Barry rented a room in the homeof a very distant relative. The city isexpensive: He’s running out of moneyand he still hasn’t made contact withanyone who can shed light on thewhereabouts of his son, also calledHamidou.
Witnesses told Barry that Hamidou,38, was arrested in mid-December atthe hospital in Douentza where hehad taken his friend for treatment. Forsome reason the police took an interestin the two Fulani men. They found asermon by Fulani Islamist extremistHamadoun Koufa on Hamidou’s phone,but Barry insists that does not make hisson a jihadist.
Koufa is a marabout (preacher) fromthe central Malian town of Niafunke. Heis also a protégé of the veteran Tuaregleader Iyad Ag Ghali, who heads AnsarDine (Defenders of the Faith), an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-linked militant group.
The connection between the twomen is just one of a web of overlappingconflicts and shifting alliances theMalian government is struggling tocontain, even with generous Westernmilitary support.
Koufa fought in northern Mali withAnsar Dine and allied jihadist groups in2012, rapidly overrunning the region’smain towns. He then led his men south.That advance, threatening Bamako,triggered a French and African Unionintervention that scattered his forces.
Koufa re-emerged in 2015 as thehead of the newly-founded MacinaLiberation Front (FLM), a movementthat seeks the revival of the 19thcentury Macina Empire, a Fulani-ledIslamic state based in the central Moptiand Segou regions of present-day Mali.FLM recruitment has stoked andexploited community tensions,especially between Fulani pastoralistsand Bambara farmers over land andaccess to pasture. The Bambara haveturned to government-backed Dozoself-defence militia, and there is nowan unbroken tempo of tit-for-tat killingsof civilians, along with more formalexecutions of government officials bythe FLM.
Central Mali has taken over fromthe north as the country’s most lethalregion.“It’s a toxic mix of intercommunalviolence, jihadist activities, and abusesby government forces together fuellingthis vicious circle,” said Héni Nsaibia,an analyst at Menastream, a riskconsultancy firm that covers the MiddleEast, North Africa, and the Sahel.But the violence is not just narrowlysectarian. A Human Rights Watchreport documenting testimoniesearlier this year from both communitiesincluded the account of a Fulaniyouth leader who pointed out: “We,the Peuhl (Fulani), were the jihadists’first victims… we’ve also lost imams,mayors, and chiefs at the hands of thejihadists, but no one talks about that.”Both sides have condemned thegovernment’s failure to provide justicefor the killings and to hold its ownsecurity forces accountable.
A Bambara leader was quoted byHRW as saying: “Since 2015, so manyof our people have been gunned downin their farms, at home, or on theirway to market. We have reported thisto local and Bamako authorities, butwhat we hear are excuses for why theydon’t investigate – the rain, the danger,insufficient vehicles. But in the end,there is no justice and the killings keephappening.”
When the government does act, itis heavy handed. HRW has recordeda number of arbitrary arrests by thesecurity forces, especially aroundDouentza, where Hamidou was pickedup.
When IRIN last spoke to Barry, he hadrun out of money and was returninghome, without his son.Abuses fuel FLM recruitment. It hasadopted AQIM’s playbook of takingadvantage of a weak state by embeddingwithin the local community, listeningto their problems, and fashioning itsmessage accordingly.
“Hamadoun Koufa came (to Mopti)preaching about the government.
He said he would help, not thegovernment,” explained AmadouThiam, a Fulani opposition politician.“In many villages, the jihadistsappear to be replacing the state actorsresponsible for addressing banditry;for responding to common crime,marital and family disputes; and forensuring community reconciliation,”said Corinne Dufka, HRW’s West Africadirector.
“The messages they preach incommunity meetings, againstcorruption, state neglect, and attimes abusive community elders, isappearing to resonate.”
The government’s presence doesn’textend much beyond Segou, threehours from Bamako. Even without thechallenge of insurgency, successivesouthern-based Malian governmentshave failed to stamp their authorityin the north, where the populationis relatively small and conditionsextremely harsh.
The Tuareg, a traditionally nomadicgroup, span the Sahara Desert. They arethe largest ethnic group in northeastMali. Fiercely independent, they havehistorically been influential in thespread of Islam in the Sahel.Tuareg militants control theinformal trade networks, frommigration to drugs and contrabandcigarettes, on which the region’seconomy depends.
Northern Mali has been a strongholdfor jihadists since 2003, whenAlgeria’s Salafist Group for Preachingand Combat, fleeing a governmentclampdown, escaped across theborder. Key to the militants’ survivalwas a tacit agreement with the Malianmilitary and state officials that largelyleft them alone.
In 2012 they made common causewith the Tuareg National Movementfor the Liberation of Azawad. Therebellion relaunched longstandingseparatist demands for the secession ofthe neglected north.But soon after the independenceof “Azawad” was proclaimed, theMNLA was under attack by Ansar Dineand a coalition of jihadist fighters,determined to impose an extremeversion of shariah law in the north.
The French military won back theregion for the government. OperationServal, an air and ground mission, waslaunched at the request of Bamakoas the jihadists rolled south. Francecontinues to fight in Mali as part ofa regional anti-terror drive calledOperation Barkhane.
Underlining that investment,Emmanuel Macron, the newly electedFrench president, made Mali his firstofficial visit outside Europe, earlier lastmonth.
The West’s concern is thetransnational threat of jihadism. SomeMalian groups have links with BokoHaram in Nigeria, and AQIM last yearlaunched attacks on Burkina Faso andCote d’Ivoire. Neighbouring Senegal isconcerned it could be next.
In what the International CrisisGroup has described as a “securitytraffic jam”, more external militaryintervention is envisaged, from the G-5(Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania,and Niger) and/or the G-3 (BurkinaFaso, Niger and Mali).
But military force alone cannotput Mali together again. The north isnow splintered as competing groupsemerge – some narrowly ethnic, othersbacking the jihadists. The governmenthas fallen back on an old model ofcorrupt payoffs and the use of localproxies to manage the conflict. What isneeded, though, is better governance.The century-old, mud-built DjennéMosque in Timbuktu is a tourist mustsee.Inside, the light refracts between itsadobe pillars. It’s cool and airy and theacoustics are just how you’d imaginetalking under water might sound. In thedesert sky above this iconic building aUN military drone buzzes.
Within minutes of new arrivals atthe mosque, a man has spread out asmall blanket and set up piles of wornpostcards and jewelry. He explains thatno tourists have visited this famed sitein five years. He looks hopeful, if onlyfor a moment.
Timbuktu was held by the TuaregdominatedAnsar Dine for severalmonths in 2012. They imposed astringent, alien version of Islamic lawin what is a traditionally moderatecountry. Centuries-old Sufi shrines andIslamic manuscripts, cultural treasureson which Timbuktu’s fame is based,were destroyed.
Although the town was recapturedin January 2013, the only visitors toTimbuktu these days are UN soldiersand a smattering of aid workers andgovernment officials. In the vastnorthern desert beyond the city,jihadist groups hold sway.
Timbuktu’s urbanites find thejihadist presence unsettling. But in theconservative rural areas there is fargreater acceptance, said a local NGOworker, who asked not to be named.Timbuktu remains unsafe. On 15May, there was a rocket attack onthe airport; earlier this month aUN police base came under fire, asdid a Malian army checkpoint. Theraids occur despite the presence ofBurkinabe and Swedish contingentsof the UN Multidimensional IntegratedStabilisation Mission in Mali.
The scruffy Malian soldiers taskedwith jointly securing the city with theUN peacekeeping force, MINUSMA,seem marooned, vulnerable anddisconnected from any notion ofnation-building. They don’t alwaysshow up for the nightly joint patrolsthey are supposed to undertake.
Among its contributors are Europeancountries that have brought a levelof sophistication – including drones,special forces, and intelligence cells –few other UN missions possess.But it is also the UN’s most dangerousmission, with 118 peacekeepers killedsince 2013.
It hasn’t been hard for the jihadists toportray MINUSMA and the Europeanintervention as a neo-colonial plot,propping up a corrupt regime as theysteal the country’s raw materials. Butthe West’s strategic interests clearlygo beyond countering extremismto include policing the migrationroutes from sub-Saharan Africa to theMediterranean.
From north to south, Mali’s stateinstitutions are barely functioning orentirely broken. For months, earlierthis year, public schools and hospitalswere closed because teachers andhealth workers were on strike.
“It’s difficult to say what really worksin Mali today,” wrote AbdelkaderAbderrahmane, an internationalconsultant on African peace andsecurity issues, in an email to IRIN.
Kamissa Camara, a researcher basedin Washington DC and specialising inAfrica’s Sahel region, said she doubtsthat any Malian children, save theones living near Bamako, have gone toschool for a straight year since 2012.
The jihadist “threat narrative hasobscured a proper assessment of theMalian government’s performanceand its ability to deliver basic publicservices and create jobs,” Camarawrote in a piece for the Africa ResearchInstitute.
Both Abderrahmane and Camarathink that corruption has erodedpopular support for successiveadministrations, and added to theresilience of Mali’s overlappingconflicts.
For the past two years there has beena shaky framework for peace calledthe Algiers Accord, which has beenunhurriedly implemented.
The two principal signatories area coalition of Tuareg rebels knownas the Coordination of the AzawadMovements, or CMA, and ostensiblypro-government armed rivals groupedin what is called the Platform.
The jihadists were not included inthe agreement and have tried to wreckit. The most dramatic example wasa bomb explosion in Gao in Januarythat targeted a joint patrol of rebelfighters (the first patrol of its kind, 18months after the accord was signed).The attack, which reportedly killed 80people, stalled the initiative.
In March, the extremists createdtheir own coalition, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (the Group forthe Support of Islam and Muslims, orJNIM). It fuses AQIM, Ansar Dine, andFLM, and is led by Ag Ghali. It excludesa small faction that has sided with theso-called Islamic State.
Simply throwing more troops atthe jihadists does not seem to be theanswer.
But there could now be a new twistin the five-year conflict.
A Conference of NationalUnderstanding, held between thegovernment and non-jihadist armedgroups in the north, had been headingthe way of other stalled provisions ofthe 2015 peace agreement. But aftera series of boycotts, it delivered a keyrecommendation at its close on 2 Aprilthat has jolted Mali’s political class: theidea that the government should talk toMalian jihadists, specifically Ag Ghaliand Koufa.
After initially appearing to welcomethe suggestion, Malian PresidentIbrahim Boubacar Keita has sincebacktracked. France has adamantlyrejected it. “We are engaged in a fight.
It is a fight without ambiguity againstterrorism… And so there is only oneway; there are not two,” France’s thenforeignminister Jean-Marc Ayrault saidon a visit to Mali in April.
There are also political and legalobstacles to talking with people linkedto al-Qaeda. Ag Ghali is on a US terroristlist for a start, which would complicateany potential amnesty deal. Nobodyknows what concessions he would seekto extract, how reliable an interlocutorhe would be, and how talks mightimpact on an international coalitionthat has shed much blood fighting inthe north. Domestically, dialogue couldalso become hostage to Mali’s electionsdue next year.
But it is “worth a try”, noted wellregardedSahelian analyst AlexThurston in a recent blog: “A peaceprocess that makes no room for AgGhali is one that will be disrupted,perhaps fatally, by regular jihadistattacks.”That’s not to say, he added, that theMalian government “could magicallyfind common ground with Ag Ghali,but it is to say that opening a channel ofdialogue could bear fruit.” (IRIN)Amanda Sperber Freelancejournalist based in Nairobi coveringEast Africa