Quest for citizenship of the Fulbe (semi)nomads in Central Mali

 movement in Serma; Ahmadou walks in front' @Boukary Sangaré

The nomads on their way to the first meeting of the Fulbe nomads’ movement in Serma; Ahmadou walks in front. Photo: Boukary Sangaré

Alternative citizenship
Due to increasing possibilities to connect and link to others in a globalizing world, awareness of belonging and the right to belong is on the rise among the Fulbe nomads from the Hayre, Central Mali. This implies claiming rights, of which the most basic is the right to a livelihood that is sustainable (and having the ability to sustain). In many Sahelian regions this right is still to be fulfilled. The ecological conditions and insecurity make the guarantee of a descent livelihood a difficult promise for governments. Nevertheless, this claim is increasingly made by the population. The awareness of injustice leads to protest, silent or explicit; violent or peaceful. The lack of recognition of these protests intensifies the feeling of non-belonging and denial of rights. Hence, citizenship is not only a discursive category, but (the lack of it) has become a real empirical experience for many people.
Citizenship is: the realization of one’s rights and thus the unavoidable confrontation with government bodies and relations of power. These imply divisions of power. I think I am observing in the Sahel and particularly in Central Mali that the old divisions of power are crumbling, which leads to a re-positioning of social groups, in which a claim to citizenship takes many forms. Protest and resistance should probably be considered as the emergence of alternative forms of citizenship. Forms of protest are expressions of the wish to belong. Reactions to these forms of protest are crucial in the process of the realization of accepted forms of citizenship. But such contestation of power is often interpreted (by those in power) as the opposite of citizenship (public disobedience) and the standard reaction is coercive measures. Alternative forms of citizenship have a difficult future in our world.

Nomads unite
For many people who live in the North of Mali, the 2012 conflict meant a new confrontation with the global world. The case of the (semi)nomads of the Hayre is exemplary. Their region being occupied by MNLA and the Jihadist movement MUJAO led to the realization of who they are, and how they relate to their elites. The invisibility of the state, except for the – as violent experienced – actions of the forest service (e.g. fining nomads for cutting wood) against the nomads, became part of their discourses that interpreted their situation as being forgotten by the state, being marginalized. And it led them to create the movement ‘Deewral Pulaaku’, indeed asking for their right to have the decent livelihood they so far had not experienced. They’d analyzed the power relations in their own society and decided that it was time to turn a page in their history. The role of new Communication Technologies is undeniable (see previous blog 1; and 2).

'When MUJAO occupied the region paintings of human faces were covered, Douentza town, August 2013' @Boukary Sangaré

When MUJAO occupied the region, paintings of human faces were covered. Douentza town, August 2013. Photo: Boukary Sangaré

How successful has this nomad movement been so far in claiming their rights within the frame of the Malian state? And which are the forces that hamper or stimulate the continuation of the movement? In which direction will it go?
I was in Mali at the end of September and together with Boukary Sangaré we continued our quest to understand. People were still very hesitant about going to the North. I did not go, but did gather information about what is happening in the North and how the nomads’ movement was progressing. The daily interaction between PhD student-researcher Boukary Sangaré and the people from the Hayre informed us about the developments. We also spoke to some key persons from the Fulani elites and we met again with people from the Dutch Embassy. Our conclusion is that the tide is turning against the possibility for the nomads to succeed in their mission. Indeed, everything indicates that they are denied Malian citizenship, and that their claim is rising. This is also proven by the establishment of yet another movement, ‘Pinal Pulaaku’, of young nomads from the Hayre and Burgu who claim more rights for Fulani nomads who claim a role in the in the resolution of conflict.

Who listens to the nomads?
Recognition is a key in these politics of belonging. One can only belong if one is being recognized as ‘belonged one’. But who recognizes the nomads as a separate group? Who even knows they are a separate group? Among those concerned, like the Malian State, the personnel of MUNISMA and NGOs in the region, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about the social structure of Fulbe society, and hence the presentation as a separate group of nomads is not understood. Often, the recognized spokespeople of the nomads are their elites, but these do not always defend the rights of all nomads. It has become clear these elites and their nomads are no longer on speaking terms. A problem for intervening bodies like the UN or NGOs is that leadership among the nomads is not very clear and negotiations are often with these elites. As long as this obscurity prevails, the nomads will not be listened to. Another problem certainly is language. Fulani is not a main language in circles of intervening bodies, nor of the government.
The presentation of their problems in Bamako during meetings with the EU, Dutch Embassy and MINUSMA did not finally lead to the recognition of these problems and its translation into (aid) actions. Although the interventions in Serma for reconciliation and better communication between gendarmes and nomads and the opening of a transhumance route are certainly seen as positive, these are just small interventions in a huge region and security issues are not solved. The nomads do not feel safe. Ahmadou, one of our main informants, said he cannot rely on ‘these’ people and still has to handle and hassle with tensions in the region, varying from forces of gendarmes to bandits.

Trust
Trust in the state is certainly not yet there. Since the establishment of the movement Deewral Pulaaku there have been moments of hope: when Ahmadou and the other leaders visited Bamako, or when they received help when they were imprisoned; on the other hand, both events were a deception: the nomads are regularly arrested and accused of Jihadism. I described this arrest in a previous blog, and on October 8, Boukary received a call from a friend in the region reporting on yet another arrest of a Fulani man, based on the assumption (and fear) that this particular Fulani man would have been part of an attack on a village in the eastern part of the Hayre. Clearly, the meetings in Bamako did not yet lead to what the nomads had hoped for. This became painfully clear when Ahmadou called me after his liberation and said that, despite everything, he had to pay again. Things had not really changed. And they are still confronted with injustice.
Trust is a two-way process. The manner in which the State perceives the Fulani nomads is certainly not one of trust. Since a few months, the increasing appearance of the ‘Front de la Liberation du Maacina’ (FLM) has reinforced the State’s mistrust in the nomads and particularly in the Fulani. This phenomenon first showed in the Inner Delta of the Niger (January2015), when they attacked villages there and destroyed the tombs of Sheku Aamadu, the Fulani leader of the Maacina Empire in the 19th century, who has the status of saint. Destroying the tomb was also an act of showing their Jihadism, and they were from then on officially recognized as one of the Jihadist groups in the North. After this attack other attacks followed. Their presumed leader is Hamadoun Kouffa, a Muslim scholar who has been preaching in the Inner Delta for years and apparently gathered a group of followers. FLM is supposed to be basically Fulani. However, doubts exist if this group is indeed a well-organized force, or if it is a loose network of groups that link to the ideology of Jihadism and prepare attacks.

This was also the tendency in the interviews with Temoré Tioulenta, a prominent leader in the organization Taabital Pulaaku and in the Inner Delta. Most attacks that are done by the FLM are against State services and their employees. Despite this uncertainty around their ‘real’ existence, it is clear that they are increasingly present in the region. Also in the Hayre, camps of this group are observed. For instance just next to Serma, the camp where Ahmadou resides, a group of the FLM has its camp in the bush. Ahmadou contacts them to secure the safety of Serma.

'Fulbe nomads' movement' @Boukary Sangaré

Fulbe nomads’ movement. Photo: Boukary Sangaré

Imagining nomads as jihadists
The imaginations made of FLM certainly influences the ideas and images of the Fulani nomads in general. It is certainly reinforcing the vision of the Malian state and the population that these nomads are (potential) jihadists and hence enemies of the State. Distrust characterizes the relationship between the State and the Nomadic Fulani.
The quest for belonging and recognition therefore continues. The experience of not being listened to, the lack of care of the State and the ‘push’ towards the image of Jihadist, might finally turn into a reality as protection and security might be coming from the ‘Jihadist’ side. MUJAO, FLM, Al Qaida may step into that vacuum. It will reinforce the nomad’s experience with MUJAO in 2012. MUJAO was able to stabilize the region and give the nomads a feeling of basic security. If the State, or MUNISMA for that matter, does not guarantee security in the region, Jihadism may tip the balance of trust.

The hope for a good harvest, after waiting for a long time for the rains to come, will for now postpone such choice. However, a next dry season with severe harshness and without a good base to sustain their livelihood might push the nomads definitively to the camp of the Jihadists.

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4 thoughts on “Quest for citizenship of the Fulbe (semi)nomads in Central Mali

  1. very interesting analyze. but it’s useful for a better understanding of fulani place in mali state building lack of trust between nomads and sedentaries to deepen the paper with historical background from the macina jihad to the french colonisation. furthermore we have alongside the sahel a serious problem of coexistence of this two types of citizens.depending of those who lead, we have always stigmatisation, discrimination. lack of mutual understanding, wish to share correctly the state levers and resources…
    Dr mamoudou sy

  2. Interesting article about trends on social (un)belonging of Fulbe in Mali. What about initiative from their side to build strong and wide constituencies of representative and well governed social organisations? That’s critical for their voices to be heard and listenend to.

    Are you aware of this initiative by AREN (Niger) with support from CARE and IDDH (institut Danous des Droits Humains): rapport alternatif sur les manquements (déficience en matière de protection) de l’Etat du Niger en matière des droits humains, des pasteurs notamment. Ce rapport sera présenté à la pré-session en décembre 2015 de l’Examen Périodique Universel (EPU) à Genève au Conseils des Droits Humains des Nations Unies (NU).

  3. I totally agree that this needs a deeper historical analysis, but this is a blog text! I will try in a next one.

  4. Mirjam,

    Your analysis clearly shows that essential causes of the problems in Mali are being ignored and that this failure to (even try to) understand the concerns of the Fulani is a recipe for disaster.

    Why are people, in Africa as well as in Europe, making this type of mistake when it comes to Africa over and over again?

    That’s a question I have tried to look at in my own recently-published longread, “African Identities – a New Perspective”. It is available through my blog at http://africanations.wordpress.com

    If you can find the time to take a look and perhaps even review it, I will be grateful.

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