group, September 2019.Hide Footnote

More recently, local conflicts have also influenced the composition of jihadist groups in the zone exondée. At first, most jihadists in this area operated within Katiba Macina, which is affiliated with Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, GSIM) and, through it, the al-Qaeda network.[fn]Other jihadists in this area operate within the Katiba Serma and Ansarul Islam groups, two jihadist movements affiliated with or close to the GSIM, and whose respective bases are located in the south of Douentza cercle and in the north of Burkina Faso, bordering the zone exondée.Hide Footnote But in recent months, disputes have arisen between jihadists native to the Niger delta and those from outside it, notably Seeno, over access to the bourgou (special pastures in the delta which are highly coveted by herders). The disputes have led some of the latter to leave Katiba Macina and approach a network affiliated with the Islamic State, which is asserting its presence in the area by profiting from the power struggles between leaders of Katiba Macina’s local offshoots. This network is also drawing in local militiamen involved in attacks upon Dogon civilians and cattle theft.[fn]

Entretiens de Crisis Group, activistes peul originaires de Koro et Bankass, Bamako, novembre 2019 ; via messagerie Whatsapp, avril 2020.Hide Footnote

The Dana Ambassagou Self-defence Group

The Dana Ambassagou Dogon self-defence group has played a central role in the escalation of violence in the zone exondée. Created in late 2016, Dana Ambassagou presents itself as a self-protection force, shielding the Dogon from attacks by armed groups, most of whom at first were jihadists.[fn]Between September and October 2015, jihadists attacked several Dogon villages in Koro cercle, including Douna-Pen, Saberé and Bih, mainly targeting defence and security forces and their local collaborators. Noting the growth of the jihadist threat, nearby villages including Am, Bonto, Bondo, Omo and Kiri decided to set up sentry posts. These were the first camps of what was to become Dana Ambassagou. Crisis Group interview, Dana Ambassagou member, Bamako, August and September 2019.Hide Footnote It federated a number of sentry posts that Dogon had set up near their villages and established others. It mainly recruits among the dozo or traditional hunters, those whom Dogon culture considers “masters of the bush” holding occult powers they use to protect the community. But it also attracts many fighters from other backgrounds, including bandits and Dogon militiamen from elsewhere in West Africa, such as Côte d’Ivoire.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Dana Ambassagou and Dana Atem members, August and September 2019.Hide Footnote Although Dana Ambassagou criticised the Malian forces’ inability to protect civilian populations, it initially positioned itself as an ally of the state against jihadist groups.[fn]Ibid. The card issued by Dana Ambassagou to each of its members bears the emblem and motto of the Republic of Mali, even though these cards are not officially recognised by Malian authorities.Hide Footnote

Dana Ambassagou was formed after jihadists assassinated a renowned Dogon hunter, Théodore Somboro, in October 2016.[fn]In an audio recording attributed to Somboro as he lay dying, he declares: “I died for the country, especially for the Dogon, the Dafing, the Bobo, the Bambara, all Blacks. Take revenge, my hunter family! Go into the Fulani villages and kill everybody. They are the accomplices. They are the ones who killed me. I put my trust in you”. Audio recording on file with Crisis Group, October 2016.Hide Footnote At the time, a group of Dogon from Sévaré sought to unite Dogon hunters in a single movement that would protect what they called “Dogon country”. They were mostly businessmen and former militiamen from Ganda Izo (an armed group created around 2008 in the Gao region to fight the 2012 jihadist insurrection alongside the Malian army).[fn]The phrase “Dogon country” refers to the area where the Dogon population is concentrated, in particular the four cercles of the zone exondée (Bandiagara, Bankass, Douentza and Koro). Found in anthropological studies, today this phrase is a source of controversy. The Dogon use it to justify their claim to have historical rights to the territory. The Fulani reject it, saying it has no historical basis and ignores their own claim to the territory. As a Fulani from Bankass said: “By insisting on this name ‘Dogon country’, the Dogon want to do with our territory what the Tuareg have done with Azawad”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote But Dana Ambassagou did not have unanimous support in Dogon villages.[fn]Some villages experiencing land disputes between Dogon sub-groups refused to join Dana Ambassagou, like certain villages of Koporo-Pen south of Koro. Crisis Group interview, former elected official from Koro, Bamako, April 2019.Hide Footnote

Certains villages marqués par des tensions foncières entre sous-groupes dogon ont refusé d’adhérer à Dana Ambassagou. C’est le cas par exemple de certains villages de Koporo-Pen, au sud de Koro. Entretien de Crisis Group, ancien élu de Koro, Bamako, avril 2019. Hide Footnote

Since 2018, both Fulani civil society groups and several human rights organisations have accused Dana Ambassagou of deadly attacks on Fulani civilians.

At first, Dana Ambassagou claimed to stand solely against jihadists accused of sowing terror among the Dogon. But since the majority of jihadists are of Fulani ethnicity, members of Dana Ambassagou began denouncing the complicity of Fulani civilians and associating them with jihadists. Since 2018, both Fulani civil society groups and several human rights organisations have accused Dana Ambassagou of deadly attacks on Fulani civilians.[fn]“Central Mali: Populations Caught between Terrorism and Anti-terrorism”, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), November 2018; “‘We Used to Be Brothers’: Self-Defense Group Abuses in Central Mali”, Human Rights Watch, December 2018; “Situation of Human Rights in Mali – Report of the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Mali”, UN General Assembly, January 2019.Hide Footnote

The movement’s leadership is split in two: a military branch, whose general staff is headed by Youssouf Toloba, a dozo hunter and former Ganda Izo militiaman; and a political branch that is supposed to liaise with the outside world, led by Mamadou Goudienkilé, a former military man. Both the political and military branches are based near Bandiagara.[fn]Youssouf Toloba comes from a family of traditional hunters. Mamadou Goudienkilé is a retired Malian army captain. He is a political leader and president of the National Coordination of the movement. Marcelin Guenguéré, a former leader of the student movement, was its spokesperson until recently. He was removed following a decision by Toloba on 6 January 2020. Copy on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote The military branch holds most of the power. Its relations with the political branch are often strained.[fn]Thus in 2018, tensions between the political and military branches led to the movement’s split and the birth of Dana Atem, a smaller Dogon self-defence group. Crisis Group interview, founding member of Dana Atem, Bamako, August 2020.Hide Footnote Although Dana Ambassagou has successfully federated most of the village defence camps, the control it exerts over them varies from one camp to another.

Dana Ambassagou finances its activities mostly with the taxes and ransoms taken from villagers, and very likely also by looting the villages and hamlets that its forces attack. The movement frequently determines a sum of money and quantity of food that each village must provide in exchange for protection.[fn]According to one villager in the commune of Kassa, between 2017 and 2019, Dana Ambassagou demanded payment equivalent to seven million CFA francs in cash and in kind from his village. He reports that the latest contribution was 250,000 CFA francs, five bags of millet and one bag of rice. A former leader of Dana Ambassagou justified these demands: “People must understand that warfare management is very expensive. Fighters must be fed, their wounds treated, ammunition provided. ... The role of fighters is to agree to give their lives to protect the community. It is up to this community to support the fighters with funds and resources”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote It also receives donations from other Dogon in Mali’s big towns or in the diaspora. Beyond its mission to protect, the movement provides a rudimentary form of governance, meting out local justice and sometimes distributing humanitarian aid.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local elected official from Bandiagara, Bamako, November 2019.Hide Footnote

Links do exist between Malian authorities and Dana Ambassagou, but the latter was not created by the government, nor is it merely an auxiliary of the security forces. Its relationship with the authorities has gone through several phases. Until 2018, the two were collaborating closely.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former leader of Dana Ambassagou, Bamako, September 2019. Crisis Group has not corroborated allegations that the state played a role in creating Dana Ambassagou. Several members of the militia and senior state officials have in fact denied any such involvement on the authorities’ part. Crisis Group interviews, former minister, former member of Dana Ambassagou’s political bureau and former prime minister, Bamako, January, September and December 2019.Hide Footnote Dogon hunters served as scouts and informants for Malian soldiers operating in the area. Ideas for further cooperation grew ambitious. It appears that the government of Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (December 2017-April 2019) drew up a plan involving Dana Ambassagou in security and counter-terrorism efforts. This plan was never made public, but Youssouf Toloba acknowledged its existence.[fn]In a recent interview, Toloba expressed his regret that the present government has abandoned the agreement to fight terrorism and secure the zone exondée, which his movement had signed with Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga’s government. Bréhima Sogoba, “L’accord entre nous et Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga n’a pas été respecté”, Indicateur du Renouveau, 4 May 2020.Hide Footnote

Starting in early 2018, however, tensions between the movement and the government mounted following international organisations’ denunciations of Dana Ambassagou abuses directed at civilians. In July 2018, Malian soldiers burned dozens of motorcycles belonging to Dana Ambassagou fighters, accusing them of failing to respect the state’s ban on carrying weapons and driving motorcycles.[fn]“Communiqué du mouvement Dan Na Amba Sagou”, signed by Youssouf Toloba in Toungoulou, Bandiagara cercle, 14 July 2018.Hide Footnote Relations between Dana Ambassagou and the government became even more strained following the March 2020 massacre in the Fulani village of Ogossagou, in which the movement was reportedly involved.[fn]“Conclusions préliminaires de la mission d’enquête spéciale sur les graves atteintes aux droits de l’homme commis à Ogossagou le 23 mars 2019”, press release, MINUSMA, 2 May 2019.Hide Footnote Under pressure from international partners and Fulani associations, the government ordered the movement’s dissolution. But Dana Ambassagou denies any responsibility for these attacks and refuses to dissolve until the Malian state can ensure the safety of Dogon communities.[fn]Mohamed Naman Keita, “Dissolution de Dana Ambassagou : la réplique de Youssouf Toloba”, Le 22 Septembre, 28 March 2019.Hide Footnote The movement even accuses the Malian army of bombing its positions three times in 2018 and 2019.[fn]F. Coulibaly, “Mali: le bombardement de sa base, le Dan Na Ambassagou accuse le gouvernement”, Le Fondement, 16 September 2019.Hide Footnote

Paradoxically, the pressure placed on the group by the Malian government and the international community has prompted a large wave of support for Dana Ambassagou on the part of Dogon associative movements. Dana Ambassagou uses attacks upon Dogon villages by alleged Fulani assailants, including that on Sobane Dah in June 2019, as a pretext to justify its continued existence and expand its grassroots base.[fn]In a statement on 10 June 2019, the day of the attack, Dana Ambassagou said the Sobane Dah attack was “a declaration of war”, which it duly acknowledges, going on to “reassure the populations that it is ever ready to ensure their safety” and “invite all the sons of Dogon country to show solidarity in order to succeed … in safeguarding the survival of our populations and the freedom of Dogon country”. “Mali: communiqué Dan Na Ambassagou”, Maliactu.net, 10 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Dans un communiqué rendu public le 10 juin 2019, le jour de l’attaque, Dana Ambassagou considère l’attaque de Sobane Dah comme « une déclaration de guerre » dont il prend acte, « rassure les populations de sa disponibilité à assurer davantage leur sécurité » et « invite tous les fils du pays dogon à la solidarité pour réussir… la survie de nos populations et de la liberté du pays dogon ». « Mali : communiqué Dan Na Ambassagou », Maliactu.net, 10 juin 2019. Hide Footnote

Dozo militiamen, in the village of Sangha, Dogon Country, November 19, 2019, Mopti region, Mali. Amaury Blin / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP
Fulani Self-defence Groups

The violence perpetrated by Dana Ambassagou against Fulani civilians has led some of them to organise into vigilante groups to protect their villages, but not without difficulty.[fn]Former militiamen, such as Oumar Aldjanna and Hama Foune, claim to have formed Fulani militias in central Mali, but they struggle to provide proof of their existence on the ground.Hide Footnote Young Fulani who seek to join these self-defence groups are caught in the crossfire. On one hand, Malian soldiers are accused of viewing any Fulani carrying a weapon as a jihadist who can be arrested, forced to disarm and even executed without trial.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani activist, Bamako, November 2019.Hide Footnote On the other hand, jihadists consider any armed Fulani living in an area under their control and who does not join them to be a potential threat: he could be an enemy collaborating with the army or counter-terrorist forces. Influential Fulani figures have launched initiatives to support former militiamen who fought in armed groups in Mali and abroad, with the aim of forming non-jihadist Fulani self-defence groups.[fn]The only non-jihadist Fulani militia in the zone exondée is led by Sekou Allaye Bolly, who represents the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad – a signatory of the Algiers Peace Agreement – in the Mopti region. Bolly defines his objectives in connection with DDR measures (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) and refuses to engage in offensives against Dana Ambassagou or to protect the Fulani. Crisis Group interview, Fulani militia leader in central Mali, Bamako, August 2019.
 Hide Footnote

La seule milice peul non jihadiste présente dans la zone exondée est celle dirigée par Sékou Allaye Bolly, membre du Mouvement de salut de l’Azawad, mouvement signataire de l’accord d’Alger, qu’il représente dans la région de Mopti. Le chef de file de ce mouvement définit ses objectifs en lien avec le processus de désarmement, démobilisation et réintégration et refuse d’engager des offensives contre Dana Ambassagou ou pour la protection des Peul. Entretien de Crisis Group, dirigeant d’une milice peul du centre du Mali, Bamako, août 2019.Hide Footnote

There are growing numbers of armed individuals in Fulani villages who are organising to protect their communities or to attack Dogon villages.

Since the Ogossagou attacks in March 2019, local Fulani leaders have been negotiating with both the military and jihadists in an attempt to get them to accept the presence of self-defence groups in Fulani camps and villages.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani community leader from southern Bankass involved in negotiations between jihadists and soldiers, Bamako, November 2019.Hide Footnote There are growing numbers of armed individuals in Fulani villages who are organising to protect their communities or to attack Dogon villages. Jihadist groups, also increasingly involved in conflicts in the zone exondée, are growing ever more tolerant of their presence. The two often operate side by side, to the point that it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani activist from Koro, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote These Fulani armed groups are also often considered responsible for attacks upon Dogon civilians. Since 2019, their development has coincided with a significant increase in large-scale attacks upon Dogon villages.[fn]A Fulani activist involved in setting up vigilante groups justified the attacks on Dogon civilians as follows: “We told our young people to act just like the Dogon militiamen: to attack Dogon women and children just like Dana Ambassagou kill our women and our children”. He added: “As long as the Dogon do not feel the pain that we feel when we lose our own, they will not stop attacking us”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, November 2019.Hide Footnote

In other words, the non-jihadist armed groups recruiting among the Fulani are less structured and constitute a lesser force than jihadists or the Dana Ambassagou movement. It is difficult to anticipate how they might evolve, and their future in a possible disarmament process is uncertain.

The Roles of the Diaspora and Political Actors

Outside actors, be they politicians, members of civil society, or members of the Fulani and Dogon diaspora abroad, have contributed to giving the conflict a communal tinge. In addition, the political exploitation of the conflict, in particular during the 2018 presidential election and the 2020 legislative elections, polarised political discourse and underscored the communal nature of the violence.[fn]In the affected areas, local populations are generally able to differentiate between members of the opposing community with whom they are in conflict and those who are not involved or even those with whom they are friendly. These nuances disappear when more distant actors become involved in the conflict, notably through social networks. Crisis Group interview, representative of Tapital Pulaaku in Mopti, Sévaré, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Members of Tapital Pulaaku and Guina Dogon, two organisations that promote the Fulani and Dogon cultures, respectively, have played a controversial role. Although the two organisations officially advocate reconciliation between Fulani and Dogon, their leaders’ discourse has often become more aggressive under the influence of their younger, hot-headed members.[fn]Tapital Pulaaku officials have accused the Dana Ambassagou militia of perpetrating a “genocide” against the Fulani. On the other side, a leader of Guina Dogon told Crisis Group: “The truth is that the problem stems from them [the Fulani]. They are the ones against the Bambara in Djenné, against the Bozo in Macina, against the Tamashek in Ménaka”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, August 2019.Hide Footnote Similarly, associations of young Fulani and Dogon have used social media networks to polarise the debate, notably by creating Facebook forums where participants leave unfiltered comments about each attack.[fn]For example, on Facebook pages such as “Jeunesse Tapital Pulaaku-Mali” and “Le Pays Dogon”.Hide Footnote Heated discussions and hate messages accumulate on the platform daily. The individuals taking part in these debates are not necessarily from the zone exondée. Far from the conflict and largely getting their information from social media, some spew ethnically motivated, warmongering rhetoric.[fn]In an audio recording widely shared on social networks, a Dogon claiming to be Ibrahima Guindo, based in Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire, says the following: “Since the start of the conflict, I said that we had to exterminate the Fulani in Dogon country. Or else there will never be peace. ... As long as a single Fulani hamlet remains in Dogon country, peace will be haram [forbidden]. We must know and understand this”. Audio recording on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

Political actors have also played the communal card for electoral purposes. During the 2018 presidential campaign, local politicians used candidates’ ethnic identities to motivate voters.[fn]During the second round between Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and Soumaila Cissé, supporters of the candidates brought into play the fact that Soumaila Cissé has a Fulani surname while Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has a Manding name, perceived as being closer to the Dogon. Crisis Group interview, former member of Dana Ambassagou’s political bureau, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote More recently, during the legislative elections of March and April 2020, influential members of Dana Ambassagou, including the former spokesperson, Marcelin Guenguéré, and the activist Hamidou Djimdé, a fervent defender of the movement in the media and on social networks, stood as candidates in the Koro constituency on behalf of an independent list called Le Mali qui bouge – Alliance Ama-Kéné (Mali on the Move – Ama-Kéné Alliance). During their campaign, these candidates exploited antagonisms between the Dogon and Fulani to gain votes, presenting themselves as hunters who protect the Dogon from the Fulani.[fn]In a video widely shared on social networks, we see Marcelin Guenguéré speaking in Dogon during an electoral rally: “It’s true that the hunters are your defenders, you should vote for this list. This sparrow-hawk [referencing the emblem on their list] doesn’t take chicks, it’s a sparrow-hawk that takes Fulani. … Vote for the sparrow-hawk! If you vote for anything else, you are a Fulani, and the hunters know what to do with the Fulani. May God preserve you’’. Video recording on file with Crisis Group. Translation from Mamadou Sagara, “Appel au meurtre des peuls à Koro’’, Facebook page of Jeunesse Tapital Pulaaku-Mali, 25 April 2020.Hide Footnote This rhetoric paid off: the Mali qui bouge list was elected in Koro cercle after the second round of legislative elections in April 2020.[fn]Decision Nº2020-04/CC-EL of 30 April 2020 affirming the final second-round results for the election of deputies to the National Assembly.Hide Footnote

Arrêt n° 2020-04/CC-EL du 30 Avril 2020 portant proclamation des résultats définitifs du deuxième tour de l’élection des députés à l’Assemblée nationale.Hide Footnote

A growing number of Fulani and Dogon villages are refusing to succumb to the communal rhetoric surrounding the conflict.

At the same time, a growing number of Fulani and Dogon villages are refusing to succumb to the communal rhetoric surrounding the conflict.[fn]Some Dogon villages with internal land conflicts refused to join Dana Ambassagou, like certain villages of Koporo-Pen in southern Koro. The villages of Berdossou, Sogou (in Koro cercle) and Borko (in Bandiagara cercle) have openly refused to join Dana Ambassagou. In response, the movement imposed fines and even attacked villagers. There were armed clashes between Dana Ambassagou and the Dogon villagers of Berdossou in July 2020. Crisis Group telephone interviews, former elected official from Koro, Kassa resident and Diankabou resident, Bamako, January 2019, August 2019 and April 2020.Hide Footnote Not only are there areas where Fulani and Dogon continue to live side by side, but Dogon villages are increasingly rejecting Dana Ambassagou camps and even turning to Fulani fighters to protect them from reprisal.[fn]In Borko, villagers refused to pay Dana Ambassagou’s fines. When threatened, the Dogon villagers turned to largely Fulani jihadist groups for protection. A clash between the two armed groups near the village in March 2020 left more than 100 dead. Crisis Group telephone interview, northern Koro resident, April 2020.Hide Footnote There are also cases of Fulani who are returning to their villages to live among Dogon after they had fled due to the violence.[fn]Fulani from the village of Deh (Bandiagara cercle) fled the violence, but recently returned under the protection of the village’s Dogon community. Crisis Group telephone interview, northern Koro resident, April 2020.Hide Footnote

There is continued debate concerning the degree to which the conflict is communal in nature; some analysts reject the idea, stressing that violence is not linked to ethnic antagonisms. Local actors often repeat that “the communities have no problems with each other”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Guina Dogon and Tapital Pulaaku leaders, Bamako, August 2019.Hide Footnote Yet ethnicity has played a central role in the mobilisation of violent groups and the phenomenon of attacks upon civilians. While many rejected the ethnically charged discourse at first, the communal dimension of the conflict has gradually imposed itself.

Government and International Initiatives to End the Crisis

Mali’s government and its international partners, notably the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission (MINUSMA) deployed in the country’s centre, have not remained passive in the face of rising violence in the zone exondée. Their actions have focused on four major axes: inclusive dialogue; redeploying the state and providing security; the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of self-defence groups and all other armed actors wishing to join the process; and lastly, efforts to end impunity. The government has created a special administrative entity called the “political framework to manage the crisis in central Mali”. It is headed by the prime minister and aims to coordinate the political and military efforts of the government and international partners.[fn]Decree N°2019-0423/PM-RM of 19 June 2019.Hide Footnote Thus far, however, these efforts have yielded few results.


Since 2017, promoting dialogue between Fulani and Dogon and between armed groups has been at the heart of the strategy to end the crisis in the zone exondée. Many actors, including the government, mediation NGOs, local organisations and associations from central Mali, have supported such initiatives. But the attempts to start dialogue initiatives are poorly coordinated and indeed often in competition.

Several government bodies, including the prime minister’s office, the ministry of national reconciliation and the ministry of territorial administration, have pursued dialogue as a solution to conflicts in the zone exondée. In 2017, the ministry of national reconciliation set up the National Reconciliation Support Mission (Mission d’appui à la réconciliation nationale, MARN) to facilitate a return to peace. With the help of its Regional Support Team for National Reconciliation (Équipe régionale d’appui à la réconciliation nationale, ERAR) and local committees, the MARN intervenes in Mopti villages under attack to ease tensions between warring groups and the communities they claim to represent.[fn]In March 2018, the ERAR from Mopti carried out several missions in Koro and Bankass to promote peace between the Fulani and Dogon. Crisis Group interview, ERAR member from Mopti, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote The governor and prefects also help the ministry of territorial administration organise forums for reconciliation and communal dialogue. Between April and May 2019, around 40 such meetings took place across the region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior ministry of territorial administration official, Bamako, October 2019.Hide Footnote

For his part, former Prime Minister Boubou Cissé (April 2019-August 2020), much like his predecessor Soumailou Boubèye Maïga, frequently visited the zone exondée to promote peace through inter-ethnic dialogue. His approach differed from that of the ministries. He launched reconciliation missions relying on elites originally from the area who were based in Bamako. From July 2019, these missions criss-crossed the Koro, Bankass, Bandiagara and Douentza cercles to seek concrete ways out of conflict in areas where it was raging.[fn]Cissé’s reconciliation missions took place between July and August 2019. They were led by two influential figures from the zone exondée: the businessman Saydou Natoumé from the Dogon side and the banker Babaly Bah from the Fulani. They brought together mixed Dogon and Fulani groups made up of local and national elected officials, civil society actors and community leaders. These groups stayed in localities within the zone exondée to launch an inter-ethnic dialogue. But these missions only lasted a few days and were not followed up by concrete actions; they thus failed to have a lasting effect on the violence. Crisis Group interview, reconciliation mission members, Bamako, January, August and September 2019.Hide Footnote An interval of peace in July and August 2019 came in these missions’ wake, but it seems largely due to the rainy season, which is usually calmer than others. In November, violence flared up once more.

The government has also mandated mediation NGOs to facilitate dialogue be-tween Fulani and Dogon and between armed groups.

The government has also mandated mediation NGOs to facilitate dialogue between Fulani and Dogon and between armed groups. In particular, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) organised several forums and consultations, some of which resulted in ceasefire agreements between (non-jihadist) Fulani and Dogon militias, as well as agreements between Fulani and Dogon village chiefs in Koro cercle.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Speaking with the “Bad Guys”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Some of HD’s initiatives are restricted to particular communes. They allow local actors to engage in extended discussions, until warring groups can sign local ceasefires. The Baye and Ouenkoro peace agreements (Bankass cercle), signed in July and August 2019, respectively, came about in this fashion. Other international actors, including MINUSMA and the NGO Search for Common Ground, have teams on the ground mediating between conflict parties.[fn]MINUSMA, in collaboration with the ERAR, led mediation initiatives in the area, notably in Diankabou and Dioungani in Koro cercle. Crisis Group interview, MINUSMA actor, October 2019.Hide Footnote

Influential figures from the zone exondée have formed an Organising Committee for dialogue on the crisis in central Mali, through which they mediate between Fulani and Dogon armed groups. Thanks to their efforts, a ceasefire was signed in July 2019 between the Dana Ambassagou spokesperson at that time, Marcelin Guenguéré, and the Fulani militia leader Sekou Bolly.[fn]Marcelin Guenguéré and Sekou Bolly, “Communiqué conjoint”, Sévaré, 1 July 2019.Hide Footnote This agreement was immediately rejected, however, by Dana Ambassagou’s military leader, Youssouf Toloba, who had no part in concluding it, and it therefore had no concrete effect on the ground.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Organising Committee member, Bamako, August 2019.Hide Footnote

Despite the fact that so many stakeholders are involved in promoting dialogue, several obstacles stand in their way, and the overall impact is underwhelming. First of all, the dialogue initiatives are meant to be complementary, but they suffer from a lack of coordination and often seem to compete with one another.[fn]According to a member of the Mopti ERAR: “Dialogue has become a market. Many actors rush toward it, sometimes with no mandate or legitimacy, because funding is available, so ‘there is food and drink there’. Today, every community meeting takes place in the name of dialogue and reconciliation”. Crisis Group interview, September 2019.Hide Footnote For instance, the initiatives launched by the MARN and the ministry of territorial administration often concern the same localities and rely on the same local actors, yet there is little coordination between the two. It often seems that these initiatives are serving the competing political aims of the two ministers in charge, rather than inaugurating a real local dialogue.[fn]A senior official in the prime minister’s office commented: “Each minister wants to shine. Each wants to be associated with one notable action or another.” Crisis Group interview, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote The government is well aware of these coordination difficulties; through its political framework to manage the crisis in central Mali, it seeks to regain control and harmonise the dialogue initiatives. But the results of these efforts are still pending.

Furthermore, the initiatives are generally limited to discussions between conflicting actors with a view to suspending the violence. They are often sporadic and rarely followed by concrete actions to tackle the conflict’s root causes. Even when they do lead to ceasefires, the lulls in fighting tend to be short-lived.

In January 2020, the government opened the door to dialogue with Malian jihadists, but it is still too early to determine what will happen on the ground.

Finally, most agreements exclude jihadists or include them only indirectly. The rare local agreements, like those of Baye and Ouenkoro, which include jihadists – albeit indirectly – seem to have succeeded in reducing the violence at least temporarily, unlike the agreements that exclude them.[fn]After the agreements were signed, violence fell significantly around Baye and Ouenkoro in the second half of 2019. Crisis Group interview, mediation NGO staffer, September 2019.Hide Footnote Until recently, the government officially rejected the possibility of a dialogue with jihadists, and the international community is reluctant to support such initiatives.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Speaking with the “Bad Guys”, op. cit.Hide Footnote In January 2020, the government opened the door to dialogue with Malian jihadists, but it is still too early to determine what will happen on the ground.[fn]These agreements generally aim to find a modus vivendi to which both warring parties can agree in order to end the violence, but they do not confront fundamental problems. Mediation NGOs criticise Malian authorities for not fully backing these agreements: by redeploying state services and guaranteeing the impartiality and integrity of state officials, Malian authorities could help perpetuate the reconciliation process once a truce is established. Crisis Group interview, mediation NGO leader, Niamey, February 2020. For President Keïta’s statement on dialogue with the jihadists, see Christophe Boisbouvier and Marc Perelman, “Le président malien IBK annonce un dialogue avec des chefs jihadistes”, RFI, 10 February 2020.Hide Footnote

For their part, jihadists are not waiting for the state to take the first step; they are launching their own initiatives. After gaining the upper hand over Dana Ambassagou hunters, particularly in northern Koro, they initiated discussions with Dogon notables with a view to re-establishing a local peace. The jihadists set out conditions that Dogon villagers would have to agree to, notably: staying out of their fight with the Malian state; laying down arms; renouncing vengeance linked to past conflicts; and dropping demands for the return of stolen property, especially livestock. Several Dogon villages in the cercles of Koro and Bandiagara have accepted these conditions so as to initiate the farming season, but many others still reject what they consider to be a jihadist diktat.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani activists from Koro cercle, via WhatsApp messaging, September 2020. For further information on peace initiatives led by jihadists, see Célian Macé, “Au Mali, les jihadistes se font parrains de la paix”, Libération, 21 September 2020.Hide Footnote

Entretiens de Crisis Group, activistes peul originaires du cercle de Koro, via messagerie Whatsapp, septembre 2020. Pour plus de détails sur les initiatives de paix conduites par les jihadistes, voir Célian Macé, « Au Mali, les jihadistes se font parrains de la paix », Libération, 21 septembre 2020.Hide Footnote

Security Efforts

While the government is pursuing dialogue, it has made security a priority for its crisis exit strategy by means of the Integrated Security Plan for the Central Regions (PSIRC), rolled out in February 2018. This plan seeks to combine security efforts, the return of public services and development in the central regions. As part of the strategy, as of 2018, defence and security forces set up outposts in the areas most affected by violence, including Diankabou, Dioungani and Dinangourou in Koro cercle; Sokoura, Baye and Diallasagou in Bankass; and Mondoro in Douentza.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mopti governorate official, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote These new bases come in addition to existing ones, notably in the municipal centres of each cercle.

The government is intensifying its security efforts. In July 2019, it announced that it would deploy an additional 3,500 defence and security personnel to the area.[fn]“Mali : Boubou Cissé annonce des mesures sécuritaires dans le centre”, RFI, 8 July 2019.Hide Footnote In January 2020, the military also launched Operation Maliko to regain control of the centre of the country and reimpose the rule of law. But the additional military presence has come with accusations of extrajudicial abuses of civilians, in particular Fulani, whom soldiers often take to be jihadists or jihadist collaborators.[fn]Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights have documented several cases of extrajudicial abuses committed by the Malian security forces. For details, see “How Much More Blood Must Be Spilled?”, op. cit.; and “Central Mali: Populations Caught between Terrorism and Anti-Terrorism”, op. cHide Footnote

Moreover, since the launch of this operation, the armed forces have abandoned several outposts and gradually withdrawn to large garrisons, including in the zone exondée.[fn]At the end of January, defence and security forces notably withdrew from their positions in Diankabou and Dioungani, two areas experiencing high levels of violence against civilians. In February 2020, the army’s withdrawal from the village of Ogossagou allowed suspected Fulani assailants to commit a second massacre there. See “Le village d’Ogossagou dans le centre du Mali, cible d’une nouvelle attaque”, Le Monde, 14 February 2020. Moreover, defence and security forces withdrew from outposts both in the centre and in the north.Hide Footnote The withdrawal likely signals a strategic shift on the part of a government that no longer wishes to scatter its forces across static positions, which are difficult to defend, and instead favours offensives launched from larger bases.[fn]In November 2019, President Keïta announced the need for a strategic shift toward offensive action. See Aissatou Diallo, “Mali: la nouvelle stratégie militaire annoncée est-elle à la hauteur des enjeux ?”, Jeune Afrique, 15 November 2019.Hide Footnote Although Mali’s armed forces are trying to return to some of the areas they abandoned, this change in strategy is an attempt to adapt to pressure from jihadist insurgents, who are multiplying their deadly attacks against military outposts.

The security plan has also proven to be poorly suited to tackling the crisis in the zone exondée. Developed to deal with the jihadist threat, especially in Macina, it does not take sufficient account of the problem of communal violence. The PSIRC is supposed to represent an integrative response from the government, yet even some of the civilian authorities in charge of its implementation criticise its excessive focus on security in the context of a multidimensional crisis.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official in the prime minister’s office, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote The other ministries that were supposed to help improve governance and promote local development have been unable to coordinate local actions that concern the non-security aspects of the strategy.[fn]According to a senior official in the prime minister’s office, the PSIRC is more a program than a strategy. But the major problem is that it focuses too much on security, its main goal being to fight terrorism. That is why the ministry of security was at the core of its implementation. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote

Selon un haut cadre de la primature, le PSIRC est plus un programme qu’une stratégie. Mais le problème le plus important est qu’il met trop l’accent sur l’aspect sécuritaire, et que son objectif prioritaire est la lutte contre le terrorisme. C’est pourquoi le ministère de la Sécurité était au cœur de sa mise en œuvre. Entretien de Crisis Group, Bamako, septembre 2019.Hide Footnote

The SSCM particularly focuses on improving governance to re-establish trust between populations and the state.

The government is not blind to these shortcomings. In December 2019, through the political framework to manage the crisis in central Mali, it developed a new approach, the Stabilisation Strategy for Central Mali (SSCM). The SSCM differs from the PSIRC in that it places more emphasis on the political aspects of the crisis. It particularly focuses on improving governance to re-establish trust between populations and the state.[fn]“Stabilisation Strategy for Central Mali”, Permanent Secretariat of the political framework to manage the crisis in central Mali, December 2019.Hide Footnote Unlike the PSIRC, it places less priority on providing security. The SSCM is more promising than the PSIRC, but in view of recent events and the many unfulfilled promises authorities have made to redeploy services, it remains highly uncertain whether the government can convert the new strategy into concrete actions.

Emerging from the 18 August coup, the new transitional authorities have yet to unveil their plan of action for central Mali.[fn]After several months of demonstrations against Keïta’s rule, led by a coalition of opposition parties and civil society movements, a coup toppled the president on 18 August 2020. A group of army officers calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People took power. Less than a month later, the officers, though retaining significant influence, transferred power to transitional authorities.Hide Footnote For the time being, they have limited themselves to general statements from the Transition Roadmap, which outlines the following ambitions for the north and centre of the country: disarming self-defence militias; redeploying the state; promoting communal dialogue; and launching a dialogue with “Mali’s radical groups”.[fn]Transition Roadmap, adopted on 12 September 2020, document consulted by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote Previous governments have issued such statements. It is still too early to know in which directions transitional authorities will move, especially as their attention is still largely focused on the division of political responsibilities in Bamako. These transitional authorities have a chance to take a new turn; to do so, they must rapidly focus on the central region, and the zone exondée in particular, where nothing has been lastingly resolved despite a drop in violence in recent months.

As concerns international involvement, the UN stabilisation force has increased its presence in the zone exondée.[fn]As of June 2019, MINUSMA has a Centre Sector in the Mopti region. Thus, the region of Mopti, like Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, has its own command aimed at better coordinating civilian protection operations. See “La force de la Minusma crée le Secteur Centre pour rendre efficace sa présence dans la région de Mopti”, MINUSMA, 25 June 2019.Hide Footnote In 2019, the UN Security Council adopted a mandate for MINUSMA, with one of its priorities being the protection of civilians in central Mali. MINUSMA launched several operations in 2019 that covered the cercles of Bandiagara, Bankass and Koro, often in coordination with the Malian army.[fn]These include Operations Folon 1 (January-March 2019), Oryx 1 (March-June 2019), Oryx 2, (launched in July 2019) and Buffalo (inaugurated in December 2019). For more information, see the MINUSMA website.Hide Footnote These operations combine the installation of temporary operational bases and mobile patrols. They aim to ease local tensions, discourage warring parties, retaliate in the event of attacks, and protect humanitarian and other convoys.

MINUSMA officials believe that their efforts have brought greater calm to the affected areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior MINUSMA official, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote But while the second half of 2019 was indeed less violent than the first, several circumstances, besides MINUSMA’s presence, appear to have contributed to the pacification. MINUSMA’s operations have certainly had dissuasive effects on the armed militias, but the calm was also due to factors such as the reconciliation missions launched by Prime Minister Boubou Cissé and the rainy season, which hampers movement.

If the pandemic lasts, it could compromise the level and stability of the forces’ deployment within Mali.

MINUSMA’s intervention is complicated for several reasons. First, it is challenged in Dogon areas, particularly since the publication of its judicial investigation reports on the Ogossagou massacres, which place blame partly on Dana Ambassagou combatants. In January 2020, several associations from Bandiagara and Bankass asked MINUSMA to evacuate its personnel from the region.[fn]“Letter from the local and communal youth council of Bankass cercle to the prefect of Bankass cercle”, 3 January 2020. See also “Manifestation contre les Casques bleus au Mali: le gouvernement appelle au calme“, RFI, 4 January 2020.Hide Footnote These associations accuse UN forces of having double standards, of committing rape and of colluding with jihadists, though they provide no credible evidence for these claims.[fn]The demonstrations against MINUSMA’s presence reflect a broader and growing anti-French sentiment in Mali and the sub-region. See Paul Lorgerie, “Au Mali le sentiment anti-français gagne du terrain”, Le Monde Afrique, 10 January 2020.Hide Footnote Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited MINUSMA’s deployment capacities; if it lasts, it could compromise the level and stability of the forces’ deployment within Mali.

The last dominant security player is Operation Barkhane. Led by the French army, it conducts ad hoc counter-terrorism operations in the zone exondée but has no base there.[fn]Operation Barkhane’s closest base is in Gossi, in Gourma, an area bordering Douentza. Not only is the zone exondée outside Barkhane’s scope of intervention, but it seems that Malian authorities have long sought to limit the involvement of foreign forces in central Mali. Crisis Group interview, member of Operation Barkhane, Dakar, November 2018.Hide Footnote Working alone or with Malian and Burkinabé forces, the French have carried out several missions during which dozens of suspected jihadists were eliminated, although these operations have not eradicated the jihadist presence or the local violence stemming from it.[fn]“Barkhane: Opérations dans la région de Mopti”, French Ministry of the Armed Forces, 20 February 2020.Hide Footnote Operation Barkhane intervenes strictly in response to France’s self-granted mandate to fight terrorism, identifying jihadists as the sole enemy.[fn]The Barkhane mission also involves supporting Malian forces in their fight against jihadist groups. Crisis Group interview, former French official who served in the Sahel, via WhatsApp messaging, September 2020.Hide Footnote This mandate deliberately limits the French forces’ involvement in communal conflicts. Yet their position is difficult to defend when all armed groups are guilty of violence against civilians.

Thus, Barkhane’s lack of engagement with Dana Ambassagou is interpreted by some as a bias against the Fulani.[fn]A Fulani activist views the French intervention against jihadists as an attempt to weaken the Fulani in favour of Dogon militias: “If the French are fighting terrorists, there’s hardly any group more terrorist than Dana Ambassagou, which massacres women, children and the elderly!” Crisis Group telephone interview, Fulani activist, May 2019.Hide Footnote France wants to stay away from communal conflicts, which it knows are particularly difficult to resolve and which fall outside Barkhane’s counter-terrorism mandate. If large-scale violence resumes, however, France may find it difficult to justify the deployment of a force solely focused on counter-terrorism operations near an area where other actors are perpetrating major civilian massacres.

Disarming Militias

Aside from initiating dialogue and redeploying security forces, the government has also led efforts to disarm militant groups, with no real success thus far. In December 2018, the government asked militias and traditional leaders to register combatants who might be willing to disarm. Three months later, it announced that 5,000 fighters from the various armed groups in central Mali had declared themselves prepared to disarm, and that 400 of them had already laid down their weapons.[fn]“Mali: 5000 combattants enrôlés dans le DDR”, RFI, 7 February 2019.Hide Footnote Many were confined in the Soufouroulaye camp, 15km from the town of Sévaré, awaiting the start of a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process that only began in February 2020, more than a year after the operation’s launch. The delay prompted many of those who had laid down their arms to take them back up and rejoin the armed groups.[fn]Under Sekou Bolly’s leadership, other mostly Fulani combatants established themselves in Douentza, Diallassagou and Ogossagou in Bankass cercle. Crisis Group interview, Fulani armed group leader who participated in the DDR process, Bamako, October 2019.Hide Footnote

D’autres combattants, majoritairement peul, sous la direction de Sékou Bolly, se sont installés à Douentza, Diallassagou et Ogossagou dans le cercle de Bankass. Entretien de Crisis Group, dirigeant d’un groupe armé peul ayant participé au processus de DDR, Bamako, octobre 2019.Hide Footnote

Amid the permanent insecurity, however, with neither national nor international forces seemingly able to guarantee the safety of people and property, the armed groups refused to disarm.

In October 2019, the government launched a community rehabilitation program for individuals willing to disarm on a voluntary basis. Its goal was to accommodate 3,387 combatants or armed persons likely to join the militias.[fn]“Situation in Mali: Report of the Secretary-General”, UN Security Council, S/2019/983, December 2019.Hide Footnote Amid the permanent insecurity, however, with neither national nor international forces seemingly able to guarantee the safety of people and property, the armed groups refused to disarm, presenting themselves as the sole protectors of their communities. Consequently, at the end of November 2019, when the first phase of the program was coming to an end, only 352 people had registered to take part in the reintegration process.[fn]Crisis Group interview, National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration official, Bamako, August 2019.Hide Footnote

In the aftermath of the Ogossagou attacks in March 2019, the government ordered the disarmament of all militias, if necessary by force.[fn]Morgane le Cam, “Au Mali, le difficile désarmement des milices”, Le Monde, 10 April 2019.Hide Footnote Authorities have refrained from acting on the order so far, mainly because they fear tensions or clashes with groups that may refuse to disarm. Their inaction is understandable, but it comes across as an admission of impotence.

The government has not specified what the future holds for disarmed combatants. It plans to offer economic support measures to allow former fighters to retrain. It also plans to integrate some of them into the Malian security forces, as it already does with former combatants from northern Mali after the 2015 peace agreement. More than any economic support initiatives, such promises of integration could convince armed groups in central Mali, and especially those close to the state, to demobilise. But this solution will not work miracles: the defence and security forces have limited absorption capacities, and this integration could also destabilise the fragile balances created with armed groups in northern Mali as part of the 2015 peace process.

Strengthening Justice Mechanisms and Ending Impunity

The Malian government is well aware that the shortcomings of its justice system have played a role in the outbreak of violence. With the support of its international partners, it has made efforts to end impunity, but with little to show for it so far.

The efforts to eliminate impunity come up against several obstacles. First of all, magistrates are quickly overwhelmed by the number of cases.[fn]In May 2019, this division took on more than 450 cases, including over 200 cases relating to terrorism, 47 relating to transnational crime and 206 criminal cases. See UN Security Council, “Situation in Mali: Report of the Secretary-General”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Then, it is complicated to send investigators to the scenes of violence due to safety concerns. Many judicial officers have fled the zone exondée because of the insecurity. In addition, locals frequently oppose the arrest of militiamen suspected of perpetrating violence, whom they often viewed as protectors.[fn]In April 2019, residents of Koro town assembled to prevent the Malian defence and security forces from arresting a Dana Ambassagou Dogon hunter suspected of being involved in the Ogossagou attack in March 2019. See “Des soldats empêchés d’arrêter un homme soupçonné d’un massacre”, Le Figaro, 14 April 2019.Hide Footnote Finally, while on one hand the state seeks to end impunity, on the other it tries to facilitate dialogue with certain protagonists in the conflict, who are sometimes guilty of violence against civilians. The state is caught between its aspiration to promote peace and its desire to deliver justice.[fn]See “Mali: New Law Will Reinforce the Culture of Impunity for Human Rights Violations”, Amnesty International, 12 December 2018.Hide Footnote

The Mopti Regional Court (tribunal de grande instance) is responsible for investigating violence against civilians in the zone exondée. In 2019, the state also extended the powers of the judicial division in Bamako specialising in counter-terrorism and organised crime to include serious cases of violence against civilians.[fn]In 2015, the government set up a judicial division specialising in counter-terrorism and transnational organised crime to deal with these issues. In July 2019, the government extended these powers to cover cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the types of violence taking place in the zone exondée. See Law Nº2019-050 of 24 July 2019 amending Law Nº01-080 of 20 August 2001, as amended, on the Code of Criminal Procedure.Hide Footnote These two judicial bodies conducted several investigations after the outbreaks of violence in 2019, notably in Koulogon, Ogossagou, Sobane Dah, Yoro and Gangafani. Most investigations seem to have stalled, however, and few trials have taken place.[fn]According to Human Rights Watch, in December 2019 the Mopti Criminal Court pronounced judgment in just six of the hundreds of cases relating to local violence in the zone exondée. In these judgments, at least 60 people were accused and no fewer than 44 found guilty. See “‘How Much More Blood Must Be Spilled?’”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Selon l’organisation HRW, en décembre 2019, la Cour d’assises de Mopti a rendu son jugement dans seulement six affaires – parmi des centaines de cas – de violences locales dans la zone exondée. Dans ces jugements, au moins 60 personnes sont accusées et pas moins de 44 ont été reconnues coupables. Voir « Combien de sang doit encore couler ? Atrocités commises contre des civiles dans le centre du Mali, 2019 », HRW, février 2020.Hide Footnote

De-escalating and Defusing the Crisis

Communal violence is becoming entrenched in the zone exondée. Meanwhile, the military coup against Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and the COVID-19 pandemic have diverted the attention of many actors to other priorities linked to the political and health crisis.[fn]According to John Hopkins University, there were 2,475 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Mali (including 121 deaths) as of 20 July 2020.Hide Footnote To keep the situation from deteriorating once again, the Malian state must take the conflict’s management back into its own hands and instil a new momentum to end the crisis. This is all the more necessary since attacks intensified in the first half of 2020.

To keep the situation from deteriorating once again, the Malian state must take the conflict’s management back into its own hands and instil a new momentum to end the crisis.

Faced with outbreaks of violence, the Malian authorities have launched several initiatives: dialogue, security efforts, disarmament and eliminating impunity. These measures are not working to contain the violence, not because they are unsuitable but because their implementation is inadequate (see Section V). To make them more effective, Bamako’s new transitional authorities should strive to better harmonise and organise the various interventions under way in the central region. They should also consider using complementary and under-exploited tools, notably in terms of dialogue.

At present, their priority should be de-escalation. This step is necessary; without it, a structured response to the crisis is almost inconceivable. In the medium term, the area must be stabilised, both by facilitating the return of a regulatory state and by demobilising armed militias. In the longer term, the state should work toward a sustainable reconciliation by addressing the root causes of the conflict, particularly access to natural resources such as land.

Stopping the Spiral of Violence: Dialogue and Security

In the short term, the authorities must halt the spiral of violence by better coordinating dialogue and security efforts.

Setting up local peace committees

Dialogue efforts have been met with enthusiasm on the part of several actors involved in finding solutions to the conflict in the zone exondée. Very early on, dialogue emerged as a central instrument in attempts to end the crisis. So far, however, it has largely been ineffective. Government initiatives such as the social cohesion missions, launched in July 2019 by Prime Minister Boubou Cissé, were far too brief (only lasting about a week for the most part) to help restore trust among deeply divided communities. By contrast, local initiatives such as those of Baye and Ouenkoro have proven better at calming the situation, since local actors are more invested in them in the long run. Unfortunately, such initiatives remain local and remote from one another. They are unable to generate impetus for a broader dialogue that could lead to widespread peace.

The Malian state should invest all the more in this area since jihadists are now challenging its role as “peacemaker”.

To produce a more lasting and far-reaching impact, dialogue should occur as part of a long-term mechanism, one that is better structured and covers the entire zone exondée. The Malian state should invest all the more in this area since jihadists are now challenging its role as “peacemaker”. The authorities could develop a two-tiered system: first, peace committees at the village level that can take into account the conflict’s local specificities; secondly, a regional committee made up of elites from these communities, including those based in Bamako, which would deal with broader dynamics and consolidate the results achieved locally.

To do this, the state should first help to gradually establish peace committees in all localities in conflict or, when possible, revive those that already exist.[fn]The ministry of national reconciliation has set up local reconciliation committees in a few localities, but they struggle to function properly, in part due to a lack of funding for members to travel to places where the attacks occur. Crisis Group interview, Mopti ERAR member, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote The idea is not to add new committees on top of the many existing initiatives, but to rationalise them by making sure that they are coordinated with one another and incorporated into a larger system. Local committees should be inclusive and open to Fulani and Dogon figures who have influence at this level. These committees could be made up of traditional and religious leaders, local elected officials, association leaders and representatives of armed groups, including jihadist elements or those close to them. Both the authorities and jihadists will be reluctant to integrate local jihadist actors into these discussions, but in reality local jihadists already take part in the more informal discussions that are taking place at the local level. Moreover, this approach is less controversial than entering into negotiations with jihadist groups at a higher political level.

Such committees should allow these different representatives, including members of armed groups, to meet safely and discuss the problems fuelling the violence. The goal would be to restore trust between actors and to create a favourable climate for mediation that could produce effective ceasefires. These types of peace committees have been tested with some success in several countries affected by violence against civilians, including in the Central African Republic.[fn]For details on local committees in the Central African Republic, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°277, Making the Central African Republic’s Latest Peace Agreement Stick, 18 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Authorities should also set up a regional peace committee, including members of the national organisations Guina Dogon and Tapital Pulaaku, to complement the local committees. This committee would tackle the broader issues of the conflict. For example, while local peace committees allow for discussions between local branches of armed groups, the regional committee could facilitate talks between the authorities and leaders of Dana Ambassagou, Fulani militias and even individuals close to the jihadists. Together, they could discuss issues related to the removal of checkpoints, the demilitarisation of certain areas, the deployment of soldiers to protect civilians, and the demobilisation of combatants. This regional committee could also try to halt the trend toward communal violence by encouraging Fulani and Dogon elites – including those who contribute to ethnic divisions, whom it would be dangerous to exclude from attempts at dialogue – to find more constructive conflict resolution mechanisms.

The Permanent Secretariat of the political framework to manage the crisis in central Mali could set up these various committees with the logistical support of MINUSMA, which is deployed in central Mali and has the means to accompany such efforts at coordinating dialogue. The Permanent Secretariat and MINUSMA could draw inspiration from the experience of the UN Development Program (UNDP), which helped implement local peace committees in several conflict zones, including in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa. These experiences highlight both the successes and the failures of such peace committees.[fn]For further details on the UNDP’s experience in setting up local peace committees, see Andries Odendaal, “An Architecture for Building Peace at the Local Level: A Comparative Study of Local Peace Committees”, UNDP, December 2010.Hide Footnote

The peace committees should serve as a frame of reference for all those who want to support dialogue efforts in the zone exondée. International actors, including mediation NGOs, could thus incorporate their projects into these committees’ activities and avoid launching parallel initiatives. The Permanent Secretariat should involve these NGOs in setting up local committees and convince them that these bodies should be the sole framework for dialogue initiatives in the zone exondée. The idea would be to favour a bottom-up approach that empowers local actors to find the solutions best suited to each place.

Improving civilian protection

Dialogue must remain a priority, but the Malian state and its partners, in particular MINUSMA, should also step up efforts to protect people and property. The Malian armed forces and MINUSMA should take further steps to pool their resources. Malian forces have been accused of serious negligence and abuse against civilians in the region.[fn]Between 1 April and 30 June 2020, MINUSMA’s Human Rights and Protection Division documented 126 human rights violations that it attributed to Malian defence and security forces, including 94 cases of extrajudicial execution, eight cases of forced disappearance and 24 cases of bodily harm. A significant proportion of these abuses took place in the zone exondée, notably in the cercles of Douentza and Koro where an increase in these types of violations was recorded. See “Note on Trends of Human Rights Violations and Abuses in Mali: 1 April-30 June 2020”, MINUSMA, August 2020.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, MINUSMA’s mandate is to support the army’s redeployment in the north and centre of the country, and its presence during joint patrols will likely reduce the risk of further such abuses.

Together, these forces should aim to extend their security measures by deploying better-equipped troops in sufficient numbers and ensuring a greater rapid response capacity in the main hotspots. While some observers question whether Malian and UN forces can achieve this goal, they should remember that the conflict zone is small, making up only 4.35 per cent of the national territory.

Security forces should focus not on counter-terrorism operations but rather on their role as protectors of people and property.

There are several ways to help secure and demilitarise communities. First, the Malian army should reoccupy the outposts it abandoned following the launch of Operation Maliko in January 2020. The authorities should reinforce these outposts, or even create others, when they deploy another 3,500 soldiers, as announced by the former prime minister in July 2019. A local military presence admittedly leaves soldiers more exposed to jihadist attacks, but it also has a dissuasive effect on assailants. Conversely, the withdrawal of troops allows armed groups to establish themselves as commanders over the area and exposes civilians to more violence, as evidenced by the second attack on Ogossagou.[fn]In February 2020, assailants dressed as Dogon hunters attacked the Fulani village of Ogossagou for a second time, killing at least 35 people. This attack allegedly took place a few hours after the withdrawal of Malian armed forces that had deployed there following the first attack in March 2019, which claimed more than 160 victims. While the soldiers’ presence allowed the Fulani to return to their homes, their withdrawal exposed villagers to a new attack. See “Mali: Army, UN Fail to Stop Massacre”, Human Rights Watch, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote Concretely, security forces should focus not on counter-terrorism operations but rather on their role as protectors of people and property. The fight to defeat jihadism can only be effective if the communal tensions that fuel militancy are defused.

Next, the armed forces should do more to demonstrate their neutrality by ceasing all forms of collaboration with militias and all extrajudicial abuses of civilians. Since they are worried about jihadist attacks, the defence forces might oppose the disarmament of militias, with which they have certainly experienced strained relations but also on-the-ground collaboration. It is still possible to convince the armed forces that disarming militias will not expose them to more jihadist attacks. To do so, it is necessary to improve their operational conditions on the ground, revitalise intelligence gathering and demand that the military hierarchy start severely punishing the most flagrant abusers in the ranks.[fn]Crisis Group made similar recommendations in a report on neighbouring Burkina Faso. See Crisis Group Africa Report N°287, Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, 24 February 2020.Hide Footnote At the same time, local notables and mediation actors should continue striving to get communities to better understand and accept the role of the defence and security forces. The army can regain its credibility if it can prove its effectiveness.

For its part, MINUSMA also has a crucial role to play in securing and protecting civilians. In June 2020, the UN Security Council renewed MINUSMA’s mandate and its priority focus on crisis management in central Mali. Its temporary operating bases and significant mobility compared to the Malian army could be decisive in preventing attacks in remote villages through rapid response missions. To date, MINUSMA has four temporary operating bases: in Douna Pen and Madougou in Koro cercle; in Ogossagou in Bankass cercle; and in Ouo Sarré in Bandiagara cercle. To be effective, the UN force should not only establish additional outposts in other hot-spots, especially in southern Bankass and Douentza, but also support these bases with armed reconnaissance helicopters that can deter assailants before they commit an attack.[fn]MINUSMA officials support the idea of setting up additional temporary operating bases in the zone exondée. Crisis Group correspondence, MINUSMA official, May and June 2020.Hide Footnote

MINUSMA should continue to support the Malian security forces and aim to gradually hand them back full control of security missions. To this end, it would be wise to step up the joint military patrols of the Malian army and the UN mission. The force capacity in central Mali remains limited, however. For instance, the mission here does not have the support of armed helicopters.[fn]In his quarterly report in March 2020, the UN Secretary-General laid out a mission adaptation plan that requires armed helicopters to support operations in central Mali.Hide Footnote If the mission cannot be granted additional material and human resources, it should at least benefit from tools that are better adapted to its operations in this region.

Security efforts should not aim to systematically confront armed groups, but rather to deter attacks upon civilians and avoid obstructions to dialogues initiated by peace committees. The defence and security forces’ goal should be to support efforts toward a negotiated peace rather than impose it by force. It will be easier to ensure security if this is built on the work of local peace committees and the ceasefires they negotiate.

Finally, since a worst-case scenario cannot be ruled out, in the event of further escalation it is essential to have an emergency plan in place that would allow the Malian army and MINUSMA to take robust action to protect civilians. These forces could benefit from the logistical support of France’s Operation Barkhane. Despite a mandate limited to counter-terrorism, the French forces would be well advised to support the Malian army and MINUSMA if the situation were to quickly deteriorate. They would be hard pressed to justify an exclusive focus on counter-terrorism near areas beset by large-scale massacres.

Consolidating Peace

Dialogue and security efforts may lead to temporary calm, but long-lasting peace will require further measures that include reinstating more effective governance, demobilising combatants and regulating access to resources.

Building a more effective governance

Since the administration and public services have withdrawn from the region, the state’s influence over events here has dwindled. The authorities’ inability to stem the violence, and their ambivalent ties to self-defence groups, have further diminished their credibility in the eyes of many residents of the zone exondée. The government has committed to adopting a new form of governance that can re-establish bonds of trust and build new relationships with communities; it must now reinforce the state’s legitimacy by delivering on this commitment. Governance reform is undoubtedly Mali’s biggest and most complex undertaking, given the persistent shortcomings it has faced. Its design and implementation will take a long time.

Although many observers remain pessimistic given the enormity of the task, additional avenues remain to be explored.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, EU country ambassador and international donor, September 2020.Hide Footnote As a first step, the state should be more severe in condemning injustice, corruption, favouritism and exclusion. In particular, the Malian authorities should apply disciplinary sanctions against state actors who abuse their power or divert public resources. They should notably punish soldiers who commit abuses of civilians and actively fight the corruption that undermines the justice system.

The lack of state resources is even more worrying after the August coup and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lack of state resources is even more worrying after the August coup and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some external partners have suspended aid to Mali until it has a new government elected by popular vote, while other donor countries facing economic recession may well reduce their financial support.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, international donor, September 2020.Hide Footnote The government should therefore rely on its own resources, and try to step up budgetary efforts in the zone exondée, particularly in the areas of health, education, infrastructure and hydropower. Of course, the transitional government has many priorities, and the affected area is small, but the communal violence there is threatening national cohesion. It is encouraging to note that in its draft Transition Roadmap, the military junta has identified the resolution of “communal tensions and conflict” as the transitional authorities’ third priority.[fn]See the Transition Roadmap adopted by the participants in the national consultation on the transition, 10-12 September 2020. Copy on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

To improve its effectiveness, the state should delegate more powers to the governor of Mopti, so that he can coordinate the actions of the decentralised services at the regional level. Amid the present violence, local administration in the zone exondée is absent or ineffective. It should therefore rely on the governor, a representative of central power, rather than on locally elected authorities with far fewer resources than the governorate. When decentralised services are under the direct authority of ministries in Bamako, it is difficult to coordinate their actions at the local level. These services tend to act autonomously and report only to their line ministry. To avoid such dysfunction, the governor could create the right conditions for regional cooperation between decentralised services.

In addition, the authorities could do more to involve local populations in the process of defining and implementing public policies. This participation should not be limited to local authorities and elected officials; rather, it should include the people who would directly benefit. For example, the authorities could enlist the aid of local committees that already exist in villages to manage schools and health centres. Studies have shown that populations in the zone exondée tend to be more satisfied with public services when they partake in their management.[fn]See Mamadou Bodian et al., op. cit. See also ibid.Hide Footnote

Voir Mamadou Bodian et al., op. cit.Hide Footnote

Demobilising armed groups

Demobilisation is an absolute prerequisite for achieving a stable peace. There cannot be long-term stability in the region if combatants remain armed. The advantage of central Mali compared to the country’s northern areas is that civilians here have armed themselves only in the past decade. The trend can therefore be more easily reversed. The government has demanded the disarmament of all militias operating in the zone exondée. But these militias refuse to disarm voluntarily, and the government is understandably reluctant to engage in forced disarmament that could fuel further conflict. To break the deadlock, the state should use a carrot-and-stick approach. Of course, this approach will be possible only if political dialogue accompanies disarmament, as explained in the previous section.

Malian authorities should wave the stick at militias by eliminating impunity. They should arrest and prosecute those responsible for violence against civilians.

Malian authorities should wave the stick at militias by eliminating impunity. They should arrest and prosecute those responsible for violence against civilians, thus helping strengthen the rule of law, weaken armed groups and create the conditions for lasting reconciliation. If it cannot provide a legal ruling in every case, the state could carefully select certain cases to send strong messages regarding the most intolerable forms of violence. Of course, it is possible that the accused will seek to sabotage the peace process, but legal action is nonetheless a way of maintaining pressure on groups. The goal is neither to criminalise all combatants nor to give them all amnesty, but to select cases significant enough to send a strong signal.

At the same time, authorities must offer an honourable way out to militia leaders – particularly those who have committed no atrocities – by encouraging their transition into the political arena, for example. In the March 2020 legislative elections, influential members of Dana Ambassagou, including the movement’s former spokesperson, Marcelin Guenguéré, were elected deputies for the Koro constituency. Their conversion should be encouraged during the next municipal elections, as long as safeguards are in place to prevent hateful rhetoric. These elections were scheduled for November 2019 and then postponed indefinitely, in part due to rising insecurity in the centre and north, and to delays in implementing the territorial reform. The state should take advantage of the fact that part of the Dana Ambassagou and Fulani armed militias, notably that of Sekou Bolly, are still interested in DDR, provided that security improves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani militia leader, Bamako, August 2019; and former Dana Ambassagou leader, Bamako, September 2019.Hide Footnote In addition, Fulani and Dogon leaders who are aware of the stakes of the DDR process (particularly the integration of combatants into the army which could determine the future balance of power between the communities) are pushing their militias to participate.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani activist belonging to Tapital Pulaaku and Dogon dignitary belonging to Guina Dogon, August and September 2019.Hide Footnote

Demobilisation poses the thorny question of disarmed combatants’ fate. The classic option of integrating them into the armed forces does not seem feasible. The Malian army is already struggling to accommodate former rebels from the north following the Algiers peace agreement; there is likely neither the will nor the capacity to integrate thousands of additional combatants from central Mali. As for reintegrating combatants into the civilian work force, which is the government’s recommendation, echoed by some of its partners, this option is less appealing to fighters who would prefer to join the army.[fn]Crisis Group interview, National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration official, Bamako, August 2019.Hide Footnote

The Malian state could consider intermediate options, like integrating these fighters into local security forces such as the municipal or territorial police. This option has the advantage of combining the need for demobilisation with that for local security. But it is not without risk. These demobilised combatants could go on to commit further violence against civilians if they do not receive adequate training, if their mission is not well defined and limited to community policing, or if there are no rigorous controls on their actions. In Burkina Faso, after Koglweogo fighters were enrolled as defence volunteers without sufficient supervision, some of them went on to attack Fulani civilians, whom they accused of having links with jihadists.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Before reviving any DDR process, the Malian authorities should put measures in place to mitigate risks associated with proposals to integrate the security forces. Partners such as the EU Capacity Building Mission in Mali and MINUSMA’s police component could support them in making the right decisions in this area.

Regulating access to land

In the longer term, Malian authorities should address the root causes of the conflict, notably competition for access to natural resources, and land in particular. While this competition is increasing and generating tensions, neither public land laws nor traditional regulatory mechanisms seem adapted to resolve them. Local land commissions that are supposed to provide an appropriate response to land-related conflicts are often monopolised by traditional authorities whose decisions are frequently contested (see Section III). The state should therefore overhaul land law and especially its application.

Still, it is necessary to first wait for the violence to cease or decline significantly, since reviewing access to land when communities remain armed is a risky undertaking that could intensify the conflict. Once calm has returned, the authorities should initiate a thorough reform of land management in the zone exondée, bringing the actors involved to the table and drawing lessons from the failures of current mechanisms. A solution should be found to the legal pluralism (between state laws, customary law and the land commission) that characterises current land management. New legal texts must be drafted to reflect local realities. The input of local actors, who are the first to be concerned by the land code revision, is essential.

The Malian authorities should ensure that land law decisions are less technical and centralised.

The Malian authorities should ensure that land law decisions are less technical and centralised. At present, draft legislation is not generated by discussions between local actors. Instead, bills are the result of a process whereby experts in land law propose texts, which are then examined by ministerial staff, submitted for review mainly to national farmers’ organisations and, finally, presented for parliamentary debate in the National Assembly. Even if deputies introduce amendments, the resulting laws reflect the opinion of experts and ministry officials more than a locally negotiated political consensus. This process should be reversed by designing land law based on consensus between local political actors and communities before proceeding with technical validations. Local peace committees could play a role at this level, serving as a forum for discussions about access to natural resources. Moreover, this legislative framework, which gives local officials more autonomy to adopt and enforce land laws, could be useful in other places where land is a source of conflict.

The state’s role in this process would largely be to define the main principles and guidelines, such as imperatives of national unity, equity, solidarity and equality. Its role would also be to promote local consensus by setting up dialogue mechanisms through which populations can find compromises and express preferences.


Since 2016, the zone exondée to the south and east of Mopti town has seen outbreaks of communal violence whose victims are mainly Fulani and Dogon civilians. This upsurge in violence is unprecedented in the country’s history. Significant social, environmental and political transformations have exacerbated divisions and increased competition for resources, especially land. In addition to a crisis of governance and the authorities’ poor handling of local conflicts, these changes have created fertile ground for armed groups to take root in the region. Their presence has provoked a sudden rise in violence against civilians, while also amplifying the ethnic dimension of local conflicts.

Faced with this alarming trend, the state and its partners have not remained passive, but their efforts have been slow to bear fruit. The new transitional authorities should seize the opportunity to remedy the situation. In particular, they should harmonise and better organise their efforts to end the crisis, while introducing under-exploited tools, such as peace committees, that can help rekindle dialogue and ceasefires. Furthermore, they should improve governance and the rule of law, and begin demilitarising the region. In the longer term, the Malian authorities must address the root causes of the conflict through an in-depth reform of resource management mechanisms that will help resolve land disputes.

Bamako/Nairobi/Brussels, 9 November 2020

Appendix A: Violence Hotspots in Central Mali’s Zone Exondée