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.


Bizarre Mali


Motor-cycling by night in Bamako @Mirjam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciphering Radicalisation: Misuse of a concept

boukary2012-11-16 12.52.41

Douentza 2013 @Boukary Sangaré

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

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

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

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


internet image of Fulani

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

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

Poverty and Youth: a recipe for change in Mali?


Sheep along the road in Bamako @Mirjam, mob phone

El-Eid Tabaski in Bamako
It is Friday 9 September and I am sitting in a taxi that takes me through traffic-congested Bamako. Sheep are packed along the roads, waiting to be eaten during the Muslim feast of Tabaski on Monday, 12th. People are in town to organize this feast: to get their hair done, buy new clothes, and buy sheep. Bamako is busy. Yesterday, the driver of the 4W-drive big car of the organization which invited me, Groupe Odyssee, funded by the Dutch Embassy, was complaining. Sheep are expensive and clothing the family is almost impossible, but one has to do it. The taxi driver this Friday is shouting as he navigates through the city – at the moto taxis, at the pedestrians who do not watch out, at the congested roads, and the bad roads. And then at each roundabout he calls some children hanging around to give them a kind of millet cookies. He explains: it is Friday-sadaqa, a gift for those who do not have anything on the holy Friday, the Muslim prayers day.The children are twins, from poor mothers. I see poverty not only at these roundabouts. More than I remember (but memory is a tricky thing) young people are sitting along the roads, doing nothing, while many others are doing small jobs, carrying heavy loads, selling nil, trying to make a living. Bamako is full and more (young) people are coming every day. The mountains are no longer green, the bush is replaced by houses. Houses that are shacks. But also, as in every town in Africa, big houses of those who do well. They do well despite the war, and despite economic difficulties. The contrast pains.


shops along the road @Mirjam, mob phone

It is war in Mali. One can feel it and one can see it in Bamako. The occupation of the North in 2012 has deeply affected the city. Especially the attacks that followed after as a direct consequence of the situation in the North. Hotels are barricaded, soldiers are on the street, military is visible everywhere. But this feeling is especially fed by the stories and the analysis made by friends and colleagues. They do not see much good in the government. The president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) is becoming dissociated from the people. The last actions to clean the city are just an example. The déguerpissement of the sides of the streets, sweeping away the small shacks that are the shops and workshops of (often young) people who have no jobs and try to make something out of nothing every day. They lost to make place for the Summit de la Francophonie to be held in Bamako in 2017. People are angry about this and see their vote for IBK go up in smoke. He does not do much for them.

Urban youth protest! 
Recently (mid-August) one of the most popular radio-journalists and public figure was arrested: Ras-Bath (Youssouf Mohamed Bathily). He was arrested because he was telling the truth about the situation in Mali, questioning the actions of the government. Ras-Bath has his own radio show ‘Carte sur Table’ and is extremely popular among young people. When he was arrested many youth from Bamako went to the street to support him. Facebook was invaded with support messages. The government is not keen on demonstrating youth and the demonstration was oppressed with two young people killed. Subsequently the mobile internet connections were shut down.

Boni Youth
Early September another event reached the headquarters of the international press: Boni, a small town in central Mali, was occupied by ‘jihadists’.The story is a little fuzzy. Apparently the military had retreated from Boni, leaving it in the hands of the population. The youth groups, so-called Jihadists, who have their camps in the region, took their chance to manifest their power and ‘conquered’ Boni… for a few days. The military finally took it back. Instead of questioning what happened and who these young military, associating clearly with jihadist movements, are, they are coined as terrorists and will be trialed if they can be arrested. But indeed, who are these young men, part of the youth population of Mali?

Disgruntled youth
In another blog and a publication of Boukary Sangaré, we tried to find out what is behind these stories other than criminal acts and terrorism. They are also part of the disgruntled youth, who form more than 60% of the Malian population and who feel that there is not enough attention for them, that they are forgotten. The Boni youth have a pastoral nomadic background. Pastoral nomads in central Mali feel marginalized and indeed their livelihood is threatened by shrinking pasture areas, difficulties related to ecology, and now the insecurity in the region. These pastoral youth have no real future within their own livelihood and tend to search for other possibilities, among which the Jihadist movements.

Mali is expected to be one of the youngest nations in the near future, with more than 60% of its population younger than 25. They need a future. Although the Boni and Urban youth seem to differ a lot, they do share conditions of life and the impossibility to build a future: feeling (and being) marginalized, no employment, poverty. Changing ministers in the government will not help to solve these problems. NGOs and international programs propose as one of the solutions the creation of employment for the youth. This sounds as a possibility to relieve part of the problem, but as so far shown creating jobs is not easy in a poverty economy. Furthermore, even when young people are invited to give their take on the solution of the problems in international forums or discussions organized by NGOs, these are often not the illiterate youth from poor urban neighborhoods, or  from pastoral nomads communities.

Life continues
And while poverty and youth mingle, multiple billions are spent on the UN peace mission in Mali that dominates and creates the city today, and the Malian government will spend lots of money on the reception of the Summit de la Francophonie in January 2017. The (educated) elites profit from the NGO machinery that was set in motion. The sheep will be killed, many children will not be dressed as they should have been for Tabaski, although their parents tried their best. The youth will quell a whole history of frustrations with another tea. When will the youth be invited to join the negotiation tables?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Fulbe nomads' movement' @Boukary Sangaré

Fulbe nomads’ movement. Photo: Boukary Sangaré

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

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

Ahmadou: a nomad leader in Mali


Ahmadou overlooking Bamako.

Ahmadou’s first call to me (in Holland) via mobile telephony was in 2007. He called from this ‘remote’ place in Central Mali where until that time telephone connections were impossible. Ahmadou had never traveled further south than Douentza. Only in 2012 he traveled to Bamako, the capital city of Mali, to visit me there as it was impossible for me to go to Douentza or Boni because of the conflict and chaos in the region at that time. Anno 2015 he is a regular traveler to the south, involved in politics around the conflict, and he calls me at least twice every week. Ahmadou’s life has changed profoundly both as a consequence of mobile telephony and of the 2012 conflict.

I have doubted for a long time whether I should present Ahmadou as a counter voice in this blog. Ahmadou is an old friend. He herds our cattle in the Seeno, that is the southern part of the 2012 occupied zone, then called Azawad. Ahmadou and his family became deeply involved in the conflict despite themselves, but irreversibly so. Ahmadou’s role as a leader in these changes has turned him definitively into a counter voice. I described the (re) union of the Fulani nomads in a former blog. And it did not stop there.

Some background information about Ahmadou: he was born around 1960, we are age-mates. We first met in 1990, when I started (together with Han van Dijk) an ethnographic research in Serma, the hamlet that also serves as a meeting and service point for the nomads during the rainy season, when they work their millet fields. In November, after the harvest, many nomad families leave the region to search for pasture areas further away. Ahmadou’s father was our host. We got to know the family well and when we finished the PhD research we decided to buy a cow to establish a long relationship with the family. And that is what happened. Friendship and cows are intimately related in Fulani life. Ahmadou’s father passed away in 2010 and Ahmadou became head of the family; together with his brothers he continued to manage the family herd (including ours). Ahmadou married two wives. He has 8 children. One son (the eldest son of his second wife) was sent to the Koranic school, quite a rare decision for nomad’s children. The other sons herd cattle and camels and work the fields during the rainy season. His daughters have all married within the family group. They continue to live close to each other. Ahmadou’s mother lives with him, her eldest son. So far Ahmadou’s life is the life as expected from a Fulani man, except for the son in the Koranic school.

Ahmadou and his new phone.

Ahmadou and his new phone.

…or a leader?
Ahmadou also took another decision in his life. His father was head of the family group, responsible for administrative matters, and mediator in case of conflict. Ahmadou followed his father’s path and also became lineage leader. He took his task a little heavier than his father had done and developed into a politician, with good relations with representatives of different parties, who he called regularly. Finally he chose to follow one of the opposition parties. Here, he deviated from the Fulani elites. In that period he also bought land in Boni (the town near his rainy season camp) to build a house. His aspirations were changing. His son in the meantime returned from the Koranic school as a Muslim teacher (Mallam). Gradually Ahmadou positioned himself as more than a lineage leader, he became intermediary to national politics, and also developed ideas that went beyond the ideas of the Fulbe elites, whom he increasingly considered extensions of the State. He did not expect any good from the State that for him represented basically oppression and impossibilities: the forest service did not allow them to exploit the resources they needed, the hospitals are far away, the police acted against them, etc. Ahmadou was reinforced in his idea that the Malian State was not really ready to support the Fulani nomads, and he did not expect much help from the Tuareg. He experienced the presence of MUJAO (a Jihadist group) as more protective and providing security than the others.

2012-11-14 16.45.43In that atmosphere Ibrahim Moodi approached him in 2012, to help him establish a movement of the Fulani nomads. At the same time he realized that joining the jihadists would not be a good future, hence he embraced the idea for the Fulani nomad’s union and became one of the leading figures in that meeting and organization. The meeting was held in autumn 2014, and afterwards he and two others (among whom Ibrahim Moodi) went to Bamako to meet with UN, EU and others. They returned to Boni with some hope, but when nothing was done for them, they became a little desperate. Instead of any help, they experienced increasing insecurity, criminality, and in fact complete absence of any security in the region. Other Fulani groups started to organize themselves in self-defence groups (see short vodcast made by Boukary Sangaré). Ahmadou and Ibrahim kept quiet and continued to believe in a dialogue.

BurgukoobeShocking April 2015
Their trust in a future was crushed by the events of April that really left all in shock. On 1 April the police were attacked in Bulli Kessi, the village of Ibrahim Moodi. As a counter act the police (most probably afraid for Jihadists) killed three young Fulani men, who were accused of being Jihadists. Shortly after, on 3 April, the police, this time in Boni, were attacked again and two civilians got killed. On 7 April the gendarme/police came to Serma where they arrested 18 men, among whom were Ahmadou, Bura (secretary of the Fulani movement), and some young men, who they all accused of being Jihadists and possible attackers of the police. On 11 April Ahmadou, Bura and three of the young men were transferred to the prison in Sévaré/Mopti. The others had paid considerable sums to be free. In Sévaré they could hardly communicate with the authorities, nor with the police (language barrier), and they did not in the least understand why they were arrested. They had nothing to do with these attacks and tried the dialogue way; also, they were convinced that it is better to keep out of the Jihadist movement. The arrest was experienced as a violation of their rights; the deaths of the three young men in Bulli Kessi as a direct attack on the Fulani nomad community. After negotiations and no clear evidence against them, they were allowed to leave and headed back to Boni/Serma. Intervention by MUNISMA (the UN mission in Mali) led to the replacement of the policemen by ‘northerners’. MUNISMA and the European Union did send a humanitarian mission to do research on the situation, also after alert mails from Boukary, Han and myself. The Fulani-case is taken very seriously by these organisations. They should regret their lack of action after the call of the Fulani leaders last November, though. (More about the April events in this article by Boukary Sangaré.)

Fighting for his people
When Ahmadou called me last week from Bamako, where he was to ‘arrange’ all kinds of things, he made it clear to me that the replacement of the policemen was indeed an improvement: he could at least communicate with these men, but in order to keep them as friends he had to ‘pay’ them. Order had returned somehow. Nevertheless, he did not trust the situation: another attack against them could be expected soon; he also suspected his elites to be behind all this, as they are in league with the Malian State. The beginning of a trust relationship that Ahmadou and Ibrahim had tried to establish crumbled to nothing. Ahmadou now felt obliged to come to Bamako, to fight for an honest treatment of his people, leaving the cattle in the hands of his sons, despite the bad quality of the pasture this year. It has certainly become clear to him that he cannot expect any substantial aid and support from the Malian State.Mirjam and Ahmadou in 2012.

Mirjam and Ahmadou in 2012.

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.