As presidential vote nears, violence in central Mali goes overlooked
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As Malian voters prepare to vote in Sunday’s presidential election, the deteriorating security situation in the centre of the country has often gone overlooked, overshadowed by violence in the north.
The election is set against a backdrop of growing insecurity in Mali, which, despite a 2015 peace deal between the government and Tuareg-led separatists in the north, has seen a surge in attacks by Islamist militants formerly allied with the rebels. The violence has since spread to the centre of the country, where it has aggravated existing inter-ethnic tensions in the region.
In June, at least 32 civilians were killed in ethnic violence in the isolated village of Koumaga in the central Mopti region.
Marie Rodet, a Mali expert and senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, spoke with FRANCE 24 about the dire security situation.
FRANCE 24: We often talk about northern Mali, but less about the centre of the country, where the security situation is worrying…
Marie Rodet: The situation is very serious. The threat is daily, with a series of small attacks, which the local and international press don’t necessarily report. We’ve seen armed Islamist groups attack schools, state institutions. Inter-ethnic violence, especially among the Fula, Dogon and Bambara, is on the rise, as are abuses by the Malian army. The population is living in fear, holed up at home. Motorcycles have been banned in villages over the last few months, and some schools have been closed for the past three years, particularly in the Mopti region.
More than 50 people have been killed in clashes between the Fula and Dogon in recent months. Why has there been this surge in violence?
These clashes, which are set against a backdrop of growing insecurity, come amid heightened economic and ecological tensions, which means we can’t define the situation between the Fula and Dogon as a “classic” inter-ethnic conflict. The Fula, traditionally a nomadic pastoral community, follow the seasonal movement of livestock, and migrate from north to south in search of food for their herd. This can lead to conflict with sedentary farmers, such as the Dogon, over access to pastures for grazing. The Dogon have regularly accused the Fula and their livestock of destroying their harvest. Over the last few years, there have been a number of droughts in the Sahel, raising fears of famine, which have heightened tensions between different communities over natural resources. The government has reported strong numbers, especially in cotton production, but it doesn’t correspond at all to the economic reality of central Mali.
Has the arrival of jihadist groups in recent years aggravated inter-ethnic violence in the region?
Yes, especially since the creation of the Macina Liberation Front in 2015, which is led by the radical preacher Amadou Koufa (also known as Hamadoun Koufa). He has tried to exploit existing tensions by rallying his fellow Fula to his cause, preaching about [the Maasina Emirate], a theocratic empire created by the ethnic group in the 19th century. Unfortunately, non-Fula now associate the Fula with jihadists. Faced with growing insecurity, the Dogon have created self-defence groups, such as Dan na Amassagou (Hunters Who Trust God). Meanwhile, some Fula communities have also formed self-defence groups over the years, in response to the Malian government’s absence in the region. It’s a cycle of retaliation that has led to a surge in violence.
What has the Malian government done to resolve the problem?
The Malian government is totally absent and no longer operates in the centre of the country. Security forces are almost inexistent, and on the rare occasion the army intervenes, it is often contested. The army’s policy of “neutralising terrorists” has been regularly condemned by human rights organisations, which have decried extrajudicial killings and a tendency to conflate the Fula and militant Islamists. The prime minister, Soumeylou BoubèyeMaïga, recently confirmed that the army tracked Islamists to their villages, which has done nothing but heighten tensions. Unlike northern Mali, where the government has created communication channels to negotiate, especially with Tuareg-led rebels, the centre of the country is still unknown territory.
Will the upcoming presidential election have an impact on the situation?
Nothing has happened since the start of campaigning three weeks ago. All decisions have been put on hold. The candidates talk about security, but if Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is re-elected, there’s the unfortunate risk that nothing will change. In the five years he’s been president, he hasn’t acted on the issue. He’s shown no strategic vision. On several occasions, he has opted for a more confrontational tone, which instead of easing tensions, has exacerbated the problem, reinforcing stigma among ethnic groups.
This article was translated from the original in French.
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