Despite the challenges to their legitimacy and given the lack of other relatable power structures, customary chiefs remain points of reference and authority in most rural communities throughout the region of Mopti and often in urban settings as well. Customary chiefs used to play the role of intermediaries between formal local governance and the population. They conveyed official decisions and information to the population, and vice versa, they represented the interests and needs of their constituencies before the communal councils.[236] Given their dual hat role, radical armed groups have targeted customary leaders both as powerful allies to collaborate with and as dangerous foes to suppress. As soon as they installed themselves in the region, armed groups understood that controlling or winning the favour of customary chiefs is often key to governing populations at the local level, to mobilising support and to preventing dissent.

Customary chiefs based in the major cities of the Mopti region feel relatively safe and believe that the arrival of radical armed groups has not directly affected their work even though the groups increased the general insecurity.[237] However, chiefs based in rural settings, the stronghold of radical groups, are putting their lives on the line.[238] The French military Operation Serval and its successor, the counterterrorist Operation Barkhane, may have driven the radical elements out of the urban centres but radical armed groups still exert a strong influence in the rural areas of Ségou and Mopti. Similarly, the FAMa are present in the majority of cities in the region of Mopti, but they are not embedded en brousse (in the bush).[239]

The presence of radical armed groups has further challenged the legitimacy, authority and power bases of customary authorities, especially in rural areas where the absence of law and order is more acute.[240] Where state security forces are absent, justice provision by radical armed groups is more widespread and better rooted. Here, elements of the armed groups have coerced chiefs to collaborate with them, or, when this was not achievable, they have substituted themselves in place of the traditional authorities.[241] The coercion armed groups use to impose their system of justice, together with the use of violence to enforce their decisions, amount to a defiance that customary systems cannot address on their own, as this episode illustrates:

Before their arrival radical armed groups, the traditional authorities had the support of the entire village and were respected by the entire population. They ensured the regulation, coordination and management of the village. The chief was the village mediator, the weaver of the social fabric and the consolidator of peace and social cohesion. When the armed movements came, they took all the powers from the traditional authorities by force. Now they have the executive power, they make decisions that they then impose on us, such as the ban on smoking, the closing of schools, the ban on women going to bath in the river and the way they dress, and prohibition of playing music. They take zakat out of the crops and the animals, and they solve disputes between people – they decide what to do if there are conflicts between the populations. They hold the judicial power. The village chief and the imam have no power, they are treated as if they were ordinary citizens, not authorities.[242]

As mentioned earlier, frightened by the violence of armed groups, some chiefs took refuge in regional urban areas, which are safer, or even in the capital city of Bamako.[243] Those who retained their positions and did not leave the community were faced with a difficult choice: to collaborate, willingly or unwillingly, with the radical armed groups or to resist at their own risk and that of their families.

To give up, to give in or to give it all?

Being subject to increasing violence, customary leaders were faced with three options: to seek refuge in the safer cities of Mopti (following the example of formal authorities), to collaborate with the radical armed groups, or to fight from within their communities. A number of village chiefs and imams who were threatened multiple times fled to the cities of Mopti and Bamako, where they currently wait for violence to deescalate in their villages.[244] Others have decided to alternate time between these cities and their villages, hoping to diminish the risk of attacks against them.[245] In the meantime, they remain connected to their councillors – if those retained their positions – or with members of civil society who inform them about the latest developments.[246] When asked whether they fear losing the trust of their constituency for not being present, most said they believed that the populations understood and even told them to leave before radical groups captured them.[247]

Another small group of customary authorities, seeking to protect themselves, decided to comply, more or less de façade, with the demands and impositions of the armed groups.[248] If they issue decisions compliant with the demands of radical elements and do not interfere or obstruct their activities, customary actors are allowed to remain in their villages with their families.[249] Evidence of such cases is sporadic, but existent. For instance, one mayor who was aware of the collaboration between a village chief and the armed groups has used his support to negotiate in various instances the release of hostages.[250] Most of the chiefs who decided to give in were influenced by fear and lack of protection from the threats of armed groups that often amounted to threats against their families.[251] To intimidate customary chiefs, radical groups kidnap members of their household, mostly brothers and sons, under the accusation of collaboration with the state.[252] Ashamed of admitting their vulnerability, the chiefs try to hide their links to radical groups because they fear repercussions from other chiefs and the social stigma.[253]

However, the vast majority of chiefs, imams and other customary leaders remained on-site and continue providing conflict mediation to their populations as well as taking initiatives to fight the influence of radical groups on their communities. Although their means are limited, customary authorities are leveraging the vestiges of their legitimacy to persuade the populations not to abide by the new impositions and to participate in reconciliation processes to end communal violence. Every customary authority who was asked why he decided to stay in his community hesitated before answering the question, as if it were an absurd suggestion that he might leave. A customary chief from a northern village of Mopti explained: ‘I have no other choice: I was born there, I grew up there, all my life is there. That is my home; my village is my family. If they armed groups come to look for me, I will talk to them. My people are in danger, they need me and I need them’.[254] This position resonated with other village chiefs.[255]

Customary chiefs and local populations alike feel safer when the FAMa are present in the surroundings and acknowledge that, since their arrival, the security has improved and they were able to resume some of their regular activities.[256] In particular, the operation DAMBE was well received by locals of Ténenkou and Youwaru. Initiated by presidential decree this military operation accompanies the Integrated Security Plan for the Central Regions (Plan de sécurisation intégré des régions du centre, or PSIRC), two operations that supplement each other and operate side by side to fight radical armed groups in central Mali.[257] DAMBE has the goal of ‘stopping terrorist activities, to allow redeployment of FAMa, reinstall the administration, and facilitate the return of displaced persons and normalise the socio-economic life’.[258] The FAMa cover almost exclusively urban areas which have become an oasis of security in a desert of violence.[259]

In light of the feeble presence of the state, the lack of protection, and the heightened communal conflicts, traditional authorities are focusing their efforts in three main areas: monitoring and denouncing the wrongdoings and violence of radical armed groups; reconciling the communities who have experienced conflict; and countering armament and radicalisation.

Monitoring and denouncing wrongdoings

Formal authorities value and rely on the information they receive from customary chiefs. They routinely use it for activating and coordinating emergency responses, such as humanitarian aid.[260] Also, recognising the value of collaborating with village chiefs, the governorate of Mopti has conducted a census in the eight cercles of the region and identified all customary figures at all administrative levels.[261] This strategy is aided by the fact that the motto of local chiefs seems to be that local conflicts need local solutions. This is why many among them, despite the threats to their lives, decided to denounce the wrongdoings of radical armed groups and sought the support of the army and formal authorities to fight the presence of radical elements in their community.

However, in most cases, the costs of this decision amounted to their lives or those of their family members. Retaliatory killings occur more and more frequently as customary chiefs meddle in the governance of radical groups and report them to security forces.[262] By way of example, a village chief from a northern cercle of Mopti denounced a marabout who was collaborating with the radical armed groups and helping them recruit youth in his community. The marabout was arrested and taken to Bamako for investigations. In return, members of the radical cell present in the village captured the village chief and killed him.[263]

When security forces are present, the chiefs often contact them to denounce the conduct of radical groups, to notify the state forces about ongoing attacks against their villages, and to request protection.[264] Many village chiefs have travelled to the city of Mopti to visit the governorate and alert regional authorities of the insecurity in their communities, including threats to their lives.[265] In spite of being offered protection in the city by formal authorities, most of the chiefs went back to their communities and often fell prey to the materialisation of the threats against them.[266]

Next to updating formal authorities when lethal attacks occur, such as the one on 20 May in Boulikessi, customary chiefs compile lists of deaths and wounded and share these with formal authorities.[267] Given the increasing number of attacks, especially in remote areas, monitoring and reporting becomes particularly challenging. Hence, the importance of the records kept by chiefs for evidentiary purposes, for instance for a future Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission or for future trials tasked with investigating and prosecuting all gross human rights violations committed the centre of a country.

Finally, customary authorities encourage their populations to resist to the demands of radical armed groups. Building resilience against the ideology of radical armed groups does not appear too difficult – most people are not attracted to the values of these groups, and in certain cases they openly counter them. For example, in 2017, during the celebration of Tabaski, a religious holiday in honour of Ibrahim’s sacrifice of his son as an act of obedience to God, members of radical armed groups descended on a village in the southwest of Mali. They immediately targeted the youth who were playing football and demanded that they to stop. The situation deteriorated when the youth, instead of stopping, demanded that the group leave and started chasing them. Unhappy with this reaction, the radicals retreated – but not before destroying the villages’ water pumps and taking away more than a hundred oxen used to pull villagers’ carts. Days later, the traditional authorities were summoned by the local representative of the radical group, who told them that the perpetrators acted without his permission. The meeting concluded with the signature of a nonaggression pact between the traditional authorities and the armed groups.[268]

Reconciliation efforts

Above all, customary chiefs and imams fear that the arrival of radical groups calls into question traditional and cultural values in an unprecedented manner. An interviewee even went so far as to define this process as a ‘disfiguration of the entire society’; others spoke about the tearing apart of the social fabric and an identity crisis.[269] Historically, the populations of Mopti have often been subject to the imposition of new forms of governance that attempted to change the social structures of local communities.

As the first chapter shows, when the Dina state collapsed, new powers took the reins, forcing outsider administrators on the communities and undermining customary systems. Some village chiefs perceive the challenge of radical armed groups as yet another actor trying to impose new rules on a territory already governed by traditional systems. This ‘aggression of traditional values’ threatens the social order as regulated by customary norms and leads to a identity crisis and an atmosphere of mistrust between the communities.[270] All chiefs interviewed agreed that the use of violence to implement sharia throughout the region was foreign and remote to local communities. Although in principle they agreed that religious elements can play into the settlement of disputes, they could not relate to the proselytism and forceful imposition of a conservative sharia system: ‘how could the state let these groups implement sharia? Mali is a unitary, secular state; imposing your religion is unacceptable’.[271]

Formal authorities shared the view that if the radical armed groups and the protracted communal violence substantially damage the social fabric, it will be impossible to hold back the conflict in the long run.[272] In their analysis, the conflict in the centre of the country escalated in 2017 when well-established radical groups were able to leverage ethnic divisions and grievances by solving conflicts in biased manners.[273] Both formal and traditional authorities agreed that it is imperative to reconcile the populations immediately, before radical armed groups gain more influence and infiltrate communal conflicts even more deeply. This is a critical juncture for change, because people have stopped embracing the short-term solutions that radical groups provide, especially ‘after seeing their real face and the truth of their justice’.[274]

To seize the momentum, customary chiefs have mobilised their networks to reconcile fighting populations because ‘dialogue conducive to forgiveness is key to the pacification between communities’.[275] Communal violence is located – again – in rural areas and less so in urban areas. Often it takes place between villages, which requires a concerted effort of various chiefs to mediate these disputes and appease the populations. Since 2015, chieftaincies have met at the cercle level to discuss how to best mitigate conflicts and evaluate their options. Despite belonging to different ethnic groups, chiefs agree that their communities ‘come from the same mother and the same father’ and that killing each other is fratricide.[276]

Chiefs from regional towns gather regularly, all village chiefs from their respective cercles, to seek solutions to the ongoing conflict.[277] As a result of these meetings, village chiefs organised awareness sessions in their communities and meetings between representatives of the various socio-professional groups to mediate their disputes on a communal basis. Often, these meetings benefitted from the presence of Dozo and other self-defence militias members.[278] Such initiatives provided an opportunity for all parties to express their grievances and to confront each other. Among other concerns, people gave considerable weight to poverty, unemployment, arbitrary killings and abuses by state authorities, banditry and the poor management of natural resources.[279]

Although customary chiefs managed to reduce the frictions between populations in the short run, they were not able to provide all necessary support to local populations to face their grievances and to find long-term solutions. Many of those affected by communal conflict have lost family members, properties and livelihoods, for example. Customary chiefs are not able to provide any compensation for such losses or any financial support to the victims. In addition, the solutions they offer typically involve resolving incidental disputes between specific people, but not the structural inequities that give rise to such disputes over and over again.

Moreover, many among the participants recognised the negative role that radical groups who capitalise on communal tensions play and criticised the fact that these actors were not involved in the reconciliation initiatives. Many chiefs are seeking to meet representatives of radical groups and to negotiate the security of their communities.[280] Some traditional authorities organised delegations that met with the groups and began a dialogue.[281] Among others, the chiefs are asking radical groups to put down their arms, and to use words rather than weapons to persuade the populations about their views.[282] When asked whether he feared advancing such requests, one chief explained: ‘it is all too much now. When they attack your people, your brothers . . . you must go and negotiate with them. What has to happen will happen anyway’, alluding to instances when chiefs were granted meetings with radical groups and instead were ambushed.[283]

Box 8
Traditional mediation in Douentza

Certain cercles of Mopti experienced the violence of radical groups in 2012 and 2013, when for nine months a large part of the areas bordering Tombouctou was occupied.[284] When the groups occupied the city of Douentza, they imposed curfews, prohibited playing football, prohibited shops from being open during prayer time, and forbad women from leaving their households. Members of these groups arrested those who did not comply. In response, traditional chiefs set up an emergency committee composed by twelve representatives to negotiate the release of those captured.[285] The committee remained successfully in place until the arrival of Malian troops and international allies, which scattered radical groups away from the city itself.[286]

To capitalise on the willingness and knowledge of customary chiefs, the Ministry for National Reconciliation set up local commissions throughout the country tasked with decreasing communal tensions. Made up of notables, imams, customary chiefs and social society representatives from all ethnic groups in a particular region, these commissions aim to serve as a platform for dialogue between groups.[287] Although the chiefs welcomed the support, in view of a long history of neglect, they are apprehensive that this might be a pure political effort and not a genuine initiative. Yet, despite initial doubts, many customary figures are involved in these commissions and pursue reconciliation missions in different cercles. Delegations comprising as many as twenty-two customary figures have already set up mediation session in the four cercles of Pays Dogon (Douentza, Bandiagara, Bankass and Koro).[288]

Countering armament and radicalisation

The proliferation and relatively easy access to arms has undoubtedly contributed to the spiralling of violence.[289] Trafficked or smuggled, weapons enter Mali mainly through the West African route that includes the northern city of Gao, and via the Libyan border.[290] Interviews confirm that, to date, all socio-professional groups in the Mopti region are armed and do not shy away from using lethal force, either against other civilians or in response to attacks by radical armed groups. Village chiefs have called for both the suspension of firearm licences and a prohibition to carry arms.[291] A government statement dated 14 April 2018 did just that, asking security forces to ’systematically disarm all weapon holders, including those with weapons licenses’, and regional administrative authorities to ‘suspend the issuance of firearms licenses until further notice’.[292]

Nevertheless, this measure by itself does little to reduce the flow of weapons in the region, the majority of which were acquired illegally in the first place. State organs charged with reconciliation have also asked citizens to lay down the arms but populations in rural areas refused, claiming that these weapons represent their only form of protection.[293] The recent proliferation of self-defence militias – paradoxically supported by the Malian government – speaks to the helplessness of formal authorities in addressing this issue.[294] In a similar vein, faced with the proliferation of weapons and the escalation of communal conflict in Mopti, the Ministry of Defence and Former Combatants has adopted a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) initiative that targets self-defence groups in the centre of the country. To date, the ministry has identified 1,200 individuals eligible for the DDR process, again with the support of customary authorities, who provided information about recruitment and the positions of militias.[295]

To gain and maintain control over local communities, armed groups are in constant need of recruits. At times, they resort to village chiefs to recruit members of the communities, and some have agreed to collaborate in exchange for favours such as exemption from paying zakat.[296] In exchange for their allegiance, these groups offer motorbikes, telephones and monetary compensation to new recruits.[297] No respondents pointed to ideological or religious beliefs as drivers of joining armed groups: ‘maybe 10 per cent of those co-opted by radical armed groups are fighting wholeheartedly for the implementation of sharia. The rest are fighting for settlement of personal scores, revenge, frustration and the money’.[298] Interviewers identified poverty, unemployment, lack of future perspectives, marginalisation as the main catalysts of co-option by armed groups.[299] This is in line with the findings of the United Nations Development Programme’s 2017 study on radicalisation which confirm that ‘the grievances associated with growing up in contexts where multidimensional poverty is high and far deeper than national averages, with the lived reality of unemployment and underemployment, render “economic factors” a major source of frustration identified by those who joined violent extremist groups’.[300]

Besides being involved in state disarmament initiatives, chiefs take their own steps to prevent the recruitment and radicalisation of youth by armed groups. They aim to persuade youth about the unsustainability of joining armed groups by explaining the negative consequences for their community. However, most chiefs know that they are powerless when confronted by radical armed groups. Harsh economic conditions and lack of economic alternatives, make this an easy choice: ‘if you offered up to CFA 300,000 a month, why not join them [radical groups] and stop suffering?’[301] Customary authorities have drawn up budgets for reinsertion plans to demobilise young recruits in exchange for economic alternatives, which they see as the only way out of the vicious circle of poverty and violence.[302] Regardless of their good intentions, however, they lack the resources to implement them, and so do the municipalities.

The way forward

Traditional authorities are well aware that the erosion of traditional values means a loss of legitimacy in their power.[303] Without a functioning state apparatus that can provide public service to all its citizens equally and inclusively, they will be unable to preserve the social fabric of Mopti, and their deprecation will only worsen.[304] But the challenges that local communities in the centre of Mali face transcend the competence and power of customary chieftaincies. Despite the willingness of village chiefs, imams and other customary figures to work towards stability, their means are limited and their legitimacy weak. Acute communal conflicts, widespread occupation by radical armed groups, and the absence of the state are not customary matters.

Postcolonial difficulties and mutations of traditional authorities or chiefdoms have challenged the functioning of customary systems and the power basis. Having had to readapt to an ever-changing political landscape, traditional authority is now at the crossroads of formal and informal governance. On the one hand, traditional authorities have been incorporated in local governance structures through the decentralisation process that allocated them specific roles. On the other hand, this recognition was a pro forma move not accompanied by any real devolvement of power. Despite this mismatch, the current collaboration between the few formal authorities left in the Mopti region and the traditional ones is vibrant and can be harnessed to foster a better governance of the region.

Most conflicts erupt because of a failure to reach agreements that would have left both parties satisfied. In Mopti, the socio-professional groups who inhabit the region experience bargaining problems at two levels: in relation to other groups and within the groups itself. To reach a successful negotiated agreement, disputants in Mopti need the support of a third party who can create a safe environment for talks, facilitate constructive dialogue and help them decide the best course of action that satisfies both individual and collective interests.[305] Previous research on customary institutions and communal conflict in Africa has shown that these traditional figures ‘can pacify through facilitating credible non-violent bargaining’.[306] Indeed, strong customary authorities can become credible bargaining partners in Mali especially reliable for these very reconciliation processes – but not without the support of the state, and especially not without the support of the a reformed and transparent justice system.

Interview 20, May 2018, Mali.
Interviews 7, 11, 24, focus group 2, May 2018. Mali.
Interview 48, May 2018, Mali.
Focus group, 2 May 2018, Mali; Diallo, op. cit., 303.
Interviews 7, 37, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 44, May 2018, Mali.
Interviews 9, 48, focus group 2, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 39, May 2018, Mali. In addition, the researchers have met and conducted interviews with various village chiefs who fled their communities of origin in both Bamako and Mopti.
Interviews 7, 20, May 2018, Mali.
Focus group 8, April 2018, Mali.
Interviews 38, 44, 46, May 2018, Mali.
Interviews 7, 14, focus group 2, April-May 2018, Mali.
Interviews 14, 19, 23, focus group 2, 8, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 32, May 2018, Mali.
Interviews 20, 39, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 7, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 7, May 2018, Mali.
Focus group 6, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 7, May 2018, Mali.
Decret N°2017-0001/P-RM instituant l’opération DAMBE, 5 January 2017.
Interview 7, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 21, May 2018, Mali.
Consultation of official lists by the author, May 2018.
Interview 11, May 2018, Mali.
Focus group 8, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 3, 48, May 2018, Mali.
Interviews 20, 42, focus group 1, May 2018, Mali.
Focus group 1, May 2018, Mali.
RFI Afrique. 2018. ‘Mali: au moins douze morts à Boulikessi, près du Burkina Faso’, 21 May; communication between the author and local observer, May 2018, Mali; interview 26, April 2018, Mali.
Interviews 42, 46, May 2018, Mali; Koulouba. 2018, ‘Plan de sécurisation intégré des régions du centre: une réalité à Kouakourou’, 19 January.
Interviews 12, 9, 43, 40, focus group 1, April-May 2018, Mali.
Interview 35, focus group 4, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 20, May 2018, Mali.
Interviews 21, 27, April-May 2018, Mali.
Interview 9, April 2018, Mali.
Focus group 4, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 43, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 7, May 2018, Mali.
Often these initiatives have been supported by external actors, including NGOs such as Initiative Malienne d'Appui au Développement Local (IMADEL), Enda Tiers-monde, Delta Survie, the Ministry of Reconciliation of Mali, MINUSMA, GIZ, and the EU.
Interview 17, focus group 8, May 2018, Mali. Interestingly, for these meetings and at the request of the local communities, customary chiefs had to gather key stakeholders and representatives of various strategic groups who lived abroad in countries like Belgium, France, Indonesia, Mauritania and the United States.
Interview 17, May 2018, Mali.
Focus group 3, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 4, focus group 4, April-May 2018, Mali.
Focus group 6, April 2018, Mali.
Sangaré, op. cit., 2.
Personal interviews with civil society in Douentza. August, 2016.
Phone interview with Malian academic 3, The Hague, The Netherlands.
Interview 27, April 2018, Mali.
Budgets and plans of the Reconciliation Commission of Bankass shared with the author in May 2018.
National Commission against the Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons (CNLPAL). 2015. ‘ The IED threat and issues in Mali’, presentation.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2013. ‘Firearms trafficking in West Africa’; Diallo, op. cit., 302–303; Adayé, J. 2018. ‘Des armes de guerre en pays dogon au Mali’.
Interview 20, May 2018, Mali.
Gouvernement du Mali. 2018. ‘Communique du Gouvernement du 14 Avril 2018’.
Focus group 1, May 2018, Mali.
Diallo, op. cit., 300; focus group 1, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 5, 6, April-May,2018. Mali.
Interview 48, focus group 12, April-May 2018, Mali
Interviews 19, 20, 26, 38, April-May 2018, Mali.
Interview 6, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 48, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 20, May 2018, Mali.
Interview 20, focus group 3, May 2018, Mali
Interview 43, May 2018, Mali.
Interviews 8, 19, 21, 24, 39, April-May 2018, Mali.
Mayer, B., 2010. The dynamics of conflict resolution: A practitioner's guide. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Wig and Kromrey, op. cit., 2.