‘Le Sahel va mal’, Whose violence?

WhatsApp alert about an ongoing attack in central Mali, February 2020


I have been silent on this blog for almost a year. A silence shared with my colleague researchers in the Sahel. How can I explain this silence? Are we facing situations for which we have no words? Researchers in the Sahel are confronted with a life-saving reason. They are literally silenced.  Speaking out has the risk of being reprimanded, getting difficulties in life, or worse being arrested. For the people about whom I could write I need to be very careful. Those who share information are at risk in the Sahel, targeted from different sides. Exemplary may be the very sad recent death of Sadou Yehia Banandi, after he had given an interview to France 24 about the situation in his region. He was filmed without coverage. The media cannot deny their responsibility

The death of Sadou shows the risks that are at stake. It is however not only from the Jihadi groups that the risks come. National States increasingly do their best to monitor the outspoken voices. This is also a warning: sharing information in war zones is not without risk, especially for those who are the ‘sources’.

So, I will not share biographies, direct interviews, or detailed reports with the names of those who have given the information. Bibliographies and pictures become weapons for those who want to make others fear their power. I do however, want to share my deep worries for the Sahel. In this short note I share information from Cameroon and Mali/Burkina-Faso.


The deepest worry is the huge increase in violence since January 2020. Already in 2019 the Niger-BF-Mali region counted 4000 death, of which 1800 in Burkina-Faso. In the period before from 2012 this was 770. In Anglophone Cameroon, since 2017, at least 3000 people have been killed. In the North of Cameroon Boko Haram took also the life of at least 250 civilians in 2019.14 February was a day that will not be forgotten. Ogossagou, a village in Mali where on 23 March 2019 more than 160 people were killed, was again attacked and the number of deaths is unofficially over 40. The explanation for the second attack is found in ethnic violence and the absence of protection in the form of the Malian military, similar to the previous attack. On the same date in Cameroon soldiers massacred at least 23 civilians in a small village in the Bamenda region. They are two, probably heavy, examples of what is happening in the various regions, every day. The violence forces people to flee and the number of refugees and internally displaced people augments to unmanageable proportions. 


The violence in both places is of many kinds: attacks of militias; attacks of Jihadists; attacks of military men; intergroup and intragroup violence, interpersonal and gendered violence. Some interpret it in ethnic dimensions. In Cameroon the Ambazonian boys who fight for independence are also fighting in ethnic division. Intragroup attacks, combined with military incursions are the dominant violence. The accusation of the Ambazonian boys of being terrorists makes them prone to laws that give the state a leeway to attack these youth. In the case of Mali/Burkina-Faso exists a strong narrative that Fulani are targeted more than other ethnic groups. This would be the consequence of their alleged alliance with the Jihadi groups who are fighting for the foundation of an Islamic State. It is bad. And it becomes worse with the increasing images of ugly violence. The violence is brutal, dehumanizing, both physically and in words. The people who live these violences search protection that is not given by the state who instead has become part of the violence. Without this protection people will search to legitimize the wars and create discourses to explain why. These are often ethnic oppositions and relate back to interpretations of old (slave) histories, or to occupation of each other’s resources.

Asking attention

Young people are fighting for attention for the atrocities they see and record every day. They can hardly be outside of the legitimization dynamics. The president of the youth of Taabital Pulaaku, a cultural association defending the culture of Fulani speakers (and as they continue to emphasize, multi-ethnic), expressed their wish to change things by showing the list of attacks from 25 January to 21 February, 2020. Only in these few weeks 110 people were killed, 35 arrested and 3 wounded, all of Fulani descent. The list was sent through social media, together with an audio message in which the list is read by the chair of the youth of Taabital Pulaaku. He is often in the media and does not hide his position.

The call of Tabital Pulaaku jeunesse. Bamako, 22-02-2020

Whose Responsibility?

The two regions that I presented data of in this blog, are both victim of chaotic warfare, without a clear centre, gradually turning into a civil war dynamic. What some would call ‘new’ wars, in which guerrilla tactics, terrorism and genocide, become central to the war and not the inter-state relations. Ugly violence becomes a weapon in these wars, as the inequality of the forces brings the fighting groups to search for other means. Hence the violence is not of the people, but of those who create the war.

Le Sahel va mal: the population suffers, and creates interpretations of the violences they live, to be able to support the suffering. However, the context of the war, the resource struggles, the world power relations, the international actors (UN, USA, French, EU, G5), the leaders in the Jihadi wars (Islamic State and Al Quaida), the national states, have institutionalised this violence. They have created and perpetuate the ‘violence condition’. Their calls for peace and human rights and the reports that announce the problems, to which I have referred in this blog, are to say the least, very contradictory with their roles in the creation of the violence condition. 

Two ordinary weeks in Chad, 27 April to 11 May, 2019

The march April 2019

When I went into the bus at Ndjaména International Airport, to go to the plane it felt like I was leaving a violent bubble through a very narrow escape. I had been two weeks in an occupied country. These were a turbulent two weeks that are apparently normal life in Chad. But when turbulence and violence become part of daily life and the majority of the population seems to accept daily atrocities, we need to do some steps back to understand what is going on.

The march of 13

I arrived in Chad on the 27thof April, just after the well mediatised march of the 13 youngsters against the ‘pénurie de gaz’. Among these 13 were also a few of the people I know and with whom I have worked on different occasions. They were only 13 because Chadians are afraid of undertaking such actions, and probably they also simply no longer belief in its results. No criminals, just youth who want a normal life for their families and for the Chadians in general. They were in prison because they undertook a peaceful march. They left prison on the day I arrived, just for the weekend; on Monday they heard their verdict: 12 were set free, but their case was not closed, just suspended. Nobody really understood what this means. One was held in custody. 

Their action resulted in the appearance of butan gaz bottles in the city, after a long period without, so somehow the action had an effect. The lack of gaz was added to the prohibition to use fuelwood that has been introduced in N’djamena since 2008. People could simply not cook. Marching to ask for one’s right is also in Chad not forbidden. However over the past years hardly any march was permitted for obscure reasons (see also report Amnesty international). Although freedom of speech is part of the new constitution (article 28[1]), this is not a reality again as shown by the arrest of the 13.

In prison

Around the young man who was kept in prison a circuit of strange stories developed. He was accused of being part of a rebel group that is stationed in Libya and has its leaders in the European Diaspora; the proof was a document that circulated on social media, just after the story appeared that this document, a letter in which the young man was appointed member, was given to the police by a lady who appeared to be his ex. This can be true or not; but it is clear that this is a strange development in a rebel movement. Why do they send such letters to people they recruit in Ndjamena? Is that not a form of criminal management putting youth in danger? His case is on-hold. He is still (today 27thof June) waiting for trial. No idea what will happen to him. The prison Ansinine where he is held, is overcrowded, instead of its capacity to have 400, it has more than 3,000 prisoners. Life must be horrible there. The twelve, and others, felt horrible for him. Being in a prison without trial and verdict is killing a person. 

Enduring Crisis

In the time in between the deliberations about these events I visited families and walked through town. The crisis that is roaming through Chad since 2015 is showing its results. It is taking lives, emptying the bars, in fact stopping economic activity, and so on. There is sometimes electricity but often not, and it is very hot. All building projects in town are put on hold. The big strikes have been solved. As a friend said, we simply were tired of the strikes and wanted to go to work, which does not mean that any of their demands have been fulfilled by the government. 

Payment of salaries has been resumed, but many people receive less than before, or do not receive the premiums that are part of the salary system in Chad. Youth do not find jobs and the recruitment programme for government employment has stopped. Retired persons have to wait long on their pension, which is only one-month salary in three months, if they receive it at all. Furthermore, retirement is announced and often not expected by the person who has to retire and who often is still responsible for youngsters in the family. These will no longer be able to finalise their schooling. Perspectives for many families, who are not connected to Power, are gloomy in Chad.

Killing youth

I went out one evening for a drink in the quarter of Moursal. We were sitting outside drinking a beer and chatting, when we heard sounds similar to shooting and saw the smoke from what we later understood of tear gaz. We were summoned inside by the owner of the bar and came to understand that we were sitting next to a spot where a protest was developing. Family and friends of a young boy, who died following torture by the police after his arrest, went to the street. The day after it was expected that the villagers would come to Ndjamena to protest against this injustice. At his funeral protests were hard. A few days after I left Chad a similar situation occurred. Again a youngster left life because of the atrocities of the police. The news about these killings do reach the households of Ndjamena and beyond, but what can ‘we’ do is the general reaction? After this second death, that also was international news (RFI and BBC), the head of the police commissariat was sent away and the policemen who tortured were arrested. Will they also have to wait till eternity for their trial, like the young men who was held in prison after the march? I don’t think so. 

Chad’s governance has taken the form of the occupation of a territory. Chadians, who do not belong to the circles of Power, no longer own their lives.

[1]Les libertés d’opinion et d’expression, de communication, de conscience, de religion, de presse, d’ association, de reunion, de circulation, de manifestations sont guaranties à tous; Elles ne peuvent être limitées que pqr le respect des libertés et des droits d’ autrui et par l’ inpératif de sauvegarder l’ unite nationale, l’ ordre public et les bonnes moeurs.

We are extremely worried! What will happen in the Sahel?

Bamako protest april bbc.co.uk

Protest in Bamako 5 April 2019, @bbc.co.uk

Many thousands of people have been protesting on Friday 5 April 2019 in the capital of Mali, Bamako.  It was massive. Also in Bandiagara, Bankass people went to the streets. Earlier protests in Paris, and elsewhere in the world were organized where people expressed their worry about a possible horror scenario in the Sahel. Mali is at the centre of these worries, but many make allusion to a much wider problem. The killing of 170 people in three villages near Bankass on the 23rd of March is the immediate reason for the protests in Mali. The Ogossougou massacre will be forever part of the history of Mali and the Sahel.

I was in Mali on this 23rdof March, living the horror with my colleagues of a research team doing research on political developments in Mali, with all Bamakois and with myself. Most of the killed people were innocent Fulani pastoralists among who were some who fled the horror of earlier troubles around another village in the Koro district. Beginning this year another deadly attack was in Koulogon also near to Bankass, where 37 people found their death. These attacks reach the international press, but many smaller attacks are hardly noticed not even within Mali and are a daily phenomenon for almost two years now. Not only Fulani pastoralists but also sedentary farmers of other ethnic groups in the region are victims. The killings on the Fulani seem to be higher in number, but we cannot be sure because they are also more mediatized. One of the problems is that we do not have information about what is exactly happening. We spoke with displaced Dogon and Fulbe in the South of Mali (near Bougouni) and in the Capital city Bamako and their stories are all equally horrible.[1]


Discussing the situation with displaced Dogon in a village near Bougouni @Mirjam 2019

Multiple Emotions
Certainly the underlying causes for this situation are multiple. We already touched on some of these in other blog posts. Making a sound analysis is almost impossible to do now, soon after these events and with the turmoil in my head. It is important to take a distance first from my own emotions.

Therefore I decided to write this short blog to warn against fast interpretations of these violent events in emotional terms, and against superficial analyses. This would be very dangerous in the extremely tense situation that we are facing in Mali and other Sahelian countries. Many of the reactions are borne out of extreme concern with the region, and from a genuine sentiment of ‘feeling worried’. The urgency to do something is also big. But who should do something? Who are the right actors to do things and talk with?

People from all ethnic groups, urban and rural, different economic classes were present, joined the marches. It gives an idea of unity. Whereas in written reports it is not easy to avoid to create oppositions. Authors use sentences between brackets to avoid any presupposed biases. It is difficult to be neutral and to try to just describe. The phrasing of the problems by displaced Dogon we met in a village about 50 km south from Bamako towards Bougouni struck me. They refused to accuse the Fulbe, but said it were ‘yimbe ladde’ (people from the bush) they did not know.


Displaced people live on the garbage heap of Faladié, Bamako @Mirjam 2019

We also met Fulbe refugees in dilapidated huts on the garbage heap in the middle of Bamako. They are angry but not angry with a specific ethnic group. They do not really understand what is happening around them. However, following the last attack, these displaced people who have lived through such difficult times start to use a different language acquired from their elites. Especially Fulani elites have been quite vocal in their accusations. After this last massacre they tried to moderate their language but they already aired their emotions in previous interviews and publications on Facebook. The use of the word genocide is no longer taboo and ethnic cleansing also appears in reports.

Multiple Voices
The marches were full of anger and emotions, of course; like the media who reported about them. In one article the number of people in the streets went up to 30,000, others report more modest numbers. In the march in Bamako different reasons and emotions crisscross the street. It is both a cry for peace and the stopping of the awfull violence. It is also a march that protests against the government. Most Malians are appalled and ashamed by this intercommunity violence. They do not recognize themselves in this hatred. Religious, cultural, and political organizations called for the march. Each with their own agenda.


Being connected is important to learn and to link, displaced person in the South charging a battery with solar energy @Mirjam 2019

The people who step in have to be aware of those agendas and let’s hope that they will not be instrumentalized by these organizations. Malians have more than the intercommunity violence to be angry about. The state does not function, schools are closed, hospitals do not function, and many people have difficulties to feed their children more than once a day. This combination will feed the emotions that make the opposition camps to the government stronger and stronger, but that will not be a guarantee to end the violence because they can also be used to scapegoat other groups in society.

We will continue to follow the situation and hope to come up with good analyses. Such analyses can only be multi-vocal. It will take time to understand all the different voices. The problem is that we have no time as the situation is degrading every day.

[1] The research project for which I was in Mali concentrates on the ‘new pastoralists movements’ in the Sahel.

Media narratives about Fulani-terrorists


Fulani self-defence group in Northern Mali, @Boukary Sangare, 2014

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.

fulani men and foto

Young Fulani men in Serma 2009 @ Mirjam

Yimbe ladde
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.

fulbe united

October 2014 @Boukary Sangare

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)

Disposable people 2: Cameroon The Anglophone crisis escalates

banner Cameroon

Banner in the streets of Yaounde 2015 @Mirjam

Conflict, yet normal

That the conflict is also felt as mine is because the effects are so close to the circle of people I know. It is therefore that this blog is not an analysis but more a cry for understanding, for being heard. Although, the Guardian, RFI, France 24, and the Dutch Radio 1, have reported on the Anglophone crisis, there is little action. By now France, Great Britain, the USA, the Netherlands should have a firm knowledge of what is going on. It is disappointing to say the least that these voices and big states cannot intervene to rescue a situation that is going of hand. Common people are going through harrowing circumstances which have never been part of their daily lives. Of course they get used to it. As a friend living in Buea apped me (on 28/10), when I told him that atrocities were going on or are going on in Baaba (Ndop):  ‘it is normal’, ‘more than 100 villages are turned into football fields’, he continues,  meaning they are burnt to the ground. But by whom? by government forces? Or those who are assumed in government circles as terrorists?

Family stories

The other friend who told me that Baaba was in fire, also had his brother kidnapped by the other side of the conflict; the ‘rebels’, as they subsumed him being a traitor. He was tortured and the family received photo and film material of this. The friend in Buea lost his brother to the rebels last July. He was simply kidnapped in front of the wife, five kids, mother, father, grandmother and the sisters. He was executed within an hour. His family had to leave the village and the children of the brother are at his account now. Other friends from Bamenda write regularly: things are not going, the situation is unbearable. And that is in town, in the rural areas it is worse.

As is clear from these few stories the camps are not clear, who fights whom and what are the objectives? The more one tries to understand what is happening the less is clear.

‘They fooled us’

This remark was made by Peter Bruce, who I visited in Germany, Saturday 20thof October. He is a Cameroonian, from Njinikom, a village in Kom in the Anglophone part of the country. A village where we also collaborated with people to develop their stories and to understand histories .The Anglophone part where the stories of atrocities, the number of refugees and IDPs  is rising every day. Peter would love to go back, but with his diploma in a master of science he cannot find a good job in Cameroon; here in Germany he works for the pharmaceutical industry. And now he cannot go back, but as soon as the situation changes and Ambazonia will be freed, he goes. They will all fly back home, as confirms a friend. Peter works hard on information around the crisis and discovers that all the stories told in school and in other information circles were fault. He is now gathering information and writing his own history on twitter, including all kind of interesting visual materials. He is angry, because he never knew the real story, and now that he is discovering he is increasingly convinced that things need to change, if necessary, with violence.


Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 17.51.14

Twitter Post of Peter 2018

Diaspora war?

In the meantime the opening picture of this blog that was taken in 2015 in Cameroon, tells a part of the story. There is a great involvement through the media and internet in this conflict, by people who live outside but have claimed this as their war, their battle. Peter and many others in the diaspora are part of the war, as they pay for humanitarian aid that, as Peter admits, might end up being used for other ends. The Ambazonian boys, or rebels as they have become denominated the past months, are supported by this diaspora. However, as the opening paragraph of this blog suggests, the diaspora are not in control of the situation and the ‘rebels’ seem to go increasingly their own way; a way that leads to horror, violence and enormous suffering for a population who did not ask for this. However, many were  (and are) in favor of the movement, as the regime of the sitting president never brought any good to their region.

Childrens’ plight

‘I help them, just pick them up, those kids whose villages are burnt and whose parents are missing’. One of the three girls that came to this history teacher in Buea is graduating soon. ‘but there are so many’. These stories are disheartening. The university functions, contrary to schools. Everywhere schools are closed (now almost two years). Those who can afford send their children to schools in French Cameroon, and some manage to send their kids in Regional headquarters although timidly and with a lot of fear. However, these are only itineraries for the parents who can afford this. Most children do not go to school, almost for two years now.

Disposable people

The fact that the last elections held in October, were officially declared as being a victory with 77% of the votes, for Paul Biya, the ever lasting president who is 86 years old, is simply a complete denial of the population’s voices. On internet, twitter and Facebook other results were shown. Such only confirms that people in Cameroon are disposable. Their wish does not count and what is more their lives are simply worth nothing. And the whole world knows.

These are no longer the stories we read on Facebook, or we hear from others. These are the stories of friends and families that we know so well. The conflict in Cameroon is and should be also ours.

Disposable people: One. Mali

This blog is part one of a ‘trilogy’ in which I express my surprise and sadness about irrelevance of human lives by the big players in this world. It makes me wonder if it is not time to unite with people who feel the same and start to say something about what is happening. These three blogs are therefore also an invitation to share more stories about disposable people in 2018.


Displaced in Bamako @Mirjam

Meeting with herdsmen and owners of cattle in Mali is an emotional encounter. For them especially for what they are living through, but also for me. Why? Because I can situate all their stories in a history of visiting and being warmly received by the herders and farmers in Mali, since 1987. In 2016 I joined a research project that tries to understand the recent conflict affecting their lives. I meet the herders now in Bougouni, in Bamako, as displaced people and as prisoners, as people being disposed off, as people without value for the modern Malian state.

My last stay in Mali was 13-26 August this year.

The sons of our main interlocutors, then, are now in prison. They are accused of being jihadists. The family and friends of colleague researchers are affected, their villages burnt, people are killed, and even mass graves are found. Most victims mentioned in these reports are part of the herders’ group. But there are also atrocities in farmer’s villages, Dogon and Bambara. The ethnic war in Central Mali has become  a sad reality. And in the coming months it is feared that the situation will worsen: more displaced people, more empty villages, more deaths, food crisis.

The result of the 2012 ‘occupation’ of central and northern Mali is a chaotic internal war. This year it has already caused the death of maybe over 1000 people, but figures cannot be verified. It forced people to leave their homes and search for a place elsewhere. Numbers of internally displaced people are not known, but their numbers are growing.


Displaced in Bamako @Mirjam

In Bougouni in the south, two hours drive from Bamako one family who hosts refugees saw the numbers grow from 3 end of June to 29 families in mid-August; and the woman of the family receiving these displaced assures us that more will be coming; in Bamako the capital city displaced people house in dilapidated houses without official recognition, but with help of families, associations, and individuals. Herders are nomads and to become visible as displaced is not evident. Moving with the herds is after all the main survival strategy. So many families will move in crisis but as nomads, not spotted by NGOs or the State. The displaced families that we meet are mainly recognized as such because they have to ask for aid, as all their cattle was stolen, killed or otherwise, and in many stories the burning of villages is a recurrent theme. Also in Bankass the numbers of people who flee their villages are growing and among them increasingly also Dogon.

A strange war is going on in Mali. It is an amalgam of different conflicts and involvement of various actors, and violence has moved from the North to the Centre, where most deaths are counted (for now). In Mali this internal war is silenced as much as possible, or presented as separate ‘conflicts’ in different sub regions and preferably with a reference to herder-farmer conflicts.  News in international circles is of recent date, only appearing after the  presidential elections that were held in July and August. Did they avoid publishing before that time to not jeopardize the sitting president?  In social media news circles like Taabital Pulaaku’s FaceBook, or in protest from diaspora Malians, concepts like genocide have gradually come into use. How disturbing such nominations may seem they might be necessary to wake up the (inter)national community. But in doing so the FB pages of other associations (like Kisal, Pinal Pulaaku, Dogon vision) risk accusations of being propagandistic. Analysis of these pages does indeed show ups and downs in the neutrality of the formulations. It is not easy to keep outside the positions, as the oppositions between ethnic groups have become a fact.

My confusion is about research in conflict situations. Is it arrogant to try to understand situations that are so complex and that demand so many lives; that are ‘unknowable‘ in their complexities? Who am I to embark on the knowing of the unknowable?. But on the other hand, every attention for these situations that are not only unknowable but also not seen is good. That is why I dare to write about it, even if I know that I do not know.

Creation of oppositions
It is difficult to stay neutral in the conflict. The oppositions are so outspoken. At least that is what has become. The old presumed cleavages between ethnic groups have become the kernel of clashes, killings etc. It is almost impossible to deny the politicization of these clashes. Of course the oppositions did exist, and do exist. It is a historical given that herders and farmers have to live together despite themselves. Their uses of resources are complementary and opposed. With the increasing problems of management, due to expansion of the population, ecological problems, increasing land-use by business and big urban entrepreneurs, it seems unavoidable that problems intensify, but these could have been contained if the political will would have been there. Somehow the conflict serves a purpose.

That is how the idea of disposable people is not too strange. As was suggested by a ‘critical’ citizen analyst in Mali: they want to empty the land that is needed for other purposes. It would not be the first time that a State disposes of its people for economic reasons. The other cynism is that those, who do most of the fighting are originally funded by the Malian government. Among Fulbe young men who joined the various armed groups (including Jihadist groups) are also those who were part of the militias that were funded by the government to fight the Tamacheq, that was in 2012 and 2013; the Dozo who are fighting against the so-called jihadist Fulbe (but who confuse them with ordinary citizens) are said to be armed by the state and also in some instances they are military in Dozo attire. Both in the interviews and comments on FB these stories appear. Another rumor is that also the international powers see profit in the chaos and will not really help to stop this. A recent report by the UN states that some actors who were united around the table to come to an agreement are also involved in criminal networks whose economy is worth milliards of dollars.

These cynic ways are increasingly part of patterns in the wars in the Sahel region and can only be continued by defining a sea of disposable people; people who have been the guardians of the Sahel regions for centuries, but whose paths are clashing with the paths of modernizing and criminalizing states.

Access denied: Visa Policies


Unequally Glocalised Worlds, Bamenda 2010 @Sjoerd Sijsma

I am in Cameroon, working with Marius, a student from central Africa. Cameroon, Buea, is for him a writing environment. The situation in Bangui does not allow him space to reflect and write. He should have been in the Netherlands. I am here because Marius’ visa for the Netherlands was refused four times over the past year. The repeated reason given at the French Embassy in Bangui: ‘this young man will probably not return to his homeland’. And this is where the story ends and begins. Marius has been accepted as a PhD student at Leiden University, we had produced all letters necessary. There was no reason to not give him the visa. We thought by confidently insisting on his application, and thus repeating it, the Embassy staff would realize their misjudgment. All other diplomatic efforts we tried failed. Marius reflects on it: ‘why do they deny me access to a world where I can learn more? Where I can develop myself into an academic so that I can help my country?’

I could not agree more. It is very unfortunate that the inequalities in our world are played out at this level. Are we not in the right corrupt position? A question that is raised by the recent convocation of the French Ambassador in Bangui, amongst others also for : « délivrance de visas en situation de conflit d’intérêts ».
As the responsible person in the visa demand I feel humiliated and hopeless.. As an academic the only thing I can do is to write and to visualize difficulties and inequalities that are the realities of every day for many young people in Africa, so that others know. One of such realities is Marius’.

And Marius is not alone. A Chadian friend told me how, when he went to pick up his visa for the Netherlands at the French Embassy in N’djaména, from all the (mainly) young men only one or two got a visa. His was also refused. Another case where all things were in order with the necessary letters of invitation, return ticket, insurance, but refused on the same grounds. This young artist – Rasta hair – has no fixed income but is always having assignments and is managing his own studio. One can imagine the authorities think: ‘Certainly a youth who wants to stay in Europe.’ He was invited to come to the Netherlands to finalize a film project with his Dutch colleague-cineastes and me. This is a film that might reach out to festivals and critical film competitions. But to get there we need to be able to join forces. The topic of this film is youth and inequality in the world and at home, and the socio-political dynamics this creates. The story of visas should probably be integrated into the project. I will have to travel again to Chad to work on this project; I am not denied a visa: I can freely go were my work and aspirations take me. That is how it should be.

Aspirations Denied
In many African countries we cannot deny that aspirations of young people are killed by the governance systems and economies. Many young men from countries such as the conflict ridden Central African Republic long for a life elsewhere. The images and stories about the ‘other’ world that are circulating on social media are alluring. Why not try? The situation at home is rather hopeless, so it would be good to go out.
The widespread protests that we see in many countries in West and Central Africa are related to the same feelings of ‘let’s try’. Of course each country has its own special dynamics, political structures, dictatorships and histories of violence, but there is a common denominator. Youth make up more than 60% of the population. Due to the rapid urbanization process the towns become large reservoirs of youth who have left the rural areas, at times forced because their land has been bought by Chinese, European or African businessmen with international relations, transforming the former farmers into cheap wage laborers. Hence, they take on small jobs in the urban economy and enter a new world, including the world of social media.

In some countries, like Chad, there are other ongoing processes that are, to say the least, unjust and incite people to protest. Here, the elites have been stealing from the people for decades while the population suffers from cuts in salary, rising prices, and impossibility to send children to school. Their consequent strikes make the economy even less performing. The poor get poorer and the rich richer.

When I record all this…. it is so logical that protests are rising and youth want to escape their situation. This is the case especially today because we are connected. The Marxist and pan-African writers like Fanon, Aime Cesare and DuBois, and the killed leaders Sankara and Lumumba, are alive again and referred to in Facebook posts. Protests in Africa and attempts by the youth to escape their situation will not stop until the present day leaders are gone, the international community comes to reason and inequalities have reduced tremendously.

Denying visa
Why deny these you men a visa? Do they not have the right to travel, without any explanation? Many of these young people will, like Marius’, come to learn, to work and to discover. Denying a visa to youth who have the right to be mobile is against justice.

Bizarre Mali


Motor-cycling by night in Bamako @Mirjam

Bamako facade
‘It is bizarre to be in Bamako now’, was the thought that came up regularly during my stay in Bamako this January. In the taxis I was observing and having a chat with the driver, along the sandy streets, the polluted air and busy beehive like structures that are markets. The traffic is dominated by motors driven by literally everybody, like flies in the streets, for personal use. Nobody has a permit, and that is clear from the way the motors are creating numerous moments of near-accident. Taxis are expensive, the mini-busses are crowded. Motorbikes imported from China are relatively affordable and give freedom of movement. Since March last year it seems that the number of motors has increased again.

Along the streets the building of houses continues, today also multiple-floor buildings. One of the quarters at the outskirts of Bamako, on the road to Segou, has been filled with houses over the past eight months. There is no bush left between the city and the surrounding hills that are gradually integrated into the expansion plans of the city. Bamako grows.

Then all the cars: they are numerous and stylish. Can so many people afford a car these days, or are these all ‘project’ cars? Are these related to another development that we observe in Bamako: the increasing number of NGOs and projects ‘bringing peace’ to Mali. The growth of the city, the apparently improving economy seems bizarre given the problems in other parts of the country.

Mali in war?
There is a war going on in this country. The troubles in the North and especially in the Centre are increasingly violent and seem to have covered larger parts of the country and included more people than before. Attacks are happening every day and often more than one a day. The official statistics report 750 deaths in 2017, but following the announcements on Facebook and reports in the media this number seems to be too low. A representant of Taabital Pulaaku, at the national bureau in Bamako, confirms that there are probably 1000ds of death. The stories from villagers who live in fear or are seduced by the new forms of religion, fill the online media and the offline newspapers. In his New Year’s speech, for which the president invited a large number of leaders, the message was conveyed that all is going well. Indeed, one part of the Malian economy works, fed by the economy of ‘la paix’ and ‘la guerre’. The presence of the UN military mission (MINUSMA) and inflow of NGOs has led to more cars, prices of houses going up, and jobs in the ‘peace industry’ in Bamako etc.: the well-known spoils of war on the national level. Despite this booming economy I have spoken to many people who question this optimistic attitude of the president and think that he has lost contact with reality.

One morning, when entering the office, a colleague who I last saw in March 2017, clings to me and starts to talk rather upset: ‘We are heading towards a war and they just do as if that reality is not there’. ‘They (meaning the ‘jihadists’, or ‘rebels’) attacked a police post (gendarmerie) in Markala close to Segou, they are at the doorstep of Bamako’. (…) ‘Who can deny this?’

Clearly, one can deny troubles in Bamako for now, especially with elections approaching. In a few months Malians will go to the ballot box, but what is there to choose? The present-day government is bankrupt, recently again three new ministerial posts were created, bringing the total to 36 ministries, who all have their personal budgets, extra’s, etc. But at the same time the population in the South might not go voting; they are fed up with the corruption of this government. Although some may still cling to the positive message and vote for IBK. The North will not vote: 70% of the schools are closed, famine looms around the corner, people are living in fear for the ‘people in the bush’. Or they join these people in the bush no longer trusting their State. The government is basically not present in the North. On top of all this, the president is heading a government that will soon launch its own military offensive to fight the terrorists in the North. Combined with other military preparations of the G5, and the presence of already a large number of UN soldiers, this will turn Central and North Mali into a real battlefield.

These messages from the government are informed by the wish to be re-elected. However, the promise that military action in the North and Centre of the country will end the chaotic situation and will allow the (middle class) citizens of Bamako to continue to dream their life of relative prosperity, is based on a dubious interpretation of the effect of the military approach. Can this really be effective? To securitize the vast region the military needs a large budget. The recent investments in the G5 group, Minusma and the new offensive of the Malian State will not suffice to cover the huge area that is the North and Centre of Mali. Control will be partial, concentrating on the cities, and as a result in the bush there will be a separate state led by so-called non-state actors.

For those who live in deep poverty life will only become worse again, but they are used to it. Their votes may make a difference, but will they have the chance to vote? Into which direction will their lives go?

Deciphering Radicalisation: Misuse of a concept

boukary2012-11-16 12.52.41

Douentza 2013 @Boukary Sangaré

This blog post is part of a series of blogs that I will publish the coming months within the framework of the Voice4Thought Festival on Digital Radicalization (23-29 September) and the Voice4Thought @Dakar events (15-18 November). In these blogs I will try to understand (also with other authors) what radicalisation means in different situations in the Sahel, and the world. What are the undercurrents? What historical parallels are there? Why is it happening now? With this text I try to understand how the hype of radicalisation – that was probably first of all a discourse born out of fear and othering – became a reality and has in Mali even transformed into ethnic scapegoating:  ‘la question peule’.

A concept
The meaning of the concept ‘radicalisation’ anno 2017 is related to a context defined by fear and panic for violence, in the name of religion and anti-western sentiments. It is especially used in western media and policy circles to depict a situation that has to be countered. It has become related to negative action, to violence and extremism. Zoe Reddy, artist and conservator, and Cindy van der Aa, artist and designer, compiled the exposition ‘Radicalisation: a range of defiance’ during the V4T festival 2017 and kunstroute in Leiden. Zoe made a video clip in which she tried to get to the fundamental signification of the concept radical. She deconstructs the meaning of radical, which brings it to: a radical affects the poster kunstroutefundamental nature of something, i.e. it leads to change. She questions where the word or concept comes from and what meaning it has gained over time. How has it become equal to violence, extremism in our times? In our present day world we seem to have forgotten about the root meaning of the word. Many people who were radical did bring very positive change. Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King were considered radicals (with a negative connotation) by the regimes in power, but they have changed values in our world deeply and not negatively. In today’s world however radicalisation related to violence and extremism has become a means to create opposition and accuse others of being wrong. It allows those who are in this discourse and reality to define the other as a negative force, whom we need to destroy to make our world safe again. On the other side of this opposition the so-called radicals formulate their own ideologies and have their own reasons to act as they do. In the process they may in the end adopt radical strategies to reach their goals. A concept and the meaning we give it acts, it has consequences in the real world.

Central Mali
How the concept acts becomes clear in the situation of Mali, where since 2012 a complicated war has become a (international) fight against radicalisation, violence and Muslim extremism. In Central Mali the Fulani/Peul have become central target and players in this war. They have become more conscious of their ‘marginal’ position vis-à-vis the Malian state and made their demand for a better life heard. The unemployment, lack of good pasture areas and a general neglect of development in their home area are the root causes of these demands. Insecurity in the region that only increased every year pushed them as well to defend themselves. The non-response to their demands has pushed some of the Fulani into the hands of armed groups that are often inspired by religious ideologies and a similar discourses of marginalization. The Fulani are of old inhabitants of Central Mali. They are citizens and have shared spaces with other groups for so long in relative peace. However with the turn in history after 2012 they have become enemies of the state and are considered radical and extremists that the State has to fight.

Adam Thiam, a well-known journalist in Mali, wrote a booklet ‘Centre du Mali: enjeux et dangers d’une crise négligée’ (2017). At the end of his nuanced analysis he also presents the thesis of ‘la question peule’. Although this was certainly not his intention this expression has nourished sentiments in society that are based on fear and also on the unknown. Southern Malians feel threatened by these northern situations and the apparently nomadic-jihadist spirit that settles in the North.


internet image of Fulani

An analysis of Mali newspaper articles and its online conversations (chats) also show an increasing anxiety towards the role of the Fulani/Peul in the problems in Central Mali, reporting on violent actions, and creating an image of the Peul as the enemies of the State. In the articles and reactions an undertone of racism transpires. ‘La question peule’ has become internalized as the threat for mainstream society in Mali. (First explorations in Media research within the programme:  ‘http://www.ascleiden.nl/research/projects/fulani-sahel-caught-between-hammer-muslim-extremism-and-anvil-state-mali-nigeria). As Boukary Sangaré concludes in a forthcoming article ‘la question peule’has become a fact (‘Le centre du Mali: vers la question peule’, in Deciphering Radicalisation, Langaa, 2017, forthcoming) promoted by the frames in the media. Fulani are arrested en masse with the approval of many in the general public who have internalized the radicalisation discourse as the synonym of violent extremism with a religious inspiration.

Internalisation of ‘la question peule’
Where cohabitation used to be the way to discuss Fulani-farmer relations, or to experience the presence of Fulani in society in general, there is now the discourse of ‘la question peule’ in which they are depicted as radicals, jihadists and extremists. This is not only a discourse, but a discourse that leads to action: the arrest, fear of policemen for the Fulani, etc. that in turn leads to a sharpening of the discourse, or probably better said: a confirmation of the discourse. And gradually this becomes the normal way of doing, the accepted style. Newspaper articles no longer shy away from these and in the online world accusations etc. are repeated and the oppositions confirmed. The word radical has become synonymous with jihadism, and violent extremism. The acts that result from the internalization of this discourse is at the same time a reason for people to re-act radically. It would be wise for policymakers, the mainstream citizens of Mali, for those who govern to decipher their own understanding of concepts they use and see if in their acceptance of this discourse there is probably also a possible critical point of view possible. This might lead to a real debate about the so-called radicals. More understanding of the reasons to become radical, and in some cases extreme and violent. It is important to be conscious of the origins of our thoughts and not hide behind a wall of shared values without questioning these. Inviting artists to decipher the concepts and situations could be an interesting first step to open a discussion in society.

‘Les cicatrices c’est notre passeport’, Disappearing histories in Southern Chad


Roro: a market where three countries meet @Mirjam (2017)

The taxi driver who brings us back to Sarh from Kyabe is a young man. He wears the signs of his family on his face. He is Sara-Kabba, an ethnic group that has its main living space around Lac Iro in Central Chad. He shares a story with us: He once searched adventure in Yaoundé, Cameroon. He went without a coin in his pocket and was wandering the streets of Yaoundé when a person talked to him, asking where he came from, pointing at his scars. They were from the same region and same ethnic group, brothers. Hence he found his place to stay. You see, ‘les cicatrices, c’est notre passeport’. But he adds that this is also the past. It has not much meaning today.

Forgotten cultures
We are travelling to Southern Chad, through Moundou, Sarh to Kyabe and final destination Roro, the region of Lac Iro. We enter a forgotten land, not flooded by NGOs, where the state’s social services are almost absent. The few health centers that we see are equipped by religious missions of various denominations. There is one ethnographic work on the region, written by Claude Pairault (1923-2003)° and based on research done in the 1960s.

During our trip we meet Yaya Sarria, a dancer from Chad. He is travelling the region for a month to find out about songs and dances that are at risk of being forgotten. ‘All artists should know this’, he exclaims. We listen to the songs he and his friend gathered: beautiful stories told on rhyme, women singing at funerals, and so much more. Almost everything they have recorded is the art of old people. Young people do not learn these songs any longer. They also recorded interviews with people who relate about their traditions and lifestyles that are in danger as a consequence of subsequent wars and new religious forms.

Loss of resources
Southern Chad has been suffering – like all other parts of the country – from more and less intensive periods of wars and rebellions. The main heritage is non-development. Conflict and war eat resources that are hence not invested in the country for infrastructure or other purposes. The exploitation of oil during the past decade did not


A ministry building in Sarh, renewed colonial building @Mirjam (2013)

change much, apparently. Even though the road from Moundou to Kyabe was built by means of oil money, after Kyabe the road stops altogether and, so it seems, all other things we see as modernity as well. The recent developments in the region can be summarized around issues of land and refugees, partly the result of conflicts in neighbouring countries. Add to this the kleptocratic character of the state’s ruling clan and the recent crisis that has hit Chad and one can imagine that the relative stability of the past ten years, including the oil money, has not changed much to the conditions of the people in this region.

However, the market in Roro is a space of encounters, here the three countries (Sudan, CAR and Chad) meet and the people from the region come to sell their cattle, food, and Kalashnikovs. It is an impressive market. Roro is a far-away place for those who come from N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, but a central place in the region. It’s also a place where the government receives a lot of tax income, but these revenues cannot stay in Roro, as it depends on Kyabe, the district capital, where the money goes to. The money flows somewhere but not back into this region.

Identity and belonging
How does the population in this region relate to recent history? What are their points of reference? Where do they belong to? In a recent study Souleymane Adoum a Chadian historian, explains about the lack of archives in this region. All archives in Sarh-region have disappeared in fires or pillage or have simply been destroyed by the rains in the dilapidated houses. During the various rebellions people were also forced to abandon their ‘modern’ objects, as those objects did not fit the rebellions’ anti-Western ideology, hence all letters and pictures or other objects that are reminiscent of personal histories are gone. For his research Souleymane depended almost completely on oral histories and life stories.


Cailcidrat, colonial trees through the ruine of Hôtel de Chasse @Mirjam (2017

In Sarh we come across a small museum. It has no money to buy objects. Hotel deChasse, a colonial legacy, was burned down ten years ago – an accident. However, the state did restore the colonial buildings in this town. It seems a strange contrast to me that the colonial legacy is conserved, while the region just outside Sarh is lacking all social services. The museum could have been an important point of reference for young and old people to discover their identity. But it is visited only rarely and contains so little objects that it feels as if the country has no history nor memory.

Chinese art


Place de la nation: N’Djamena (internet picture)

What then is the orientation for the youth? The ethnic markers? As the young taxi driver continues, referring to his scars: ‘These are now remnants of the past. We no longer do this; things are changing’. Many people from the region Sarh now live in N’Djamena. The search for a little income cracks up most youth; the university is on strike all the time, surviving in the city is difficult. The image they develop of the world is a polarized one, due to differences with Europe and the USA but especially due to the differences within their own country: between the rich who flourish well and the poor who are denied a normal subsistence. The president promised a ‘renaissance’, but this is only captured in symbols created by Chinese artists, such as the Place de la Nation in N’Djamena, or in the restauration of colonial remnants in Sarh. Are these really meant as new symbols of identity? In Chad people cannot choose their own symbols of belonging. Their symbols of history and identity have disappeared and the replacements are empty.

Yaya Sarria’s art project should be continued!

°Claude Pairault, 1966, Boum-le-Grand,, village d’Iro, Paris, Institut d’ethnologie, collection Travaux et Mémoires LXXIII. ;  Claude Pairault, 1994, Retour au Pays d’Iro, Chronique d’un village du Tchad, Paris : Karthala