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Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
A boy runs in front of a mural that reads "Peace" in Timbuktu, on 24 July 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney
Report 226 / Africa

Mali: An Imposed Peace?

Fighting recently resumed in Mali, while a peace accord remains a façade. Both sides, with help from international mediators, need to re-open negotiations. They must go beyond prioritising security to include all belligerents and improve access to basic social services, jobs and justice.

Executive Summary

After eight months of negotiations between Malian parties, the government and some armed groups signed an agreement on 15 May 2015 in Bamako. Fighting has resumed, however, in the north and centre of Mali. Crucially, the Azawad Movements Coalition (CMA) has still not signed the agreement. It initialled the text on the eve of the ceremony but demands further discussion before fully accepting it. An agreement without the signature of the main coalition opposing the government is of little value and will likely make disarmament impossible. The mediation team should establish a framework that would allow for further talks and Malian parties should return to the negotiating table at the earliest opportunity. The UN Security Council and its UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), backed by France, must take a stronger stance against violations of the ceasefire.

All actors bear responsibility for the recent resumption of fighting. A significant part of the Malian political and military leadership still pursues the idea of seeking revenge for their earlier defeat at the hands of rebels through military means. There is a real danger that elements within the government try to portray non-signatories to the Bamako deal as spoilers to be dealt with militarily – an option that would have disastrous consequences. The government has problematic ties with groups within the Platform coalition, northern opponents of the CMA that regained control of the town of Menaka on 27 April. Meanwhile, some of the CMA’s demands are unrealistic and it continues to ignore the profound diversity of the northern populations, not all of which support all aspects of the CMA’s agenda. International mediators have imposed their own security agenda and have been too quick to close the door to further talks. Despite weeks of pressure the CMA has refused to sign the peace agreement but the mediators were nonetheless adamant about holding the ceremony on 15 May. During the ceremony, tensions between the Malian president and the UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations revealed substantial divergences on the process that should follow the signing.

Although no agreement is perfect, the proposed document has clear shortcomings. It repeats mistakes of the past, encouraging, for example, models of decentralisation and clientelism that have failed to bring peace. Rather than trying to change a deeply flawed political system, it seeks only to strengthen the institutions within it. The Malian parties, who refused to engage in direct dialogue, inherit a document that is written mostly by international mediators and in part reflects the mediators’ own interests. It prioritises the restoration of order and stability rather than aiming to meet a desire for genuine change that runs deep among northern populations. The agreement makes scant mention of issues like the access to basic social services, jobs or justice – concerns at the heart of popular demands. Prioritising security overshadows the need to restore the state’s social function across the Malian territory.

While the signing of the agreement closes the framework of dialogue without being able to include all belligerent parties, renewed fighting over recent weeks threatens parts of the country. The attack on Menaka took place on 27 April following the CMA’s proposal to initial the agreement in exchange for a resumption of talks before signing. The renewed fighting indicates that months of negotiations did not resolve the lack of trust between the parties. Hardliners on both sides appear uninterested in signing an agreement that includes all actors and instead took advantage of the deadlock to relaunch offensives. Neither the presence of MINUSMA nor the threat of sanctions has been sufficient to deter ceasefire violations in late April.

The Platform’s groups, which represent genuine interests in the north, are in part being manipulated by hardliners within the Malian government, who use them as proxies to avoid the Malian army directly engaging in combat. The risks of the conflict spreading are all the more worrying given that other parts of central Mali have been the scene of unprecedented insecurity in recent months. With armed groups becoming increasingly community-based, the resumption of fighting can lead to their further fragmentation and additional civilian casualties. To prevent Mali entering a new cycle of violence despite the signing of the Bamako agreement, political discussion must prevail over diplomatic coercion or military force.

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.