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Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Mali
Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Mali
Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing
Open Letter / Africa

Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Mali

Excellencies,

The recent clashes between the army and rebels in the Kidal region show that Mali’s crisis is unresolved. The violence is directly linked to the lack of progress in talks between northern groups and the government that have stalled mostly because the main actors have been reluctant to engage in meaningful dialogue, despite their pledge in last June's Ouagadougou agreement. Multiple and confusing diplomatic initiatives have not helped. The UN mission (MINUSMA) has struggled to reconcile its mandate to facilitate talks with that of helping to restore state authority; some perceive it as pro-government and compromised. I urge the Security Council, with the support of its main partners in Mali, to establish a UN-led international mediation mechanism.

The negotiations that started a year ago with signing of the Ouagadougou agreement are in jeopardy. Crisis Group’s January report, Mali: Reform or Relapse, warned that deadlock would have major security consequences. The provisional ceasefire reached in May under auspices of the African Union's president, with the aid of the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, is fragile. Unless talks are revived promptly, new clashes will occur, undermining the substantial international efforts since MINUSMA’s deployment last July.

The Malian authorities and the northern-based movements have mostly used the dialogue to voice grievances, not resolve differences. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta's government considers the “northern question” a matter of national pride and has stalled to avoid serious concessions. The three main rebel groups – MNLA, HCUA and the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad – are fragmented, unable to offer realistic or coherent claims.

Regional and other international actors share responsibility. They have been unable to reconcile diverse, often competing interests to promote a common vision of a solution. Initiatives have often been uncoordinated. Mediation needs new impetus to re-launch talks.

For months, MINUSMA has played a vital role in calming tensions between the army and the northern movements, but without political progress, this can only delay new violence. The mission has struggled to facilitate implementation of the Ouagadougou agreement, in part due to perceptions about its neutrality. Resolution 2100 (25 April 2013) calls for it to both “restore the authority and the sovereignty of the Malian State throughout its national territory” and “to facilitate progress towards an inclusive national dialogue”, which by its nature involves bringing in the very armed groups that challenge the state’s authority in the north.

Building the capacity of Malian institutions is of course important. But the mandate's tension raises competing expectations from the parties. Some members of the northern movements believe the mission backs the government, citing inter alia its provision of armoured vehicles to the defence ministry and that talks have been held almost solely in Bamako. They requested MINUSMA support for talks to be more balanced. The government believes the mission should focus primarily on helping the state recover its full sovereignty, as requested by the prime minister in his 29 April speech to the National Assembly.

The 30 May, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit asked the Burkina Faso and Nigeria presidents to renew mediation efforts, but these have been dormant for months and are unlikely to revive the talks. Mali accuses Burkina Faso of harbouring the MNLA’s political wing; ECOWAS is a key regional institution but does not include countries with influence in the north, such as Mauritania and Algeria. It is thus crucial to establish an international mediation mechanism that is coherent, backed by the region and other major powers and empowered to broker compromises. This new initiative should be UN-led.

The Security Council could consider two options. Neither will be easy, given politics in the region and beyond, but existing arrangements are proving insufficient.

  • The first would be to strengthen MINUSMA’s political mandate and have it mediate, not just facilitate. The Secretary-General's special representative would become a full-time mediator. This would allow the UN to use its good offices and, together with Mali’s partners, press parties to resolve deadlocks. To achieve this, the Council must resolve the tension in the mandate by shifting it away from state building. An emphasis on state building might be necessary again in the future – and the gap would need to be filled by others now -- but for the moment talks must be the priority.
  • The second would be to appoint an envoy of the Secretary-General, with African Union and ECOWAS agreement, independent of MINUSMA. The parties could express preferences from a list of names with high-level West Africa experience. The envoy would be an official mediator to whose team MINUSMA would give logistical help while continuing its state building role. This would require greater effort to build consensus, internally and regionally, but might be more likely to break the deadlock.

Whatever the preferred option, the mediator will need the support of Mali’s main partners. They should form a contact group whose membership should be relatively restricted, to ease coordination. It must include France and Algeria, who, working together, have enough influence to bring all the parties to the negotiating table. Algeria’s pivotal role in the region should be recognised, but it must exercise its influence within a multilateral framework.

The mediator, consulting with the main parties and the contact group, should quickly revive the Ouagadougou agreement's negotiation framework. The current stalemate is not the result of flaws in that agreement but of parties’ refusal to implement it and insufficient pressure on them from Mali’s regional and other partners. The monitoring and evaluation committee established by the agreement has not met since October. It should be resuscitated and, chaired by the mediator, convene monthly to allow international actors to coordinate their efforts. The parties should urgently agree on and commit to a detailed schedule of such sessions.

As the Council prepares to renew MINUSMA’s mandate, it should draw the right conclusions from the challenges the mission faces. In appointing a new UN-led mediation mechanism, whether within the mission or external to it, it has another opportunity to help Malians reach a sustainable solution; it should not assume such an opportunity will come again soon.

Sincerely,

Louise Arbour 
President and CEO
International Crisis Group

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.