A spate of sectarian clashes in Mali threatens to spark a regional conflict in a part of Africa struggling to contain Islamic extremism.
Malian authorities suspect ethnic Peuhls, also known as Fulanis, were behind attacks last week that left at least 38 people dead in the villages of Yoro and Gangafani in the Mopti region near the border with Burkina Faso. At least 750 people fled the villages following the attacks.
The Fulani, who are mostly Muslim cattle breeders, and the Dogon, farmers who hold to indigenous folk beliefs, have fought over water access. The Dogon also accuse the Fulanis of supporting jihad, while the Fulanis say the Dogon support the Malian army’s attacks on them. The radical Islamist preacher Amadou Kouffa has recruited some Fulanis into his Islamist Macina Liberation Front group.
The Malian army last week dispatched security contingents to the targeted villages bordering Burkina Faso, a country where Islamist violence against Christians has forced more than 1,000 people to flee their homes. On Friday, at least 3,000 demonstrators turned out at a rally in the Malian capital of Bamako to demand an end to the violence. “Too much blood has been spilled,” said one protester, Habitatou Diallo. “It has to stop or there will be no life left in the center of Mali.”
Another attack earlier this month on the Dogon village of Sobame Da left at least 35 people dead. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita appealed for an end to revenge attacks after he visited Sobame Da.
Officials suspect the Fulani are retaliating against the Dogon for an attack in March in which the Dogon are suspected of killing more than 150 people in Fulani villages. Adamu Dionko, a spokesman for Mali’s Dogon Association, said the latest violence follows a similar pattern of targeting people and animals. “We demand the state give us more security,” he said.
Mali’s insurgency began in 2012 when Tuareg militias and several Islamist extremist groups tried to seize control of the country’s northern region. Internal fighting and intervention from French troops scattered the efforts, but many of the insurgents reorganized in other locations, triggering a regional crisis. In the village of Belehede, just over the border in neighboring Burkina Faso, jihadist fighters killed 17 civilians in an overnight raid last week.
The rising violence is worsening the hardship of civilians in a country already battling insecurity, said Patrick Irenge, the Mali-based medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders.
“The most alarming thing is that these incidents are increasingly affecting the civilian population, creating a climate of insecurity, fear and mistrust with even more disastrous consequences,” Irenge said. “As a result, entire villages are literally hemmed in; their inhabitants can no longer carry out their usual economic activities and no longer have access to primary healthcare.”
Flore Berger, a research analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, explained the jihadi groups have exploited communal tensions and a political vacuum in many Fulani communities. “They have been marginalized by the authorities, whose policies have favored farmers to the detriment of pastoralists,” Berger said. “Failure to address the roots of the insurgency will harden communal divisions and risks further regional destabilization.”