What Explains The Rise Of Communal Violence In Mali, Nigeria And Ethiopia?

A mass funeral after more than 70 people were killed in a series of attacks blamed on Fulani herders who opposed a new anti-grazing law, in Makurdi, Nigeria, Jan. 11, 2018 (AP photo).


After surrounding the villages at dawn, the militias stormed in, armed with machetes and firearms. As Reuters later reported, the “gunmen left the charred bodies of women and children smoldering in their homes.”

The attack on two villages in central Mali in March, in which 170 people were reportedly killed, was shocking enough to generate international headlines. But beyond the grisly details were its seemingly stark ethnic dimensions. The militias were made up of members of the Dogon ethnic group, which is primarily pastoralist. The victims in the two villages were mostly members of the Fulani ethnic group, semi-nomadic herders who are mainly Muslim and had been accused by the militias of supporting Islamist extremists operating in the area.

This kind of violence involving communal militias, which are also often referred to as ethnic militias or “identity militias,” is increasingly common not only in Mali but in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, from Nigeria to Ethiopia. Yet with a few exceptions like the March attack, this bloodshed fails to register outside the region, where most attention focuses on the destabilizing effects of terrorism perpetrated by Salafi-jihadi groups that Western countries have vowed to defeat.

Communal violence is also widely misunderstood. The grievances behind it are often local, but they can be exacerbated by broader trends, sometimes beyond villages or regions. Several militias might claim to act on the behalf of a single ethnic group, so communal violence is not monolithic, even when it seems to pit particular ethnic groups against one another. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, or ACLED, which tracks and analyzes political violence around the world, militias like the ones in Mali are best understood as “armed and violent groups organized around a collective, common feature including community, ethnicity, region, religion or, in exceptional cases, livelihood.” ACLED is precise in its methodology and the terms that it uses. It collects data on what it calls “violent events” but, with the exception of cases in which civilians are deliberately targeted, often does not attribute responsibility to one armed group or another unless it is known. It also only describes violence as an “attack” according to certain criteria.

The attack on the two villages in Mali was not an isolated incident. In June, in a possible reprisal, some 35 Dogon villagers were massacred in central Mali, two dozen of them children. It is part of a grim trend in Mali, where communal militias were involved in an estimated 130 violent incidents last year, according to data compiled by ACLED. In 2015, there were fewer than 10 such incidents in Mali.

Nigeria and Ethiopia have seen a similar rise in ethnic conflict in that time. In Nigeria, where long-simmering ethnic violence has been overshadowed by the brutal insurgency of Boko Haram, violence involving communal militias surged from around 125 in 2015 to more than 600 in 2018, according to ACLED. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, violence involving communal militias rose from under 10 incidents in 2015 to nearly 150 last year.

Diffuse and diverse, communal violence presents a significant though often poorly understood threat to African security.

In all three countries, communal violence manifests in distinct and revealing ways, while presenting a serious challenge to security within these countries and in the broader region. In Mali, recruitment efforts by Islamist extremist groups have hardened ethnic identities, spurring calls-to-arms that are justified by self-defense and lead to retaliatory cycles of violence by communal militias. By contrast, in Nigeria, conflicts over how to manage natural resources have spiraled into attacks on civilians by ethnic militias. And in Ethiopia, communal militias largely clash with the state over lingering grievances within the country’s restive, ethnically defined federal system.

Diffuse and diverse, communal violence presents a significant though often poorly understood threat to African security, overlooked amid the threats of Islamist extremism and oversimplified as a scramble for scarce resources. Without grappling with the complex forces behind communal violence, including the political and institutional drivers that determine how resources are managed and whether communities decide to take up arms, these governments will not be equipped to address it.

Exploiting Ethnic Identities in Mali

Since 2015, more than 1,300 people have reportedly been killed in nearly 300 incidents of communal violence in Mali. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of violent incidents quadrupled, from 32 to more than 130. Roughly three-quarters of all ethnic militia activity concentrated in the central region of Mopti, the site of the village massacres in March.

Amid this spike, the nature of communal violence in Mali has also shifted in two notable ways. First, the share of violence directed at civilians rose, nearly doubling between 2017 and 2018, from 29 percent of the incidents to nearly 55 percent, with a related rise in reported fatalities from fewer than 40 to more than 315. Second, there was a more modest uptick in instances of violence between extremist groups, including Salafi-jihadis affiliated with al-Qaida, and communal militias.

These trends are largely driven by changes in activities involving Dozo militias—a catch-all category for ethnic militias representing the Bambara, Bozo and Dogon ethnic groups, as well as exclusively Dogon militias, including the Dan Na Ambassagou, a particularly well-organized and notorious militia. The activities of these militias increased in response to jihadi mobilization in the country, particularly as extremist groups moved from the country’s north toward the center of the country in 2015.

Though most foreign coverage and analysis of jihadi violence across Africa often emphasizes its transnational characteristics, local dynamics are also at play. In Mali, for instance, extremist groups have recruited from Fulani communities, adding a new dimension to preexisting ethnic tensions. Jihadi recruitment efforts within Fulani communities have successfully exploited the Fulani’s widely held grievances, including frustration over losing grazing land to a burgeoning Dogon community and anger at the Malian state for its corruption, oppressiveness and inability to provide security.

The perceived association between Fulani communities and jihadi violence has led other Dozo militias to consider Fulani communities and civilians as legitimate targets for attacks. As a Dan Na Ambassagou leader ominously told The New Humanitarian, “We will have peace only if the Fulani are not around.”

The misguided equation of Fulani communities with jihadism has deadly consequences, as the brutal March attack on two Fulani villages underscored. This ethnic violence had political repercussions too, as it led to the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government and his entire Cabinet in April, amid a public outcry in Mali over the government’s inaction. The government had tried to respond by ordering the Dan Na Ambassagou to dissolve. The group’s spokespeople denied involvement in the massacre and rejected calls to disband, suggesting instead that Fulanis and extremist rebels themselves, disguised as members of a Dogon militia, had launched the attack.

When security officers then tried to detain a leader of the Dan Na Ambassagou in the town of Koro, in central Mali, they were attacked by members of the community, illustrating some of the wider issues the Malian government faces in its attempts to respond to communal violence. The state’s weak presence in central and northern Mali makes efforts to stem the violence more difficult and has incentivized the creation of self-defense militias, which have been accused of a range of abuses, from dislodging people from their land to opening fire on villagers. Despite promises to investigate allegations of abuse, protect vulnerable communities and disarm these self-defense groups, the Malian government’s efforts have been undermined by an ongoing lack of political will and capacity. The deteriorating security situation in the country also hampers investigations of alleged atrocities.

With this lack of accountability, indiscriminate attacks on Fulani communities will only drive a cycle of more violence in Mali, facilitating recruitment by both militias and extremist groups on the basis of ethnicity, grievances and insecurity.

Land Use and Competing Livelihoods in Nigeria

Since 2015, ACLED has tracked more than 1,400 violent incidents involving communal militias in Nigeria, resulting in more than 8,000 deaths, 3,000 in 2018 alone. As in Mali, this surge in conflict came alongside a shift in the forms of violence, with Nigerian civilians targeted most of the time. According to ACLED’s data, communal militias attacked civilians in approximately 68 percent of all incidents of ethnic violence in 2018, up from 49 percent the year before.

Communal violence in Nigeria involves myriad actors and occurs across the country. The groups most commonly involved are Fulani ethnic militias, which have either been the instigators or targets of violence in more than 700 incidents, ranging across 30 of Nigeria’s 36 states and in the federal territory of Abuja. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of violent incidents involving Fulani groups leapt from 115 to more than 400, a shift that was also accompanied by a greater proportion of violence targeting civilians.

Quotidian issues of land use and resource management, particularly conflicts between pastoralists, or nomadic herders, and farmers, often drive this communal conflict in Nigeria. The International Crisis Group noted in a recent report that internal migration within Nigeria has intensified such strife. In the country’s far north, where Boko Haram was waged its brutal insurgency for years, droughts and desertification have increasingly pushed many herders to seek out new pastures and sources of water for their cattle. In addition to fleeing Boko Haram, herders have also been driven south by rural banditry and cattle rustling.

Though the federal government in Abuja has proposed long-term plans to reduce the root causes of conflict between herders and pastoralists, so far its most tangible efforts to stem the violence were two military operations and the deployment of police and military forces into northern Nigeria. At the same time, legal changes aimed at reducing tensions between farming and herding communities over land and grazing rights can have unintended consequences, contributing to rather than containing unrest.

Across Nigeria, conflicts between farming populations and nomadic herders over the use of land have fallen along religious and ethnic divides.

An anti-grazing law passed in the northern state of Benue in 2017, for example, essentially “outlaws the pastoralism practiced by many Fulani for generations,” according to the International Crisis Group. The law confines cattle grazing to ranches on land that people who rear livestock must buy. It also only permits cattle and other livestock to be moved within Benue by road or rail. The law not only raised tensions between farmers and herders in Benue, but also in the neighboring state of Nasarawa, as herders driven out of Benue by the new law found themselves in conflict with farming communities in Nasarawa.

Across Nigeria, conflicts between farming populations and nomadic herders over the use of land have fallen along religious and ethnic divides, often setting largely Muslim nomadic herders against Christian farmers. Despite its political dimensions, this pattern of conflict has hardened ethnic and religious-based rhetoric as the violence has increased. Some Christian farmers warn of “forced Islamization” at the hands of Fulani herders, while Fulani representatives have claimed that they are being persecuted “by vigilantes, rustlers and security forces.” Both farmers and herders have suggested they are the victims of genocidal violence.

Such charged accusations facilitate the spread of communal violence by weaving local disputes over the use of resources into narratives of ethno-sectarian conflict. This rhetoric also complicates peace-building efforts and creates obstacles to more effective land management, since it creates the impression that while resources can be negotiated over, identities cannot be compromised.

Finally, the impunity with which ethnic militias have been able to act in Nigeria encourages communities to develop their own militias in the name of self-defense. Though a spate of arrests in early 2018 pointed to some progress in ending impunity, these piecemeal efforts were insufficient.

Ethiopia’s Troubled Ethnic Federalism
Rising communal violence in Ethiopia reportedly killed nearly 750 people last year. It also led to the forcible displacement of 2.9 million Ethiopians from their homes as of December 2018, constituting one of the most pressing internal displacement crises in the world.

Unlike in Nigeria and Mali, however, civilians are not the main targets of most of this violence. Instead, based on the data collected by ACLED, conflict is mainly between communal militias and the Ethiopian security forces, or between militias themselves. Militias from just four ethnic groups—the Oromo, Amhara, Somali and Afar—have been engaged in roughly half of all of violence involving ethnic militias since 2015. Oromo ethnic militias, in particular, were involved in more than a third of the communal violence tracked by ACLED since 2015.

The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and in recent years, Oromo communities have engaged in massive protests over issues of land rights, inadequate government services and discrimination. The government has responded to these protests with physical repression and calling a state of emergency, hardening Oromo grievances with the state.

Oromo ethnic militias have clashed with state security forces nearly 100 times since 2015, according to ACLED. Many clashes have occurred near the border between Oromia, Ethiopia’s most-populated region, and Somali to the east. One particularly deadly clash in 2017 between the Liyu police, a paramilitary force, and Oromo ethnic militias killed more than 60 people in the town of Borana, near the southern border between Oromia and Somali. The conflict between the Liyu police and Oromo militias is an outgrowth of both land disputes between Somali and Oromo ethnic groups and Ethiopia’s troubled system of ethnic federalism.

The rise of communal violence in Ethiopia is in many ways an outgrowth of its ethno-federalist system.
That 2017 incident was one of more than 80 clashes since 2015 pitting Oromo ethnic militias against the Liyu police, based on the data collected by ACLED. The Liyu police formed in 2007 in response to an attack on an oil field by the Ogaden National Liberation Front, an ethnically Somali separatist group. Since then, both the paramilitary force and its current leader, Abdi Illey, have been accused of gross human rights violations, including torture and extrajudicial killings in Somali and Oromia.

The Liyu police’s abuses, and the Ethiopian authority’s inability or unwillingness to hold it accountable, have contributed to further escalations of violence, leading activists to call on the government to disband the paramilitary force. Though Abdi Mohamoud Omar, a former president of the Somali region and former leader of the Liyu police, was arrested in August 2018 and charged for his role in an attack at the time, he has not been charged with any crimes related to the years of Liyu police abuse committed under his watch.

Conflict with the Liyu police is not the only expression of friction between Oromo ethnic groups and the state. Between 2015 and 2019, there have been more than 1,000 protests in Oromia, with more than 700 in 2016 alone. More than 230 times, the government responded with “excessive force.” These large-scale demonstrations began in 2015 in response to the government’s plan to expand the capital city of Addis Ababa, which would have taken land from Oromia and potentially divided the region in two. Ultimately, the persistence and scale of the demonstrations were a major factor in the surprising resignation of then-Prime Minister Hailemarian Desalegn last year.

he appointment of Hailemarian’s successor, Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo politician with a reform agenda, has quelled protests since he took office in April 2018. Abiy’s democratizing agenda and peaceful overtures to the Oromo, including even hard-liners, suggest that a window of opportunity could be opening to improve the relationship between the Oromo and federal authorities, though it is not yet clear to what extent.

In addition to this violence between communal militias and the state, Ethiopia must contend with the problem of violence between communal militias. In 2018, there were more than 60 such incidents, which resulted in more than 400 reported deaths. The largest share of this violence since 2015 has also taken place in Oromia. It has fallen somewhat in the last few years, while the share of violence between communal militias has risen in other regions, particularly Ahmara and Benshangul-Gumaz, has increased. There are numerous, overlapping drivers of this unrest, including reprisal killings, disputes over land rights and shifting power balances in Ethiopia’s uneasy federal politics.

The rise of communal violence in Ethiopia is in many ways an outgrowth of its ethno-federalist system. The 1995 Constitution, which institutionalized this system, was adopted after the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front—or EPRDF, a coalition of ethno-regional armed rebels—overthrew the country’s military dictatorship after decades of conflict. Though ethnic federalism was adopted to manage Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity and ease inter-ethnic tensions, recent communal violence in the country suggests the limitations of this system.

Patterns of Violence
As these varied patterns of violence in Mali, Nigeria and Ethiopia demonstrate, communal militias hardly take a single shape. Islamist extremists might exploit ethnic identities, seeking to coopt local grievances to advance their objectives, including stoking further instability. Ethnic militias might take up arms and defend what they identify as their community or livelihood in response to conflict with government forces or threats posed by other armed groups. Communal violence can even arise over changes in the ways that resources, particularly land, are managed—or just uncertainty about those resources. In Mali, Nigeria and Ethiopia, the failure of governments to respond to persistent insecurity, whether it results from criminal activity, armed groups or state predation, also incentivizes communities to arm themselves in the name of self-defense.

At the root of all these drivers of communal violence are issues of governance.

At the root of all these drivers of communal violence are issues of governance. Professionalizing the security sector to prevent the sorts of government abuses that make militias an attractive source of security is just one of the reforms needed to reduce communal violence. Widespread impunity for state security forces and other armed groups that commit atrocities against civilians not only degrades trust in governments, it also heightens the insecurity that can fuel militia recruitment and encourage reprisals. In the absence of a state that they see as capable of protecting them, communities take their safety into their own hands.

To respond to the complicated threat posed by communal violence, states must adopt a whole-of-government approach. They should develop horizontal ties between local governments and national authorities to promote political and security cooperation and ensure that legal reforms or developments related to land and resource management in one region of Nigeria, for example, will not negatively affect neighbors in another. Many of the states struggling to contain communal violence are also weak, with limited security and policing capacity, so they need more assistance from Western countries that have primarily just provided security aid to African countries to fight terrorism and Islamist extremism.

Such measures are all the more pressing given the decentralized nature of communal militias. Because a variety of armed groups can claim to speak for and act in defense of a single community or ethnic group, brokering peace agreements with and among them would be far more complex than negotiations with a more centralized armed group.

Left unaddressed, the insecurity that communal militias foster will lead more people in Mali, Nigeria and Ethiopia to take up arms for what they see as their self-defense, with devastating consequences. Confronting this threat requires recognizing the diverse forms of ethnic violence and mobilizing the resources and political will to identify and mitigate what is really driving it.

Hilary Matfess is a doctoral candidate in political science at Yale University whose research focuses on insurgencies and gender dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa. Her work has been featured in the African Studies Review, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek and The Washington Post, among many others.