In the melee that is Mali, everyone sees themselves as the victim of the other. Old rivalries between Fulani herders and Dogon farmers have been exploited by all sides and further aggravated by demographic pressure on the land and the proliferation of guns. The state is generally absent, and religious and community leaders, unable to ensure the safety of their fellow villagers, are losing their authority, making it harder to solve tensions through the traditional and well-respected methods of conflict resolution.
The Dozo are traditional Dogon hunting fraternities that have formed self-defence militias that the Fulani say are being armed by the Mali army and used to carry out attacks on them. Fulani men are automatically perceived as Islamic suspects by the Malian army. The Malian authorities’ encouragement of the creation of “self-defence groups” to help in tackling the insurgency has become a major catalyst in the escalation of the conflict.
“Soldiers didn’t know the field well, so the Dogons started guiding them. As a revenge, the jihadis killed Dogon peasants when they were going to the fields, and burned the grain reserves in the villages,”
Islamist militants first established themselves in the rural areas of the central region more than 10 years ago, and began launching sporadic attacks on police stations. Civilians who lived in their area of control suddenly found themselves subject to unofficial new laws, imposed by the jihadists. They have learned to live under the yoke of those new lawmakers, who closed schools, banned music, imposed a strict dress code and imposed their own taxes. “If you obey their rules, they don’t give you problems,” says the chief. “They also collect the zakat, a [religious] tax on your properties, in money or cattle.” What about those who do not pay? He laughs. “You must pay.”
Amadou Koufa, a radical Fulani preacher, was the founder and leader of the Macina Liberation Front, which merged with other militant Islamist groups to form Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). This pledged allegiance to al-Qaida and became a leader of the jihadist group’s local “franchise”, the Organisation of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (the Isis equivalent is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS). Villagers watched their young men become transformed into fighters under his influence.
Bréma Ely Dicko, a Malian anthropologist, says the crisis has upturned the established order in Mali. “Many among those who joined the armed groups are young men who come from the lower classes of the society – known as ‘prisoners’, or ‘slaves’ in Mali – who are serving the higher castes,” he says. “Many positions of authority, like the village chiefs, the imams, were hereditary. But now, those who have the power are those who have the weapons.” He says people in the region “are realistic about the fact that the state is not going to retake control soon. So they turn to those who can best give them some form of protection and stability.”
There were more than 1,500 conflict-related deaths recorded in the Mopti region in 2020, the deadliest year since the start of the hostilities.
“This has nothing to do with jihad, or with Islam. What I see are dispossessed people, whose relatives have been killed. They take up arms to demand justice,” says Hamadoun Bolly.