Last month, a Dogon militia massacred 160 Fulani near Bankass in central Mali, more than 1000 km from Bamako. Condemned by the international community, this incident led the Malian President to sack two generals and dissolve Dan Na Ambassagou, the group suspected of originating the attack. Amid growing pressure on insecurity in the country, this event also contributed to the resignation of the Malian government on April 18.
Traditional hunter associations (donzo ton) have played an increasing role in contemporary West African politics. In the 1990s, they emerged in northern Côte d’Ivoire when the state proved unable to confront rising criminality and fought alongside government troops in Sierra Leone. Traditional hunters have also been used to protect unstable borders or fight against poaching in natural parks in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. In recent years, as Thomas Basset has shown, hunters associations have become more politicized. Far from limiting themselves to assisting dysfunctional states in restoring order, they can also take arms against states if the political situation deteriorates.
Very little is known about the Dan Na Ambassagou militia, whose name translates as “Hunters who trust in God” in Dogon and who denies the attack. Some commentators have argued that the development of religious extremism in central Mali has fueled the attack. Ethnic militias, they argue, increasingly target Fulani populations, which they accuse of supporting jihadist groups, such as the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) run by Amadou Koufa, now affiliated with the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).
The local roots of conflict
The development of religious extremism is obviously not the only cause of violence in Central Mali. Conflicts have many causes, which combine differently in different regions. In what follows, I argue that more attention should be paid to the local factors that can potentially explain why ethnic militias develop in this part of Mali. The recent history of Central Mali shows that periods of contraction resulting from the withdrawal of nomadic and sedentary groups are followed by periods of trade or agricultural expansion.
In the Séno-Gondo plain, where the massacre of Ogossagou and Welingara took place last month, the expansion of the Fulani in the 19th century led Dogon farmers to withdraw from their villages on the plain and adopt defensive settlements in the Bandiagara Cliff. In the 20th century, the descendants of these farmers have moved eastwards to fill the void left by the Fulani and have given rise to an agricultural front that they regard as their original lands.
The Bandiagara Cliff at Banani. Source: © Walther (1996)
The Fulani expansion
The Dogon arrived in the Bandiagara area in the 15th century and dispersed into relatively autonomous communities that colonized not only the Bandiagara cliff and plateau but also the vast plain of Séno-Gondo, a sandy area east of the cliff that provided fertile ground for cereals, abundant water resources and nutritious wild fruit. Some of the oldest Dogon villages were established in the Séno-Gondo plain, such as Diankabou, whose language (diamsay) is still considered as one of the lingua franca of the Bandiagara Cliff and Séno plain. This first colonization of Séno-Gondo followed a principle common to many pioneering fronts of West Africa according to which land belongs to the first people to establish an inalienable agreement with the deities of the place.
The Séno-Gondo plain and the village of Nombori. Source: © Walther (2001)
This agricultural expansion was short-lived. In 1818, a Fulani conqueror named Seku Amadu founded the Empire of Massina (Diina) and a new capital, Hamdullahi, located southeast of Mopti. The Massina Empire gradually extended from Segou in the south to Timbuktu in the north. Like many other precolonial political formations, the Massina Empire maintained fuzzy peripheries where pagan peoples were either converted to Islam by force or enslaved.
The Fulani used their cavalry to raid the Dogon plateau and the plain of Séno-Gondo, destroying the crops of the farmers and enslaving the local populations. In response, the Dogon built spectacular fortress villages in the Bandiagara Cliff, a World Heritage site listed by UNESCO in 1989. Those who remained in the plain of Séno-Gondo became the serfs of the Fulani (rimaïbé). Further north, in the Hombori Mountains, the warriors of Seku Amadu also tried to impose Islam by force on the Dogon populations, who took refuge in perched villages or in the surrounding bush.
Hombori Tondo, the highest point in Mali (1155 m). Source: © Projet Hombori (2003)
The Dogon could hardly count on their military strength to defeat the Fulani. Instead, they allied themselves with El Hadj Umar Tall, a Toucouleur conqueror from Futa Toro in the valley of the Senegal River who conquered the city of Hamdullahi in 1862. El Hadj Umar Tall’s nephew, Tidjiani Tall, settled in Bandiagara where he ensured the fidelity of the Dogon. The French arrived in the region in 1893 and supported the Toucouleur in their fight against the Fulani of Massina. The fall of the Massina Empire and subsequent French colonization allowed the Dogon to resume their expansion in the plain of Séno-Gondo at the expense of the Fulani. The small city of Bankass near Ogossagou and Welingara quickly became a market where Toucouleur families settled.
Colonization and the Dogon expansion
Soon after having created the administrative Cercle de Bandiagara in 1903, the French tried to prevent the Dogon from migrating to the Séno-Gondo plain. The colonial administration feared that the local political chiefs would lose control over the population and would no longer be able to collect tax. France, however, never had the means to counter the Dogon migration and merely counted the migrants at their village of origin until 1958, which minimized the magnitude of the migratory movement towards the plain in the colonial demographic statistics.
During this second colonization of the Séno-Gondo plain, the Dogon reclaimed the lands their clans possessed before the Fulani conquest of the 19th century. Numerous families left what was known at the time as the Old Dogon Country to settle in the New Country east of the Bandiagara Cliff. As the maps of Jean Gallais show, each of the old Dogon villages developed a colonization corridor roughly perpendicular to the cliff. The villagers of the Togo clan of Kani, for example, established Kani-Kombolé at the cliff’s foot before settling a few kilometers away from their village of origin in the direction of Bankass.
Some parts of the plain were more favorable than others to agriculture. In the north, the sand of the erg of Séno-Mango was too deep to allow access to the water table and agriculture only occupied the cultivable land near the cliff. In some other parts of the plain, as in the Bankass region, the agricultural expansion was also encouraged by a handful of fortified Dogon villages that had resisted to the Fulani.
New and old village of Téli, Bandiagara Cliff. Source: © Walther (2001)
Agricultural rivalries today
The independence of Mali in 1960 did not challenge the colonization of the Séno-Gondo plain by the Dogon. While the Bandiagara Cliff became known as a tourist destination, the plain transformed into an agricultural front where competition for land and water between farmers and herders was increasingly fierce. Weakened by the Toucouleur, the Fulani of the Séno-Gondo plain were divided by internal rivalries and never managed to contain the demographic and economic expansion of the Dogon. As a result, they progressively lost most of their cattle and turned to agriculture or small livestock that could be raised around the villages. Politically, the Fulani could also not match the political support that the Dogon found at all levels of the state hierarchy.
In recent decades, the Dogon migration from the cliff towards the Séno-Gondo plain has intensified due to demographic growth. New crops have replaced the pastures of the Fulani, whose way of life is now threatened by a lack of investment in the pastoral sector and recurring droughts. The presence of the Malian state in the region has also diminished as insecurity in the center of the country increases. This explosive context encourages ethnic militias to capitalize on the fear of religious extremism to promote their local objectives. As Robert Bates noted a decade ago “When states are stable, property rights are secure; when states begin to fail, citizens turn to other sources for their protection”. Armed militias such as the Dogon “hunters” exemplify how state failure can lead to an increasing ethnicization of violence. This is hardly new.
The current militarization observed in Mali is unlikely to provide a lasting response to these conflicts, whose roots lie in the power relations between local communities. In the Séno-Gondo, as elsewhere in Mali, the beginning of a political solution involves the reestablishment of state and community institutions capable of guaranteeing that farmers and pastoralists have equal access to land resources, education, and political representation.
More than 40 years after its publication, Jean Gallais’ Pasteurs et Paysans du Gourma. La Condition Sahélienne (CNRS, 1975) remains an indispensable reference on the spatial organization of the Inner Niger Delta and its peripheries.
More recent studies include Véronique Petit’s Migrations et Société Dogon (L’Harmattan, 1998), Jean-Christophe Huet’s Villages Perchés des Dogons du Mali (L’Harmattan, 1994), our own work, and Bénédicte Thibaud’s study of the Gourma in Les Cahiers d’Outre-Mer, 2011. On the Hombori Mountains, see the Hombori Project website and our own work.
Olivier Walther, April 24, 2019.