Last weekend, unidentified gunmen massacred villagers in Bankass in the Mopti region of central Mali. Those killed – the toll has now crossed 150 including women and children – belonged to an ethnic group called Fulani. The gunmen were reportedly dressed in traditional hunting gear of the Dogon, a group that has been involved in ethnic conflict with the Fulani.
The Fulani are largely Muslim and the conflict has been violent following the emergence of Islamist groups in the last few years. Days before the latest attack, a group affiliated to the al-Qaeda had killed 23 Malian soldiers days earlier. Now, militia of a Dogon group have been blamed for the massacre of Fulani villagers; while the group has denied responsibility, the Mali government has banned it.
Dogon and Fulani
The Dogon have lived in the central plateau region of Mali for centuries. They follow settled agriculture and traditional religious practices, and are often identified by their mask dances. There have been various estimates for their population, most of which put it at less than 1 million.
The Fulani, also known as the Fula people, are the largest ethnic group in a massive region that spreads across West Africa and parts of Central Africa, with most estimates putting their population at 30 million, and some counting over 40 million. While they are widely dispersed, the Fulani also include the largest nomadic pastoral community in the world, about a third of their population. These largely Muslim herders have at times come into conflict with settled agricultural communities, such as the Dogon in Mali. In Nigeria, too, similar violence has been reported between Fulani and settled farmers.
Rise of conflict
In Mali, Dogon people have often accused the Fulani of bringing their cattle onto their farms and destroying their crops. Although this has led to violence at times, competition over resources was frequently resolved by negotiation, BBC News reported. After militant Islamist conflict began in northern Mali in 2012, and spread to central areas by 2015, the region began to be marked by more instability.
A report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch said that over 200 civilians were killed in communal violence in 2018 in the Mopti region alone. Groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State have exploited such ethnic rivalries in Mali, as well as in Burkina Faso and Niger, to boost recruitment and render vast swathes of territory virtually ungovernable, Reuters reported.
The Dogon, who have often been victims of militant attacks, suspect the Fulani of aiding these outfits. This has led to the emergence of Dogon resistance groups. The Fulani have often accused the government of arming these groups, which is denied by the authorities.
The group that was outlawed following the massacre calls itself Dan Na Ambassagou, which means “hunters who trust in God” in the Dogon language. It was created in 2016 and came to prominence last year. Dan Na Ambassagou has frequently denied accusations of involvement in a number of the attacks on the Fulani last year, BBC reported. In the wake of similar allegations after Saturday’s attack, Dan Na Ambassagou denied these in a statement: “We have nothing to do with this massacre which we utterly condemn. Anyone can wear hunters’ costumes, they are available in the markets.”
The Human Rights Watch report notes that some Fulani community members, too, formed a group called the Alliance for the Salvation of the Sahel (ASS) last year, to protect Fulani from armed groups in Mali and Burkina Faso. While Dogon militia accuse the ASS of links with militant Islamist groups, the ASS denies this.
Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has banned Dan Na Ambassagou and also sacked two generals: chief of staff Gen M’Bemba Moussa Keita and chief of land forces Gen Abdoulaye Coulibaly. The presidency said that “the protection of the population remains and will remain solely in the hands of the state”. The BBC described this as the government “distancing itself from allegations that it has outsourced the fight against the jihadists”.