In Mali, nomads again become jidadis and history parodies itself

In the early 19th century, a Fulani scholar, cleric and trilingual poet named Uthman dan Fodio launched one of West Africa's earliest jihads. Hurtling camelback and horseback, Dan Fodio and his followers delivered Islam to the mostly animist rural savanna on the tips of their spears and broadswords. In the flood plains of the Inner Niger Delta, in what today is central Mali, one of Dan Fodio's disciples, a Fulani orphan named Ahmad bin Muhammad Boubou bin Abi Bakr bin Sa'id al Fulani Lobbo, led an Islamic rebellion and founded the theocratic empire of Massina. Modern-day Fulani remember and revere him by his nom de guerre, Sekou Amadou — Sheik Mohammed. His empire stretched from Timbuktu to Ségou and lasted 44 years.

Before establishing a capital in Hamdallaye — a Podunk town whose name translates as “Thank God” — Sekou Amadou stationed himself on the outskirts of Djenné, a trading post and religious center, to purify what he saw as his subjects' corrupt mores. He banned tobacco, alcohol, music and dancing, established purdah, and let crumble Djenné's magnificent 12th- or 13th- century Great Mosque — the world's largest clay building — because he found its ostentatiousness impious. (Sekou Amadou ordered that new mosques be modest, without minarets.)

He also regularized land use, drawing up seasonal timetables that distributed pastures and rivers among Bozo fishermen, Songhai traders, Mandinka and Bambara farmers, and Fulani nomadic herders under a preferential feudal system called simply Dina: Islamic faith. Sekou Amadou favored the cattlemen. And they thrived.

Two years ago, I joined a Fulani family in Mali for a year of migration on the routes that still abide by the schedules Sekou Amadou had drawn in 1818. But the landscape they traverse is no longer the same. Mali has been growing progressively hotter and drier since the 1960s, and cyclical dry spells that occasionally wracked Sekou Amadou's Sahel are now killer droughts. Expanding farms are helping destroy what's left of pasturage.

My cowboy hosts had never heard about climate change, but they could describe with precision its symptoms. They live them daily. Hotter, drier wind and unpredictable rainy seasons translate into degraded grazing grounds, starving cows, less milk. “The land is changing,” an old, emaciated Fulani cowherd told me. This year, some scientists predict another devastating drought.

Meanwhile, a modern jihad is playing out in the background, and some Fulani are joining in. The link between depletion of natural resources and militant jihad has been drawn by many — from analysts at the Center for Climate and Security to, most recently, President Obama. In Mali, this connection is laid bare.

Sekou Amadou long gone, the Fulani of today find no protection for themselves or their cattle. Like most Sahelian governments, Mali's favors the sedentary population and mistrusts nomads, who stubbornly continue to push their dwindling slat-ribbed herds toward desiccated horizons. They are out of forage, out of favor, marginalized. After paltry dinners of bland millet meal, they flick on their cellphones through images of Photoshopped cows, fat and udder-deep in bright green grass. To understand why cowboys would go to war, simply look at the dried-up land around them.

The new generation of purist jihadis stormed northern Mali in 2012 in looted pickup trucks full of weapons plundered from the abandoned caches of the toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi. They were mostly Tuareg but also Arabs, Berbers, Fulani.

Until a French-led, U.S.-aided coalition forced them into the desert, they flew black flags of Al Qaeda over Timbuktu. They axed down ancient shrines they found idolatrous. They flogged, amputated, jailed, stoned, beheaded, raped. They briefly established an independent state they called Azawad: the Land of Transhumance. Among them was the Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa, who once had gathered congregants in numbers that not even Djenné's Great Mosque (reconstructed in the 19th century) could accommodate, and whose mission, according to the Malian news agency MaliWeb, was “to rebuild the Islamic Fulani kingdom of Massina.” Koufa called upon his nomadic disciples to join the jihad, and many did.

Since the beginning of 2015, a new jihadi organization that calls itself the Massina Liberation Movement has been menacing central Mali. Its members are reported to be Fulani. While the Malian government and some rebel groups in the north lurch toward a semblance of peace, it launches attacks in the Inner Niger Delta, converting traditional nomadic routes into the newest front line of the global war on terror.

Human Rights Watch reports that the movement's members have so far summarily executed at least five men, including a village chief, believed to have collaborated with the Malian army; burned several government buildings; brought down a communication tower; and warned civilians to keep away from the government, the U.N. and the French troops.

History does not repeat itself; it parodies. One night in early May, in Hamdallaye, the ultimate capital of the 19th century Massina Empire, someone dynamited an austere mud-brick shrine. The explosion blew out the door, tore a 3-foot-wide hole through a wall, cracked the structure's corners. The shrine belonged to the empire's founder, Sekou Amadou.

Anna Badkhen's book about transhumance, Walking With Abel, comes out in August.

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