Seven years ago separatists from the Tuareg ethnic group and jihadists allied to al-Qaeda took over most of the sparsely populated north of Mali, like reported by economist.com. France sent more than 4,000 troops to stop the rebels’ southwards advance on the capital of their former colony, Bamako, and drove them out of the larger cities. The UN has about 15,000 soldiers and police in the country at present, one of its biggest peacekeeping forces in the world. But the jihadist groups, who are sweeping across much of the Sahel, have reformed, rearmed and recruited new fighters. A new cycle of violence has begun. Among the UN alone, 200 personnel have been killed, making it the most deadly such mission since its start in 2013.
The government of Mali, a country of about 18m people, has shown little interest in re-establishing control in the north or providing social services there. It tends to focus on the country’s gold-rich south-west. This has allowed drug traffickers, militiamen and jihadists—often the lines between them are blurred—to flourish in the populous central regions. The insecurity has spilled over the country’s long borders and destabilised other weak states including Niger and Burkina Faso, which are now also battling jihadist insurgencies.
Recent violence in Mali has an element of inter-ethnic rivalry that did not previously figure so strongly. The country’s most powerful jihadist group, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, has concentrated recruitment efforts on the Fulani ethnic group, many of whom are impoverished, disenfranchised, semi-nomadic herders. Fulani relations with two primarily farming-focused groups in central Mali, the Dogon and the Bambara, are becoming increasingly strained. In the past two years Dogon and Bambara militiamen, claiming to be anti-jihadist, have massacred hundreds of Fulani men, women and children. In response, Fulani groups have armed and now carry out their own killing sprees.
The litany of killings is horrendous. In March Dogon militiamen butchered more than 170 people in Ogossagou, a Fulani village in central Mali. The outcry forced the government to resign. In June dozens of gunmen suspected to be from a Fulani “self-defence group” killed 35 people at a Dogon village. (The local mayor claimed the number was almost 100.) And a week later another 41 people were reportedly massacred in two more Dogon villages.
The murders are part of a cycle of tit-for-tat attacks that are also often linked to conflicts about land or theft of cattle. The government has done little to resolve them. Some soldiers have even given Dogon and Bambara militiamen official passes to get through checkpoints, and been on patrols with them. The resulting sense of impunity has had tragic consequences. In seven years more than 1,800 people have died. Mali’s army has proved woefully inadequate for re-establishing governance. Its support for the Dogon and Bambara militias has backfired spectacularly and fuelled the conflict. This year intercommunal violence overtook jihadist violence as the leading cause of violent death in Mali, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, an NGO. To make any sort of progress the new Malian government needs to do more to provide security to all communities, while also encouraging dialogue between militia leaders and helping to settle disputes over land and cattle that fuel some of the violence. Without that, there seems little reason to hope that the bloodshed will end.