The Fulani tribes and their fondness for violence and Islamic terrorism have caused a major problem for Mali, Niger, Burkino Faso and Nigeria. The Fulani are the largest single ethnic group in the Sahel (the semi-desert zone between the Sahara desert and well-watered land to the south). There are about 40 million Fulani and more than half of them are in Mali, Niger, Burkino Faso and Nigeria. Only about a third of Fulani are nomadic herders and 90 percent are Moslem. The majority of Fulani, especially the non-nomadic tribes, are often prominent in business and politics where they have settled down. For example, current, and recently reelected president of Nigeria is a Fulani, and he has to deal with the largest Fulani population (about 37 percent of all Fulani) in Africa and the source of most current mayhem in Nigeria. The Islamic terrorist Boko Haram come in second. But while the Fulani are only about eight percent of the population in Nigeria, a smaller number (about three million) are about 16 percent of the Mali population and prominent in the growing tribal (nomad versus farmer) and Islamic terrorist violence.
The aggressive Fulani herders are the main cause of the current crises in central Mali (where most Fulani live). The herder versus farmer friction is made worse by the fact that Fulani are also the biggest supporters of the JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) al Qaeda coalition. This organization was formed in early 2017 to consolidate the many separate Islamic terror groups in Mali. In part, this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members like AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine, FLM and several other smaller groups. Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources (including information and advice) and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the region. This reduces friction and destructive feuding. Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences. The FLM is Fulani (the largest local tribal contribution) while the other groups are largely Tuareg or Arab and some have a lot of foreigners. Note that JNIM did not absorb all of AQIM groups in the area, just local groups that had long been identified with al Qaeda. The income from the drug trade keeps a lot of these factions in business and the Islamic terrorists know that business and religious fanaticism do not mix and keep it that way. Those groups that did not went broke and withered to nothing.
Internal politics for Islamic terror groups is a lot messier than these religious zealots like to admit. That’s mainly because each group believes they are uniquely qualified to be the supreme leader (or at least protector) of all Islam. Coping with this aspect of Islamic radicalism has proved burdensome and ultimately becomes a major reason for Islamic terror movements failing and fading away (via desertion and other forms of self-destruction). The new JNIM is more heavily influenced by its Fulani component and that is another reason for more Islamic terrorist attacks in central Mali, which has long been the scene of conflict involving Fulanis. Largely because of the Fulani and JNIM, there has been more Islamic terrorist activity since 2017 and that has impeded reconstruction and foreign aid efforts. Add to that the existing culture of corruption, especially in southern Mali and you have an atmosphere that is hostile to good government, national unity or economic growth. These central Mali attacks kill a lot of civilians and those civilians often belong to other local tribes (like the Dogon) and increase friction between the Fulani and the other tribes of central Mali (who tend to be farmers). Nearly all the people of central Mali are Moslem but in the herder versus farmer, religion is second to property rights.
French military support is important because the government is still crippled by corruption-driven incompetence and the growing popularity of conservative Islam among the Mali Moslem majority (90 percent). The senior Islamic clerics in Mali are opposed to Islamic terrorism, but are heavily influenced by the conservative Saudi Arabian Wahhabi form of Islam. Mali, like most African nations with large Moslem populations, has accepted Saudi offers of cash to build mosques and religious schools. The Saudis also offer Islamic clerics and teachers trained in Saudi Arabia. A growing number of these Saudi trained clerics and teachers received scholarships to study in Saudi Arabia. Sub-Saharan Moslems have not been very receptive to the idea of living according to Sharia (Islamic) law, which is what Wahhabism demands. Local Islamic clerics who regularly criticize corrupt behavior are respected if not always obeyed. One little discussed reason for the continued survival of Islamic terror groups in Mali is the inability of the government to prosecute captured Islamic terrorist leaders and even those who are convicted and imprisoned are often quietly released soon thereafter. Corruption is strongly suspected because that is how things are done in Mali.
The Opiate Of The Ruling Classes
Massive corruption is one reason why the primary drug smuggling routes to the Mediterranean coast run through Mali. This not only enriches local officials but also funds many of the local Islamic terrorist groups. Most of these Islamic terror factions would not exist except for the income provided from drug smuggling. When it comes to Islamic terrorist leaders avoiding prison, the influence of the local clerics who benefitted from the Saudi funded “Islamic charities” is also at work here. While nearly all Mali Islamic clerics condemn Islamic terrorism, they are less critical of any group that vigorously “defends Islam.” That issue is not as important in Mali where Islam is not really threatened unless you count working for drug gangs, which is unpopular with most Malians because the presence of those drugs, even though most are just passing through to more lucrative markets in Europe, causes a growing number of local addicts. This sort of thing tears families apart and ensures that these highly effective drugs will always be seen as a major threat, as are the locals who transport and distribute them.
Then there are the ultra-fanatic Islamic terrorists, primarily ISIL. Fulani belong to an ISIL faction that operates on both sides of the Niger border in the north. This groups calls itself ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) and is largely local Tuaregs plus foreigners. Most of this violence is also about who controls fertile land and water supplies. There is another ISIL faction in the region; Islamic State's West Africa Province (ISWAP), which is one of two factions of Nigeria-based Boko Haram. While there are some Fulani in Boko Haram much of the Fulani violence in Nigeria is tribal, not religion based. In Nigeria the Fulani also fight local farmers (Christian and Moslem) for control of land and water. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. ISGS and ISWAP do not appear to work together except when it comes to Internet media activities, where ISWAP will mention ISGS accomplishments. ISIL does not have effective central authority at the moment with the senior leadership still dispersed and on the run from recent defeats in eastern Syria.
The Mali government is currently under a lot of popular pressure to “do something” about the herder versus farmer violence in central Mali. A spectacular March attack by a Dogon (farmer) militia against a Fulani village left over 160 Fulani dead and it wasn’t just the Fulani who were enraged by this. The Fulani were the ones who started this violence years ago as they sought to force farmers off the land and away from water supplies the Fulani coveted. But the Fulani raids were meant to terrorize, not exterminate. The Dogon tribe, one of the larger sedentary groups in central Mali, has always been the most organized and aggressive in confronting Fulani efforts to expand south to the better watered and more fertile (for grass and crops) Niger River and beyond. After 2012 and the separatist/Islamic terrorist uprising in the north there was an increase in Fulani-farmer violence and the bloodiest incidents often involved Dogon militias fighting Fulani. Calls for the government to disarm the Dogon militias are popular at the moment but police and army commanders tell the government that attempting that would be bloody and, in the long run futile. For the Dogon, the Fulani threat is a matter of life or death while the politicians are concerned about appeasing popular outrage (which tends to fade quickly) and critical foreign media (which influences foreign aid decisions and is more important, especially for corrupt politicians who steal much of that aid.) Getting the Fulani and Dogon (and other farming tribes) to settle the land and water disputes peacefully is more difficult but is the only lasting solution.
May 5, 2019: A month after more than 30,000 people demonstrated in the capital to protest the government failure to halt the tribal violence, the president announced the formation of a new government. While more tribes and other groups are represented in the new government not much is expected to change. The violence in central Mali, mainly between Fulani and several other tribes, led to a March 23rd attack that killed 160 Fulani and Fulani leaders predicting revenge attacks. Over a thousand people have died over the last few years because of this. Mainly because of this tribal violence over 80,000 people, mainly in central Mali, have fled their homes so far in 2019.
May 2, 2019: In central Mali, there were two attacks on Dogon tribesmen by Fulani in the last 48 hours. At least 17 Dogon and one Fulani died.
April 21, 2019: In central Mali, JNIM Islamic terrorists attacked an army base killing at least eleven soldiers. Four of the attackers died. JNIM is a largely Fulani group and the Islamic terrorists later said the base attack was in retaliation of the March attack that left 160 Fulani civilians dead.
April 20, 2019: In east central Mali, near Burkina Faso border, a peacekeeper was killed and four wounded by a landmine that went off under their vehicle. There were a group of armed men ready to fire on the convoy as well but the peacekeepers immediately counterattacked, killing one of the attackers and capturing eight others.