The Communitarianism of Violence in the Sahel: States Confronted with the Challenge of Identity

AFRICA, 8 Apr 2019

Abdoulaye Bâ | Cordoba Foundation of Geneva – TRANSCEND Media Service

31 Mar 2019 – The new violent intrusion of “jihadism” in the Sahel in the early 2000s has plunged the region into a new, atypical phase of insecurity, which is putting a strain on social cohesion in these countries. Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon, among others, have increasingly been hit in the last decade, and to varying degrees, by groups proclaiming “jihad”. Beyond the questioning of the founding elements of the national pacts, the actors of this violence exploit community identities by invoking a religious reference, which makes the situation even more complex.

Increasingly spread over a geographical area greater than the traditional Sahel, this violence fuels the settling of scores between groups and ethnicities. It exacerbates intra and inter-community tensions. Stirring up cross-border communities first and foremost, it challenges the ability of states to cope with a phenomenon that tends to surpass them. Carrying claims that are the expression of real or perceived frustrations by some communities, the multiple and often “invisible” actors of this violence strive to create new political realities that threaten the very existence of these States.

Through this contribution, we will try to approach the subject through three essential points. We will first focus on the issue of (1) “Jihadism” and communitarianism in the Malian context before turning to the situation of (2) “communities in turmoil”. Then we will talk about (3) the “resilience of cross-border communities” before prompting a reflection on (4) “what answers exist to the challenge of identity?”

  1. “Jihadism” and Communitarianism

The precursors of ” jihadism ” in the Sahel began finding sanctuary in the region in 2003, with the presence in northern Mali of the first elements of the “Katiba of Al Moulathamine” (“The Turbanned”) of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, former member of the Salafist Group for the Preaching and Combat (GSPC), later al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Since this time, they have been keen to infiltrate local communities living “at the margins” of states. Very quickly, they capitalized on the isolation of these zones, the marginalization of their populations, the political vacuum left by the State and the fragmentation of the “frameworks” imposed by local elements close to the rebellions which had shaken some areas.

In taking control of the passage of “caravans” loaded with various illegally traded products (drugs, weapons, immigrants, etc.), armed groups also assumed the authority to regulate local economic life. They also offered a semblance of access to basic services by creating water points and building symbolic basic health structures that they supply with medicines. This is often a boon for nomadic populations long left to their own devices. At the same time, they set up a mass literacy programme in the camps, focusing in particular on the religious sciences.

By employing thousands of out-of-work youth, they created and made prosper a real criminal economy that upset the traditional relationship between communities. The massive presence of modern firearms, highly sophisticated for people accustomed to old traditional hunting rifles, upset the tribal equilibrium, which had been quite strictly regulated in the desert areas since the dawn of time.

Capitalizing on a number of frustrations of identity accumulated since independence, the “jihadists” have advanced a significant spiritual factor: the obligation to return “to the fundamental values of Islam”. On this basis, they have structured the organization of the clans and achieved a measure of reconciliation between the tribes where they are present and listened to. Stirred up in this way, religion is presented as the first unifying factor and the basic identity marker for these communities. This new religious consciousness tied to Salafism has awakened the old “grievances” against the State. It attacks in particular the secularism that governs the organization of the state, especially in the management of its relationship with the religious sphere. Very quickly, these grievances became a challenge, then an almost systematic rejection of the State in its republican and secular form, as laid down in the constitutions.

The events of 2012, accelerated by the collapse of Libya, were simply the consecration of the process of decay in northern Malian. They gave the Salafist groups, allied with other nationalist groups, such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and others, the opportunity to implement their political vision, despite their different objectives. The MNLA and its related movements demanded independence for the territory of their proclaimed entity (Azawad), covering the regions of Kidal, Timbuktu, Gao and part of Mopti, with the state imagined by the MNLA counting, as populations, the members of the Tuareg, Arab, Songhai and Fulani groups. On the other hand, the Malian “jihadists” of Ansar Dine called for the preservation of a united Malian state, but to be governed by the rules of Islamic shariah. The “secularism” of the MNLA clashed with the rigor of the Salafists and precipitated its military defeat by the fighters of the AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The latter gradually became the sole masters on the ground. It took the French intervention of Operation Serval to disperse them.

  1. Communities in Turmoil

During the occupation of the north, widespread insecurity took hold in most areas under the control of the “new masters”. The upsurge of looting, especially of livestock, pushed the herder groups to arm themselves. Supervised by elements of MUJAO, Peul, Dogons and Malian Songhai, and later other groups, mostly Peul, from Niger and Burkina Faso were initiated in using weapons before forming self-defence groups to protect their property against looting. Later on, after the intervention of the French army in January 2013, these elements would be “recycled” by the various armed groups and would, for the most part, be integrated as fighters in these armed groups.

In 2012 the Katiba Ansar Dine of Macina was created under the leadership of Muhammadun Saada Barry, alias Muhammadun Koufa, out of the elements of a “black” fighting unit integrated within Ançar Dine. This group was intended to be the spearhead of the planned operation for the conquest of southern Mali (Bamako) from Kona (in the centre) and this would be, formally, the first major act expanding the “jihad” of “northerners” to communities of the south.

As from May 2015, the Katiba Ançar Dine of Macina would begin to commit violent acts in the area of central Mali, with the desecration of the Mausoleum of Seikou (Cheikhou) Amadou, founder of the Fulani Empire of Macina. As time went on, elements of this Katiba would carry out indiscriminate abuses against civilians, targeting, without distinction, all the populations of central Mali. Mutual stigmatisation marks the relationship between two centuries-old ethnic groups in central Mali, the Dogons and the Fulani, who suddenly found themselves at the heart of the whirlwind of “jihadist” violence, layered over multiple poorly regulated local conflicts.

Exacerbated by climate change and unbridled competition for access to natural resources against a backdrop of shrinking farmland and pastures, this violence led to targeted killings, then massacres that would, in 2018, cause more than 2000 deaths and thousands of internally displaced persons and refugees. The emergence of several new armed groups, including the Dogon hunters’ militia, ”Dan Na Ambassagou”, the armed Fulani group ‘Alliance for the Protection of the Sahel’ (ASS), and the activism of the GATIA and MSA armed groups in this zone and at the borders with Burkina and Niger, made the situation more complex.

From then on, a blind race to arms seized the communities, each wanting to take charge of its own security, following the inability of the State to play its sovereign role in this matter. Worse still, certain elements of the State (at the political and security level) are accused of fuelling intercommunity violence and exacerbating it for obscure political reasons. This development unleashed the demons of tragic intercommunal violence that could impact intercommunity relations in the country for a long time.

The situation prevailing in Mali is reflected, with some differences, in parts of two other countries of the immediate region, Niger and Burkina Faso.

In the latter, the prevailing situation of insecurity in the north, in the Soum region and in the east, in the Fada Ngourma, was the pretext for a local militia, the Koglweogo (the “guards of the forest”) to gain notoriety. At the beginning of January, the assassination of three people by alleged “jihadists” led to the killing of more than 200 people, all Fulani, in the Yirgou area (near Barsalogo), in the northwest of the country. Since then, abuses of all kinds have been regularly reported against Fulani populations. Koglweogo militias or elements of the armed forces of Burkina are accused of committing these acts. In response to frequent questions, the Burkinabe authorities deny any involvement of the army in these abuses.

In any case, if rapid and original solutions, which integrate the concerns of local populations and communities vulnerable to the security and social crisis, are not adopted, the Sahel will become a real powder keg. The Somali syndrome that has been the gangrene of that country since 1994 stalks the region. International partners, especially the military powers present, should be concerned to intervene instead of watching, as bemused spectators, the barbaric killings that further compromise the already very precarious existence of these populations.

  1. The Resilience of Cross-Border Communities

Despite the absence of the State on the front-line of violence fuelled by violent extremist groups, vulnerable cross-border communities have developed a certain resilience that gives some hope of improvement in the situation.

Cross-border communities live on the borders, marginalised from the centre, by whom they are usually forgotten. They are mostly pastoral or semi-nomadic and have very few modern values. Restive against the state, they rarely access formal education, just as they only access a very small proportion of basic services in their environment, which is perpetually in motion.

They are engaged in traditional economic activities that blend with their cultural identity (keeping herds of cattle or camels, seasonal farming, traditional fishing, hunting, etc.), and are spread over several countries and sometimes identify with each country they cross on their pastoral journey. They include Arabs, Touaregs, Peuls, Kanuri, Hausa, etc.

These communities seldom have structured community policy frameworks, and this often makes it impossible to identify credible spokespersons who can validly voice their demands.
Religious-based violent groups and cross-border criminal gangs are exploiting this situation and trying to fill the void (GSIM (Al Qaida), Boko Haram, EIAO, Ansaru and others). They recruit within some of these circles to better infiltrate societies and weaken the State, destabilizing intercommunal relations on a denominational or ethnic basis. Community attempts to resist “fanatical” rhetoric in trying to channel youth, the main target groups, are not helped by the often-extreme behaviour of elements of the defence and security forces on the ground.

Unfortunately, with the excessive militarization of some of these communities and prejudices against others, the collapse of all forms of resilience is evident in some areas. This is particularly the case in central Mali, which has faced a series of fratricidal massacres between Fulani and Dogon. It is virtually the same situation on the border between Mali and Niger and the three borders between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. In Burkina Faso, the Yirgou massacre has created a huge divide between the Fulani community and most other communities in the country and with the State. Beyond that, in the area infested with Boko Haram violence, the situation is not much better. Everywhere, civilians often face their fate alone, if they are not caught between the hammer of terrorism and the anvil of the military struggle against this same terrorism!

  1. What Answers Exist to the Challenge of Identity?

The often-inappropriate State response has led more and more young people to adopt the discourse of violent extremist groups or to join community self-defence groups. This attitude accentuates the withdrawal into an identity, to the detriment of the spirit of openness and tolerance that allows for a dialogue that can facilitate the resolution of conflicts. This is especially true in this region, where old and traditional mechanisms exist to contain conflicts.

Moreover, the “total security” approach, which has largely shown its limits everywhere in Mali (1990s, 2000, 2013 and 2018), in Nigeria and elsewhere, often does not give the young people of stigmatized and targeted communities any other choices than to join the armed groups, which weakens the adhesion and attachment of the populations to their States.

What is worse, often communities that show willingness to work with the State and to work for the return of peace are not heard or are completely ignored by policy makers, who prefer to rely on the military and security services, lacking in professionalism and resources and very often overwhelmed.

In any case, to deconstruct the radical discourse of violent extremists and ward off the demons of ethnocentrism, which are more and more violent and destructive in these countries, we recommend the following tracks:

  • Ensure the continuity of certain services such as informal education, by adapting to the security context, following the closure of schools in most of the affected areas;
  • Develop economic resilience, ensuring communities a certain local self-sufficiency in basic products (agricultural and other);
  • Maintain channels of communication, discouraging members of violent groups from the communities from committing abuses against neighbouring communities, and reject impunity;
  • Encourage traditional and religious elders and notables to maintain social cohesion, despite the very strong tensions arising from the creation of self-defence militias on ethnic bases;

Also, there is still a need to denounce (and punish) violent ethnocentric discourse and build the confidence of all communities, through:

  • Listening to local notables, religious leaders, civil society organizations and young people;
  • Controlling and disciplining the behaviour of elements of the National Defence and Security Forces in remote areas, especially during military operations (securing civilian populations, avoiding confusion and stigmatization, respecting the rights of arrested combatants, etc.);
  • Giving priority to a participatory approach in the taking and implementation of decisions concerning Vulnerable Cross-Border Communities;
  • Subscribing to a dynamic of conflict transformation and initiating a dialogue at the local level around specific themes such as security, peaceful resolution of local conflicts and common concerns, such as access to education and basic services, as well as the concerted and shared distribution of natural resources;
  • Encouraging local initiatives for the engagement of discussions to convince community members who have joined violent groups, including those with a community connotation, to distance themselves from these groups.

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