Attack in Mali Leaves 160 Dead as Inter-Communal Violence Continues

Thousands of Malians protest for an end to violence. ( Al Jazeera )

Thousands of Malians protest for an end to violence. (Al Jazeera)

At least 160 people were killed in a raid in Central Mali on March 24 and at least 73 were injured. The victims almost exclusively belonged to the Fulani ethnic group. The massacre is the most deadly in the series of escalating ethnic attacks that have rocked the country since 2012.

The perpetrators of the attack, which took place in the Mopti region of Central Mali, have still not been identified. The attackers are suspected to be members of the Dozo militia, who mainly recruit from the Dogon ethnic group. The Dogo are generally farmers and have maintained tense relations with the Fulani, who are mainly herders.

Tensions reached a new level in 2012, however, when a jihadist uprising in the country’s northern region traveled south to the center of the country and brought increased violence and could not be contained by the government. When French forces intervened and ousted the extremist movement from major cities, jihadi fighters fled to the country’s rural regions, including Mopti.

The Fulani in particular have been tied to these jihadist groups: the community is a key recruitment pool for them, according to the UN and Human Rights Watch (HRW). In 2017, members of the Fulani group allied with an ISIS affiliate in a deadly assault against joint U.S.-Niger forces. The attack gained widespread attention in the United States, where few were even aware that the U.S. had been operating in Niger. Constant, worsening attacks by the Tuaregs, another cattle-herding group in Mali, are believed to have pushed some Fulanis to seek protection and training from jihadists.

In response to the escalating violence perpetrated by jihadist militias, which have crippled the Malian Armed Forces’ ability to maintain control throughout the country, local self-defense groups—including the Dozos and other Dogon groups—have emerged in the Mopti region.

In practice, however, the self-defense groups represent a violent threat mostly to other civilians. HRW reports that their attacks are responsible for 200 civilian deaths, thousands of forced displacements, and widespread hunger.

One of the largest of these groups, Dan Na Ambassagou (meaning “hunters who trust in God”) is believed to be responsible for the Saturday attack, as the gunmen reportedly wore hunting garb specific to the Dogon community. The organization, which rose to prominence in 2017, has been accused of leading multiple attacks on Fulanis prior to the most recent violence. However, the association wholly denied having any involvement in Saturday’s massacre.

These groups have used the pretense of fighting against jihadists as a justification for attacking the Fulanis. In reality, the root of Mali’s inter-communal violence is much deeper. Farmers and herders in Mali compete for access to resources—and sometimes political power. Researchers have identified climate change as an exacerbating factor in the tensions between farmers and herders in West Africa, as rising temperatures and irregular rainfall strain shared natural resources, primarily water and land. In nearby Nigeria, farmers and herders are involved in a similar situation, often clashing over access to resources in the country’s extremely diverse Middle Belt region.

In response to the attack, the UN dispatched a team of 10 human rights specialists, a child protection agent, and two investigators to the region to conduct a special investigation.

Additionally, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita fired two generals: the Army Chief of Staff M’Bemba Moussa Keita and Chief of Land Forces Abdrahamane Baby. The move was likely meant to appeal Malians at large, who have grown increasingly frustrated by the government’s apparent inability to protect its citizens from extremist or militant attacks.