A baby boy burnt alive in his mud-walled hut by a militia group. An elderly man killed by stray bullets as he returned home from a market. Villagers besieged by Islamist militants and now simply starving to death.
For Doguel Kodio, a 38-year-old farmer displaced by conflict in Mali’s central Mopti Region, the past year has no point of comparison: “I have never seen anything like this,” he said.
Neither has anybody else.
Not too long ago, tourists from around the world would visit this part of Mali: sailing north up the River Niger to the fabled city of Timbuktu or trekking east to the sandstone cliffs of Bandiagara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1989.
Kodio’s village was near one of the most popular trails, where long lines of travellers could be found enjoying the ancient villages and the spiritual world of Dogon country. But now the tourists are gone, the hotels are empty, and the area is better known as the new epicentre of Mali’s six-year conflict.
“Everything here has been burnt,” said Kodio, describing his village.
Fighting between al-Qaeda-linked extremists, self-defence militias, and government soldiers has displaced tens of thousands of people this year in central Mali and left hundreds dead, the International Federation of Human Rights said last week.
The unprecedented scale of violence in a previously peaceful part of the country has many wondering whether the 2015 peace agreement, signed between the Malian government and armed groups, is still fit for purpose.
It was meant to kickstart a new era of stability in Mali after an uprising by separatist Tuareg rebels, who seized large parts of the north following a 2012 military coup in the capital, Bamako. But years on, the Mali conflict has evolved, spreading from the north to the centre, which was relatively stable when the deal was written and signed.
Meanwhile, key elements of the accord such as the devolution of power and economic development in the north – as well as justice, reconciliation, and the demobilisation of combatants – have barely begun.
“Fail to take these things into account,” said Baba Dakono, a Bamako-based researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, and “in five to 10 years time another rebellion [in the north] could begin.”
As the agreement stalls and violence spreads, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, says 5.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The number of internally displaced people has doubled since December last year, from about 38,000 to more than 75,000 in August.
OCHA also recorded 146 security incidents affecting humanitarians in Mali between January and August this year, a 60 percent increase compared to 2017, while UN peacekeepers continue to be killed by Islamist groups in higher numbers than any other ongoing peace operation.
Conflict spreads to the centre
Once confined to the desert north, conflict spread to central Mali with the arrival of Islamist militants led by the radical, marabout preacher Amadou Koufa – killed last week by French forces, according to the Malian army.
Since late 2015 the militants have: banned music, weddings, and baptisms; veiled women; closed schools; and conducted a string of targeted assassinations in areas under their control.
“There is now no village left where you can play the drums or flute or even listen to music,” said one village chief who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
The violence was initially overlooked by the Malian government and by the UN mission in Mali, known by its French acronym MINUSMA, whose latest mandate makes reference to the centre for the first time but does not offer any additional resources.
When UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited in May, the mission’s top official in the Mopti Region, Fatou Thiam, had a simple message: “Act now before it is too late”.
But for many it already is.
Last year the extremists – known as the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) – became part of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM, the official branch of al-Qaeda in Mali. Since then, attacks have multiplied both in frequency and sophistication.
In response, the Malian government has launched an “Integrated Security Plan for the Central Regions”, but this has seen little success. A recent military campaign against the jihadists, known as Operation Dambe, has included summary executions and enforced disappearances, in turn triggering even greater violence from the extremists.
“When the government patrols come, the jihadists hide,” said another village chief. “When the soldiers leave, the jihadists then come back and suspect us of collaboration.”
By focusing its recruitment on central Mali’s Fulani herder communities, the FLM has also inflamed communal tensions between them and the Dogon and Bambara ethnic groups, all of whom compete for access to resources like land and water.
Now the jihadists – and Fulani civilians accused of harbouring them – are facing a backlash. Hundreds of traditional Dogon hunters, known as Dozos, have formed a loosely structured militia that has been killing and forcibly displacing Fulani.
Oumar Barry, 38, from a village called Fombory Dognou, said 10 men including his uncle, brother, and cousin were killed when hunters stormed his village during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (mid-May to mid-June). After the attack, he said the militia smashed down the houses made of mud and burnt those made of wood.
“We lost everything,” said Barry.
In October, the militia – known as Dana Amassagou, or hunters in God’s hands – agreed to a ceasefire. But last Thursday it announced its intention to withdraw from the agreement, citing continued attacks by “Fulani terrorists”.
While the FLM’s affiliation with al-Qaeda puts the group on the global jihadist map, analysts say the conflict in central Mali has localised root causes. Fulani men were attracted to Koufa less for his ideology than his ability to manipulate long-standing grievances such as bad land management, corruption, and, more recently, abuses against Fulani by the Malian army.
Shoehorning these local problems into a peace agreement structured around the north won’t work, “because the problems are so different”, said Alex Thurston, visiting assistant professor at Miami University of Ohio. While the Malian government is used to negotiating with “relatively known players from the north”, here they are facing “a bottom-up jihadist revolution”, Thurston added.
Problems fester in the north
As chaos spreads in the centre, grievances remain largely unaddressed in the north, where Tuareg rebels have risen up four times since Mali’s independence from France in 1960, inspired by feelings of marginalisation, neglect, and repression at the hands of the southern-based government.
Led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Mali’s 2012 rebellion was boosted by the return of Tuareg rebels who had fought for Muammar Gaddafi in the Libyan civil war.
They took advantage of a military coup in Bamako to seize large parts of the north and declare an independent state called Azawad, before being sidelined by militant Islamist groups they had opportunistically allied with.
While the conflict shook the nation, it was in fact the fourth time Tuaregs from the north had risen up since Mali’s independence from France in 1960.
A series of peace deals promised greater autonomy and economic development for the north but few of the provisions were meaningully implemented and the problems never truly solved.
Today, power remains concentrated in Bamako, whose presidential palace and fancy government offices contrast starkly to the desert north, where roads give way to dust, sand dunes, and mile upon mile of ungoverned space.
The failure of past agreements to bridge this divide has fuelled distrust and cast a shadow over the current agreement, which many armed groups are convinced the politicians in Bamako have no intention of keeping their word on.
“The government does not want to apply the agreement,” said Mahamadou Djeri Maïga, a leading figure within the MNLA, who passed away shortly after IRIN interviewed him in September.
The 2015 agreement offered to significantly decentralise power and economic resources to the north, with new regional assemblies and local leaders elected by the public. But, as with past agreements, progress has been painfully slow.
Some analysts now doubt whether greater power in the form of elected regional presidents is even in the interests of the leaders of armed groups, whose popularity among civilians in the north is largely untested and who benefit from a range of organised criminal activities including drug, migrant, and weapons trafficking.
“If you have elections that are free, fair, and transparent, they might not necessarily attain the amount of power that they presently hold,” said Yvan Guichaoua, a lecturer at the University of Kent who has studied Tuareg rebellions in the region since 2007.
While decentralisation plans stall, progress has been made in establishing interim authorities in some of the northern towns the state was forced to withdraw from. Joint security patrols involving combatants from rebel groups and government troops have been introduced to improve security and help rebuild trust between the different parties.
Negotiating how many posts armed groups get in the interim authorities and the joint patrols has also proved nightmarish in the midst of a fragmenting rebel landscape.
Groups that were part of the two coalitions that signed the 2015 accord – the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) rebel coalition and the pro-government Platform of Armed Groups (Platform) – have split away amid disagreements, government co-option, and power struggles.
Clashes between the CMA and the pro-government Platform have regularly broken out since the signing of the 2015 peace agreement, and tensions remain high despite a ceasefire deal signed in September 2017.
El Hadj Ag Gamou, the Tuareg leader of GATIA, a pro-government militia and the dominant force within the Platform, still holds a long-standing ambition to conquer Kidal, which is controlled by the CMA and is a traditional stronghold of Tuareg rebels.
He is motivated by a mixture of social revenge – GATIA members are belittled as a “lower” social status than the Ifoghas who lead the CMA – and military honour, having lost battles for Kidal on a number of occasions.
In interviews with IRIN, GATIA members repeatedly accused the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) – the dominant faction within the CMA that’s composed of former members of Islamist group Ansar Dine – of engaging in terrorist activities they say undermine the peace agreement.
Founded in 2013, the HCUA is composed of former members of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group led by the veteran Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghali. Despite publically disavowing extremism, the HCUA’s relationship to Ag Ghali remains “ambiguous” according to Guichaoua, from the University of Kent.
A recent report by the UN’s panel of experts claimed some HCUA members, including Secretary-General Alghabass Ag Intalla, have met or maintained links with terrorist organisations.
“There is bad blood inside the CMA,” said Gamou’s son, El Hadj Ag Sidi Mohamed. “If it is not treated, this ceasefire will not hold for long.”
Known as “dissidents”, they have since found themselves sidelined from the 2015 agreement despite their military strength on the ground.
“The dissident groups make up four fifths of all the armed groups in the nation,” said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, leader of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad, a CMA splinter group. “The CMA and Platform are empty.”
The issue has created something of a conundrum for the international community and the Malian government: let the splinter groups into the agreement and risk incentivising further splits or exclude them and risk violent struggles.
The latter has already happened to some degree. On one occasion, dissidents physically blocked CMA combatants from joining a joint patrol. On another, they prevented the interim authorities from functioning until the government agreed to include them.
To rein in the power of armed groups, the government is trying to disarm combatants in a national disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) process that has also been extended to self-defence militias in the centre.
But efforts have proved cumbersome, with armed groups reluctant to provide lists of fighters and inflating their numbers when they do. Decisions over which combatants will get which positions within the army are yet to be made.
“These are very delicate questions,” said Moussa Doudou Haïdara, general coordinator of the National Commission on DDR.
Meanwhile, for ordinary people displaced by the ongoing violence in central Mali such questions seem a long way away.
At a camp for displaced Fulani in Bankass, a small, dust-blown town in Mopti, hunger and safety are more pressing concerns.
Tied around tree trunks, a few cows and rail-thin goats are all these people managed to salvage when their villages were stormed by the Dogon militia group earlier this year.
Some fled across the border to the northern part of Burkina Faso, itself facing an uprising by islamist militants; the rest have taken refuge in informal camps like this one, where many remain, too afraid to return home.
“All I want is to find somewhere to live in peace,” said Amadou Barry, an elderly village chief who lost five members of his family in one attack last June. “But I don’t know where.”