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The conflict between the Dogon and Fulani ethnic groups over resources in Mali has been exacerbated by climate change, population growth, an absentee state and Islamism. The result is a rapidly rising death toll.
Violence reached a new height with the massacre on Sunday of over 100 people in the Dogon village of Sobame Da. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but tensions have been high since the slaughter of around 160 Fulani (also known as Peuhl) in the village of Ogossagou last March. That attack was blamed on a Dogon militia group known as Dan Na Ambassagou. Some Fulani leaders had vowed to carry out reprisals.
While the conflict of resources between the agriculture communities of the Dogon and cattle herding Fulani has historical roots, "the situation that we see in central Mali at the moment is much worse than anything we've seen, I guess one could say in living memory," Paul Melly of the London-based think-tank Chatham House told DW.
The region is being hit particularly hard by climate change. Conflicts over resources like water and land are not new. But where there used to be a predictable three-month span of rainfall in a year, precipitation has become erratic and hard to predict, increasing the pressure on the population. "You also have population growth," Melly said, explaining that while resources like water, land and pastures are dwindling, "the number of people who depend on them as farmers or cattle herders is actually rising."
Poverty makes it easy for either side to recruit fighters for the militias. "Especially young men in this region have very little to do and very few perspectives," said DW correspondent Bram Posthumus. The Fulani are seen as being linked to the jihadists of the Islamic State of Greater Sahara, while Dogon militias are said to have the support of the Mali military. The absence of the state in the region is seen as a root cause of the spiraling violence: "If [the state] is present, it is usually in a repressive form, either through the army or other security forces," Posthumus said, which means confidence in state authorities is eroded further.
The conflict took on political and religious overtones after the rebellion of jihadists and ethnic groups like the Touareg just north of this region. The uprising was quelled by the French military in 2013. But political instability spread further south, where suddenly there was an unprecedented availability of weapons.
Crisis in Mali more dangerous than in neighboring countries
The scenario is not exclusive to Mali, or even to Africa. But what makes it so difficult to deal with the situation in Mali are some specifics, like an unusually high population density in the center, which exponentially increases the impact of negative developments, according to analyst Paul Melly.
"What seems to mark the situation in Mali, is that the country is being trapped in this five- or six-year-long really serious crisis, where the authority of the state is particularly weak," Melly said, adding that in Burkina Faso and in Niger, "state structures are a bit stronger."
Burkina's democracy was strengthened by the revolution that threw out the old regime in 2014. "Niger has a stronger, more strategic leadership," said the Chatham House analyst. The Nigerien government has refused to allow militias to operate. "Instead of seeking allies among ethnic communities, and getting them to organize local militias to support the security forces, the Niger government has taken the line that the state is responsible for security," Melly said.
Signs of a policy shift
After the Ogossagou massacre, the Malian government announced that it would no longer allow militias to operate, thereby showing a new readiness to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. There are also signs that Bamako is willing to engage in a dialogue with warring factions, although this is made difficult by the lack of structured organizations on the ground.
The international community is also starting to react. The United Nations Security Council will meet this month to discuss the redeployment of part of the peacekeeping mission MINUSMA and will debate whether it should focus on the protection of civilians. The French government has started to send troops from its Mali mission Barkhane from the north to central Mali. Paris plans to put a new emphasis on community engagement, in order to win the trust of the population. "The challenge will be whether they are equipped to play a role in strengthening security in central Mali," Melly said.