The French Army Has Killed Hamadoun Kouffa, the Malian Robin Hood
BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 25 Feb 2019
How might the Malian government find a way to negotiate with his successors, to avoid genocide or civil war?
18 Feb 2019 – Was Kouffa an outlaw and a terrorist? Yes, he was both. Was he fighting injustice and corruption? Yes, he certainly was. Was he fighting against the genocide of the Fulani people in Central Mali? Possibly; but he may also be the cause of the ethnic conflict that has killed hundreds, and driven thousands of people from their homes.
Hamadoun Kouffa was famous for his eloquence. He lived in the Fulani nomadic lands of Macina, in the center of Mali where cattle herds follow annual migrations to find grass in the wet and dry seasons. The lands in the Interior Delta of the Niger River are flooded every year after the rains. This is a miracle region of water and migrating birds, of cattle migrations and nomadic traditions, of rich river grasses and floating rice with stems six feet long that are harvested every November by farmers in canoes. Mali’s Lake Debo becomes the second largest fresh water lake in Africa, after Lake Victoria, but is only eight feet deep. As the waters recede in March, Debo returns to its dry-season state: a dusty plain covered with dry river grasses that feed cattle in the dry season.
A Personal Crusade against Corrupt Muslim Clerics
Like the legendary outlawed robber Robin of Locksley in 12th century England, who revolted against the Catholic church, Hamadoun Kouffa’s took arms twenty years ago against poverty and injustice, bad government, and cynical Muslim ‘chérifs’ who get rich by taking money from the poor. He criticised corrupt Muslim preachers who exploit small boys. Medieval education systems dominate Central Mali, where government services are pathetic and the State’s bankrupt French education system is irrelevant to village life. Parents ‘give’ their sons to Muslim preachers, ‘marabouts’ who teach them rudimentary reading skills in Arabic, and promote humility by sending them out to beg for food. Educated Malians translate the word ‘marabout’ as ‘charlatan’ because rich chérifs and semi-literate preachers sell amulets to the credulous. They offer to cure anything from gout to AIDS to love-sickness: “Wear this leather pouch and your wishes will be granted, thanks be to God.” Money changes hands and the customer departs. Inside the leather pouch the charlatan places a piece of paper with Arabic writing, a pinch of dust and a drop of his own spittle.
Hamadoun Kouffa was disgusted by chérifs, charlatans and preachers. He also railed against predatory government officials. Forest agents, gendarmes and police, soldiers and judges, tax gatherers and administrators are all guilty of exploiting the rural poor and extorting bribes on flimsy excuses. When former prime minister Moussa Mara carried out a survey in 2007-8 of Malian opinions from Kayes to Kidal, the justice system of Mali had less than 10% confidence rating.
Mal-nutrition is rife, even in good harvest years like 2018, because people have little knowledge of nutrition. The marabout collects what food his boys have begged, eats any meat that has been donated, and presides over a ‘family’ meal of grubby boiled rice to feed the children in his care.
The Malian authorities were deaf to Kouffa’s complaints. Rich chérifs are powerful in Malian politics. So with a band of like-minded men, Kouffa started to deliver his own justice. The authorities responded with anger; but by 2004 the Malian regime in Bamako, the capital city was discredited. The army was corrupted by drug money. President Ahmadou Toumani Touré, a former general, was encouraging private army militias to trade Colombian cocaine across the desert to Algeria and Europe. Kouffa ran just one more private militia, but using sticks instead of automatic weapons.
Famous for his eloquence in the Fulani language, Kouffa claimed that the Sufi Islam inherited from Morocco had created a corrupt clergy within a religion – Islam – that was created to promote a direct line between God and (wo)man. Kouffa sounded like the Martin Luther of Central Mali, preaching Reformation. Kouffa’s actions took a new turn after he met an ambitious Tuareg named Iyad Ag Ghaly who supports (probably more for political than religious reasons) a Saudi Wahhabist and Salafist form of puritanical Islam. Iyad dreamt of taking over Mali and making himself Emir of an Islamic State using profits from cocaine and money from Qatar, which is trying to out-manoeuver Saudi Arabia in the Arab struggle to dominate Sunni Islam. Iyad gave Kouffa weapons, and Kouffa’s Katiba Macina became an off-shoot of Iyad’s political terrorist movement Ansardine.
There are plenty of Robin Hood stories illustrating how Kouffa’s men delivered justice in lawless Central Mali. One day two bandits with Kalashnikov rifles ambushed a bus. Two passengers managed to call for help on their cell phones: one called the police, the other called Hamadoun Kouffa. Fifteen minutes later Kouffa’s men arrived, shot dead the two bandits and restored all the stolen money and goods to their owners. They refused any reward, and left. Two hours after the bus set off to complete its journey, a Malian army unit arrived to find the bodies of the two dead bandits.
An artisan was owed 4 million FCAF (around $8,000) for work he had carried out for a local mayor who had not paid him after six months. In desperation the artisan appealed to Hamadoun Kouffa. Two of Kouffa’s men accompanied the artisan to meet the mayor, who explained yet again how difficult it was to find the money …. that he would call a council meeting …. that he would try to settle the debt within six months. While he was talking, one of Kouffa’s men slipped behind the desk and applied a blindfold over the mayor’s eyes. The mayor began to panic. Miraculously, the outstanding debt was paid that very afternoon.
Terrorist Accusations Lead to Threats of Genocide
While Kouffa was branded a ‘terrorist’ by the authorities, for local people he became a folk hero delivering ‘justice’ in a land where the government has failed. The colonial justice system is mumbo-jumbo to rural Malians who speak no French. Instead of negotiating with Hamadoun Kouffa and trying to address the root causes of his revolt, the Malian government sought to eliminate him.
Kouffa was now attacking the predatory State as much as the marabouts. Many of Kouffa’s actions were terrorism, including assassinations, planting bombs, and supporting Iyad Ag Ghaly’s attempt to take over Mali. Iyad’s jihadist army massing in the towns of Konna and Diabaly was routed by the French air force on 11 January 2013, shortly before it moved towards Mali’s main cities.
To counter Kouffa, the ineffective Malian army decided to arm local militias, notably groups of hunters. Exploiting historical ethnic tensions, the Malian State blamed Fulani people for Kouffa’s actions, because Kouffa himself was a Fula (or Peul in the French translation). Hamadoun Kouffa did not have the support of every Fulani village, yet during 2018 massacres of Fulani herders and villagers by Dogon armed militias became frequent. By encouraging Dogon hunters to fight the Fulani, the State risks taking the whole of Mali into civil war.
The early hours of New Year 2019 began with just such a Fulani massacre, in Bankass district close to the frontier with Burkina Faso. An attack by armed men on the village of Khoul Hogo left 37 victims dead, including three women and an unknown number of children. The perpetrators are of course not identified, but they are believed to be a Dogon hunter militia armed by the Malian government. We could cite more than a dozen villages burned during 2018, cattle stolen, populations in flight. Dogon hunters are now cattle owners, and many of them race around the countryside on big motorbikes carrying a private war arsenal.
The Fulani used to be the bosses in this region: the 18th century Kingdom of Macina was a Fulani Theocracy run by wealthy cattle herders, They also sold slaves to be carried to Virginia and the Caribbean. Historical hatred can be suppressed, but it is seldom forgotten. By exploiting such themes, the Malian government has started a war that it may be unable to contain. Hassane Barry, a Fulani lawyer who was Minister for Human Rights in Mali during the 1990s, has recently accused the government of promoting ‘genocide’ against the Fulani.
On the night of 22-23 November 2018, the French-led military operation known as Barkhane, accompanied by Malian soldiers, overran a camp of Kouffa’s Katiba Macina in Central Mali and killed 30 terrorists. The Katiba leader Hamadoun Kouffa was reported to be among the dead. The security of Central Mali is now in the hands of multiple sub-leaders jockeying for power and position. If one of them succeeds in imposing himself as the new leader, recognizing the genuine grievances and negotiating a peace would be a better option for the Malian government – and a better legacy for Mali’s Robin Hood – than promoting continued violence, genocide and civil war.
Robin Edward Poulton, Ph.D. is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and has been a consultant-advisor to the UN, EU and numerous governments. He is a sometime faculty member of the European Peace University (Austria) and Virginia Commonwealth University (USA), and Senior Fellow of UNIDIR Geneva (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research). Poulton is the author most recently of The Limits of Democracy and the Postcolonial Nation State: Mali’s democratic experiment falters, while jihad and terrorism grow in the Sahara, Lewiston NY & Lampeter, UK: Mellen Press, October 2016; and editor of the new collective book Paroles sur les Crises au Mali et les Limites de la Démocratie: Expériences et Analyses pour favoriser la Paix. Bamako: La Sahélienne, février 2019. He is Managing Partner of EPES Mandala Consulting. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Feb 2019.
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