Reversing Central Mali’s Descent into Communal Violence

By International Crisis Group

In Mali, violence in the areas to the south and east of Mopti is taking on an increasingly ethnic dimension. The transitional authorities should harmonise dialogue initiatives and strengthen state presence, while seeking to resolve substantial issues such as land disputes.

The full report is in French. The English translation covers the reports Executive Summary. A full English translation will be available in the week of 16 November.

What’s new? Since 2016, the south and south east of Mali’s Mopti region have seen unprecedented violence targeting Fulani and Dogon civilians. Communal armed groups have taken root, helping bring an ethnic dimension to the area’s conflicts.

Why does it matter? As violence takes on a communal character, civilians, men and women of all ages, are more frequently targeted based on their ethnicity alone. The presence of the state is dangerously waning, with jihadists and armed self-defence groups controlling more and more territory.

What should be done? The transitional authorities that emerged following the 18 August coup should harmonise efforts to negotiate ceasefires and rebuild the state’s local presence. They should use both carrots and sticks to encourage demobilisation of militias, and seek to resolve land conflicts that are often the root cause of violence.

Executive Summary
Since 2016, an unprecedented wave of violence has swept across an area of central Mali to the south and south east of Mopti. The attackers – jihadists, the self-defence groups mobilised against them and others – target civilians in acts of mass killing, theft and property destruction. While sporadic at first, the attacks have now become more frequent and widespread. They have also become increasingly communal in nature, pitting the Fulani against the Dogon. The Malian government is partly responsible for the discord, having focused on fighting terrorism without paying sufficient attention to communal reconciliation or the state’s other vital functions. The transitional authorities that emerged after the 18 August coup should harmonise the efforts of various state entities and mediation NGOs to negotiate local ceasefires, which should also involve regional elites and security forces. In the long term, they should create the conditions for lasting reconciliation after the transition with ambitious reform of laws governing access to natural resources, especially land.

On 18 August, a group of army officers overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, after several months of demonstrations against his rule led by a coalition of opposition parties and civil society movements. The officers, who called themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), took over in Bamako. Less than a month later, the CNSP, though retaining significant influence, transferred power to transitional authorities who are to govern Mali for eighteen months. It is too early to say whether these transitional authorities will reform the country’s governance or reproduce the Keïta regime’s abuses. Either way, these authorities have inherited the former regime’s problems, from social discontent to implementation of the 2015 peace agreement, which mainly concerns northern Mali. In addition, the transitional authorities must put an end to violence against civilians and halt the expansion of jihadist and self-defence groups in the centre of the country.

Transitional authorities will have to pay particular attention to the zone exondée south and south east of Mopti, an area in the Niger river basin that is not submerged by the river’s annual floods. This region, representing less than 5 per cent of Malian territory, is the epicentre of the communal violence among Fulani and Dogon, who together make up the majority there. The arrival of jihadist groups in 2015-2016 set off a murderous spiral. Their attacks on prominent Dogon accused of collaborating with the state led Dogon figures to create a self-defence movement, Dana Ambassagou (“the hunters who trust in God”), which declared war on the Islamist militants. Some of the self-defence fighters attack civilians, most often Fulani, whom they suspect of aiding their enemy. In retaliation, Fulani armed groups, whether jihadist or not, are attacking the Dogon. None of the handful of local ceasefires has endured.

Although violence has intensified of late, the conflict is rooted in longstanding communal rivalries.

Although violence has intensified of late, the conflict is rooted in longstanding communal rivalries. These have been exacerbated over recent decades by a pastoral crisis that has impoverished the nomadic Fulani, pressure on natural resources – particularly land – and the inability of either the state or traditional authorities to provide viable answers to these challenges. Such tensions have made the area fertile ground for the growth of both jihadist and armed self-defence groups. The conflict’s communal dimension has been reinforced by the establishment of these armed groups, which often recruit along ethnic lines. The involvement of Fulani and Dogon activists in Bamako, as well as in the diaspora, has also aggravated the situation, as has political exploitation of the conflict, in particular during the 2018 presidential election and the legislative elections of March-April 2020.

Faced with outbreaks of violence, the Malian government and its international partners launched several initiatives, at first focused on counter-terrorism. Then, taking account of the communal nature of the tensions, they developed an approach articulated around four axes: dialogue between the conflict parties and their respective communities; protection of civilians; disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of combatants; and, lastly, efforts to end impunity. In 2019, the government established a special administrative entity called the “political framework to manage the crisis in central Mali” in order to coordinate political and military efforts. These measures have thus far proven inadequate, however. In particular, dialogue initiatives are intermittent and overlapping, without achieving lasting ceasefires. Security forces focus far more on fighting terrorism than on protecting civilians. Malian soldiers have been unable to disarm self-defence groups or to stave off the jihadist threat.

To make the dialogue and security measures more effective, Malian authorities should harmonise them and sequence them better. They should also consider using additional tools, as part of a three-phase response.

In the short term, the authorities must halt the spiral of violence, first by emphasising and harmonising dialogue efforts to negotiate local ceasefires, and secondly by establishing local peace committees headed by a regional committee. The Malian state and its partners, in particular the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali, should step up their security efforts while facilitating these dialogue initiatives and ensuring that any resulting truces are respected. Security forces should also prioritise the protection of people and property, increasing the number of troops and enhancing their rapid response capacities in hotspots. Forces should be redeployed in coordination with advances made through dialogue and the peace committees.

Then, to sustain this short-term stabilisation, Malian authorities and their international partners should consider a structured response aimed at restoring the state’s credibility and promoting disarmament. The state should demonstrate its usefulness as a regulatory body as well as a provider of security. It should ensure a distribution of goods and services adapted to people’s needs, and severely sanction corruption and favouritism to mark a break with past practices. To encourage disarmament, the state could both initiate legal proceedings against militiamen who have blood on their hands and offer an honourable way out to leaders who have not committed atrocities against civilians, for example by supporting their transition into the political arena.

In the long term, when the violence subsides, the state should tackle the structural causes of conflict in this part of central Mali, in particular management of access to natural resources. The present mechanisms for regulating land disputes are outdated at best. Traditional mechanisms have been overtaken by social change, while state land law is inconsistent, often giving rise to contradictory interpretations. Bamako should undertake in-depth study of land management in the zone exondée, bringing the actors involved to the table and drawing lessons from the inadequacies of current mechanisms, before overhauling land law and evening out its application.

Bamako/Nairobi/Brussels, 9 November 2020