Communal conflict can be defined as a violent conflict in which nonstate groups organised along a shared communal identity use violence to gain control over disputed resources. In Mopti, the most frequent communal conflict is instrumentalist, where groups clash within or against each other over scarce resources and poor management of them. Conflicts between herders and farmers – the oldest form of organised violence in human history – are the most emblematic.
However, it is important to acknowledge that even internal fighting among members of a group can lead to communal conflict. Fishermen, pastoralists and farmers are competing over resources that are becoming more scarce, and management of them is often problematic. This instrumentalist conflict also unfolds between original inhabitants and immigrant populations. The new settlers increase the competition for natural resources that can lead to a spiral of conflict.
In Mopti, the conflict has a more communal dimension, in which individuals organise themselves along a shared identity, that includes but is not limited to ethnicity. Focusing on ethnicity as the main divisive factor would mean ignoring the complex reality of the conflict dynamics in Mopti. Once the conflict is labelled as ethnic, the gross deprivations populations face and the marginalisation of certain groups play a secondary role in the analysis even though they are the primary drivers of instability. Moreover, it would exclude the fact that conflict in Mopti often takes place between members of the same ethnic group. Thus, rather than defining the ongoing violence exclusively along ethnic lines, social and economic perspectives should identify access to resources in central Mali as the main causes of concern.
Even when radical groups do not have a significant presence in a cercle, the extent of existing inequality and social injustice is conducive to local populations falling back on their identities, which in turn leads to breaching the social contract between the members of the community and different socio-professional groups. In certain areas, this has resulted in mutually destructive competition and conflict between groups, representative of the greater vulnerability of local populations exacerbated by competition over scarce resources, and governance-related issues. Traditionally employed in agriculture and pastoralism, many inhabitants of the Pays Dogon benefitted from tourism before 2012. As conflict escalated and the Mopti region was designated a red zone, the industry collapsed. Many tried to reach Europe through Libya, but few have made it. Communal livelihoods became dependent on market gardening and traditional farming activities.
However, here as elsewhere in the region, harvests have been poor and conflicts related to access to resources increased. The main ethnic groups of the Pays Dogon – Fulani and Dogon – have clashed violently for years but the conflict peaked in 2017 and 2018. Tensions rose as the Dogon accused the Fulani of supporting radical movements, and the Fulani countered by accusing the Dogon of colluding with the security forces to oppress the pastoralist community. These conflicts paved the way for the infiltration of the Pays Dogon by radical armed groups, which take sides in the conflicts and cloak local tensions ‘under the mantle of the global jihad discourse’. This rhetoric aside, the conflict in the cercle of Koro, one of the main areas of displacement in central Mali, boils down to competition over natural resources. As focus groups with Fulani internally displaced people who arrived in Bamako confirmed, the disputes are inherent to the poor management of land rather than related to jihad-related fringe groups.
Given the lack of sustainable solutions to their conflicts (as described in chapter 1), communities began mobilising themselves in local militias to protect their access to natural resources. But, the mobilisation of one group typically guarantees a countervailing reaction from other groups that have overlapping interests and compete for the same scarce resource. As the conflict escalates, the originally divisive issues (access to resources) are often replaced by more intense issues (ethnic divisions).
The Dozo is a community of traditional hunters typical of West Africa. Membership in this community is granted following an initiation ritual rather than on the basis of ethnic lines. Since prehistory, the Dozo have been known for hunting wild animals (gibier) and for their precision as sharpshooters. The use of weapons for hunting links the Dozo intimately to the notion of communal protection and legitimises their use of force. In response to the absence of the state, Malian Dozo (also known as Donso) have mobilised themselves into paramilitary organisations to protect local communities.
Often labelled ‘self-defence groups’, Dozo hunters have carried out attacks against numerous villages in central Mali and killed civilians. In certain areas, they have prevented outsiders from accessing the community by surrounding the villages, fully armed with hunting rifles. Although some speculate that they chase Fulani, the Dozo deny it: ‘we fight all enemies of the Pays Dogon regardless of their ethnicity. Our combatants also come from different ethnic groups’. Interviewees who mentioned that the majority of ethnicities are represented in Dozo militias also echoed this statement.
In recent years, civilians in Mopti have accused the Malian state of arming the Dozo. These accusations were repeated during interviews with locals: ‘it is the state who created the Dozo militias. Beforehand there was no armed conflict between different ethnic groups. There have always been disputes between agriculturalists and pastoralists but not like this’. Many have also speculated that the FAMa are using the Dozo for their knowledge of the territory as guides to track radical armed groups. This would be the reason, according to locals, that the Dozo can still circulate freely throughout the region despite the recent ban on the use of motorbikes for transportation.
But the Dozo are not the only ones who organised themselves in self-defence militias: in essence every community is armed and ready to defend itself (see box 4). Although these groups might be able to provide protection to local communities, they do so at the expense of the control by and legitimacy of state authorities deemed as incapable of ensuring human security in the regions. One interviewee openly expressed the fear that self-defence militias are substituting themselves for official security forces and that this will ‘destroy the possibility of a return of the state’. Even if the Malian state has historically failed at occupying the position of monopolistic security provider, local communities still aspire for a minimally impartial state authority to regulate security in the centre of Mali.
In central Mali, communal conflicts have become highly susceptible to radical armed groups, who began using them to mobilise communities along ethnic or other fault lines. One goal is to establish a local power base, making it more difficult to break a cycle of violence and return to the original drivers of insecurity. The multilayered nature of the conflict plaguing the region confronts the Malian government and its international partners with a daunting challenge. A conflict in any one layer, such as local disputes over natural resources, may aggravate a conflict in another, such as communal conflicts, especially if these are exploited by radical armed groups.
To date, radical movements in the centre of Mali are commonly said to involve mostly Fulani people and to be working to the advantage of the Fulani. Indeed, strong language has been used to describe ‘the ghost of a Fulani jihadist movement’ and to emphasise the strong link between this ethnic group and radical groups. The assertion merits further unpacking.
Most inhabitants in the region are Fulani, an ethnic group often the target of social injustices by agents of the state. As pastoralists, the Fulani saw their freedom of movement reduced and were at the heart of most conflicts related to the seasonal movement of herds. Capitalising on these deep-rooted grievances, radical groups co-opted a number of Fulani pastoralists with the promise of redeeming their honour and rights. Interviewees, however, mentioned that all ethnicities are represented in these radical groups: ‘the people we call jihadists are our brothers: there are Bambara, Songhay, Fulani . . . but they only speak Fulfude, this is where the confusion originates’. Fulfude, the language of the Fulani, is the most common language in the region and is spoken by the vast majority of indigenous people as a lingua franca. Hence, speaking Fulfude does not equate to being Fulani. Another daunting issue is that the mobility of Fulani pastoralists, especially in the bush, is confused or compared with the mobility or radical armed groups. Moreover, because the mastermind of the Macina Liberation Front, a renowned radical group, is a Fulani, some assume that the entire ethnic group will rally and support him.
This confusion between Fulani and radical elements has been taken for granted, to the frustration of many. A National Assembly deputy from Ténenkou questioned the silence of the prime minister on this subject: ‘at the time of the rebellion the president said that not all Tuareg are rebels. Why is he not saying the same now about the Fulani?’ Moreover, the amalgam resulted in arbitrary arrests and killings. The army killed a number of Fulani individuals because they were directly associated with radical movements. Many interviewers spoke of random arrests of Fulani citizens who are then asked to pay large sums of money to be released, between CFA 500,000 and 800,000 if detained in the Mopti region and between CFA 1,000,000 and 2,500,000 if transferred to Bamako. To add fuel to the fire, according to media reports and interviews, Fulani who were thought to be linked to radical groups turned out to be simple civilians. These arbitrary practices perpetuate social injustice and lead to grave discriminations against the Fulani. In the long run, this risks deepening the feelings of marginalisation and bias against the community and further antagonising Fulani communities against the state.
Members of Fulani communities mobilised themselves in response to their victimisation by the state, radical armed groups and Dozo self-defence militias. On 21 May 2018, they established a new self-defence group, the Alliance pour le Salut du Sahel. According to local observers who have been in touch with representatives of the Alliance, the movement wants to ensure the ‘survival of their traditions and resistance to the imposition of Sharia’. The alliance appears to be well armed and aims to operate in the central regions, as well as at the borders with Niger and Burkina.
In Mopti, the arrival of radical armed groups unfolds against a background of poor governance, the deafening absence of the state, and a hollowing social contract between the state and its citizens. Similarly to the north of the country, where ethnic divisions and lawlessness due to the withdrawal of the Malian state presented a window of opportunity for terrorist groups to settle in, radical armed groups have been gaining influence in the centre of the country for more than three years now. Led by a profound motivation to address social injustice in the central regions of Mali, radical armed groups imposed clear regulations that affect the access and management of natural resources, often at the heart of communal conflicts in Mopti.
Current insecurity is mainly due to the rise of the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) under the leadership of Hamadou Kouffa. Kouffa was not unknown to the inhabitants of Mopti. A notorious preacher, he comes from a small village after which he renamed himself from Diallo to Kouffa, and he knows the region well from his extensive proselytising travels. He used to record tapes with his sermons and songs which attracted sympathisers and admirers everywhere. People familiar with Kouffa before his rise to power describe him as an excellent Koranic student, but even more than that as being ‘the best talib [young Koranic student], and later the best santarou [advanced student]. Then he became the best preacher and now he is the best jihadist’.
Hamadou Kouffa allied himself with the Mouvement pour l'unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l'Ouest (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO) and with Iyad Ag Aghali’s Ansar Dine (Defenders of the religion) in 2012. In early 2013, he orchestrated their advance towards the centre of Mali. After this, he briefly disappeared to prepare himself for a power takeover, some speculate. Kouffa returned in 2015 as the leader of the MLF, which came to be known as Katiba Macina. In March 2017, Katiba Macina became a member of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin', or JNIM), a militant jihadist organisation in the Maghreb and West Africa resulted from the merger of various smaller groups.
It has been noted that the opening of a jihadist front in central Mali might represent the opportunity for groups traditionally located in the north of the country to enlarge their field of action and to strengthen their weak presence through strategic alliances. Significantly, some say that ‘Iyad controls Kouffa, and Kouffa controls the centre’, alluding to the entrenchment of northern groups in Mopti. Some are of the opinion that Kouffa sought first the alliance with MUJAO and Ansar Dine and then with JNIM to legitimise himself as a leader within a greater movement. Others believe that this was a strategy pursued by northern groups to detract attention from their movements and move the focus of the state to the central region of Mopti. The reasons behind these allegiances may be many and nuanced, but the self-warranted mandate of Kouffa and MLF gravitates around one issue mainly: addressing social injustice by implementing sharia.
Although their presence in the centre of the country plays out in different ways, radical armed groups have imposed a number of rules on virtually every community they have gained access to. The presence of women in the public space is heavily restricted: they cannot sell their goods at the market, search for firewood, do the laundry or bath themselves in the river. When women travel they must cover their heads, be accompanied by a male family member and not sit next to unknown men. Weddings and any other celebrations have to be modest and music cannot be played in public. In many instances, radical groups kidnapped flute players and smashed radios, televisions and batteries to ensure that no one had access to entertainment. The celebration of the traversée de Diafarabé, a major holiday marking the crossing of the river at the time of their herds’ seasonal movement and an intangible cultural heritage of humanity since 2005 was abolished. Smoking and drinking are also prohibited and playing football is frowned upon. Secular schools that taught in the French language were closed and only Koranic schools spared. Animist and Christian practices are also forbidden and have been punished in the past with kidnapping.
Beyond the imposition of these norms and rules, radical armed groups have also engaged in other forms of governance, such as resource management, justice provision and conflict mediation.
Armed groups began redistributing access to natural resources in Mopti in favour of those who in their view were discriminated against by the state. According to various accounts, representatives of these groups go to villages announcing that they are about to change the law and that from then onwards they will be in charge of the management of resources. In particular, armed groups are challenging the use and customary distribution of land to undermine the status quo and privileges of certain groups. Interviewers from different cercles have related that they do not privilege any socio-professional group in particular. On the one hand, they distribute agricultural land’ on the other, they regulate access to the bourgou for pastoralists and fishermen. They have likewise prohibited the use of certain plots of land, in particular those close to the forests and their encampments, or they have selectively allocated them to specific groups and forbidden the entrance of others. Further, they halted the rent-seeking behaviour of the dioros asking exorbitant fees in exchange for access to the bourgou because ‘the bourgou belongs to the good God, and so does the rain which makes it grow’. In some communes, the payment of modest fees was reinstated; in others, dioros are still not allowed to collect any taxes or even manage the pastures.
Radical groups have meddled in some of the critical conflicts plaguing Mopti. Thefts of herds in the bush used to be frequent, mainly by the Touareg conducting razzia (cattle raiding). In general, finding stolen cattle was difficult and most of the time the loss was not compensated. According to one interviewee, if people report to a radical group that their herd has been stolen, the group will retrieve and return it to the legitimate owner in a matter of days. Similarly, thefts in the fields during the harvesting season used to be common. Agriculturalists would harvest their crops but not always be able to bring them home the same day. During the night, the crops would be stolen. If agriculturalists were to ask for guards to protect their harvest, they would have to pay large sums of money, which made that approach impracticable. Some locals have already had radical groups guard the fields for free until the legitimate owner was able to take his crops home.
Secondly, the seasonal movement of herds used to result in an epidemic of violence that either formal or traditional authority often could not manage. For instance, in 2007 the village of Keba in the commune of Ouro Ardo, Ténenkou, after the rainy season ended, pastoralists sought to return to the inner Delta with their herds. Yet agriculturalists were still harvesting the fields and objected to the movement of the animals. Representatives of traditional authorities and the mayor met the pastoralists to seek a compromise. The communal council then referred the case to the formal authorities, who sent security forces that arrested and brutalised the pastoralists. The intimidating presence of armed groups has made the seasonal movement of herds less problematic than in previous years. Organised and supervised by radical elements, the crossing of the river was not celebrated with festivities as per tradition, but it was rather orderly and calm.
State agents often abused Fulani pastoralists in Mopti and in neighbouring cercles in the Tombouctou region. In many instances, officials of the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries stopped pastoralists to check whether their animals were vaccinated. If not, they would fine pastoralists between CFA 200,000 and CFA 300,000 without explaining where the money would go and without providing vaccination for the animals. Some mayors have contacted the governor of Mopti to inform him of these unfair procedures and informed him that they will prevent such agents from being operative in their communes – yet with no concrete result. In the past three years, the presence of radical armed groups undermined this corrupt system and the interest groups created by formal authorities fell apart as most state actors left the region. This has nothing to do, however, with the quality of conflict resolution provided by radical groups. Instead, the departure of most decentralised authorities from the region was determined by the extent threat and fear they experienced.
Even if their settlements do not provide a just process, radical groups stand by the population and listen to their grievances, something that villagers of Mopti have long asked formal authorities to do. Armed groups play the nostalgic chord of a better management of natural resources, a more egalitarian allocation and a more localised one that builds on strong traditions of the Macina Empire.
Every producer, regardless of his production system, is compelled to pay zakat, a type of almsgiving, a duty under Islamic principles rather than voluntary. Taking the form of a tax, the zakat should be paid from the total wealth exceeding the minimum wealth (nisab) of the producer. Thus, zakat is imposed to agriculturalist, pastoralists and fishermen alike and consists of the goods the individual owns – harvest, herds or fish. Most of the time, the collection of zakat is done without the consent of the legitimate owner.
Although taxes are a form of governance, zakat is portrayed as a way to level the socioeconomic differences between groups in Mopti by redistributing goods. It is also a way to support the subsistence of radical armed groups in the region who often steal goods they need for themselves, including animals. Many feel the forceful implementation of zakat duties as particularly burdensome, however. Often the zakat taken from pastoralists consists of animals who do not belong to the herder in question but he is herding on behalf of someone else. Additionally, recent harvests have been scarce, and most households struggled to meet the end between two yields – giving zakat is thus perceived as unfair. Although sometimes armed groups share the zakat with the poor, often they bring it to their cantonment and share it among themselves.
Although formal justice played a marginal role in dispute resolution before the arrival of radical armed groups, its use is now prohibited by the newly arrived. Radical groups would use violence against those who challenged their authority and ensure that no formal judgement was implemented on their turf. Some interviewees mentioned the presence of informants around the tribunal in Mopti who keep tabs on all those who visit the court. Disputants who questioned the decision of radical groups before formal justice were intercepted on their way back to their villages and had their documents torn up. In extreme cases, they were brutally killed on their return home.
Radical groups cantonment sites where the groups impart justice, the marquage, are primarily in the bush and forests of Mopti. The marquage also functions as a base for the group and as a place to keep hostages. Their general locations are well known to villagers in the surrounding areas, who are not allowed to approach so that they cannot disclose the precise location to the army. Those who are caught in nearby forests seeking firewood fire are often kidnapped.
Members of these groups also visit villages and towns to gather information and monitor the local populations and their whereabouts. ‘They know everyone by name, they are infiltrated everywhere’, one local explained. ‘It is commonplace that they recruit youth, give them motorcycles and phones and ask them to spy on the communities and relay the information in return’. Informants also keep the groups updated about the movements of the army and foreign troops and their presence in the communities.
The network of informants collaborates across regions, according to some interviewees. For example, a mayor from Tombouctou participated in a Mopti workshop, where he declared that radical groups were present in his village but that women were free to conduct their activities in public and that schools are open, which was not the case. On his return to the village, he was questioned by the group, who demanded that he never repeat similar false claims in public. To protect himself, the mayor escaped to Bamako, where he was contacted by the same group and informed that he was no longer welcome to return home. Village chiefs who travelled to Mopti or Bamako for personal issues were sometimes told to stop visiting urban areas or they would be banned from their communities. These impositions are primarily dictated by the fear in radical groups that chiefs might seek the support of formal authorities and the army, collaborate with state agents and give away sensitive information about the radical elements in their community.
In regards to conflict resolution, radical armed groups have either coerced traditional authorities to implement their impositions or substituted themselves for these authorities and begun providing conflict mediation for the local population and forcefully executing their decisions. In the beginning, they would visit the vestibule (office) of the chief and inform him of the scope of their presence and ask for his support. They would also let him know about what is tolerated in the community and what is banned. One chief related, ‘they came to see me and told me the village was too noisy, there were too many celebrations, and we played the flute way too often. They also told me they did not like how I manage the conflicts and that I am not fair’. In general, the substitution is a last resort manoeuvre that comes about only if the attempts to seek the collaboration of the village chief fail:
“At first, when these groups arrived they informed the locals that they wanted to impose sharia. My father, the village chief at the time, resisted their demands. One day they came to talk to him, but instead killed my father and took over the village. In a very short time, they have become the masters of the village and now the rest of the traditional authorities are at their mercy. They order them [the authorities] to inform the population of their decisions on the regulation, the management and the coordination of the village activities. For example, they forbid the payment of the taxes to the state and the payment of fees to access the bourgoutières because it belongs to the good God. They imposed the zakat on crops and animals. They induced several people to leave the village. It is a total absence of freedom, a prison.”
Episodes like this mirror a phenomenon that some have called the ’jihadist governance dilemma’. On the one hand, radical armed groups tend to be driven by their beliefs and objectives of imposing conservative Islamic law on the territories under their control. On the other, the brutal coercion they use to implement their rule undermines their legitimacy, effectiveness and sustainability of their governance – as the next section explains in more detail.
As discussed, the arrival of radical armed groups to the Mopti region was characterised by the imposition of new norms aimed at reducing the social injustice between different socio-professional groups. To communicate with local populations, members of these groups would visit the mosques after prayer time to preach and impart orders to populations. Alternatively, they would contact the imam of the village and compel him to convey their messages to the villagers. Imams are privileged for this task because they are religiously trained and the legitimate implementers of sharia principles. Imams are instrumental spokespersons for the group because radical elements seek to legitimise their claims and to ensure buy-in from the Muslim population: ‘all imams are forced to collaborate, even if deep down they do not share the ideology of Kouffa. It is better to keep quiet and not risk your life’.
Yet this strategy did not prove especially successful. Although people acknowledge that individuals like Hamadou Kouffa are knowledgeable about Islam, they do not feel the same way about his followers. ‘They do not even know the Koran’, one interviewee explained, ‘they only make confusion in the heads of people: they contradict what our imams say’. Interviewees familiar with the justice implemented by radical groups say that they are selective in the laws and texts they apply in the resolution of conflicts, and that they do so without interpreting them. The stronger rhetoric of armed groups is that of state abandonment and social injustice, not that of religious revitalisation. A state representative who travels between Bamako and his village in the cercle of Ténenkou explained that ‘in Mopti people have been pitted against the state for way too long. Injustice perpetrated by the administration and the abuses of power frustrated many. Radical movements benefitted from this tension to install their rule’.
Experts of sharia problematise the ways in which radical armed groups attributed themselves the power to implement Islamic principles. Unlike the cadis, a religious traditional figure in northern Mali, no representative of any radical armed group was ever invested with the power to implement sharia by the High Islamic Council of Mali. Moreover, imams and marabouts across the central regions disagree with the interpretations offered by the armed groups and interviewees dissociated themselves from the group positions.
The arrival of armed groups also aggravated the economic problems of local populations. Many people do not dare work in the fields and some have been prevented from accessing their own land plots. Because most of the fields are located outside the villages, in desert areas controlled by radical groups and historically plagued by banditry, people fear being attacked. According to a state agency charged with planning agricultural activities in Mopti, this year, 175,515 hectares of land have not been cultivated. Worth about CFA 14,000 per hectare, the production loss is enormous for a region that is already heavily impoverished.
Even when they would dare to go work in the fields, the Army Chief of Staff’s prohibition to drive motorcycles and pick-ups leaves many stranded. ‘Motorcycles and pick-ups are used by terrorists in the regions of Ségou, Mopti, and Tombouctou. This has to be dealt with’, recited the FAMa in a public communication. This measure has not only substantially decreased the mobility of people, but also made many think that the state has no understanding of their needs. The markets can no longer be supplied, and people have more difficulties accessing basic services such as healthcare. Because of this scarcity, the price of food increased and became unaffordable for many who now accuse the groups of having brought famine to the region.
The economic sector has been heavily affected by the presence of radical armed groups. The city of Mopti used to be at a ‘crossroads of cultures, and exchanges of goods; the most vibrant supply centre for the whole region. Now its economy is going into a freefall’. Already in 2012, as the security crisis unfolded in the north, tourism decreased until the industry shut down completely. Nowadays the only demand for the hospitality and restoration sectors comes from the few researchers, journalists and photographers that dare adventure beyond the city of Mopti.
The reduction of mobility of women prevented them from conducting their business in public places. In urban settings women can still be seen working in public, such as selling their goods at the market, but in rural areas this is hardly possible. There, women had to close their dyeing and soap factories and their activities are confined to the household. Moreover, certain industries that produce goods deemed inappropriate by radical groups were shut down, including those that produce make-up and wigs for women.
In addition, the prohibition of motorcycles, a direct consequence of their use by terrorist groups, limited the circulation of people and goods. Importers of motorbikes, mechanics and gasoline sellers were the first to feel the consequences of these decisions. But all civilians have been affected: agriculturalists cannot reach their fields to cultivate them; fishermen cannot reach the river or pastoralists their cattle; and rural inhabitants cannot go to the city to supply their households. In the cities, goods are more expensive and harder to find because local producers cannot supply markets. In the villages, the restricted mobility compounded the wide-ranging lack of basic services and populations are sometimes left without access to healthcare. This is further aggravated by the fact that in many of the villages serviced by pirogues, not even water transportation is fully functional.
Initially, in certain areas, the arrival of radical groups was welcomed because people thought that they would ‘end the abuses of the state agents against locals’ and ‘free people from the yoke of the state’. Some others believed their arrival was a divine punishment for all the miscarriages of justice and abuses perpetrated by the state. Whereas some populations denounced them, some others fully embraced their presence as radical groups redistributed rights of access to natural resources, solved local conflicts and, initially, did not hamper the regular life of the citizens. In particular, their conflict mediation was well received by many people and did sometimes amount to more egalitarian resource allocation. Radical groups reversed previous customary decisions that they deemed unfair, and all in all they portrayed their justice as more equitable and less marginalising towards the various socio-professional groups and their production systems.
Additionally, the availability of radical groups to satisfy primary justice needs propelled inhabitants to solicit their services to settle personal scores and advance revenge-fuelled claims. Currently, people are making use of their presence to challenge decisions made by customary chiefs. Whenever a local is unsatisfied with a decision made by a customary chief, he can call the local representative of the radical groups and inform him about it. In return, the customary chief would either receive a phone call and be asked to change the judgement, or would be kidnapped and killed in the bush. With the ingenuity of local populations, radical groups installed themselves in the region. But in due course, they showed ‘the true colour of their barbarousness’.
An interviewee from a locality that has been occupied since 2012 explained that in his opinion ‘jihadists only seek power, they want to intimidate people so that they can control them’. And to better control people, radical armed groups have engaged in a campaign against formal authorities and traditional authorities suspected of collaborating with the state or its international partners. Eradicating any form of local power and occupying the subsequent void seems to be the course of action these groups follow. Likewise, they do not shy away from using violence against civilians, even if to a lesser extent. Since their entrenchment in Mopti, they have killed shopkeepers and looted shops, destroyed cultivations, stolen animals, kidnapped, and killed people suspected of being government informants. On other occasions, they acted as coupeurs de route, stealing money, goods and motorcycles from travellers. This has led people to great confusion: ‘sometime they behave like jihadists, sometimes like bandits, what do they really want from us?’
Even when they provide conflict resolution, the ruthless use of violence alienates local populations. They take hostages and ask for exorbitant ransoms from the relatives of the captive; they ambush those suspected of collaborating with the government, but often innocent civilians without connections to state officials fall prey to these ambushes as well. Local populations are obliged to comply with the impositions of these groups at the expense of their security. Initial threats can culminate in kidnapping and arbitrary killings in cases of continued disobedience.
“With the arrival of jihadist groups in the commune, all the mayors have left and the populations were handed over to extremist groups. Mayors no longer have authority and the traditional leaders have become kings without a crown. They cannot make any decisions any longer and only sharia has power. Now radical groups dictate their wishes on the population; anyone who violates their regulations is arrested and sanctioned according to sharia or kidnapped. The extremist groups kill or strike in retaliation to non-compliance, they prohibit the population from bringing their disputes before traditional or the formal authorities. People are forced to solve their problems before extremist groups. They have banned the fundamental freedoms granted to all human beings.”
As in other cases where radical armed groups attempted to impose their rule through violence, their own fanaticism wore away the foundations of their control over others. Groups that are endemic to Mopti – such as the MLF – sought to provide a new social order based on the implementation of conservative Islamic principles that in their view would end social injustices. However, more often than not, when radical movements attempt to implement their ideology, it eludes them because ‘the basic nature of the movement's ideology usually leads to abuses that make a population reject jihadist groups’. Despite the rejection of radical armed groups by the vast majority of local populations, many have had to adapt and learn to live under their gun, including customary chiefs.
Conflict resolution provided by radical armed groups is perceived as effective in the short run, especially when weighed against the inadequate performance of existing institutions. On the one hand, formal justice was perceived as expensive, lengthy, corrupt, unaware of local dynamics and abusive. On the other, customary justice lacked enforcement powers and state support to implement decisions that could prevent the escalation of conflict. As in many other fragile environments, the history of weak provision of justice undermined the motivation of populations to obstruct the imposition of a new system by radical armed groups. Locals had no incentives to preserve any of the systems in place because they either were dysfunctional or did not meet their expectations in fulfilling their justice needs.
Another favourable element to radical groups is that of a lack of alternatives to their justice. Already in 2012 state authorities (civil servants, prefects, mayors, judges) had begun drawing away from the Mopti region, a surge occurring 2015 when radical groups entrenched themselves in the region. In the absence of the state, traditional authorities remained the only focal point for most communities, especially in rural areas. However, as radical armed groups took hold of the justice sector, ‘they put an end to traditional authority’, who now ‘do not have either legitimacy or authority’. In the absence of security and with no state presence in sight, most civilians are compelled to accept the rule of, and collaborate with, radical armed groups to avoid retaliation.
So far, this dynamic has not (yet) resulted in complete, local acceptance of their rebel governance because many central Malians reject the imposition of new, religious rules as well as the violent way these groups govern. Given the absence of formal state authorities in the region, combined with the partial rejection of the legitimacy of armed groups, the question is raised whether the potential of traditional authorities could be leveraged to halt the ongoing destabilisation in the Mopti region. The next chapter explores whether it would be possible to bolster these authorities’ conflict mediation and resolution potential – in many instances dating back to the Dina age – to address the lack of governance as a structural driver of resource conflicts and some of the governance issues associated with the presence of radical armed groups in the region.