What’s behind the escalating ethnic violence in Mali?

Officials and residents stand near freshly dug graves in the Dogon village of Sobane-Kou on Tuesday after an attack that killed over 100 ethnic Dogon. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
Officials and residents stand near freshly dug graves in the Dogon village of Sobane-Kou on Tuesday after an attack that killed over 100 ethnic Dogon. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Mali has been struck by ethnic violence the scope of which it’s never before seen: On March 23, the predominantly ethnic Fulani villages of Ogossagou and Welingara in central Mali were destroyed. The attack was presumed to be led by a self-defense militia of the Dogon ethnic group called Dan Na Ambassagou, which denies responsibility. More than 150 people were killed, livestock was destroyed and people’s homes set on fire.

Apparently in response, armed men on motorbikes encircled the Dogon village of Sobane-kou on Monday and burned it to the ground. An official government report claims that they killed at least 95 villagers and injured several others; still others are missing. Fulani herders and Dogon farmers have clashed for years, but these episodes are strikingly violent.

Following the Ogossagou attack, the prime minister and his government resigned and the government officially banned Dan Na Ambassagou — a paper declaration with little force. Here’s what you need to know about what’s behind this breakdown in Mali.

What has Mali’s politics looked like?

For many years Mali was known as a democratic country in which a number of ethnic groups lived together in relative peace. Periodic, violent disputes took place between the multiethnic government in the south and the minority Tuareg population in the north, some of whom sought to secede and become a country called Azawad.

In 2012, military officers overthrew Mali’s democratically elected president, frustrated in part by the fact that the government wasn’t revealing what was behind Tuareg militants’ massacre of Malian soldiers in the northern town of Aguelhok. The MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), a Tuareg-led secessionist movement, took advantage of the chaos to rapidly expand its control in the north. But al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its local affiliates overtook the MNLA and soon controlled the region.

In January 2013, France sent military forces to help prevent the expansion of Islamist extremists into central and southern Mali. The United Nations launched a peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) in the north that has been attacked so often it’s the most dangerous U.N. mission in the world. Those two forces provided enough security to enable presidential elections in July 2013, although turnout remained low and armed groups prevented some polls from opening.

But the French forces and MINUSMA failed to bring peace and security to Mali. In 2015, the government and a coalition of armed groups negotiated the Algiers Accords. This was a road map for building peace, and included disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of militia members and decentralization of governance. A coalition of regional armies called the G5 joined France and MINUSMA — to no avail.

Armed Islamist insurgents continue to attack international peacekeepers, soldiers, local police and government civil service offices. These attacks have spread to central Mali.

As the peace process largely ignored the central region, some local armed groups established ties with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Ethnic tensions rose between farmers (Dogon and Bambara peoples, among others) and predominantly Fulani cattle herders — which worsened in the absence of government security.

In 2015, Amadou Kouffa, leader of the Macina Liberation Front (or Katiba Macina), claimed that his group had launched several of the attacks on government outposts. Named after the Macina Empire, a 19th-century Fulani kingdom in central Mali, Kouffa’s MLF is a Fulani movement allied with AQIM and the local Tuareg-led jihadist organization Ansar Dine. By 2017, these groups merged to form the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). JNIM has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in central Mali.

Why are these groups attacking?

After attacks by insurgents on military and government outposts, civilians are often targeted in retaliatory acts and to foment terror. On March 17, the Fulani/Tuareg alliance of JNIM claimed responsibility for killing 23 Malian soldiers in their barracks in central Mali. Less than a week later, the Dogon group Dan na Ambassagou annihilated the villages of Ogossagou and Welingara in retaliation, treating all Fulani villagers as the “terrorists” who attacked the army base. Government security forces were slow to come to the villages’ aid, resulting in public outcry that the government had somehow encouraged the attack.

While no group has claimed responsibility, local officials have said that the attack on the Dogon village Sobane-kou was led by Fulani. The central government issued an official statement Monday labeling the assailants “likely terrorists” — code for the Fulani and JNIM.

The government’s resignation has done little to calm the tensions; rather, it signaled that official Mali has no effective response.

Who’s benefiting from this crisis?

With Mali’s military and police forces unable to function effectively in rebel-held areas, local groups including JNIM are now making money by moving and selling people, drugs, and other illicit merchandise.

Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, with affiliates in areas bordering and crossing the Sahara desert in Mali and neighboring countries, are also benefiting from the Mali government’s inability to secure its people and territory. Their successful destabilization of Mali is an effective global propaganda and recruiting tool.

The 2015 Algiers Accords have failed to bring peace, in part because they haven’t been fully implemented. The central authorities haven’t transferred to local offices the funds required for effective decentralized governance; interim authorities have not been replaced by elected representatives; and demobilization, disarmament and reintegration has barely begun.

Turmoil now threatens the entire country. Labeling various groups as “terrorists” has led to atrocities. To end these attacks, the government needs to have an effective security presence. A longer lasting solution will require groups to come together to air and attempt to resolve the underlying grievances. Political institutions, like municipal councils, regional assemblies, or the national assembly, will need to work to respond to people’s needs and work to effectively find a path forward.

Until Malians come together and challenge ethnic and religious targeting, this crisis will only deepen and more lives will be destroyed.

Susanna D. Wing (@SusannaWing) is an associate professor of political science at Haverford College and author of Constructing Democracy in Africa (Palgrave, 2008).

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