Political Chaos in Mali: Fulani, Dogon and Tuareg Tribal Clashes Continue

Internal conflict continues to threaten security and democracy in Mali. The African nation is reeling from a series of attacks between the Fulani and Dogon tribal communities. In March, an armed Dogon group massacred 160 Fulani; in what appeared to be a retaliatory move, the Fulani attacked a Dogon village on June 9, leaving only 50 of the villages 300 inhabitants alive.

Despite a U.N. peacekeeping mission and considerable effort by French military forces, the government of Mali has struggled to control regional in-fighting since 2012. The government’s inability to maintain order compelled the prime minister and his government to resign in April alongside calls for the president’s resignation.

At the heart of the conflict is the terrorist group known as Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). The organization is the latest stage of a series of mergers between Mali ethnic militias and al-Qaeda affiliates. Understanding how JNIM came to be is vital to comprehending the ongoing battle to rein in the violence.

Mali is a polarized nation predominantly comprised of 10 major ethnic groups. Of these groups, Fulani is the second-largest, followed closely by Dogon. Roughly 1 percent of the population also belongs to the Tuareg group who are ethnically outcast as Berber people, contrasting with the Sub-Saharan blood of most other Mali ethnicities.

Naturally, this has created some difficulties. The Tuareg society which lives in Northern Mali has made several pushes for independence over the past few decades, prompting two peace accords and more autonomy for the north. The most recent agreement, brokered in 2006, was unable to satiate the Tuareg desires for complete independence. Barely a year later, Tuareg rebels began abducting government soldiers and soon, armed clashes became commonplace once more.

Riding the coattails of the Arab Spring movement, Malian military officers carried out a coup in 2012, reasoning that the government was ineffective at combating the Tuareg rebels. At the same time, the Tuaregs formed a group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) which quickly became overrun by the al-Qaeda group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

A few years later, a Fulani group known as the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) began attacking the government. The MLF’s rationale quickly became clear as it merged with AQIM in 2017 to form JNIM. This mega group combines all the elements of terrorism with domestic hostilities, each feeding off the other. Specifically, this terror group is pressing the government for the removal of international forces, such as U.N. peacekeepers and French militias which initially repelled Tuareg rebels. Of course, JNIM also seeks to impose Sharia Law.

Critically, JNIM attacks have been carried out all across central Mali in a clear attempt to incite violence and feelings of disdain for the government.  Notably, JNIM focuses its attacks on security forces such as government outposts and military patrols. Taken together with rogue Fulani groups such as the one that attacked the Dogon village, JNIM continues to threaten an already instable government.

Tuareg rebels were not satisfied by two prior peace arrangements, so the rebel insurrection in the north continues. Fulani and Dogon factions continue their tit-for-tat attacks leaving villages razed and Malians brutally murdered. To cap it all off, JNIM thrives on the chaos by selling drugs and trafficking people, along with recruiting other radicals to its cause.

The situation in Mali is still salvageable, but the new government must be willing to make concessions to ethnic groups such as the Tuareg and come down harshly against rebel forces. Already, nearly 15,000 U.N. forces are deployed to the nation alongside 4,500 French troops. The Malian people are weary of the violence and most just want to see an end it to it all, regardless of the political outcome.

The greatest issue, aside from squashing JNIM and rogue militias, the Malian government faces is how to handle the Tuareg independence movement. In essence, this underlying issue sparked all of the troubles Mali now faces and the government’s inability to effectively deal with it only exacerbated the problem. One solution might be to allocate more legislative seats to the Tuareg people and more resources – northern Mali has historically been the poorest region. Investing in infrastructure and building up the populace may help alleviate the infighting, but first Mali must take a hard stance on security. Without security, no measure the government takes will be sufficient in the long run.