Nomads unite: a story from Northern Mali

Fulbe nomads arriving at the big meeting that was held 20 October 2014.

Fulbe nomads arriving at their big meeting that was held in Serma, 20 October 2014 (Photo: Boukary Sangaré).

Eight days in Bamako, Mali, writing a report together with Boukary Sangaré, Malian PhD student at Leiden University, on the basis of field reports from local researchers who worked in the border zones between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. We are trying to understand security issues and pastoral nomads’ lives in times of turbulence. The Mali conflict in 2012 meant a definitive change for the power relations in the region. In this blog we share our observations.

I was eager to meet Ibrahim Moodi Diallo, who had emerged in Boukary’s encounters with the Fulbe (or Fulani) nomads in the Seeno, Central Mali, as a new leader of the nomads. Fulbe society consists of several social categories organized in a strict hierarchy that is maintained by power relations defining access to vital resources like pastureland and cultivable land and that is related to religious piety. The ‘noble’ elites inherited their identity from their warrior background and early adoption of Islam. They have positioned themselves since colonial times between the nomads and the ‘Modern’ state, which signified an important revenue for the elites. The nomads have never really entered the modern state until recently. They still do not send their children to school, nor do they relate well to services as the police and the forest services. For a long time, hospitals were places of death and only a last resort. Hence, the elites could rule and define the nomads’ access and possibilities in the modern Malian state. Their turn to Islam dates from 50 years ago and continues. Nomads were the ‘voiceless’, until the conflict in northern and central Mali erupted again in 2012.


Ibrahim Moodi Diallo. (Photo: Boukary Sangaré)










A new leader
That year became the start of the leadership of Ibrahim Moodi Diallo from Bulli Kessi, who is about 55 years old. He traveled a lot during his life, went to Cameroon, to Niger, to Burkina Faso, where he met people and learned about the world. He never frequented Western oriented school, but he followed the Muslim itinerary of learning and became a marabout, one of the first of his generation among the nomads. During his travels and while studying the Koran with different Muslim scholars he learned that the world is not equal and that injustice is part of his society. He also discovered the lack of voice of his group. His intelligence brought him to search alliances with others and share his ideas. He picked up the French language while traveling; he is one of the few nomads who master this language.

Gaining voice
Hence he became part of a network of Fulbe nomads who increasingly became aware of their difficult position and sought ways to voice it. Some nomads were organized by Western NGOs; these nomads were gaining more voice, though they were limited to a small group of NGOs and not recognized by African leaders. The story of marginalization of the nomads, the increasing decline of the Sahelian ecology and the increasing insecurity in the Sahel, have become part of the Fulbe nomads’ stories. The stories of attacks on Fulbe villages (Niger), of kidnappings of their children (Chad and CAR), of violence (refugees in Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria) increasingly find their way to internet networks, facebook pages, and international NGOs’ reports. On the other hand, the Sahelian states increasingly accuse the Fulbe of being part of violent and criminal networks like Boko Haram, Janjaweed, Seleka etc. Ibrahim has no access to all these media and circuits of information, but he is discovering the people behind the networks and tries to contact them by acquiring their phone numbers. He travels to these people who reside in Bamako, Burkina and Niger and shares his ideas. Ibrahim finances these activities all by himself. He is a relatively wealthy cattle owner.

The year 2012 meant ‘chaos’ for Northern Mali. The state services and its personnel left the area after the first attacks by Tamacheck (Tuaregs) at the city of Gao in the extreme North. The Seeno became a non-governed land. The Fulbe elites lost their allies. The occupation by the Tamacheck of their lands was only seen as an offense, as their relation with these Tamacheck had always been one of war and competition. The same counted for the Fulani nomads. The elites and nomads each chose their own path in this new situation. The elites clung to their compatriots in the diaspora and in Bamako, while the nomads geared towards the new leaders in the region. After the MNLA (Mouvement national pour la libération de l’Azawad, mostly made up of Tamacheck) had been chased from the area by the Jihadist group MUJAO, the power balance changed in the perception of the nomads. They were captured by the message of MUJAO, who offered security in the region, literally by training large groups in the proficiency of arms. By then the nomads had bought arms, for instance through the intervention of a business Fulbe elite in Boni, who discovered the arm trade as a lucrative business. We have no idea about the numbers of Fulbe youngsters and older people who went to the camps of MUJAO in the North and were well trained as fighters.
Among them was Ibrahim. He travelled to Gao to see the leader of MUJAO in order to solve a conflict within his village. He asked for the aid of MUJAO. Indeed MUJAO sent an agent to the village, but it was not enough to calm the situation. Again, Ibrahim went to see the leader of MUJAO and he was invited to join the training camp – which he did. He did not like the food they offered him, so he paid for decent food himself. He emphasized that he is the son of an important Tijjaniyya (a brotherhood that is widespread in the Sahel) marabout in the region of Bulli Kessi. When a representative of MUJAO visited him, he noticed the tomb and Mausoleum that commemorated his father, which had become a place for pilgrimage. During his stay with the MUJAO, Ibrahim followed Tijjaniyya prayers, which was not really appreciated by the MUJAO leaders, who expressed their malcontent with him. Ibrahim was shocked by their behavior.

Visitor of the big meeting of Fulani nomads, October 2014.

Visitor of the big meeting of Fulani nomads, October 2014.

A new ideology
Hence the Fulbe got involved in the MUJAO structures. The main leaders in this structure left the region, but their preaches and films are still circulating in the mobile phones of the nomads. Their access to this new medium increased considerably since 2012. Ideas about marginalization, Muslim identity and pride of the nomads circulate with these films and have transformed the youth and leaders in the nomadic communities. The story against the elites, who had been oppressing them for too long, became increasingly theirs. And their disgust with the elites goes hand in hand with the perception of the state as basically oppressive, never defending the rights of the nomads.

A long way to go
To free themselves from this jug, Ibrahim does not preach the violent path, instead he believes in dialogue and political power. Decentralization and democratization in Mali began after the revolution of the 1990ies, when dictator Traoré was sent off duty and a government of transition introduced democratic values, with strong support and guidance from the international ‘development’ scene. It has been a very gradual process and the events in 2012 have shown that the democratization process still has a long way to go, if it is not a complete failure altogether. However, the process did take on board some nomads, like Ibrahim, but also our good friend Ahmadou, who, after the death of his father, became the leader of his lineage and a political leader. During the previous two elections, he and Ibrahim supported the party in power (ADEMA) through the elected deputies. The process of political conscience was underway.

Modern nomads
The arrival of electricity in the capital city of the region in 2001, and later of the telephone networks, also in the smaller towns, improved the nomads’ access to information, people and networks. In addition to radio, to which they already listened, it brought them television. It opened their eyes for the modern world, that aroused both feelings of admiration and feelings of detestation, not understanding the freedom that is shown on these canals and films. The return migration of ‘modern’ nomads during the conflict years of Côte d’Ivoire fed this tendency well.
The political conscience, knowledge of media technologies, their increasing realization of being in a position of non-voice fed by discourses of the MUJAO, have finally turned the tide. Ibrahim and Ahmadou connected and became friends – or brothers-in-the-fight. They expressed their anger and also felt they had to do something against the injustice in the region and the rampant criminality and violence. They do not deny that their own youth were implicated in these gangs, but they want to develop a possibility of changing things forever. Ibrahim seeks the political way. He stepped out of ADEMA, as he did no longer see the party’s benevolence to help the youth. A vote against ADEMA is also a vote against their own elites and the state. Ahmadou listens and follows Ibrahim in his actions.

Join forces!
Together they joined forces to organize a big meeting in the region (20 October 2014) with the Fulani nomads from Maacina to Burkina.

They asked for permission to organize it, used their own funds and were able to unite probably 1000 nomads in Serma, a small hamlet in the middle of the Seeno (the home hamlet of Ahmadou where we happened to do our first fieldwork in the 1990s, see De Bruijn & van Dijk, Arid Ways, Thela Publishers, 1995)). Interestingly, this meeting was also visited by people from the commune, police, MINUSMA (UN mission in the region) and the governor. They all presented their discourses during the meeting, with an interpreter next to them. The nomads, not able to speak French but increasingly fluent in Arabic and familiar with Muslim learning, are not congruent with the model of the modern state.

Cattle in Nothern Mali (photo: Boukary Sangaré)

Cattle in Nothern Mali (photo: Boukary Sangaré)

They need the freedom to move and the freedom to access pasture areas. External actors fear them for their fury and their weapons. Yet the fury of the nomads is fed by injustice and non-voice, marginalization, accusations of being MUJAO partisans hence jihadists, accusations of having weapons, of being criminals; some of them were arrested because they did indeed attack state stations, but others for no reason. They are still in prison in Bamako. Others were fined for weapons they did not own. Nobody knows where these huge sums of money have gone. Security in the region has not returned after the invasion of the French and the UN. Instead, insecurity is rising. The soldiers and policemen were afraid to act, MINUSMA and the French only passing on their way to Gao. They do not invest in the security of this region; in the meantime, they have all defined the Fulani as a potential threat, as it is one of the largest ethnic groups in the region, present from Mopti to Boni, to Gao and Abderamboukane.


UN soldiers in Mali. (Photo: Boukary Sangaré)

Elections 2016
Ibrahim is also preparing for the elections of next year. He wants to represent his people in politics. However, his visit with a delegation to Bamako last November, as a follow-up to the big meeting they organized in Serma, was not a very big success according to the representative of the European Union, who very much appreciates the efforts of the nomads to be heard: “They do not have the ability to express their wishes, what is their agenda? Who are they in fact? The other groups from the region all have their (educated) porte-parole (spokesperson) to translate their discourse into our language and concepts. They will only be listened to if they are able to develop as a coherent force. Not being heard may lead them to take up arms!”

Become their porte-parole?
Boukary invited Ibrahim to come to Bamako and meet me. It was an emotional encounter. I never met Ibrahim, but immediately we felt a connection, as he is this nomad whose ways of doing have become part of me in the course of my research among the nomads. I no longer master the language as before, but I still understand and can communicate. The language is emotion and feels good. Ibrahim speaks little French, but in Fulfulde his story flows. He had heard stories about me and my long stays and involvement in the Seeno, with my family and husband Han van Dijk. He has seen our cattle that is in the hands of Ahmadou and he knows about our house in Douentza. Boukary has been in the region on and off over a long period of time and has also become part of the Fulbe nomadic society. If we like it or not, we are seen as compatriots in their fight for freedom, because that is what it has become. A fight for freedom that unites them with so many other Fulbe nomads all over West and Central Africa. Increasingly, Ibrahim realizes their power. Increasingly, I start to understand that we cannot simply step aside and look as objective researchers to these developments. I am part of it. Should we become their porte-parole?

One thing is certain: no action to ‘help’ these nomads from the side of the authorities, MUNISMA and others who claim to have the development and stabilization of the region high on the agenda, will solve the problems of the nomads and they might decide to revolt. The youth who have been trained in the MUJAO camps do indeed herd the cattle again, but the ideas implanted, the films and records in their phones are not silent. Ibrahim expresses his hope that they are contained now, but he as well as I know better. The Fulbe youth will never be the same as before 2012.



4 thoughts on “Nomads unite: a story from Northern Mali

  1. Pingback: Nomads unite: a story from Northern Mali - Missie naar MaliMissie naar Mali

  2. Pingback: Ahmadou: a nomad leader in Mali | Counter Voices in Africa

  3. Pingback: Quest for citizenship of the Fulbe (semi)nomads in Central Mali | Counter Voices in Africa

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