Mali: Ethnic violence and the tragedy of extremism

Koulikoro training centre trains Spanish Grupo Táctico Interarmas 3, explaining how to deploy the weapons.  Koulikoro training centre trains Spanish Grupo Táctico Interarmas 3, explaining how to deploy the weapons. Ministerio de Defensa (cropped) - CC BY-NC-ND

30 March 2020

Mali is facing a severe security crisis, which has its deep roots in bad governance, corruption, social grievances (i.e. widespread poverty), ethnic and religious divisions and, more recently, state and militia abuses. 

Suspected Islamist militants attacked a Malian army’s base in Tarkint, north of the city of Gao, killing 29 soldiers and wounding five others. In the first time, the army reported that only two soldiers had been killed, but then added that the death toll had “heavily evolved” to 29 killed and five wounded. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but several sources linked it to al-Qaeda and ISIL-affiliated groups. The Malian army has recently suffered several casualties from Islamist groups’ attacks. What began as a localised revolt in the northern part of the country in 2012, spread to the centre and to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, where security has swiftly deteriorated over the past year amid a “fireball of conflict” involving multiple armed groups, military campaigns by national armies, and international partners as well as local militias. About 4,000 people died in these three countries last year, a fivefold increase compared to 2016, according to the United Nations figures.

Among international players, former colonial power France has deployed thousands of troops across the semi-arid swath of land beneath the Sahara desert known as the Sahel. Despite their presence, French officials have acknowledged they have failed to slow the violence. French army chief Francois Lecointre told senators last month that the Malian, Nigerien and Burkinabé armies were losing the equivalent of one battalion per year to the fighters’ attacks.

As mentioned before, spreading violence is due to, among others, escalation of widespread poverty and ethnic and religious tensions by the jihadists to increase recruitment in their ranks. 

Ethnic tensions may well be at the core of Mali’s problems and social grievances. This is the case of the long-time conflict between Fulanis and the other ethnic communities which populate the country, that is, Dogon, Bambara, and Songhai. The first group is largely herders, while the second is mostly farmers and sedentary. Against the increasing threat posed by armed bands and jihadist groups in several areas of the country, parallel, illegal militias formed in response, like the Dozos, traditional Dogon hunters armed with scythes, sticks and artisanal hunting rifles. The Dozos formed because of their conviction the State could not protect them. Nevertheless, there could be proof the Malian state is effectively arming and supporting these fighters, where its army’s reach cannot come. However, against the violence of jihadists and other armed groups, sometimes made of Fulanis, the Dozos did not act much differently, indiscriminately killing dozens of people in the villages, looting and setting fire on them. This way, Fulani communities are often caught between the jihadist threat on one side, and the violence of Dozos on the other, who accuse them of harbouring the jihadists and being part of their ranks. On the other side, though claiming to be protectors of Fulanis, jihadists are not always so kind towards them, most of the time imposing strict Sharia law, closing hundreds of schools, and settling scores with summary killings. By the way, many times, the violence of Dozos leads many people in the arms of jihadists, who grow their ranks and extend their influence day after day, against an ineffective government, which rules over vast parts of a country that are effectively lawless and plagued by spreading corruption. 

In the end, recent reports of rights abuses by the army itself and the Dozos have accelerated this process, further complicating an already serious scenario.   

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Author: Pasquale Candela; Editor: Shrabya Ghimire

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