Violence in Mopti has caused population displacement, limited access to social services including healthcare and shelter, and food insecurity. This is likely to result in further violence. With the lean season approaching, food from the previous harvests is certain to run out, which will put numerous households under severe stress. Many already struggle to feed their families, at times taking extreme measures to do so. According to a recent mapping, the cercle of Ténenkou is facing a food crisis and those of Douentza, Koro and Youwaru are under severe pressure. Moreover, due to a variety of factors, including below-average and irregular rainfall, degraded pastures, high livestock mortality, poorly flooded agricultural lands and unusually high food prices, the region of Mopti is expected to face even higher levels of food insecurity from September onwards.
This crisis is accentuated by the ongoing conflict and the presence of radical armed groups that limit the access of local populations to the fields and to the inner Delta of the Niger river, their main sources of livelihoods. Access to healthcare has likewise been constrained due to both the presence of armed groups and the ban on the use of motorcycles. Healthcare access was already identified as limited throughout the country, even before the conflict descended towards the centre. As insecurity increases, humanitarians struggle to access remote areas and many people are unable to access medical care.
In addition, the communal violence in the cercles of Bandiagara, Koro and Bankass has led to the displacement of populations to different cercles, to Bamako, or across border into Burkina Faso. The Mopti cercles that have received the most internally displaced people − 2,691 as of May 9, but almost the double according to in-country interviews – are experiencing a shortage of food and an enormous pressure on already scarce resources. Because communal violence amounts more and more often to the arson of entire villages, many cannot return to their original communities and are also in need of shelter.
Given the volatility of the security landscape, the vulnerability of local populations can be expected to rise and their access to healthcare, food and shelter to diminish. Against this background, it is critical that humanitarian actors remain engaged in the Mopti region, conduct (when possible) missions to identify new emerging needs, and provide basic services to stranded populations. This will not only help decrease the vulnerability of people, but could also have a positive impact on reducing scarcity-based conflict as well as save lives.
Despite extensive efforts to increase security, attacks in the Mopti region are on the rise. According to a database monitoring attacks in Mali, 24 of the 135 violent events recorded took place in the Mopti region, and 12 in neighbouring Ségou. A UN Security Council report dated December 2017 states that ‘the security situation in northern and central Mali remains of grave concern, especially in Mopti and Ségou Regions, where more terrorist and terrorist-related events occurred than in the five northern Malian regions combined’. In addition to violent attacks against state representatives, MINUSMA, FAMa and foreign troops, the Mopti region has witnessed an increase in communal violence. The circulation of weapons and the armament of self-defence militias added to the insecurity and heightened communal conflict.
Acknowledging the gravity of the situation in the centre, in February 2017, the government of Mali adopted the Integrated Security Plan for the Central Regions to restore the authority and legitimacy of the state among the population. The plan envisioned the deployment of 4,000 troops to secure the region against spoiler groups. In the past, the collaboration with the French-led Barkhane was successful in containing the expansion of radical groups, but did not succeed in restoring the legitimacy of the state. The new plan presents an opportunity for the Malian state to take the lead and reinvigorate its approach in the centre of the country. The plan has both a track of good governance reinstatement and one of counterterrorism.
In terms of hard security, the plan deployed security forces in urban areas in Ténenkou and Youwaru. However, to date, the state apparatus and forces are absent in the rural areas and their presence in urban centre does not impress. Radical groups feel confident in attacking villages located in the bush because they would not likely be countered by a military presence. Whereas a narrow focus on security would be only detrimental and detract attention from the real driving forces of the conflict, the government of Mali should not shy away from deploying its troops to rural areas. More deployment of armed forces is futile and bound to disappoint if it is not accompanied by a viable political strategy and backing that can lead to sustainable stability and peace. Thus, ensuring the physical protection of civilians should be seen as a short-term prerequisite to long-lasting solutions to the ongoing conflict. As one respondent coming from a village under occupation explained, ‘without the FAMa we cannot even breathe’, confirming the benefits that military protection granted to his community.
Finally, all actors engaged in or supporting counterterrorism operations, such as Barkhane, should incorporate the protection of civilians as a high priority, including through military doctrine, training, targeting decisions, and clear communication with local communities about the missions’ goals and decisions. In this endeavour, the FAMa could be accompanied by MINUSMA’s Protection of Civilians Officers, instrumental figures in developing an improved and shared understanding of protection needs.
Although more protection is needed and desired, many acknowledge that the FAMa have little resources to counter the scale of the presence of radical groups in Mopti. Given their great mobility, these groups move outside the area of military operations and capture new areas of influence or wait until they can move back in. Despite extensive training and support efforts by the European Union Training Mission (EUTM Mali) the Malian security forces lack the capacity to conduct complex operations, and suffer from structural weaknesses, from human resources to logistics. Even if the forces are probably in better shape than at the beginning of the conflict, the worsening security scenario has only allowed for relative progress. This is particularly troublesome given that the FAMa are incorporated in greater structures and given the ownership and responsibility to conduct fully fledged counterterrorism operations, such as within the Joint Force of G5 Sahel.
Moreover, the FAMa do not have a positive track record: abuses including arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment have been documented and confirmed by numerous interviewees. Before deploying any military operations, national or international, to counter the radical armed groups in the centre of the country it is necessary to ensure that the troops receive adequate training and acquire a good understanding of the conflict dynamics. The training should be based on a needs assessment that takes into account the level of experience, preparation and knowledge of every soldier who undergoes EUTM training.
Finally, the driving forces of insecurity in central Mali are highly localised and governance-related. Although the security response is required to regain control over the territory and reacquire the monopoly on the use of violence, any long-lasting solution has to address communal conflicts, the management of natural resources and local frustrations towards state agents. To avoid the frustration of local populations, the FAMa should refrain from supporting ethnically aligned militias and other armed groups (such as the Dozo) in the region that are not legally using force. Overall, the engagement of the FAMa in Mopti has to be driven by quality rather than quantity.
Finally, whichever programme the Malian partners and their international allies engage in the centre of Mali informing local communities about the initiatives and their objectives is a precondition to successful implementation. Most interviewees were extremely confused about the mandates and funding of various security forces and development actors, which led to a mismanagement of expectations. This is confirmed by EUNPACK’s research findings on the perceptions of the EU crisis response in Mali: ‘the EU and its crisis response is still viewed fairly positively in Mali. . . . However, the very same respondents do not know much about what the EU is actually doing, why it is doing it, and on what kind of ideas the EU programming in Mali is based’.
Using the many radio stations available in the region can enhance a better communication with local communities, or, when information is too sensitive to be shared widely, by organising meetings with key stakeholders in the target community who can relay the information further. Village chiefs could play a key role in this process and enhance the involvement of locals in programmes and projects supported by outsider organisations. Eventually, this will decrease the misinformation and the suspicion of many about why and how projects are being carried out and for whose benefit.
Ultimately, a good level of communication would improve the level of local ownership that virtually all donors talk about. Local ownership does not build itself; it requires support and a transparent dialogue, which is still lacking in Mopti. Some interviewers held that foreigners know more about what is happening in their community than they do. Some also explained that they often learn about projects from hearsay and after they were implemented. This is not conducive to local involvement and risks polarising the local and the implementers.
All international partners and governmental agencies should improve their communication strategies in the centre of the country and become more transparent about their aims in order to avoid speculation and to ensure the buy-in of target groups. Examples from the interviews with locals show a deep misunderstanding of what they can expect from the armed forces present in the region: MINUSMA and G5 alike are associated with development work rather than with peacekeeping and security. This goes to show that, to date, international actors in the country failed to relate to local populations and to engage in a transparent dialogue.
The cessation of hostilities and the inauguration of a genuine reconciliation platform require that local populations trust each other and have confidence in the institutions engaged in this process. Every individual peace dialogue is a small step in a large conflict, and most customary chiefs are ready to walk a long way. Even if willing to collaborate and put their lives on the line, customary chiefs cannot provide sustainable solutions by themselves. On the one hand, the manipulation of the rivalries associated with scarce natural resources by unscrupulous powerful actors has made people wary. On the other, radical armed groups are using these communal conflicts to incite ethnic groups to violence, which in turn leads to simmering tensions. If the situation is not properly addressed, the natural resources conflict will likely come to dominate the local and cross-border conflict landscape in the region in the short run.
To address these compounded factors, local chiefs need to demonstrate that their reconciliation and disarmament efforts are worthwhile for both individuals and communities, and will reweave the fraying social fabric of Mopti. That is, they need to prove that the costs of giving up arms and violence are lower than the costs of escalating communal conflict. One way of doing so is by accompanying these initiatives with small-scale stabilisation projects that respond to the immediate needs of populations. An approach used by GIZ in Tombouctou, with the support of traditional leaders, was to provide micro projects to encourage locals to partake in the reconciliation sessions. In the Mopti region, these projects could entail supplying water pumps and oxen for communities looted by radical groups, providing vaccinations for pastoralists’ herds and seeds to agriculturalists and nets to fishermen.
Supporting the ‘home-grown quest for solutions that have local legitimacy’ and are capable of seizing the advantage of proximity, the legitimacy of the actors involved and the specificity of the situation is essential. This might include mobilising support for community leaders and both traditional and religious authorities that can help identify local solutions that have been successful and pass them on.
Customary chiefs, the guardians of local conventions on managing natural resources, continue to draw their strength from their local roots: they defend local culture and social order and are the focal point of authority in their communities. Traditional authority embodies the social norms within its community. Because people who belong to these communities have internalised these social norms, the effort to direct behaviour in these communities is minimal and should facilitate good governance, resilience and reconciliation.
However, the power and legitimacy of the chiefs continue to be subject to the pressures of the government, which encourages local production systems to conform to state policies and accepts formal policies over customary ones. But in Mali, as in many African states, neither customary norms nor the state are going to fade in the near future, thus the need to regulate their competition and transform their relationship for the benefit of local communities.
Although each is far from perfect, the formal and customary authorities can work in a complementary fashion supporting each other’s mandate. On the one hand, the state needs to recognise the de facto autonomy and power of customary authorities and specify their mandate in accordance with the Algiers accord, which calls for the ‘acknowledgement of the status of traditional authorities within the regulations on protocol and precedence’. This mandate should primarily encompass the management of natural resources following customary norms. At the same time, traditional authorities need to collaborate with formal institutions, seeking their advice and referring cases beyond the competence of traditional authority. These are not insurmountable obstacles; on the contrary, they build on existing practices and wishes expressed by both formal and customary authorities.
Both systems are prone, individually, to perpetuate the injustices of the local order in which they operate. Yet, if integrated into a system of mutual checks and balances, they could restrain the abuse of power of both national political actors and chiefs. For example, customary chiefs should have the possibility to refer to higher regional authorities the abuses committed by state authorities at the local level. Likewise, state authorities and the formal justice sector should oversee and ratify decisions made by customary chiefs ensuring their compliance with the legal framework of the state.
A first step in this direction would be the completion of the decentralisation process in which chiefs are granted a mandatory consultative voice in processes related to the use and management of natural resources. Interviewed chiefs have suggested taking countries they deemed successful – such as Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger – as examples. Although local problems must be solved locally, building on the experience of other regional realities that confronted these issues in the recent past would be constructive.
A long-term legal reform should be supported to define the precise jurisdiction of all customary figures across Mali, based on local contingencies and within the limits of the constitution. The reassessment and promotion of traditional authorities is a prerogative of the Algiers agreement. Recognising both the remoteness of the formal justice system and the lack of statutory guarantees of the customary systems, Article 46 calls for ‘an in-depth review of the justice system to bring it closer to the litigants, improve its performance, end impunity and integrate traditional and customary regulations without prejudice in the sovereign law of the State’. In addition, it requests the state to reassess ‘the role of Cadis in administering justice, particularly concerning civil mediation, taking into account cultural, religious and traditional characteristics’.
This process would strengthen decentralisation by clarifying roles in the judiciary and the chieftaincies. All the chiefs interviewed, for example, acknowledged that their jurisdiction is limited to civil affairs – divorces, heritage, natural resources management and allocation – and that they cannot and do not wish to resolve penal cases. The so-called crimes de sang should be of the competence of formal institutions, which have the tools to investigate and establish the truth in relation to the crime. Many have also expressed the desire for a relationship of complementarity with the formal justice systems, even for the civil cases. ‘I will always try to reconcile people, but if I do not succeed, the formal system has to take over and ensure justice’, one chief explained. Similarly, judges recognise and prefer that the first instance in civil cases should be that of customary authorities because they can reconcile parties and provide just outcomes swiftly. Judges agree that penal cases remain the competence of formal courts.
To date, the majority of efforts have gravitated around the cadis, a religious customary authority, typical of northern regions, and less so on customary chieftaincies in the centre and south of Mali. The disproportionate focus on the cadis has often excluded from the conversation the role of village chiefs and has led to a proliferation of debates focused exclusively on the traditional figures in the north of the country. This approach can be understood in light of the 2012 security crisis that initially affected only northern regions, thus increasing the need for local reconciliation. Given the current displacement of conflict to the central regions, it is logical and desirable to include the customary authorities of these regions into the debate and to render reform efforts more inclusive.