The violence in Mali is getting bloodier, but religion is not necessarily at its root

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch10 Apr 2019Natasja Rupesinghe, Morten Bøås

The massacre of Fulani in central Mali on 23 March marks a grave, new turn in the conflict. How did we get here? While the politics of religion are often identified as the main cause, local rights-based issues are a more plausible source of the current conflict. The UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA should establish a more comprehensive and inclusive political strategy in order to achieve a proper truce.

On Saturday 23 March 2019, a massacre occurred in Ogossagou, a Fulani village, in central Mali, near the border with Burkina Faso. At least 153 people were killed and 73 injured. It is the single most brutal attack that has occurred since the conflict started in 2012, but also the latest in an ongoing deadly cycle of inter-communal violence in Mali that has spiralled downward fast during the past months. One act of violence has led to another, in each case with increased brutality and a higher number of victims. The question is what is behind this and can the violence be stemmed?

Escalating conflict, despite international efforts

Mali descended into near collapse and violent conflict in 2012 following a Tuareg rebellion, a coup d’état, and the occupation of large parts of the country’s territory by jihadist insurgents. The French operation Serval intervened in 2013, halting the advance of the jihadists southwards towards Bamako. This paved the way for the deployment of the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, in 2013 and a peace accord that was signed in 2015 between a coalition of separatist Tuareg rebels, pro-government groups and the Malian state. However, these efforts, as well as several other large international missions deployed to stabilize the country, have not led to improvements on the ground and security has deteriorated, especially in the central regions of Mali. One important reason for this is that the jihadist insurgents played no part in the peace negotiations, while they have a considerable presence and influence on the conflict.

Jihadist insurgencies spread to the centre

While international attention focused on implementing the fragile peace deal and stabilizing northern Mali, jihadist insurgencies re-grouped in rural areas of central Mali. Since 2015, a more locally-orientated jihadist group, the Katiba Macina, led by the Fulani preacher Hamadoun Koufa, which is part of the al-Qaeda affiliated Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, has gained an increasing foothold in the region. Their ensuing campaign of violence against the state and international forces, and coercion and killing of non-collaborators in this part of Mali, triggered the retreat of the state, facilitating their expansion.

Exploiting grievances and inter-communal conflicts

Jihadist groups like the Katiba Macina have exploited widespread grievances among local populations against perceived neglect, corruption and predation by the state. The insurgency has provided some crude services in areas that have for a long time been neglected by the state. They have recruited mainly from the Fulani pastoralist community, but their membership also consists of people from other ethnic groups. The jihadists have thrived on exploiting local rights-based conflicts between communities. These are common in a region where clashes have tended to break out over resources including access to water, pasture, or crop damage due to herder’s passage.

Jihadist insurgent attacks, like those by Katiba Macina, have led to the counter-mobilisation of Dogon and Bambara ethnic self-defense militias. Among these is the Da Na Amassagou, a politico-military association consisting mainly of Dozos hunters. This is the group that is suspected of carrying out Saturday’s attack, although its leadership condemns the attack and swears they had nothing to do with it. However, the Da Na Amassagou and similar militias also claim they have been forced to take up arms because the Malian state has failed to protect them against jihadist attacks and rising insecurity, and they are known to have previously attacked Fulani groups whom they suspect of being linked to or harbouring jihadists. Several reports have alleged that the Dogon militias have been armed by the Malian government to fight jihadist militants. Yet the root causes of the violence has more to do with resource-based conflict – rights to farm land and pasture – than religion.

Violence escalated in 2018

The year 2018 was the most violent year in Mali since conflict broke out in 2012. Inter-communal violence spiralled to unprecedented levels, jihadist attacks have been on the rise, and counterterror operations led by the Malian state, but supported by external stakeholders, have been ramping up. The result is that violence between communities has become increasingly brutal, underpinned by a logic of retaliation and revenge. Prior to 23 March 2019, several large-scale massacres, pillaging, burning of villages and clashes were documented. On 1 January 2019, a Fulani village in Koulogon was attacked, and 37 killed. Local peace deals have been brokered, but they tend to quickly fall apart. The UN has reported that some 600 civilians have been killed in Mopti since March 2018. There have also been warnings about the possibility of ethnic atrocities against the Fulani, who have been disproportionately targeted by the ethnic self-defence militias, as well as by counter-terror operations by the Malian government. The danger is that the recent massacre will lead to further escalations that could easily have repercussions across national borders in the Sahel.

Implications of the attack

While the latest attack follows a trend that has been developing over the past few months, it is particularly troublesome for several reasons. First, the scale was unprecedented. The methods used (guns, machetes, burning of the entire village), and victims (women, children, elderly), confirms the trend that violence is shifting towards indiscriminate civilian targeting.

Those behind this attack did not just go after the jihadists, but targeted everybody in the village

Up until recently, armed actors in Mali, including jihadist insurgents have not committed large-scale atrocities against the civilian population. The scale of this event is, therefore, unprecedented, and Mali could be veering towards a crisis of civilian protection on a much larger scale.

Second, it highlights the possibility of the conflict becoming increasingly ethnicized. If violence continues unabated, it could plausibly lead to ethnic cleansing. Inter-communal violence of this magnitude quickly breaks down trust between groups that have, except for low-level clashes over resources, traditionally co-existed relatively peacefully. In a region like central Mali, where all of Mali’s ethnic groups meet, the consequences may be nothing short of catastrophic. Third, it is also likely that the violence could spill over to destabilize neighbouring countries, like Burkina Faso and Niger, which have similar ethnic constellations in their border zones.

Priorities going forwards: protecting civilians, addressing root causes

The warning signs for the eruption of armed conflict in central Mali have been visible since the violent crisis broke out in 2012. Yet, the government has been reluctant to take action and MINUSMA and other actors have been too slow to pivot their focus from the north to the centre. The sacking of part of the military hierarchy and the official order to disband the Da Na Amassagou may indicate a possible shift on the part of the government, but further action is urgently needed. Despite incorporating central Mali in its mandate in 2016, MINUSMA has for various reasons not been able to protect civilians there from the rising levels of violence.

In the short-term, MINUSMA should deploy forces like its Quick Reaction Force to protect civilians in hotspots across central Mali. MINUSMA and its partners should support a multi-dimensional, comprehensive strategy to stem and resolve these conflicts, which have more to do with local rights-based issues than the politics of religion. Establishing a comprehensive political strategy that is representative of the full spectrum of aggrieved groups in central Mali will be essential; this should mean including hitherto excluded actors such as the jihadists.

Locally, in Mali, there is growing momentum for attempting such negotiations and the international community should neither block such initiatives nor be naïve about what they could result in. It is also critical to restore trust between local communities and the state in central Mali: this means providing all vulnerable people with security guarantees and protection from attacks and ensuring transparent justice and accountability for victims. The strategy will also need to include longer-term measures, such as ensuring access to basic services, equitable justice, development and education. Conflict prevention must take centre stage. The international effort has often found itself playing catch up to the evolving conflict dynamics in Mali. What happened on 23 March in Ogossagou is a grim reminder of this.