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Massacre in Mali: How 'preventing terror' is fuelling it

DANGER: A UN peacekeeper in Gao; about 15,000 remain in Mali

A 10-DAY-OLD BABY killed with its mother. People thrown into a ditch of burning oil before being fired upon. A village chief captured and summarily executed in front of his own mother.

Hamadoun Dicko, a Fulani leader from Mali, is speaking about the latest devastating attack on members of his ethnic group.

On March 23, 160 people were massacred in the village of Ogossagou, in the Mopti region of central Mali.

An armed militia of men belonging to the Dogon ethnic group came to inflict their terrible toll, razing huts and leaving behind the charred remains of Fulani women and children.

The attacks, UN rights office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said, were “horrific”.

DANGER: A woman stands outside a house at the site of an attack by gunmen herders in Ogossagou, Mail

Dicko and fellow Fulani leaders in Mali say this massacre is part of a “genocide” being waged against their community, which numbers almost three million in the African state.

It is the latest incident in a cycle of violence that has beset the region in recent years, increasingly focused on Fulanis, who are targeted partly because they are seen as being tied to armed al-Qaeda-type groups operating in the region.

“Fulanis could be massacred everywhere in Mali,” Dicko, a spokesperson for the Mali chapter of Tabital Pulaaku, which represents Fulanis across the world, said. “There is a genocide taking place against the Fulani community in Mali. The Malian nation is in danger and there is a strong probability that Fulanis could be massacred everywhere. They are no longer in security.”

The violence comes as Mali’s internationally backed military campaign against extremist armed groups increasingly becomes a war on the Fulani, according to analysts.

The seriousness of the situation is underscored by a perfect storm of al-Qaeda-linked groups vying for influence, army-backed militia with tribal scores to settle and a desperate struggle for water and land amid a looming climate catastrophe.

There are some 40 million Fulani living across Africa, mainly in the Sahel, a semiarid landscape that runs from East to West Africa – from the Red Sea to the Atlantic – and which lies at the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

While some occupy positions of power and privilege, many are poor and retain an age-old pastoralist tradition, roving with herds of horned cattle in search of fresh pasture and clean water.

The Dogon, a much smaller group – are concentrated in central Mali, where their elaborate mud homes can be seen perched high on a landscape of cliffs and sandy plateaux.

Both tribes are majority Muslim, though some Dogons practise traditional belief systems or Christianity.

In recent years, Dogons have formed armed militias, made up of bands of traditional hunters called Dozo, to protect themselves from attacks by al Qaeda-linked fighters, which have attracted Fulanis in large numbers.

According to Ibrahim Yahaya from the International Crisis Group, Dogon militias now perceive Fulanis as “being in bed with the jihadists” and have attacked their villages indiscriminately.

“The fact that these groups have recruited more Fulani than everyone else has given them a Fulani identity,” Ibrahim said.

“Sometimes, the jihadists attack individuals who are Dogon, and the Dogon militias reply by attacking Fulani villages.”

Once a land of fabled riches, the country now ranks among the poorest in the world, coming in at 183 out of 187 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index.

Living conditions in central Mali lag well behind national averages, fuelling grievances. The poverty rate there is estimated at around 60 per cent, compared to 11 per cent in the capital Bamako.

In response to the Mopti attack, the Malian government has fired military top brass and disbanded the Dan Na Ambassagou, a collection of Dogon self-defence groups made up of traditional hunters, which has been blamed for the attack.

PICTURED: A French soldier from the UN mission in Africa’s Sahel region

These groups began to appear in 2016, as Dogons began to organise themselves in response to MLF attacks.

“Some Dogons became very wary of the Fulani and some militias started appearing asking for eviction of Fulanis from the whole region,” said Ba-Konare, the Paris-based analyst. Tit-for-tat attacks left scores dead.

Two alleged Fulani extremists killed two men suspected of being informants for the Malian armed forces in 2016. Retaliatory attacks left 30 people dead on both sides.

In 2017, alleged Fulani armed assailants killed a prominent member of a Dogon hunting society, sparking retaliatory attacks by armed Dogons against Fulani villages. Thirty-five were left dead, forcing the evacuation of several thousand civilians.

In 2018, the violence escalated. Human Rights Watch documented 42 incidents of communal violence in Mopti last year. A total of 202 civilians were killed, with 156 of them Fulani.

Ba-Konare says that violence has been fuelled by a glut of arms that Dogon militia groups have been receiving from their tribal kin in neighbouring Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

“They possess heavy arms, rocket launchers, grenades and bulletproof vests. It’s different from the warfare technology you can find in the region for the past two years,” he said.

The country as a whole has become increasingly militarised as international actors establish themselves, seeking to stem the flow of migrants to Europe, amid growing fears over extremist attacks.

The United Nations retains about 15,000 UN peacekeepers in Mali, which ranks as its most dangerous peacekeeping mission.

The country hosts two European Union peacekeeping missions, which provide military training to Malian forces.

Armed American drones, based at a sprawling base in Niger, are expected to take to the skies above the Sahel shortly, part of a covert US war being waged against suspected extremists across the continent.

The regional troop surge comes amid fierce competition for raw materials, among them gold and uranium, attracting interest from the likes of Russia and China.

Yet these missions are often “heavily security focused” and fail to deal with the root causes of violence, according to Nadia Ahidjo from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), one of the Open Society Foundations founded by Hungarian-American investor George Soros.

“Many of these groups are actually set up to combat terrorism and so they do not see community conflict or social cohesion as an issue that they should target. You find that their mission is heavily security focused. It’s a military response to a problem that is not a military problem.”

Ba-Konare points out that counter-terrorism forces have a mandate to only track down “jihadist terrorist groups,” allowing ethnic-based militias to act with impunity against the Fulani.

“In my opinion, the militias are also terrorists, the way they fight and bring fear, they qualify as a terrorist group, but no one is treating them as such.”

Rights groups have implicated the Malian army in a string of human rights abuses, including, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture, as they go after alleged extremists.

Ba-Konare said that the Malian army had arrested hundreds of innocent people and have committed extrajudicial killing as they seek to burnish their credentials as part of a “war on terror”.

“In the name of the war on terror, they are trying to show an image of themselves of being really strong,” he said.

“So you have an environment where anything can be justified in the name of the war on terror, when in fact the militias have killed more people than the jihadists have, many more people.”

The United Nations reacted quickly to the attacks: UNICEF provided medicine and first aid supplies; the refugee agency UNHCR handed out ‘dignity kits’; beds and water sanitation items were offered by the World Food Programme.

A team of the UN’s own police force were sent to investigate the attack.

This ample response is reflective of the UN’s vast footprint across Mali, which includes one of its largest peacekeeping forces anywhere.

Yet Malian human rights groups say it is failing to protect civilians.

“They are helplessly witnessing all these massacres,” said Drissa Traoré, national coordinator of the Malian Association for Human Rights, a group which documents abuses. “International forces are failing in their primary mission, which is to protect civilian populations.”

Dicko, who described the attack on Ogossagou, said that Fulanis have been trying to raise the issue of inter-communal violence only to be told by the UN that it does not have the mandate to act. “We don’t know why the UN is here because they are doing nothing and state that they have not got an order to act,” Dicko said.

A livestock market in Mali – many Fulani are herders

“It is strange to see how numerous they are here without any reaction,” he added. “They are not taking our problem seriously enough.”

Droughts, increasing in frequency and intensity, have devastated the country in recent decades, killing thousands of people and millions of cattle. This has been a source of grave conflict in a country where almost 60 per cent of people live in rural areas.

Fulani herders have been caught up in the competition for grazing spots and clean water, explains Ahidjo.

“Fulanis take their cattle from one end to the other, based on grazing routes, and with climate change you have more and more arid areas,” she said. Added to this are disputes between settled farmers and herders, and conflicting narratives over land ownership and disputes, which refer back to land arrangements made centuries ago between groups.

A rebellion by Tuareg separatists in 2012 inflamed ethnic tensions, driving Fulani herders into the hands of extremist groups. A nomadic people inhabiting the Sahara, Tuareg political leaders had long sought their own homeland free from marginalisation in Mali and neighbouring countries.

The Western-backed removal of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 was a turning point. With his demise, Tuareg, who had fought on his side as mercenaries returned home across the Sahara bringing with them heavy weapons, looted from Libya’s armouries.

A year later, Tuareg separatists declared war against the Malian government, setting their sights on attaining independence for the northern region of Mali, known as Azawad.

The Malian government was promptly overthrown by mutinying soldiers vexed at its sluggish response. Ansar Dine, an armed extremist group, began to wage war against the authorities, allying with the Tuareg-led separatists for a few months before both groups turned their guns on each other.

Ibrahim says that Fulani herders living in central regions adjoining the north now began to feel ill at ease by an emboldened Tuareg.

“They became vulnerable to acts by the separatist Tuareg, who came to plunder their villages and steal their cows.”

Seeking training and arms to protect their villages and cattles, some Fulani herders joined extremist groups, such as Ansar Dine, which was mainly made up of Arabs and Tuareg, and did battle against government forces and separatist Tuareg, sometimes committing atrocities.

Malian forces were able to regain a foothold in the country thanks to a French-led intervention in 2013 that saw rebels – both separatist Tuareg and ‘jihadist’ inspired – expelled from their northern strongholds.

Separatists vanished into the Sahara’s desert sands, beyond the reach of state forces, explains Ibrahim.

But when Fulanis returned to their villages in central Mali, a vengeful army followed in hot pursuit.

“When the Malian army started to go back to regain control of territories they had lost to the jihadists, they persecuted those Fulanis who had joined those jihadist groups,” Ibrahim said.

“The Fulani had initially joined the jihadists because they wanted to protect their communities, but the government considered them as jihadists.”

Anxious for protection once again, some Fulanis in central Mali now flocked to extremist groups, giving rise to entities such as the Macina Liberation Front. Peace agreements signed in 2015 now brought former Tuareg separatists in from the cold and on to the side of the state, legitimising them as allies in the war against terror.

Dicko has asked for accountability for the attacks and has called on the international community for support.

“All that we want is justice,” he said. “The international community must know that the Fulani community is not safe.”

This article first appeared in Middle East Eye and is reproduced courtesy of Amandla Thomas-Johnson

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