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Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Report 189 / Africa

Mali: Avoiding Escalation

Calls for military intervention in Mali are increasing but it could sink the state, which is already on the brink of dissolution, further into chaos.

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Executive Summary

In a little more than two months, Mali’s political regime has been demolished. An armed rebellion launched on 17 January 2012 expelled the army from the north while a coup deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) on 22 March. These two episodes ushered Mali into an unprecedented crisis that also threatens regional political stability and security. An external armed intervention would nevertheless involve considerable risks. The international community must support dialogue between the armed and unarmed actors in the north and south that favours a political solution to the crisis. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) must readjust its mediation efforts to avoid aggravating the already deep fault lines in Malian society. Strengthening the credibility of transitional institutions to restore the state and its security forces is an absolute priority. Finally, coordinated regional security measures must be taken to prevent once foreign groups from turning northern Mali into a new front in the “war on terror”.

In Bamako, the capital, the transitional framework agreed by ECOWAS and the junta, composed of junior officers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, has failed to establish undisputed political arrangements. The junta has rallied grassroots support by capitalising on the anger of a significant minority of the population towards ATT’s government, with which it associates the interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, former head of the National Assembly. Traoré was physically attacked, and could have been killed, by supporters of the coup leaders in the presidential palace on 21 May 2012. Flown to France for treatment, he had still not returned to Bamako in mid-July. The destruction of the military apparatus and the weakness of the transitional authorities, notably the government of Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, soon to be reshuffled, impede the Malian forces’ ability to restore territorial integrity in the short term and avoid serious collapse.

In the north, the Tuareg group that launched the rebellion, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad, MNLA) has been outflanked by an armed Islamist group, Ansar Dine (Ançar Eddine), led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg chief initially sidelined during the discussions that led to the creation of the MNLA. By taking control of the north, Ansar Dine has established a modus vivendi, if not a pact, with a range of armed actors, including former regime-backed Arab and Tuareg militias and, in particular, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The latter is responsible for kidnappings and killings of many Westerners in Mali, Niger and Mauritania, attacks against the armies of the region and involved in criminal transborder trafficking. Northern Mali could easily become a safe haven for jihadi fighters from multiple backgrounds.

Considered for twenty years a model of democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa, Mali is now on the brink of sheer dissolution. The prospects of a negotiated solution to the crisis are receding with the consolidation of hardline Islamist power in the north and a continued political, institutional and security vacuum in Bamako. Although ECOWAS initially sent out positive signals, the credibility of its diplomatic action was seriously compromised by a lack of transparency in the attempts at mediation led by Burkina Faso, which was bitterly criticised in the Malian capital and beyond. Pressure is mounting in favour of an external armed intervention as specific security and political interests of foreign actors – neighbouring states and others – prevail over those of the Malian population in both the north and south.

It would be wise to ignore calls for war and instead to continue with existing initiatives to promote a political settlement of the conflict, while ensuring that security issues are not neglected. ECOWAS countries willing to send troops do not appear to fully grasp the complex social situation in northern Mali, and underestimate the high risk of inter-tribal settling of scores that would result from external military intervention. Such an intervention would turn Mali into a new front of the “war on terror”, at the expense of longstanding political demands in the north, and rule out any chance of peaceful coexistence between the different communities. Finally, it would expose West Africa to reprisals in the form of terrorist activity to which it is not equipped to respond. AQIM’s logistical links with southern Libya and northern Nigeria (through Niger) make it perfectly feasible for it to carry out terrorist operations far from its Malian bases.

This series of events in Mali is the result of a weak political system despite democratic practices, disillusionment in the lack of economic and social development in the north and south, government laxity in state management and the unprecedented external shock of the Libyan crisis. Under the ATT government, relations between the centre of power in Bamako and the periphery rested on a loose network of personal, clientelistic, even mafia-style alliances with regional elites with reversible loyalties rather than on robust democratic institutions. This low-cost system of governance was able to contain the actions of the opposition, including armed groups, given their limited military ambitions and capacities. It disintegrated when faced with a rebellion that was quickly transformed into a well-armed group by the effects of the Libyan crisis and the opportunism of Islamist groups that have in recent years accumulated an abundance of arms using profits from lucrative trans-Saharan trafficking of illicit goods and Western hostages.

The perpetuation of a power struggle in Bamako, during a transition period whose end is impossible to predict, and the confused overlapping of armed groups in the north mean the future is very uncertain. A solution to the crisis depends, first, on how to restore Mali’s territorial integrity and, second, on whether the jihadi movements manage to consolidate their position of strength in the north. The decisions of Mali’s neighbours (Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso), regional organisations (ECOWAS, African Union) and Western and multilateral actors (France, U.S., UN, European Union) will also have some influence. It is urgent and necessary to restore the political, institutional and security foundations of the central state prior to working towards the north’s reintegration into the republic. It is also essential to increase humanitarian aid to the civilian population in the Sahel-Sahara region, already facing a food crisis, and quickly resume foreign aid to prevent an economic collapse.

Recommendations

To ensure security and strengthen the legitimacy of transitional institutions and the state 

To the Interim President and the Current Prime Minister: 

  1. Consolidate the legitimacy of the transitional authorities by urgently forming a genuine government of national unity after broad consultations with the main political parties and civil society organisations.
     
  2. Ensure the effective establishment of the special unit composed of gendarmes and police officers dedicated to the protection of transitional institutions representatives and request, if necessary, the deployment of a small, external armed contingent to support the force. 
     
  3. Guarantee proceedings of the judicial investigation into the assault on 21 May 2012 against the interim president, and if progress stalls, request international assistance to help identify and punish those who were directly and indirectly responsible for the assault.

To the Malian Defence and Security Forces:

  1. Guarantee the security and free exercise of their duties to the prime minister, members of the government and the National Assembly and other state officials.
     
  2. Put an end to arbitrary arrests of civilian and military individuals and the settling of scores within the army.
     
  3. Restructure and restore discipline in the armed forces, under the authority of the government and the official hierarchy of the different corps. 

To Members of the Former Junta and to Leaders of Civil Society Organisations that support them:

  1. Stop the manipulation of public opinion through divisive discourses that expose representatives of transitional institutions and politicians in general to violence. 

To Mali’s Bilateral and Multilateral Partners:

  1. Contribute to the reorganisation of the Malian armed forces and provide necessary support to the effective establishment of a force to protect the transitional institutions.
     
  2. Help stabilise the Malian economy through a rapid resumption of foreign aid as soon as a national unity government is formed; and answer the urgent humanitarian needs of the civilian populations severely affected by the crisis, whether internally displaced persons or Malian refugees in neighbouring countries.

To encourage a political settlement of the conflict in the North and neutralise the terrorist threat

To the Malian Government: 

  1. Refrain from launching a military offensive to regain control of the north prior to the creation of conditions for negotiation with non-terrorist armed actors and community representatives, including those forced out of the country by violence. 
     
  2. Seek the effective support of neighbouring countries, particularly Algeria, for a strategy to regain sovereignty over the north and neutralise the terrorist armed groups that threaten regional security.

To the Leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Ansar Dine:

  1. Formulate publicly clear agendas and commit to:
    1. respecting human rights and the principles of democratic and plural governance, especially with regard to religion;
       
    2. guaranteeing security and equal access of the population to basic public services and facilitating the access of humanitarian organisations to the population; 
       
    3. helping to establish the facts regarding the atrocities at Aguelhoc as well as all other atrocities perpetrated during the military conquest of the north;
       
    4. combatting the criminal trafficking activities that thrive in the territory they control;
       
    5. joining immediately the fight against AQIM and its armed offshoots; and
       
    6. exploring with the Malian government how to reach a rapprochement to avoid a lasting partition of the country and an internecine war.

To the Governments of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania:

  1. Revive regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism and transborder crime and open up participation to Nigeria and the Arab Maghreb Union, notably Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.

To the Algerian Government:

  1. End the ambiguity about how serious a threat it believes armed groups in northern Mali are to regional security and show clear support for the restoration, even gradual, of Mali’s sovereignty over its entire territory. 

To the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the UN: 

  1. Continue to provide humanitarian support to the civilian populations who are the direct victims of the crisis in the three northern regions as well as to displaced people and refugees. 
     
  2. Adopt a joint strategy, together with the Malian authorities, that combines the establishment of a formal framework for negotiations with the armed groups in the north, restoration of the Malian armed forces and the mobilisation of as many resources as possible, including military, to neutralise AQIM and other criminal groups in northern Mali.

To the UN Security Council:

  1. Support attempts to reach a comprehensive solution to the crisis within the framework of Resolution 2056 of 5 July 2012 by:
    1. providing the Secretary-General’s special representative in West Africa with the necessary means to use his good offices to support ECOWAS mediation; 
       
    2. adopting targeted sanctions against all those who are identified as hampering normal operation of the transitional institutions in Bamako and attempts at resolving the crisis in the north, and against all those responsible for serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations in the north and south;
       
    3. establishing an independent group of experts to investigate the origin of the financial and material resources of the armed groups in northern Mali, as well as their arms supply lines, and collate information allowing the identification of Malian and foreign persons who should face targeted sanctions; and
       
    4. requesting the creation of an independent UN commission of inquiry into the human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed throughout Malian territory since the beginning of the armed rebellion in January 2012, which should report to the Security Council as quickly as possible. 

To Mali’s Bilateral and Multilateral Partners, particularly the European Union, France and the U.S.: 

  1. Provide political and financial support to Malian political and social initiatives that seek to resolve the crisis by uniting all communities, in the north and the south, through promotion of respect for the republic’s fundamental principles and society’s traditional religious tolerance. 
     
  2. Support efforts to reconstitute the defence and security forces, with a view to strengthening their cohesion, discipline and effectiveness so they can ensure security in the south, constitute a credible threat of last resort to protect the populations trapped in the north and be capable of participating, if necessary, in regional actions against terrorist groups.
     
  3. Provide intelligence support to the armed forces of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria to help them locate terrorist groups and their arms caches.

Dakar/Brussels, 18 July 2012

Fulani people protest during a silent march organized by the Mouvement Peul et allies pour la paix, an organisation of ethnic Fulani people on June 30, 2018 in Bamako in response to a massacre in Koumaga, Mali. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Q&A / Africa

Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing

Une attaque visant des populations peul dans la région de Mopti a fait au moins 134 morts le 23 mars, dernier épisode d'une série de violences intercommunautaires. Dans ce questions-réponses, notre directeur du projet Sahel Jean-Hervé Jézéquel appelle les autorités maliennes à enrayer l'engrenage du nettoyage ethnique.  

 What’s new?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to stop the violence spreading?

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

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

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

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

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