Macina: Mali’s second insurgency

Manon Elissa Murray est stagiaire au Centre des études de sécurité de l’Institut français des relations internationales (Ifri). Diplômée d’un Master de sécurité internationale de l’University College London, elle entreprend de se spécialiser sur le Moyen-Orient en poursuivant des études d’arabe à l’Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO). Elle livre ici son éclairage sur les origines de l’insurrection peule au Mali.

Manon Elissa Murray is an intern at Ifri’s Security Studies Center. She holds a master’s degree in Security Studies from University College London. She is currently pursuing Arabic studies at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) with the aim of specializing in the Middle East. In this article, she sheds light on the origine of the Fulani’s insurgency in Center Mali.

Ag Ghali and other insurgency leaders (credits ANI, Mauritania)

Jihadism in sub-Saharan Africa has been a hot topic for the past five years, and terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or Boko Haram (now Islamic State in West Africa) have often made the front page of newspapers. Although these are the most publicized groups, they do not represent the only jihadist threat in Sahel. Recently, general Guibert, commander of the French operation Barkhane in Sahel, issued a statement warning against small groups located in the regions of Mopti and Segou in central Mali, and added he hoped for the deployment of troops there for several weeks, in order to collect intelligence from local populations.

This deviation of itinerary suggests that while most of the jihadist groups are based in the northern part of Mali, insecurity, not to say full-blown insurgency, is growing in the centre of the country. The relatively rich region of the “Niger Loop” has been long plagued with political marginalization, economic disinvestment, bad governance and ethnic discrimination, which have given way to discontent from local populations and have contributed to creating an environment prone to the development of jihadist groups. This has typically been the case for the Macina Liberation Front, now called Katiba Macina, which put itself under the umbrella of Ansar Dine, a well-known Tuareg jihadist group led by Iyad Ag Ghali, affiliated with AQIM since March 2017.

Katiba Macina (katîba stands for “fighting unit” in Arabic, Macina is the name of a 19th century warlike state in present-day central Mali) is mostly composed of young Fulani, also known as Peul or Fulbe, a Muslim semi-nomadic ethnic group, which represent approximately 30 million people spread all across West Africa and who make up for about 12% of the population in Mali[1]. The Fulani are known to have conquered the region in the 19th century to impose a purer form of Islam – no longer marred with animist syncretic traditions – on other ethnic groups (the Bambara, Soninké and Dogon tribes) and to create their empire: the Empire of Macina, from which the group takes its name. This empire came to an end with the arrival of European colons, leaving the Fulani people particularly vindictive towards the West, more than other ethnic groups who had already been subjected to conquerors.

Map of Fulani jihad states in the 1830s

The ethnicity and the history of the combatants are crucial to understand the dynamics that led to the creation of Katiba Macina. The Fulani people traditionally practice pastoral activities, and live as nomads traveling with their cattle according to the seasons, although some have become sedentary. The scarcity of rains and water led many Fulani to leave their traditional grazing lands, thus obliged to have their cattle feed on agricultural private properties. Consequently, tensions between sedentary Bambara and Dogon farmers and Fulani herders soon grew to tangible acts of violence. Many attacks, murders, rapes and acts of thievery have been reported by both sides, and have created a cycle of violence to which the Malian forces have been unable to respond. Because of the government’s incapacity to take action, the affected civilians, Fulani and farmers alike, have begun seeking personal revenge by taking the law into their own hands. As of 2012, these incidents drastically increased due to the proliferation of weapons in the region. Communities have quickly started to use guns rather than knives or machetes to either attack or defend themselves, causing a surge in violence. When security forces have tried to intervene, they have usually indiscriminately arrested or killed Fulani people, causing a feeling of oppression by their community and especially anger and resentment towards the Malian government.

This context has evidently played a part in the creation of Katiba Macina. The group’s leader is Hamadoun Koufa, a famous Fulani predicator, who has been preaching in Mopti since the 2000s. Just like a celebrity, he is admired, recognized, even by those who dislike him, who admit that he is an excellent orator and that he manages to captivate crowds and earns their respect. He is largely considered by the Fulani as the best predicator since Sekou Amadou, the founder of the Macina Empire. There seems to be a strange mythology surrounding Koufa’s person and he has become a sort of legend in the area. Nobody really knows where he comes from or what his real name is. He was reported dead several times after airstrikes on Katiba Macina’s camp, but always turned up alive and undefeatable. His path is that of a talented man: very early on, he was nicknamed “the poet” due to the beauty of his lectures and his voice. He was quickly recruited by the Jamaat Tabligh sect (also known as “Dawa” in the Sahel region), whose popularity spread widely in Africa in the 1990s and advocated a radical form of Islam, and where he met Iyad Ag Ghali, Ansar Dine’s leader. Koufa was sent to different regions of Mali, but also in Mauritania and Nigeria, where he would vehemently criticize the traditional marabous, the political and religious leaders to crowds, and did so increasingly after he was refused the hand of a woman from the Sekou Amadou line in 2008 on the base of his poor background. This humiliation led him to speak out even more against the privileged ethnic groups and the elites, accusing them of corruption, and more generally condemning the whole society with immorality.

These were the roots of the foundation of Katiba Macina. Koufa took advantage of the discrimination Fulani have gone through to call for the restoration of their community’s greatness. He has indeed been appealing to Fulani by preaching about their history and used it to fuel discontent: this past “glory” of Fulani contrasts with their social position today. The Fulani often feel like they are treated like second-class citizens and that the hierarchical relationship of ethnic groups has been reversed during and after the colonial period, with the Fulani at the bottom of the social scale. The role of Koufa as a charismatic and respected leader, around which they can unite has been an essential factor to the creation of Katiba Macina. The birth of the group also benefitted from the demise of the MUJAO – Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa –, a well-known jihadist group located in Northern Mali, which merged with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s katiba to form al-Morabitoun, once a dissident group from “Al-Qaeda galaxy”, and which has now come back into its fold. Rather distant from these inner struggles, a fair share of MUAJO’s Fulani members had rather join Katiba Macina on the sole basis of its mainly Fulani agenda, references and interests.

Traditional Fulani ceremony

The purpose of Katiba Macina was originally the restoration of a Fulani caliphate. Now, with its alliance with Tuareg jihadist group Ansar Dine, and indirectly with more transnational organizations, it looks like Katiba Macina’s goal is to impose Shariah law in the region. Central Mali is therefore currently undergoing a classic scenario of people-centric insurgency, like the one we might have seen in South Vietnam or in Afghanistan in the past. Katiba Macina is systematically targeting state symbols: at least three village chiefs or mayors were assassinated in Mopti in early 2017, city halls or custom houses have been attacked, militaries, policemen and judges have also been targeted. The group did not only target other ethnic groups but also Fulani, as many refused to join or to support Katiba Macina, and Fulani imams were killed. This demonstrates the fragmentation and the heterogeneity of the Fulani, who, like any group, do not stand together as one political and social entity.

By eliminating these agents of power and replacing them with their own, Katiba Macina is taking over governance in the region, becoming a kind of “shadow government”. Its followers are hence typically following the intimidation strategy used by terrorist groups to gain control over the population, by creating insecurity[2], thus leading many civilians to join jihadist groups like Katiba Macina in order to seek protection. As a response to this surge of violence, and with the lack of an appropriate response by the government, ethnic-based militias have been created for self-protection and retaliation, particularly the Bambara militia called the Dozos. As a result, exactions are now committed on a daily basis by both jihadists and militias, targeting people on the grounds of their ethnic group, thus creating ethnic tension within populations who were not involved in any armed movement, and who are pushed to join these groups for protection due to the helplessness of the government.

The government, however, has not been passive. Armed forces have been accused of indiscriminately abusing citizens, by conducting arbitrary arrests, torturing and killing, the victims being mostly Fulani, for the sole reason that Katiba Macina’s jihadists are Fulani. The extreme violence of the government forces necessarily plays into the hands of Katiba Macina, as those actions match with the group’s allegations that the state is mistreating its citizens and particularly Fulani. These exactions committed by the state are the real issues: not only are they obviously violating human’s rights, they are also taking the risk to cause a real insurrection, which would not only stop at Mali’s borders. As stated before, there are 30 million Fulani in sub-Sahara Africa, with a minority being part of terrorist groups or militias. The issue is that targeting Fulani and regarding them as terrorists or as trouble-makers can only marginalize them and push them into the arms of jihadist groups. This has already happened in Burkina Faso, where the country’s first jihadist group was created in November 2016. Ansarul Islam, led by Ibrahim ‘Malam’ Dicko who seems to share strong links to Koufa, holds a majority of Fulani combatants. A former member of Ansarul Islam explained people would join just because they were often humiliated and mistreated by the Burkinabe forces, and therefore the group got the support of large parts of the population who finally obtained protection when it became active.

The ethnic issue in Mali and Burkina Faso have led to the creation of new terrorist groups affiliated with the global jihadi network, but it has not been the case for other bordering countries. In West Niger, Tollebe Fulani are extremely marginalized and poor and have created self-defense militias, but although some of them have joined the Islamic State in Greater Sahara, they have not yet massively taken the jihadist path. In Senegal, Guinea and Cameroon, the Fulani do not seem to have any specific links with terrorist organizations. Therefore, it is crucial that governments and armed forces, as well as the population of these countries, do not provide them with the opportunity to create jihadist groups by discriminating and marginalizing them. The spillover effects of the Fulani discrimination and their general identification with terrorism in the public discourse could lead to an increase in the number of combatants within terrorist groups all over sub-Saharan Africa. There are great differences among Fulani, and although a large-scale Fulani uprising is unlikely, the emergence of hotbeds in the region is not improbable[3].

Apart from the possible spread of violence outside of Mali and Burkina Faso, a civil conflict in Central Mali could be far worse than the one in the North. First, the demographic situation is completely different. According to the last Malian demographic study in 2009, Northern Mali has a very low population density, with 3 inhabitants per km² in Gao, 0.5 in Kidal and 1 in Timbuktu. As a comparison, the central regions of Segou and Mopti hold respectively 36 and 26 inhabitants per km². The population rate is almost four times the one of the North within a much smaller space[4]. Second, Northern Mali is also a mostly deserted zone, an environment hostile to economic activities. Central Mali, on the other hand, is the most important region of Mali regarding agriculture, which is still the first contributor to the country’s GDP. Segou and Mopti have the best results in terms of production, Segou being the country’s leading cereal producer and Kidal having the highest number of camel rearing[5]. Losing control of central Mali at the hands of terrorist groups would therefore have catastrophic repercussions on Mali’s economy.

The other major difference in the Northern and the Central insurgencies is the people’s feelings regarding the insurgents. In the northern regions, the small population did not support the terrorist groups and therefore were of little help to them. In the centre, due to the protection they offer and to their increased governance in the region, Katiba Macina has succeeded in getting a growing support from the locals. Unlike AQIM, if Katiba Macina takes over the region, they will have major support and help from the people.

The insecurity in central Mali coupled with the promotion of Koufa’s preaching could be a trigger for the recruitment of many local Fulani who fear an uproar against their ethnic group, and who would be seeking safety and protection by being part of a terrorist group. The inability of the Malian government to establish peace in the region has led to the founding of militia groups, and the cycle of violence is getting more important every day. The omnipresence of Katiba Macina in some villages and the support they have from many locals show that the group is on its way to take over the governance of the region.

[1] Commandement des Forces Terrestres, Les peuls armés en Afrique sub-saharienne, April 2016

[2] A.H. Kydd and B.F. Walter, The Strategies of Terrorism, International Security, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 49-80

[3] R. Carayol, En Afrique, le spectre d’un djihad peul, Le Monde diplomatique, 01/05/2017

[4] B. Traore and L. Sountoura, La classification des régions du Mali selon quelques indicateurs socio-économiques et démographiques.

[5] Institut National de la Statistique, 4th Malian population and habitat census Mali (RGPH-2009), December 2012

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