Fractured communities pave the path to peace in Mali

Dogon women in the village of Begnimato, Mali, 2007. (Credit: Begnimato Mali/Keystone/EPA/Nic Bothma)

Three new peace agreements have been signed between warring communities in central Mali in a significant step towards bringing stability to a region wracked by conflict.

Representatives of the Fulani and Dogon communities, which reside in the vast circle of Koro region in Central Mali, signed the series of agreements after months of mediation on the ground led by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) - a Geneva-based organisation which has operated in the country since 2011.

The herder and farmer communities, who first signed a peace agreement in 2018 but have since been trapped in escalating conflict between armed groups, have committed to ensuring the free circulation of people, goods and livestock, while condemning the escalating violence in the region.

An area that has witnessed many of the bloodiest attacks in the country in recent years, Koro is only entered regularly by humanitarian groups, United Nations patrols and the army. Under these latest agreements, the representatives have pledged to encourage their communities “to work for peace by forgiving past acts and spread messages of cohesion and calm”.

Why is this important? The move has been hailed as an important step towards reaching peace in one of Mali’s most unstable regions, where historic tensions over access to land and water have escalated into violent clashes between armed groups since 2015.

“Through these agreements, the communities affirm that they are weary of conflict,” Abdelkader Sidibé, HD’s head of mission for the Sahel, said in a statement. “Four days after the signing of a first agreement, the Fulani, for the first time since 2018, were able to access the market of Koro. This was a first and powerful sign for communities who previously did not dare to be in each other’s presence for fear of starting incidents between them. The support of the Malian authorities will thus be crucial in consolidating these new achievements.”

Rising tensions. There have been conflicts between the Dogon people and the Fulani herders for many years, typically over resources and land disputes. But these intensified following the uprising in northern Mali in 2012, which brought instability, weapons, and a lack of government control that spread to central Mali by 2015.

The Dogon, who were victims of militant attacks, accused the Fulani of aiding the jihadist groups that became increasingly prolific in the area, while the Fulani accused the Dogon self-defence groups that emerged of being armed by the government.

Despite a peace agreement being brokered between the communities in 2018, local HD mediators witnessed rising tensions over the past two years, with theft of cattle, loss of free trade and movement, and escalating violence taking a toll on civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, 202 civilians were killed in 42 incidents in the central Mopti region in 2018, and 37 people, including women and children, were killed in an attack in January 2019.

Community-led peace. With the situation becoming increasingly serious, community leaders from both sides approached local HD mediators to start peace talks late last year. The latest agreements are the result of four months of talks between local leaders and members of the community, including women, youth and armed actors - who were consulted to ensure they do not view the agreements as a threat and are therefore more likely to respect them.

Alexandre Liebeskind, HD’s regional director for Francophone Africa, told Geneva Solutions that not only are these agreements vital for bringing stability to the area, but they also serve as examples of how wider peace processes should and can be conducted across the country, where rising conflict is causing concern among agencies on the ground and international actors.

“These agreements do not substitute a political agreement between the states and their respective insurgencies, but they show us to what extent you can actually achieve compromise between the parties, between the community, and between their respective self-defence groups or armed groups,” he explains. “And they pave the way to make bottom-up, fully inclusive peace processes involving community leaders…while in the meantime allowing communities to somehow extract themselves from the conflict.”

A roadmap for future processes? HD is currently engaged in eight similar local conflict mediation processes in Mali, which will hopefully replicate the success of those between the Dogon and Fulani communities.

Although the circle of Koro region is just one area of the vast country, Liebeskind explains that these locally-led, representative processes are the answer to bring peace to a fractured Mali.

“Our strategy is to try to pacify the centre of Mali by a multiplication of such agreements, so it inspires other processes and other community leaders [to engage in mediation],” he says. “It is the path to peace, and I do believe that communities are the key to restoring peace - not only in the Sahel but in Africa.”

The deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Sahel region is deeply concerning, with the UNHCR reporting last week that two million people have been internally displaced by the violence. 850,000 Malians have also taken refuge in neighbouring countries, but these latest agreements will hopefully allow many to return home. Liebeskind explains these latest breakthroughs reflect a growing readiness among communities to bring an end to the conflict.

“There is a profound trend within communities in the Sahel to say 'we need to re-learn, somehow, to live side by side, and we are interdependent, and we need to find a way to manage our disputes peacefully',” he says. “This is all the more true in an environment where climate change and demographic growth puts a huge strain on natural resources and on the capacity of states to deliver social services. So cooperation between communities is all the more important. ”