Central Mali gripped by a dangerous brew of jihad, revolt and self-defence

An army soldier in Douentza in the Mopti region of central Mali in March 2013, before the government lost control. Farafi net.com/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

As the conflict in northern Mali endures, another hot spot south of the Niger river is attracting increasing attention. It involves two main areas in the centre of the country: the Macina heartland (Fulani historical-political region, between Mopti and Segou) and the Hayré (northeast of Mopti).

The wave of dissent began shortly before the French military intervened against jihadis who had taken control of northern Mali in 2012. In early 2013, Amadou Kufa, a Fulani Islamic preacher from central Mali and an ally of Iyad Ag Ghaly (leader of Ansar Dine, one of three jihadi groups in the north), summoned his fighters to expand south beyond the area under the jihadis’ control.

Key cities of Mali. CIA

That triggered the French-led Operation Serval in 2013. When the Islamist coalition was ousted from the cities it controlled (including Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal), jihadi activity was reconfigured. Kufa, now allegedly commanding the katibat (brigade) called Ansar Dine Macina (formerly Front for the Liberation of Macina), still leads violent actions in central Mali.

However, it would be false to attribute political violence in this region solely to groups embracing jihad. At least two more rationales exist. One is about community self-defence. The other involves a struggle led by Fulani herdsmen, more vulnerable than other Fulani communities of the area.

Importantly, the “Fula” struggle does not exclusively target the state. Community elites, seen as state accomplices and advocates of an unsatisfactory status quo, are tacitly challenged, too.

Opportunistic banditry further complicates the situation.

Diverse dynamics

Recent violent clashes reflect the diversity of these dynamics. In August 2016, Nampala (in the west) suffered a deadly attack jointly claimed by the jihadis and armed groups claiming to defend the Fulani cause. In May, interethnic fights between Bambara and Fulani communities shook the Dioura area.

These bulls belong to Fulani herders, who compete with other tribes for pastoral resources. Hugues/flickr, CC BY-SA

To the east, ancient tensions between Dogon farmers and Fulani herders have fuelled frequent revenge attacks. The frequency of these has been exacerbated by the absence of the state since the March 2012 coup.

Further east, the border between Mali and Niger is another hotbed of tensions between Fulani herders and Tamasheq herders (also called Tuareg) in particular. Widespread cattle theft organised by criminal networks, competition for grazing land and jihad intermingle.

All this violence has caused exoduses to Burkina Faso and towards the Mauritanian camp of Mbera. The result is a deep humanitarian crisis.

Pointing the finger of local elites

In a shifting and fragmented political context, these conflicts obviously do not work independently of each other. There have been multiple alignments among protagonists – including alliances, break-ups and short-term collaborations.

In 2012, as Tamasheq separatists and then jihadis took partial control of central Mali, fractures re-opened among some elements of Fulani society, and between Fulanis and their neighbours. In the absence of the state and its army, local elites were seen as unable to protect citizens against the Tamasheqs of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA).

Those previously threatened by the MNLA perceived its ousting by the jihadist Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) in summer 2012 as a partial relief. Two recent reports, by the International Crisis Group and the anthropologist Boukary Sangare, detail how the MUJWA capitalised on the turbulent history between Fulanis and Tamasheqs and the immediate security needs of non-Tamasheq populations.

These alliances with the jihadis, oscillating between pragmatism and ideological adherence, were severely punished following the French intervention. In the Hayré (Douentza), according to multiple testimonies, Malian armed forces carried out numerous actions. These included cattle theft, intimidation of local people, arbitrary arrests and sometimes summary executions.

Consistent militancy but fluid allegiances

Further to the south, in the Macina heartland, fear of the army and a sense of abandonment by the state prevail. But militancy is more consistent here, expressed in the form of jihad or ethnic identity-based discourses.

Amadou Kufa operates here. The newly created Alliance for the Safeguarding of the Fulani Identity and the Restoration of Justice claims to do so as well.

Through his sermons, Kufa managed at first to convey his message of a return to a mythical time of prosperous faith, when the Fulani – now victimised, according to him – were masters of the faith. In his recent testimonies he has expressed a wish to submit any infidel to his style of faith. He has also renounced ethnic considerations.

Cohesion within his movement is subject to speculation. Kufa’s recruits seemingly follow heterogeneous logics. An indicator of the variable indoctrination of these fighters (estimated at a few hundred) is the fluidity of their allegiances. Some have been recovered, with government approval, by Fulani cadres such as Hamma Founé Diallo.

The warlike, more than genuinely jihadi, attitude of these youths makes their integration in state-backed military units somewhat feasible. In recent years Mali has specialised in delegating security governance to community-based outfits. Pro-government militias have been more active in the north than the regular army.

But Fulani personalities perceived as legitimate are rare among these youths. And attempts to recycle young Fulanis for combat within non-Fulani entities such as The Platform – a coalition of armed northern pro-government movements composed mainly of Arab and Tamasheq loyalists – are hampered by mutual distrust and persistent tensions on the ground.

As such, most of Macina and the whole Hayré remain exposed to violence emanating from isolated groups of herders in revolt against the state, or groups funded by Kufa’s movement and its godfather, Ansar Dine.

The Alliance for the Safeguarding of the Fulani Identity and the Restoration of Justice embodies an explicitly Fulani militant agenda. It emerged following defections from allied associations of Fulani youth. Among them, Bakaye Cissé and Oumar Aldianna initially led the movement.

It is hard to assess its strength, especially since reports of ongoing internal factionalisation. Its main leader, Aldianna, has said his force will fight the Malian army wherever necessary. That has upset Fulani elites who are accustomed to conciliation and fear even greater stigmatisation of their communities in Mali.

Meetings from March to July between the government and Fulani cadres have not created a realistic prospect of government security intervention in central Mali. The Niono forum in May, between Bambara and Fulani from Kareri, and visits by the justice minister to Bamako prisons in July were beneficial. But they did not end the tensions.

In this context, Ali Nouhoum Diallo, the National Assembly president from 1992 to 2002 and a native of Hayré pastoral communities, launched a coalition of Fulani cadres in September 2016. Long before then, he was a leading figure in reporting abuses by the state in central Mali. His co-ordination, along with his acerbic tone towards the government, roused fears of national division and agitated Fulani civil society.

A street in the Mopti region of central Mali where the economy has stalled and humanitarian relief is badly needed. Guillaume Colin et Pauline Penot/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Centre gripped by fear

Fear is omnipresent in the region and economic development has stalled. Humanitarian relief is badly needed. Despite complaints against the army, several civil society representatives desire the return of the state (or rather a state).

Northern Mali has long been the focal point of political turmoil and of international attention. Today, the centre – a buffer zone – is in the grip of an intense political crisis. This has possible transnational ramifications as Fulani communities on the continent are closely connected.

In the uncertain context of multiple co-existing conflicts, the attitude of Malian authorities, starting with the security forces, may still decide the trajectories of mobilisations in central Mali.

More generally, the situation shows how the presence of armed jihadi actors stirs up local political tensions. It also shows that political developments in this area intimately depend on specific social configurations. Douentza, Gao, Timbuktu or Kidal reacted to confrontations with the jihadis in their own way. In some cases they create novel social configurations and governance.

It is essential that those who claim to want to help rid Mali of the jihadi threat recognise the diversity of these configurations and of the social experiences deriving from them in times of crisis.

This article was originally published in French