‘I have no phone’, Sahelian communication networks; First steps in a research project

I met the elder Fulani man from Niger in Chad, a few kilometers south of Ndjaména in Koundol, on 23 February 2023. He was wearing a woolen hat and long sleeved clothes, plus an extra jacket. As if it was very cold. The hot period is starting in Chad and temperatures will soon go up to 45 degrees. I greeted him in front of the house of the ‘chef de race peule’ of Koundol. When we exchanged in Fulfulde he reacted very surprised and excited. He took us in the courtyard, assuring us that he would find the chef de race. The women of the house took out a small bench and rolled out a mat, inviting us to choose a seat. I preferred to sit on the mat, Firmin who accompanied me choose for the bench. Our man (Idrissa) sat beside him. A little later another man came and sat next to me on the mat. He appeared to be the chef de race peul. We exchanged, and they allowed me to do a small interview on the history of the Fulani in this part of Chad. We were served sweet tea. In between we were chatting about news from the region, and also about if and how we know each other. The chef de race had heard my name, Mariamma Diallo, we happen to be participating in the same WhatsApp group, Pinal Pulaaku (which means the youth of the Fulbe). I participate in this group on invitation of friends in Mali. The distance between Mali and Chad is 3057 Kilometers (google maps). Amazing. Why he remembered me? Because I was asked to say some greetings in Fulfulde to proof my sincerity. That was already a few years ago (I do not really remember when I started to participate). The chef had lost his phone and was no longer participating in the WhatsApp group.

I asked if they knew what is happening in Mali. The Malian Fulani social media contain loads of messages about the killings in central Mali and in Burkina Faso, that are mounting in numbers since the Wagner group joined the Malian army, and in Burkina since the villagers were allowed to weaponize. The chef answered, that yes he saw the pictures, ‘it is very bad’. Idrissa has no phone, instead he travels. He is visiting his family here in Chad, one of his nephews studies in a franco-arab school (Madrassa) and has become a Muslim scholar (Mallam). His appearance, beard and Jelaba (long dress that is typically seen as a Muslim dress for men), shows him a pious Muslim. Somewhere in 2013 Idrissa visited Mali, Tenenkou in the Inner Delta of the Niger, where he went to see an uncle. Upon his arrival he discovered that his uncle had died. Idrissa is a traveler. He gains his information by travelling and exchanging with fellow travelers, and family he meets on his travels. In a nutshell he summarized what was happening in Mali and Burkina. He was shaking his head. The killings and stealing is too much.

During the interview Idrissa would keep quiet, making the gesture with his hand in front of his mouth, indicating his silence and also that he would not know better than the chef. In fact he did know better, about the history and about the names of the lineages, etc. Also about the actualities of the Sahel. He is a ‘savant’, but not speaking out loudly as expected in Fulani mores.

Idrissa represents the old communication model of the Fulani for who travelling is communication and the way to be informed about their family members. One person travelling would be enough for the lineage or the family group to know the latest developments in the region, recent developments for the wider region where lineage members make use of pasture areas, or live their semi-sedentary life. In such a communication ecology the mobile phone has spread rapidly. Today also the smartphone is a regular company of many Fulani. The comparison of modes of communication and acquirement of knowledge between the chef de race and Idrissa shows how the mobile phone is a continuation of the travelling communication of the Fulani in the Sahel.

This anecdote is a representative story for the way our research will develop in the coming years. The central question is; How do Fulani networks interfere with violence in the region? What is the role of identity politics in national, regional, local networks? We will both try to unravel these puzzles through detailed ethnographic multi sited research and through the computational (Natural Language Processing and Social Network Analysis) and digital ethnographic research of social networks both online and offline.

The programme will run till the end of 2027. And is funded by NWO (project number: 406.21.SW.009)

The attack of N’dola in Mali: a turning point in the Malian conflict?

Mobilisation of people in central Mali to ask for peace and security (retrieved from a WhatsApp group)

It’s Monday morning October 25, 2021 in Bamako. My telephone vibrates. I am in a workshop on blogging with young Malians, so I ignore the call. Then there is another call and another one. I look at my telephone screen and I see that a friend is desperately trying to reach me. I step out of the room and call him back. He urges me to listen to the message he just sent me via Whatsapp. It contains a report by his cousin, an inhabitant of the village of N’Dola, not far from Niono in the southern part of the Inner Delta of the river Niger. This cousin recounts what just played out before his very eyes. First there were the jet fighters, attacking the village from the air. Then 30 or so pick-ups with armed men encircle the village. The cousin claims that the vehicles belonged to the Malian army and that the soldiers wore army uniforms as well. The cousin is not the only one who sends around his eye-witness account of the attack. Many other will follow in the Fulani social media networks of which I am member. The pictures of the attack that come along show great cruelty. Allegedly, the army has killed at least seven people and burned down part of N’Dola village.

The following week I would try to understand more about what had happened.

On the same day, 25 October, the Malian government sent out a communiqué  explaining that the army had indeed attacked N’dola,  first by air, and that they had later arrested 14 people (who are now in prison in Bamako). The communiqué continued by saying that the images circulating on social media are ‘macabre’ but false by referring to their origin (indeed one image that circulates is not of the 25th and neither from the region). They say that an immediate investigation will be opened to shed light on the attack on the village. The horrible pictures of violated bodies are not mentioned.

I am in contact with the president of the youth branch of Tabital Pulaaku,  a cultural organization that has become the porte parole for the Fulani and their position in the conflict. He is of course shocked by this attack on N’dola that is a Fulani village, and labels it, as do others, as a new turn in the conflict. The way the bodies are tortured refers to a possible dehumanization of  the Fulani. These conclusions go far, and if true will have huge consequences also for international politics. He was invited to join a delegation from Tabital Pulaaku to visit the site of the massacre. But the visit is rescheduled to the 10th of November earliest, as the government does not allow them to visit the village. In a WhatsApp exchange on the 11th of November he told me that the visit would probably be on the 15th of November.

The area around the village seems to be occupied by  the followers of Hamadoun Kouffa, the leader of Katiba Macina, that is part of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims—JNIM). For the government and international organizations they are terrorists. For the inhabitants of the region they are one of the armed groups that make their lives difficult. Apart from the Jihadi groups there are the Dozo (hunter groups who defend the villages) and non-specified armed (criminal) groups that profit from the insecurity situation. The village is situated in a region where the past few months tensions have been rising. According to the messages in various social media groups of which I am part, acts of violence against the population are increasing, like the burning of rice fields and millet harvests, disappearance of people, and attacks on buses, villages, etc. Exact figures about these violations do not exist. The cercle de Niono has become part of the attempts by the armed Jihadi groups to increase their influence.

During the workshop that I was attending that 25th of October, I heard a youth from the region saying: ‘we are all victims’. He expressed his feelings of fear openly and said that the different armed groups in the cercle de Niono are in a way fighting each other on the detriment of the population. For him it is clear  that the government has lost control and the population is left on its own.

After the 25th the messages to prove what has happened in N’dola are circulating on social media. But not the media of everybody, and the interpretation of the images varies. One evening in a taxi in Bamako I was overhearing the exchange between the taximan and the passenger in the front seat. The taximan declaring openly that the Fulani, les Peuls, are clearly the Jihadists.  It is them who make life in Mali now impossible. Also in Bamako people start feeling the approach of the conflict and such conversations in a taxi show the rising tensions and fear.

The N’dola case and the reaction in the communiqué of the Malian government, its partial presence on social media, relate to the complexity of the actual moment of the conflict situation in Mali.

First, the fight against terrorism as it is internationally labelled, is not very successful. It seems that the armed groups that follow an Islamic ideology, such as Kaatiba Macina and  Kaatiba Serma in Central Mali, are gaining terrain. Although officially denied, there seems to be an attempt by the government to get into dialogue with these Jihadi groups. Local negotiations between armed groups (mainly of Dozo and Jihadi pointure) have been on-going in local settings now for a year or so with more and less success. The peace agreements (or rather cease-fire) that followed such local negotiations, for instance in Bankass, and in the cercle Niono, may be understood as a local success, but at the same time they legitimize the presence of the Jihadi groups in the region. As Boubacar Ba, a Malian researcher and head of the NGO Eveil, recently commented in a social media post, there is a diversity of such agreements, that are difficult to place under a common umbrella. After such agreements it seems that the Jihadi groups can define the rules. Some parts of Mali are now living under Sharia Law.

Les accords varient très souvent (…) Ces accords sont un vrai labyrinthe pour certains et peut être une aubaine pour d autres. (Boubacar Ba, Novembre 2021, post qui circule dans les groupes WhatsApp)

Secondly, it is also the moment of a discussion that is turning around geo-political dynamics. The call of the Malian government, the junta who took power via a coupe d’Etat in August 2021, to seek help of the Russian private security company Wagner has moved the (inter)national positions. It is a follow-up of the debate  around the retreat of France’s troops. France has been the subject of protest and critique by the Malian Government and part of popular discussion in Mali, so far concentrated in Bamako, where in various protest marches the people carried placards demanding the retreat of France. This sentiment is fed by the position of the Malian government who, via the rhetoric of the prime minister Choguel, is ventilating its discontent with the decisions taken in the Elysée. These discussions happen at the moment the Junta tries to postpone the promised elections to move Malian government back to civil rule. Recently ECOWAS imposed sanctions on the Malian government, amongst others to urge them to organize elections.

A third factor is the human rights situation in Mali. The army is regularly accused of acts that violate human rights. The army denies it commits atrocities. Although to obtain hard proof seems difficult, there is enough evidence that in some cases also the Malian army did not keep to the rules of war.

These three reasons make that the narrative around N’dola has to be handled carefully. For the Malian government it comes at a highly volatile situation with the French troops retreating from Mali, and the advancing Jihadi occupation of the country. That explains why they would rather not be associated with such war crimes as happened in N’dola that may further undermine their credibility also in international circles. On the other hand the narrative of N’dola may also fuel further polarization and (ethnic) violence. The N’dola case should be understood with all such consequences, but it should be known to the public. The article published by Studio Tamani on 9 November has broken the (partial) silence around the situation in the cercle de Niono. This blog post hopes to do the same.

Peace pacts in Mali: Fragile pockets of peace or ‘peaceful’ colonization by Jihadi groups

Camp for displaced people in Sénou, Bamako @Sjoerd Sijsma, 2021

Since 2016 violent conflict in Central Mali has taken the lives of at least 6,000 people and has led to the displacement of at least 350,000 IDPs towards the South (Sikasso and Koutiala ). and towards relatively quiet places in Mali, such as Sévaré, Sokoura, Sofara. The violent scene is defined by an amalgam of militia, with religious vocation, the jihadi, or based on traditional organization, like the Donzo. These militia also organise around ethnicity as is the case with Dana Ambassougou that are mainly Dogon, or the Fulani militia. Other parties are the national Malian army (FAMA) and international intervention forces (Barkhane, G5, MINUSMA). The military interventions have so far not resulted in less violence, instead the past year was more violent than any year before. Large parts of Central Mali are left in a governance vacuum, as the State is practically absent and local leaders often also had to leave.  

A possible response to the violence is the creation of local peace pacts. On social media these pacts are announced, defended and discussed. International and national media discuss these pacts often in a hopeful manner. I will try to understand the balance between peace and violence that these pacts create in the area and how this relates to the consolidation of power of the Jihadi and other militia as seems to be the tendency in Central Mali.

Figure 1: Civilian fatalities Mali; ACLED reporting

Figures on the casualties of this war are diverse; I also share statistics with a Malian in the diaspora who follows the conflict via his informants in Mali and double checks all figures. His estimation for death since 2015 is that over 6000 people have died, and as he adds these are modest estimations as many cases could not be double checked; he fears that the real figures are higher.

Alerts: Jihadi expansion

An alert message from the reporter ‘enfant de Bankass’ circulated in Whatsapp groups on the 6th of January 2021, in which he states that the communities of Bankass search for protection with the Jihadi groups, who have ‘invaded’ the area. He says that with the arrival of the military regime (after the coup d’état 18 August 2020) the population had hope, but this hope has gone and there is no other solution than to surrender to ‘the enemy’. Also his analysis points us to the fact that the entrance to Mopti, a capital city in Central Mali, may become accessible for the Jihadi groups. This has however, not materialised after he wrote this post.

Lettre ouverte à M. Le président et vice- président.

Alert maximum
M le président Ba  N'Daou, le vice président GOITA. Il se passe des choses dans le cercle de Bankass, des choses extrêmement grave car le volcan qui va détruire Mopti est en ébullition hier à Ségué.
Les 12 communes du cercle de Bankass capitulent une après une et signent des accords d'allégeance aux terroristes pour survivre. De Baye à lessogou, de Ouenkoro à soubala tous aujourd'hui sont sous le contrôle des terroristes. Sur les 12  communes du cercle de Bankass 8 ont déjà signé l'accord de capitulation. Les 4 autres le feront bientôt si rien n'est fait et ouvriront le boulevard au terroristes jusqu'à Mopti. Parmi ces communes il y'a celle de Ségué qui constitue un verrou stratégique. Situé entre les communes du cercle de Tominian à l'ouest, celle de Tori au sud et Bandiagara au Nord, Ségué est le verrou stratégique  dans la protection du cercle de Bankass et de Bandiagara.
M. Le président et vice président si Ségué tombe, les terroristes auront la liberté de circuler de  Baye à Dimbal et de Ouenkoro à Ouo dans la plus grande liberté et contrôler l'axe koro Bandiagara qui n'a que trop souffert déjà. Ils seraient à la porte de Bankass qui ne pourra résister longtemps. Si Bankass tombe Mopti tombera à coups sur.
Jadis existait une unité FAMAs basée à Ségué qui assurait la protection du plateau Dogon jusqu'à la limite du cercle de Tominian et Bandiagara au Nord. Unité qui a quitté au grand désarroi des populations.
M. Le président et vice président, voilà 8ans déjà que les groupes d'autodéfense ont résisté, combattu et repoussé les terroristes. Près de 8 ans les enfants de la quasi totalité des communes du cercle de Bankass ne vont plus à l'école. Pendant 8 les greniers, les maisons, le bétail sont systématiquement brûlés, détruits et / ou emportés. 

M. Le président deux généraux sont déjà passé à la tête de l'exécutif régionale sans prendre au sérieux la situation du cercle de Bankass. Les conséquences sont indescriptibles. Comment organiser des élections dans ces conditions avec l'absence totale de l'Etat dans ces localités. Les préfets, les maires tous ont été contraint d'abandonner leurs localités. 

La chute de l'ancien régime et l'arrivée des FAMAs au pouvoir avait suscité d'immenses espoir au sein de la population du cercle de Bankass qui pensait enfin voir le bout du tunnel. La déception fut à la taille de l'espoir. 

M. Le président et le vice président il est encore temps. Il est encore temps de déployer des forces pour combattre et récupérer le cercle de Bankass. A ce rythme bientôt la région de Mopti et Bandiagara ne seront plus le Mali et la suite sera incontrôlable. 
 Vous êtes avertis.

Attention, attention le volcan est en ébullition. 

L'enfant de Bankass

Already in 2017 two districts in the Inner delta (Dialloube, Tenenkou) were occupied by the Jihadi groups (see blog post Moodi), and 2017 till now have shown an increasing influence of these Jihadi groups in the Hayre (Douentza-Hombori region) and the region of Mondoro (towards the border with Burkina Faso). In fact, Jihadi rule almost all Central Mali (Mopti Region and parts of Segou Region), with exception of the larger cities. Recently violent attacks in more southern regions, such as Sikasso and Koutiala, seem to announce a next phase in the increase in Jihadi power in Mali. 

Figure 2: Attacks in the South
figure 3: Reaction to the post in fig 2, in the WhatsApp group of V4T

These discussions on the V4TA WhatsApp group and other message that circulate on social media confirm the southward movement of Jihadi attacks, and responses of Donzo; indicating that the tensions and the politicization of ethnicity is on the rise and moving from the Centre to the South of the country.

Who are these men in the bush?

A first question we need to answer is who are these Jihadi that apparently become increasingly powerful? In another text I explained how from dispersed organized militia gradually Katiba Maasina emerged with Hammadoun Koufa as its leader. Hammadoun Koufa who is part of the collaboration between various Muslim groups that operates in the Sahel and Sahara, JNIM (Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’, support group for Islam and Muslims), who assigned Central Mali to him. Other armed groups pledged allegiance to Hammadoun Koufa and today Katiba means the organization of groups of young men in the bush, from where they control vast areas, and attack military targets, and kill people who they define as traitors. If possible, they will hold a trial for these people in their own Sharia Court, and then decide if they be executed or can go free. They promise the population protection if they adhere to their rules, hence pay zakat and follow the Sharia. Then relative calm can return to the regions. The majority of the Jihadi fighters are Fulani, who joined these groups out of frustration with past injustice to their community, the insecurity situation from both FAMA and Donzo actions and the absence of the state in their home areas after the conflict broke out in 2012 (see a text from 2015). One of the returning arguments of the Jihadi groups, also phrased in the preaches of Hammadoun Koufa is that they fight against the State and the invaders (the French). They say not to touch the population except by bringing them the right faith. Their violence is directed at the FAMA and international intervention forces and all those who collaborate with them.

Herder-Farmer opposition?

In the presentation of the conflict today the main military adversaries of these Jihadi groups are the Donzo militia who also partly joined forces with the FAMA. So far, they have not been able to drive back the Jihadi groups: instead their actions have been very violent and directed against civilians, of specific ethnic origin (mainly Fulani). The FAMA have also been accused of being biased/racist in this conflict in that they target civilian Fulani more than other ethnic groups. This has resulted in the explanation of the conflict in ethnic terms, often presented as a farmer-herders conflict. However, if we consider the development of these livelihoods over the past decades in which they have both become mixed livelihoods economies, the farmer-herder opposition is too simplistic to understand the violence we are facing today. Other factors are also important; such as the changing ownership of cattle into the hands of rich urbanites and politicians, the expansion of farmland into the originally pastoral areas (and vice versa), and the lack of ‘good’ governance in the fragile political situation of Mali. The farmer-herder opposition is hijacked in a fight over resources of various kinds, and of access to land by two rival groups; the Donzo vis-à-vis the Jihadi groups. Accusations of being Jihadist also target ordinary citizens. Attacks lead to retaliatory attacks and this has been the basis of the increasing violence.

Fragile peace agreements

Peace in Central Mali seems to be farther away than ever. Local agreements have been embraced as one of the ways to get out of the violent conflict in Mali. This search for peace has been monopolized by Non-governmental organizations and (inter)national associations. Such as  Henry Dunant Centre (Humanitarian Dialogue) (HD), who have been working in Mali since 2011 and already worked on peace agreements before the conflict erupted in 2012 in the north of Mali. HD works with the hypothesis that the basis of the conflict is the antagonism between farmers and herders. In January of 2021 they have concluded a 4 months process to reach peace-pacts in the cercle of Koro by signing three agreements on resp. 12, 22 and 24 January. A fourth agreement was concluded on February 7, in the district of Bankass. The negotiations were between representatives of Fulani (herders) and Dogon (farmers) communities, armed groups and some leaders. These agreements were in fact a re-do of agreements concluded in 2018 but that in the meantime did no longer hold. Also, the associations Tabital Pulaaku, Gina Dogon, the Carter foundation based in USA, and Promediation based in Paris have been working on similar agreements in the Seeno. 

Such negotiations result in pockets of (temporary) stability, occasioning the return of economic activities, such that markets are able to resume functioning or that farmers can work their fields. However, the fundamental question is whether these peace pacts that are signed between the leaders of the ethnic communities, in presence of a local representative of the government, really stop the war between Donzo, Jihadi and other militia and the FAMA? In other words, I fear that these pacts are too limited to be effective and they do not address the core of the problems. 

This month, March 15, another pact was signed with the mediation of the NGO Eveil. After long negotiations the region of Niono in Mali returned to a situation of no peace-no war after a period of violence. An agreement was signed between the two warring parties in the region and this time they included the armed groups explicitly: the Donzo and Jihadi groups. The representative of Eveil explains the peace agreement in a social media post of 15 March, as a pact between the Jihadi groups, who in the post are labelled the Mujahedeen, and the Donzo. Both groups –  in their own violent way – kept the population in hostage and made normal economic life impossible. The agreement was negotiated by NGOs and local leaders. Representatives of the Malian State were not actively involved. The Donzo asked the Jihadi groups to accept that women were not obliged to be veiled in public, that the Donzo can wear their outfit as they wish, and that there will be free movement for the population to work the land. On their turn the list of demands of the so-called Mudjahedeen was long: One of the demands was that the FAMA, the Malian army would leave the contested area Farabougou, a village that was kept hostage for a long time by them; they also asked that the Donzo stop their violent and exploitative acts (hence accusing them of those); they insist to practice the Zakat and Sharia; they also state that every act that reveals a sign of betrayal of their cause will be punished. There was no agreement to disarm the militias, nor was there an agreement on the possibility of the Fulani who fled the region to return to their villages. 

C’est un début de solution. Comme on le dit mieux vaut une paix précaire que l’absence de paix’ was the conclusion of the representative of Eveil, Boubacar Ba. He also gave an interview to RFI in which he stated that the State has to accept that Jihadists are strong in some parts of the country. Boubacar Ba seeks a possible solution in the recognition of juridic pluralism in Mali, as he stated during L’Autre forum de Bamako (février 2021, annexe 2021).

Fragile peace, for how long?

Are the recent pacts and agreements ‘for peace’ the start of a solution and for whom are they a solution? On March 22 a message, from the forum ‘Le Pays Dogon’, was forwarded on social media questioning these ‘peace pacts’ (see figure 4). They warn for the influence that the ‘peace pacts’ have on the rest of the region where the Jihadi groups also gain influence. They also state that if these ‘peace pacts’ will have no result in terms of freedom of movement and reduction of the violence, the population may in the end be forced to join/support militias again; hence increasing violence instead of diminishing it. These are the opinions of people who post in Dogon sites and groups. It might not be the opinion of the Fulani groups. In the groups that I follow closely Pinal Pulaaku, or Tabital pulaaku I did not yet come across an analysis of these ‘peace pacts’.

figure 4: evaluating the peace pacts

Positive is that the ‘peace pacts’ bring relative calm to the region and indeed as a colleague who works on the peace pacts in Mali told me, people return to the markets and can travel from one place to the other. However, the question is if everybody feels represented in these pacts. The root causes of the problems are not tackled. The pact must move to cease-fire between FAMA, the Jihadi and Donzo in order to have real calm, security and serenity. This would allow for the urgently needed huge investment in the regions to turn the peace pacts into something sustainable, to build a trust relationship with the state, and make the population feel that they are citizens with rights. 

However, these ‘peace pacts’ also mean that in practice the state and the regular army (are forced to) give partial control over the region to Jihadi militia. The state seems to rely on the Donzo as a counter force. They seem to be incapable of providing security and cede control to non-governmental forces. It is also remarkable that they do not seem to care that NGOs are playing ‘diplomacy’ in a non-governed space.

Another important point to raise here, and that was discussed by Moodi on the site htpps://www.nomadesahel.org, is whether the domination of the Jihadi groups will in the end lead the population to give in and follow the Sharia. If the state does not show its presence and there is no return of state governance to the areas, the population will have no other choice than to radicalize. Such radicalization is difficult to undo. 

This latter scenario will lead a large part of Mali into a de facto Islamic state- regime, that might have the ‘approval’ of a lot of people who have lost faith in the Malian state and do not expect any good or justice from that state. For them the ‘peace pacts’ may become a ‘peaceful colonization’ by the Jihadi groups. Whether this is a solution for a better future, I really doubt.

The proposal of Boubacar Ba (see above) could be considered as a way forward in the peace negotiations. He proposes to accept pluralism in law and incorporate the Islamic regime as a form of co-management of society. The negotiations about peace, according to Ba, should be as inclusive as possible. This would mean co-managing social, civil and community issues by involving the councils of the ruling families, the family units and ‘the people of the bush’ , e.g. the jihadi, through the cadis and paralegals. Indeed Muslim rules have been one of the juridical systems in central Mali at least since the 19th century under the Diina. However, also the Diina, was subject to revolts from within the population. I read the proposal of Ba as a call to dive deep into the history of the region, and to listen to the population. But such ‘listening’ should be inclusive as well.

‘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.

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?