This blog is a reaction on the publication in RFI online news about the presumed existence of Katiba Serma. In this article we denounce journalism that is not based on facts, because it can have devastating effects on the ground in highly polarised situations.
Mirjam de Bruijn, Boukary Sangare, Han van Dijk
From Monday to Wednesday (7-10 January 2019)* a region referred to as the forest of Serma situated in South of Boni (Douentza) in Central Mali was the stage of a military action of the French part of the military forces in Mali, Barkhane. Amadou, who is an inhabitant of Serma, and reporting to one of us, states that there were around 50 vehicles with air support around his village/camp during these days. There were shootings from the planes and people were arrested in Fulani camps. For as far as Amadou understood this happened randomly. We still need to hear the number of victims of this assault. The French attacked an imagined Katiba Serma, who according to them were implicated in attacks in Burkina Faso. They arrested and killed around 20 so called ‘jihadists’.
Katiba Serma: an invention?
Katiba Serma is not an existing entity. We read first about it in an article of RFI on 9 January 2019. The RFI journalist questions who are they? In the article she also makes the remark that there are no leaders of Katiba Serma, and that it is a mystical organization. The sources for this article are not made explicit, simply des sources sur place. The only ‘real’ source, Aurélien Tobie is presented in a short audio file (57 sécondes), where it is clear that the cuts are made in a way that we do not hear his whole story and that he is misinterpreted.**
This is bad and dangerous journalism. Aurélien worked in Mali during the first years of the conflict in Mali. He and us were in regular contact and discussed what was happening in Central Mali. We were aware of the overflow of the Touareg ‘problem’ to the centre of Mali. We described what happened in our blogs and discussed at Embassies, MINUSMA and European Union. What happened? And why do we not believe that Katiba Serma existed already in 2012, and neither after, as is told in the RFI article of 9 January?
Why do we feel the urge to denounce this type of journalism? It leads to the attacks on innocent people who have been asking to be heard over the past few years, but who have been ignored. Instead of being heard they have been stigmatized as jihadists and terrorists and have become real victims in an asymmetric conflict.
The danger to create
We should not make a same mistake as was being made when the existence of the organization of the Front de Libération du Maasina was declared. We dare to say that this organization never existed, but is a creation arising out of the interaction between international actors, jihadist actors in the North of Mali and finally dispersed groups of young rebels with weapons in the bush. They, finally, have become included in a network where the preaching of the so-called leader of MLF, Hamadou Koufa, circulated. The preaching became jihadist and increasingly contained a message of ‘Fulani-united’, a development that went parallel with the association of Koufa with the jihadist organizations in Northern Mali who were instrumentalizing these armed groups. Hamadou Koufa was killed by French forces on 26 November 2018. His death is contested.
In Serma a similar scenario is now taking place. Fulbe youth are gathered in cells in the bush (yimbe ladde), they bought weapons, motorbikes, and are determined to defend their people and their region. These Markaz are in different parts of the region: i.e. around Dialloube, Boulikessi, and indeed Serma. They may or may not sympathize with the ideas of Hamadou Kouffa. They are especially there because the absence of the state has created a situation of deep insecurity. Hence the population is organizing itself to secure the region. This is now also the case in the region Seeno-Bankass where the Fulani are organizing in self-defense groups to be able to counter attacks of the Dana Ambassagou (the hunters who are dedicated to God), which is also a self-defense group but now of multiple sedentary ethnic groups and have become associated with the Dogon. These Dogon militias have become a factor of insecurity for the Fulani and are, as some say, supported by the Malian government and army.
These Fulani groups ‘Yimbe Ladde’ or Markaz, are not organized in an umbrella organization. They have no central leaders. However they seem to share the conviction that they need to do something about the difficult situation in which they and their families find themselves. Moreover, it cannot be denied that their actions can be interpreted as criminal and anti-state.
Their actions are informed by anger because they do not receive any outside support to secure their region; neither from the Malian state, nor from any international actor. They did ask for support but were left to defend themselves and were only confronted with a State supported (in their eyes) by the international community, to arrest and attack them under the alleged suspicion of their alliance with Jihadism.
Why is this so? When the MNLA (Touareg) occupied the Hayre in 2012, that has now acquired the name Serma-forest, the state services all left and there was no security in the region. One of the actions of the nomads was to send their children to the camps of MUJAO to learn how to use weapons to be able to defend themselves and the region. When MUJAO took over control of the region in August 2012, the Fulani did appreciate the order that they did bring. How these links continue to feed into the organization of yimbe ladde is a question on which there is no clear answer.
In October 2014 the Fulbe nomads (to be distinguished from the elites and the former slaves, which is too much for this small text) organized a big meeting, for them a prayer meeting, to appeal to the Malian state and the international community to ask for assistance in their region. They foresaw huge problems. We followed all these developments closely. The result of this meeting that was a call for help was no reply nor action; they were literally left on their own; Hence, the reaction to organize their own defense. The youth retreated in the bush, in very dispersed groups, and organized with the help of social media/sms. They started to attack their own elites who they considered as traitors too. And they attacked the state agents they now identified as their enemies, like the gendarme, the police, forest service and military units. Despite these cries for attention and help nothing serious was done in the region apart from repression.
Result of not listening
What do we expect from a population that is not listened to? A population that is dissociated from its own elites? And a population for who all that has happened in the past 5 years (and the decades before) can only be interpreted as being against them? Where latent conflicts have become wars (between the farmers and the herders and between herders themselves around natural resources)? And where the state has become from an absent entity the entity that discriminates and defines the Fulani-nomads as terrorists.
The next phase for the nomads in this region, Hayre, is that they are now defined as belonging to a well-defined organization a Katiba, for which there is only indirect evidence. However this phantasy of the media and security services may become a reality. In reaction to these military operations these groups will be forced to unite to fight back and may lead to the real existence of the Katiba Serma. The local youth will gladly adopt this emblem invented by by RFI and the French forces. However, the unification of these groups will have catastrophic consequences for the security situation in the Sahel region.
*Some report since January 4, see MENASTREAM @MENASTREAM 21h21 hours ago #Mali: @EtatMajorFRdetailed joint #Barkhane/#FAMaair-ground OP targeting Katiba Serma (#JNIM), between January 4-9 in the area of Sèrma (Haïre), #Mopti, event 1st reported by @WalidAg_M, + details by @OFourt/@RFIAfrique, 20 neutralized incl. 5 captured (commander & guard corps)
** Aurelien Tobie, personal communication (10-1-2019)