Armed groups have carried out a wave of killings in central Mali since January 2017. The killings, by Islamist armed groups, self-defense militias, and, to a lesser extent, government soldiers, have resulted in at least 52 deaths, led to the displacement of over 10,000 people, and dramatically elevated ethnic tensions. Malian authorities should investigate and prosecute all those responsible.
Islamist armed groups have over the past two years progressively increased their presence in central Mali, where they have executed civilians and government officials and committed other abuses. Their presence, and recruitment of local residents, has inflamed and exploited tensions among the Peuhl, Bambara, and Dogon ethnic groups, spawning the growth of often-abusive self-defense militias.
“Violence since January fueled by explosive ethnic tensions has swept across central Mali, leaving dozens dead,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian government should ramp up efforts to stop this violence by vigorously prosecuting the killings and stepping up patrols to protect vulnerable populations.”
During a 10-day research mission to Mali in February, and by phone in late February and March, Human Rights Watch interviewed 57 victims and witnesses to killings and other abuses in central Mali. Human Rights Watch also interviewed members of the ethnic Peuhl and Bambara communities; former detainees; local government, security and justice officials; and foreign diplomats.
On February 11, alleged Peuhl Islamist fighters killed a Bambara shopkeeper near the town of Ke-Macina in Ségou region, 320 kilometers from the capital, Bamako. This sparked retaliatory killings against Peuhl villagers by a Bambara self-defense militia known as the Dozos, leaving at least 21 people dead, including children.
On February 18, armed Islamists executed nine Bozo and Bambara traders returning home from a local market for their perceived support of the Dozos. Since then, at least 16 people – both civilians and armed group members – have been killed in an escalating series of tit-for-tat attacks. Both Peuhl and Bambara villagers told Human Rights Watch that villagers were terrified as large groups of armed men have been seen driving around on motorcycles and vehicles in their villages in central Mali.
Additionally, since January, three local government representatives in Mopti region have been assassinated, allegedly by armed Islamists.
While the Malian security forces have generally acted to quell the ethnic violence, witnesses reported that in response to the growing presence of armed Islamists in central Mali, some soldiers executed at least eight suspected Islamists and forcibly disappeared several others since late December 2016.
Bambara and Peuhl community leaders lamented the violence that has gripped central Mali for the past two years. Villagers, local officials, and elders from both ethnicities said that poverty, public sector corruption, inadequate security, and the lack of investigations and justice for communal violence and criminality were fueling recruitment by armed groups.
A Peuhl youth leader, addressing the lack of justice for the many killings since early 2015, said: “In central Mali, we, the Peuhl, were the jihadists’ first victims… we’ve also lost imams, mayors, and chiefs at the hands of the jihadists, but no one talks about that.” Another said, “So many Peuhl have been tortured, disappeared or killed by the soldiers and by the Dozos, but there is never justice for these terrible crimes.”
A Bambara leader said: “Since 2015, so many of our people have been gunned down in their farms, at home, or on their way to market. We have reported this to local and Bamako authorities, but what we hear are excuses for why they don’t investigate – the rain, the danger, insufficient vehicles. But in the end, there is no justice and the killings keep happening.”
A Peuhl villager said, “To end all this, everyone must be treated with dignity; every killing must be investigated. If not, if the state doesn’t pay attention, people will continue to join the jihadists and their numbers and force will continue to grow.”
The government should investigate and hold to account those responsible for serious abuses committed in central Mali by armed groups, civil defense militias, and state security forces. It should also report on the progress made into its investigation into the May 2016 deadly communal violence near the town of Dioura, in Ségou region.
On March 2, the government announced the establishment of a 45-day commission of inquiry to investigate the violence in Ke-Macina. The commission, consisting of nine magistrates and 22 gendarmes, was given 45 days to submit a report, the government said. If it carries out its mandate credibly and impartially, the commission will be a meaningful step in seeking justice for the victims and their families.