In the shadow of the ongoing armed conflict in northern Mali, the central regions of the country have increasingly fallen prey to radical armed groups. The absence of law and order and basic services has contributed to the corrosion of public authority and the creation of self-defence militias, which in turn fuel communal conflict. This type of conflict occurs mainly in relation to contested access to and management of natural resources by the different socio-professional groups living in the central regions – such as herders, farmers and fishers. Existing state and traditional governance structures have proven unable to mitigate these conflicts. Traditional arrangements, such as customary tenure regimes, have been increasingly challenged by the number and type of conflicts.[1] Formal state institutions are often scanty, remote, expensive and riddled by corruption.

This is problematic because access to land and water is essential to the livelihoods of the local populations. The uncertainty of such access and the weakness of existing governance systems presented an opportunity for radical armed groups seeking to entrench themselves in central Mali. Left unresolved, communal conflicts in regions such as Mopti offered these groups the opportunity to mobilise communities along ethnic or other fault lines. This dynamic meant that local conflicts fed into the greater insecurity of the country and became themselves destabilising factors. This raises the question whether and how the lack of governance as a structural driver of resource conflict could be addressed to increase the stability of the region.

In attempting to answer that question, this report looks at the historically contested Mopti region. Although Mopti is rich in natural resources, different systems of governance coexist and challenge one another to the detriment of the inhabitants. Rising communal conflicts related to land tenure mismanagement are aggravated by demographic growth, climate change effects and radical armed group violence. Lessons from Mopti can be applied preventively in the south of Mali, where radical armed groups have not yet manifested their presence but similar conflicts are brewing.

The report is structured as follows: the first section describes the historical evolution of resource governance in Mopti and the challenges to this governance that existed before the arrival of radical armed groups. Starting with the Dina system in the 19th century and leading up to the early 2000s, both formal and traditional resource governance structures have been subject to numerous imposed readjustments that undermined their power and legitimacy. Thus, as described in the second section, radical armed groups found fertile breeding ground in the region and to try and obtain legitimacy through the imposition of rebel governance – including over resource management.

The third part of the report analyses the response and engagement of customary authorities with these radical armed groups and shows how their presence has influenced traditional governance structures in the region, especially their ability to provide conflict mediation to local populations. It identifies homegrown initiatives to address conflict dynamics and discusses how their potential could be harnessed for greater stability in the Mopti region.

The report concludes with recommendations for the Malian government and its international partners who seek to address the multilayered conflicts that plague the central region of Mopti. Because stability needs to be anchored in the social reality lived by the local population, these recommendations discuss how to better link current stabilisation efforts with the local needs of those affected by the conflict.