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Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Report 201 / Africa

Mali: Security, Dialogue and Meaningful Reform

Mali and its international partners need to seize the moment for national dialogue to forestall renewed political and security crises.

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Executive Summary

For the population of northern Mali, the feeling of being “liberated” by the French military intervention launched on 11 January 2013 is real. The sudden, but clearly well-prepared intervention, which received widespread support in Mali, West Africa and beyond, ended the offensive by jihadi groups that the Malian army had been unable to repel. France also took the opportunity to try and destroy al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) forces. Although Mali is in a better place than a few months back, sporadic fighting in the north continues and formidable threats to security, stability and the coexistence of the country’s various communities remain. The authorities in Bamako, regional organisations and the UN, which is preparing to deploy a stabilisation mission, must quickly agree on a strategy for the resolution of the crisis that provides security, protects civilians, promotes an inclusive inter-Malian dialogue, reestablishes state authority in the north and sees peaceful, credible elections.

Mali descended into turmoil at the beginning of 2012 when the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) chased the Malian army out of the north and demanded independence for this vast part of the country. With its roots in the Algerian civil war, AQIM has established itself in northern Mali over the last decade, building local alliances that allowed it to significantly weaken both the state and the MNLA and resulted in armed jihadi groups – Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – taking control of the north in June 2012. This and the coup in Bamako on 21 March 2012 brought the country to its knees. A laboriously prepared Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) plan to deploy an African force was finally, though reluctantly, endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2085 on 20 December 2012.

The sudden jihadi offensive towards the centre of the country in January 2013 proved suicidal. The jihadi groups did not anticipate France’s strong military response, following a request from interim President Dioncounda Traoré. The Malian army itself did nothing more than accompany the French forces that took the three most important towns in the north, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. French and Chadian troops entered the northernmost Kidal region without the Malians, less to reconquer it for the Malian state than to pursue AQIM combatants into their sanctuaries, destroy stocks of arms, ammunition, fuel and food supplies, and “finish the job” in the context of a declared war against terrorism. Whether or at what point it will be possible to declare the capacities of jihadi groups sufficiently reduced to avoid exposing the civilian population and the forces of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) to terrorist reprisal attacks is unclear.

Now as much as before the French intervention, a solution to the crisis will only be sustainable if it combines political and military measures. The north remains very insecure and the state is absent from the Kidal region, where the MNLA claims control. Mali’s army is fragmented and incapable of preventing its soldiers from committing atrocities against civilians, notably Tuaregs and Arabs who are indiscriminately accused of collusion with the enemy. The military action in the north has strengthened the president’s authority, but the ex-junta retains influence and civilian political actors look incapable of mobilising citizens to take the country’s destiny into their hands. The government has announced that presidential elections will be held in July, although conditions – technical, political, security and psychological – for a genuine vote look unlikely to be met.

Even if French troops remain and AFISMA is rehatted as a UN stabilisation mission – which currently appear probable – the interim authorities, political actors and civil society face an immense political challenge. Political dialogue in Bamako, zero tolerance for atrocities by members of security forces, intercommunal dialogue and the redeployment of the state in the north are essential. Elections must be held soon, but not at any cost. The work of reconciliation should begin immediately. So too should the provision of basic social and economic services in the north, so as to facilitate the gradual return of thousands of internally displaced and refugees. The radicalisation of public opinion is a major risk, especially during the election campaign, and firm action by Malian leaders and institutions should aim to prevent people lumping together rebels, terrorists and drug traffickers with all Tuaregs and Arabs.

A focus on terrorism alone also risks distracting from the north’s real problems. The roots of the crisis lie much more in corruption and bad governance than they do in the terrorist threat, the Tuareg issue or even the north-south divide. The international community must insist that Malian leaders assume responsibility for tackling these problems. The most reasonable and realistic way for the state to regain its presence across Mali and maintain lasting security is to find a compromise between the representatives of all communities, ensure even the most isolated populations feel included, and take into account the vulnerability of vast border areas to the flow of weapons and armed groups.

The most important and immediate challenge for regional organisations and the UN is to align their positions on the political process. First, they must convince the MNLA that its interests are best served by renouncing its armed struggle and discussing how its representatives and supporters can participate in a dialogue on the north’s real problems. Secondly, they should persuade Bamako that it should not impose so many pre-conditions on talks – such as, for instance, requiring the MNLA to immediately disarm – that it closes the door to dialogue, or even discrete contacts, with MNLA representatives. ECOWAS, the African Union (AU), the UN Security Council, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and France must all send the same message to the authorities in Bamako and the leaders of those armed groups in the north. Even this would not resolve everything, however. Without new regional security mechanisms involving all the countries of North and West Africa, any victory over terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking in Mali will only be temporary.

Dakar/Brussels, 11 April 2013

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.