Cattle feeding the armed groups in CAR


For many nomadic Fulani refugees from the CAR cattle has become a memory painted on the wall of their shelter @Mirjam, 2012, Cameroon

Mi tampi, mi walaa, tampere, fuu welleke’
‘We are tired, we lost everything, exhausted, all has gone’; These are just a few words that the three Fulani, one man and two women, whom we met in Bangui last week, repeated in the exchange we had in a bar at a busy road. They refer to the difficulties they have been confronted with over the past decades. I had asked for a meeting with some Fulani who fled to Bangui. A Muslim student who followed my course in Bangui was willing to make this happen. We could not meet in PK5, the quarter of Bangui where the Muslims were uniting to hide for attacks of the anti-Balaka. These attacks are no longer taking place, everybody assures me, but when I propose to go there and meet the Fulani who are displaced and live in an empty school building in PK5 I am held for a complete lunatic, ‘What.. no, no, you cannot go there’. People are still afraid that something might happen, but also the anti-French sentiments seem to be deeply rooted and may lead to difficult situations for people like me, white.


Meeting ‘displaced’ Fulani from PK5 at a bar at the road @Mirjam 201

Meeting Nomadic Fulani in Bangui
My wish to meet some Fulani was inspired by the many stories about their plight. Since 2012 we (with Adamu Amadou PhD student) are working with the Fulani refugees from CAR in Cameroon and in Chad (with ma-student Eli Doksala from Chad), and the flow of refugees and displacement of Fulani is still continuing. They have been the victim of many different armed groups, their cattle serving as a resource for these groups. Already in the 1990s children of nomads were kidnapped for ransom, later they were simply robbed of their cattle. This has now been going on for 20 years. The cattle of the Fulani seems to be  a resource as valuable as gold and diamonds. But the young Fulani men have also joined the armed groups and formed their own armed groups, apparently for their protection. The number of displaced and refugee Fulani is not known. The many we met in Cameroon and in Chad, also outside the official refugee camps, does however indicate that the situation is serious [see for instance HRW report].

The Fulani nomads in CAR
The Fulani in CAR have different origins and come from different countries. In the 1980s they moved with their cattle into CAR where there was space and grasslands, and a need for meat. They settled and now the second generation of these newcomers already has families and the third generation of Fulani nomads is residing in CAR, where they are known as Mbororo. The name Mbororo is in fact a derogatory term, it is the name of their cattle, the so-called Mbororo are many different lineages, Ali Jam, Uda-en, Wodaabe, and so on. The 1980s and first half of 1990s was a period when they were welcomed. The spaces of cattle and agriculture were well separated and the symbiotic relationship between herders and farmers was not just a dream.


Amadou in conversation with a Fulani chief in Bangui @MIrjam 2012

However, from the mid-1990s political struggles were translated in unrest in the countryside. This was intensified when in 2003 Patasé was toppled by Bozizé (with help of the French and the Chadians and the chaos in the country was only increasing. With the absence of the state any measure to enforce the guidance of farmer-herder contracts disappeared completely. The Fulani were increasingly considered an exploitable source of wealth. In the interviews Adamou held in the camps in Cameroon and the one interview we held with a Fulani leader in Bangui (December 2012) the expression of powerlessness, of not being heard and being victimized was dominant.

Fulani resistance
As there was no protection offered to the Fulani, resistance and rebellion could only be expected. Armed self-defence groups turned into bandits (Saibou Issa: les coupeurs de route: histoire du banditisme rural et transfrontalier dans le basin du lac tchad (Paris, Karthala 2010)). Baaba Ladde was the first warlord who organised a movement of Fulani and got indeed publicity for the cause. He had his base in Northwest CAR at the Chadian border. Baaba Ladde, a Chadian, directed his actions and discourse against the


Fulani (wodaabe) with her (sedentary) friend in a village between Bangui and Garoua Boulai @Mirjam, 2012

Chadian State, Idriss Déby. In fact he started his rebellion in 1998, but moved to CAR in 2008. After reconciliation talks he became a member of the Chadian government and later deserted again; then again became a civil servant in a Chadian sous prefecture. In 2014 he returned to CAR, where he was arrested in Bangui in November. He was sent to Chad in January 2015 and is currently in prison. Part of the armed forces of Baaba Ladde joined the Seleka, namely the group headed by Ali Darass, an old friend of Baaba Ladde. He ‘settled’ in central CAR and created the Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique.

Ali Darass
Ali Darass is said to be from Niger, and ‘uses’ the story of the Fulani crisis for the justification of his movement. His territory is expanding. It is alleged that he is an ally of the government and therefore not stopped; one of the rumours around this is that the president whose name is derived from a Fulani name (Faustin-Archange Touadéra), supports the Fulani and UPC. The other story is that as the UPC is not against government measures to control the conflict like the DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration). He is openly willing to support these.

And very recently a new group presenting themselves as defenders of the rights of the Fulani was born: 3R (Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation), that is said to have attacked villages and people, creating a bloodbath in November 2016 in the region North-East, the region where Baaba Ladde also had his fiefdom. This group 3R is accused of serious atrocities. However, their leader Sidiki is invited around negotiation tables and tells a different story. He denies all atrocities supposedly committed by his men.

 ‘les peuls negocient et ont de bonne comportement autour de la table’

(…) said a UNICEF employee when we were discussing the very difficult situation in CAR at the head office in Bangui (27 January 2017). Do the Fulani have a reason to resist/rebel? Also in the stories of our research in Bria, Bambari and Paoua the Fulani are very present both as rebels/resistance fighters and as victims. They have become a new military force in CAR, and are expanding their territory very fast. The seeds sown by Baaba Ladde seem to have taken a new direction in their growth over the past few months.

The Fulani nomads are filling the ranks of their generals, of 3R and Ali Darass, out of anger that their cattle is feeding other armed groups that are fighting in the CAR; this vicious circle can only be broken if the government will take control over the areas again. But that is still a dream for CAR, despite the presence of international forces mission MINUSCA .And until a solution is found the Fulani nomads will also continue to be part of the flows of refugees and displaced people who have no home but an empty school in Bangui.


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.


At the end of the world there are no visible counter voices

A refugee camp North of Zongo. Zongo is a small town at the other side of the river Oubangui opposite Bangui.

A refugee camp North of Zongo. Zongo is a small town at the other side of the river Oubangui opposite Bangui.

June 2014 – The streets of Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, are dominated by cars from the UN mission MISCA, from the Sangaris (the French military operation in CAR), from humanitarian aid organizations and from the UNHCR. They are dominantly white with large antennas that show their constant connection to their own exclusive security network. The list of organizations is long, and their number is constantly growing. CAR has become one of the most important (financial) options for them to flourish. Their cars filling the streets, their logos on the houses. Their highly qualified, often international employees fill the bars and the houses in the protected parts of Bangui. The other strangers and occupiers are the military men, on the street in tankers and in trucks or pick-ups that surveil the streets, but who have not been able to stop the violence that is still going on in PK5 and Miskine and so many other parts of CAR. On the contrary; the stories about their complicity in the violence are rampant and may have a kernel of truth. The divisions of the conflict are reproduced in the MISCA troops. The banners with the call for désarmément hide a reality of defeat. The Seleka (‘Muslim’) rebels refuse to disarm as they are afraid of counter attacks by the (‘Christian’) anti-Balaka’s.

The view on Bangui from Zongo; the smoke above the city suggests conflict, but this may be imagination.

The view on Bangui from Zongo; the smoke above the city suggests conflict, but this may be imagination.

Tourist trip in a war zone
We chose to stay in Zongo, a small town at the other side of the river Oubangui opposite Bangui. Bangui seemed so scary from the outside; an image reinforced by the sight of smoke above the town, the (imagined) noise of bullets, and by the stories of the many refugees, traders, and others in Zongo who lived through unimaginable atrocities and ugly violence. We thought it not wise to stay in Bangui where we could become victim of unexpected situations. We could, however, not avoid to go to Bangui and visit old friends and get an impression of the town under these circumstances. A curiosity that was fed by a strange feeling of fear and anxiety. Our first visit to Bangui was like a tourist trip in a warzone, and the subjectivity of our feelings is probably best illustrated by my fear for young men who were screaming at a corner with a chaotic mosaic of yellow cars. My first reaction was to get out of that place as it could be angry youth. Later we passed the same place again and then I recognized the yellow cars as taxis and the men as the taxi drivers, shouting the names of the places where they could take possible passengers. Indeed it is war in Bangui and people lived through terrible things, but life also continues, especially in those parts of town where MISCA tries to protect, along the main axes and the central neighbourhoods. But more than the MISCA effect it is the wish of people to have and regain a normal life.

At the border of the Oubangui the Congolese and Central African mobile telephony providers sell their airtime in the village of Zongo. To call Bangui from Zongo, people use Moove, the Central African Provider.

At the border of the Oubangui the Congolese and Central African mobile telephony providers sell their airtime in the village of Zongo. To call Bangui from Zongo, people use Moove, the Central African Provider.

The rules of the international community
This is a warzone, where rules are difficult to predict. Or is it an occupied zone, where the rules of the international community dominate? Rules that are part of the many stories that go around in town, of which we only heard a few. It is clear that the troops that come from different countries are not seen as neutral forces. Where the stories about complications and collaborations between the warring parties and the MISCA or Sangari forces are rampant. Where churches and hospitals have turned into Internally Displaced Persons camps. Where we meet our friends who all have their own terrible stories, but who survived and continue.

3 The UNHCR is imprinting its logo everywhere; this a at a roundabout in a small town in Congo, 100 km from Zongo where many refugees from CAR have found a shelter (in the camp and in the small town).

The UNHCR is imprinting its logo everywhere; this a at a roundabout in a small town in Congo, 100 km from Zongo where many refugees from CAR have found shelter (in the camp and in the small town).

President Deby’s place in history
A week later; I am back in the Netherlands and invited to join a discussion at the EU offices in Brussels on the situation in Chad as related to the situation in the region (Central Africa). This is another reality where situations of conflict and war in Africa are discussed by EU officials and Western ‘experts’ (among whom I find myself), but without the presence of Chadians. And where the discussions about solutions appear bizarre. The most telling idea is to support the President of Chad, Deby, in his ambitions to have a beautiful record in history for the development of his country. This is stated by one of the participants without shame and without hesitation, not considering Deby’s devastating role in CAR, his implication in the Habré regime, where at least 40,000 people were killed. So whose stability are we talking about here? Whose peace are we trying to realize? This might be a cliché, but is this not purely the interests of the West? Africa is as always the stage of the wars of the West, nowadays phrased as the war against terrorism…

Should researchers engage in policy circles?
This turn in the discussion at the EU meeting installs a doubt in me about my position as a researcher here. Do I really want to engage in these policy circles? Their measures and decisions do contribute to the situation in Central Africa where conflicts and oppressions are harsh and inscribe duress in the bodies and minds of people, hampering the realization of dignity and identity; both vital to have the capability to raise one’s voice!