Mopti, Mali | AFP | Untroubled by time, the mighty Niger River glides through the Sahel city as women wash their clothes in its brackish waters and cows slumber nearby in the heat.
But this peaceful image is an illusion, for Mopti, a city of 150,000 people, is on a dark, downward spiral.
Not too many years ago, well-heeled foreign visitors flocked to the so-called Venice of Mali.
They would spend a couple of days here before heading towards the cliffs of the Dogon country to gape at its fabled cave-dwelling community or tour the region’s exquisite 19th-century clay-walled mosques.
But the flow of tourists, along with their precious currency, has dried up.
The jihadist conflict that erupted in northern Mali in 2012 has swept into the country’s centre, igniting a tinderbox of ethnic resentment and stoking fears for the future of this fragile nation.
Today, Mopti finds itself surrounded by a sea of conflict and criminality that has left thousands of dead. According to UN figures, as many as 70,000 people in the region have fled their homes.
The once-tranquil regional capital is haunted by displaced villagers who have sought a haven from conflict. Unemployed tourism workers survive doing menial jobs. And others have their own well-founded reasons to crave the anonymity of the city.
– The shepherd’s secret –
One such person is Ibrahim, a 45-year-old who pushes a two-wheeled cart through the streets, his face barely visible in the swaddling of a turban. His figure melts unnoticed into the crowds of hawkers and gawpers.
Ibrahim — not his real name — has a secret past.
Even his wife is unaware of it.
For four years, she believed that he had gone abroad to work, “for adventure,” as poor West Africans tend to say about the lure of migration.
In reality, he had joined the jihad.
The poor shepherd became a gunman with the Katiba Macina, a ruthless Islamist group founded by radical Mopti preacher Amadou Koufa.
Koufa is a Fulani, from an ethnic group also known as Peuls, who are scattered across the Sahel and have deep traditions of nomadic herding.
One day, jihadists came to Ibrahim, who is from the Songhai ethnic group, as he was grazing his sheep near the family’s encampment.
“Fight and enforce divine sharia law, and you will be well paid” was their promise.
Struggling to feed his six children on his meagre income, Ibrahim agreed. “I was so poor I couldn’t refuse,” he timidly says today.
The jihadists paid him 300,000 CFA francs ($507, 457 euros) a month — 20 times what he earned before.
But the fortune came with a price.
His job was to kill.
Over the next four years, he attacked villages and murdered “lots of people”, in his words.
– Eyes of the jihadists –
Three years ago, Ibrahim deserted.
But he cannot return home for fear of reprisal from his former comrades in arms.
He has changed his name and lives anonymously. He earns a few francs by delivering goods with his pushcart, but every day dawns with dread.
The tentacles of the jihadists are reputed to be everywhere.
In the city, so it is said, their eyes are everywhere, thanks to a network of informers. They have a base in a village on the northern bank of the river.
They also have a lucrative line in attacking river traffic.
“That boat goes up to Timbuktu,” says a man, pointing to one of the large canoes, also called pirogues, that ply the Niger at Mopti.
“But I wouldn’t advise you to get aboard. The jihadists board the boats, attacking travellers and stealing goods.”
Just 13 kilometres (nine miles) away in Sevare lies a base of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.
Its troops, whose numbers were beefed up in late June after violence engulfed the region, are hunkered down between barbed-wire fortifications.
Branded in everyone’s mind are memories of a bold attack in June 2018 against the headquarters in Sevare of the so-called G5 anti-jihadist force, which killed three people.
Since then, the bulk of the five-nation force has relocated 650 kilometres (400 miles) away — to the Malian capital Bamako.
– The rush to arms –
Central Mali’s disastrous shift from ethnic mosaic to conflict zone can be traced back to events in 2012.
In March that year, a coup in Bamako overthrew the government and the army collapsed.
Into the security void stepped a militant Tuareg group, the MNLA, and a jihadist ally, Ansar Dine, which rampaged across northern Mali and reached as far as the centre.
Another organisation, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), surfaced in the northern city of Gao and occupied villages in the Mopti region.
Weapons flooded into the region from the north. In the countryside terrified villagers began to organise the protection of their communities.
Fingers of suspicion began to point at the Fulani — alleged “terrorists” who suffered a wave of arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings.
The Fulani begged for help from Bamako to shore up their defences. None came, reinforcing the Fulani’s sense of being abandoned.
“The transitional government refused to provide arms, fearing that they would be used against them one day,” says Boukary Sangare, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a South African-based think tank.
“In the end, dozens went off and joined armed groups that offered protection.”
– Resentment –
The Fulani’s conviction that they had just been sold out meshed with long-standing resentment which the jihadists adroitly exploited.
In rural central Mali, a region with the lowest proportion of schooling in the country, anger flared against a government and ruling elite who scorned the nomadic Fulani as “landless”, with no ties other than to their animals.
“The Fulani were angry,” said Sangare.
“For a long time they had been complaining about overtaxation of grazing areas, exorbitant fines from the forestry authorities for the slightest bushfires, or cattle raiding and theft by bandits plaguing the region.”
In 2013, French military intervention rolled back the insurgency in the north, although the rebels were essentially scattered and not crushed.
Malian security forces then returned to the central region and carried out a wave of repression against suspected “terrorists”.
The Fulani say that many of their citizens were victims of arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings.
And in Bamako, the talk on social media and the television became increasingly anti-Fulani, heightening the community’s alienation.
“Our young people gained the impression that all Mali was against them,” said Abdoul Aziz Diallo, head of the country’s main Fulani association, Tabital Pulaaku.
– ‘Demi-god’ –
By now, the countryside was in uproar. Some herders joined small self-defence groups or cattle rustlers, while many chose to swell the ranks of what would be the Katiba Macina jihadist group.
One of them was Ibrahim, who went to the Gao area for military training before joining a camp in central Mali called a “markaz,” located in the heart of a forest between Douentza and Burkina Faso.
The hundred or so men in the camp had many reasons for joining the jihadists, from desire for money to protecting their families and for faith.
And if there were many young Fulanis among the fighters, there were also members of other groups — Songhais like Ibrahim, Tuaregs, Bellas and Bambaras.
All looked to their chief, Amadou Koufa, with adoring eyes.
Travelling preachers regularly came to the camp, where they recounted the latest “heroic” deeds performed by him.
“Koufa was a demi-god. My comrades listened to his speeches all the time on their mobile phones — every word he said, they interpreted literally,” Ibrahim recalled.
Koufa began his preaching in the 1990s, developing a following among Muslim students and herders for his fiery attacks on local elites.
In mosques and Koranic schools, he harangued the faithful in the Fulani language, seeking to emulate Sekou Amadou, a legendary Fulani who founded an empire in the 19th century that stretched from Segou to Timbuktu.
His sermons, initially universal in theme, became more radical and increasingly directed at a Fulani audience.
He lashed landowners who levied taxes on herders who crossed their land. He said that “bourgou” — a plant that grows on the banks of the Niger and is used to feed cattle — “belongs to God, just like the rain that made it grow.”
And he sought to inflame the Fulani diaspora across West Africa.
“My brothers, wherever you are, come and support your religion,” he said in a video disseminated in November 2018, accusing the “disbelievers” of “massacring and exterminating” the Fulani.
– Bloodshed –
Armed with a 36-round machine pistol, Ibraham joined a team tasked with carrying out “punishment missions” in the Douentza region.
“If a village refused to yield, if it was collaborating with the authorities, we received orders to go and kill people and burn down their homes,” he recalled.
One day, his leader, a man named Diallo, called him in. The orders had been changed. From now on, Ibrahim had to punish the infidels by cutting their throats.
Ibrahim said he did what he was told — his brain fogged, according to his account, by doses of the opioid painkiller which the jihadists dished out to their fighters.
“They stuffed us with drugs day and night. I was no longer myself,” said Ibrahim.
How many people did he butcher?
“About 20,” Ibrahim admitted, his voice shaking. “I cut their throats like they were sheep.”
Eventually, though, he said he felt sickened by what he was doing and mental images of his deeds haunt him today.
“For a long time, I didn’t gauge the seriousness of my acts. We were supposed to be putting people on the right path, but this was too much.
“At this point I decided to desert.”
– Return of the jihadists –
In 2015, the jihadists emerged from the bush in central Mali to launch a string of spectacular strikes.
They brazenly attacked an army camp at Nampala, killing 12 soldiers and wounding 34 others.
Their grip on the fractured region has grown, helped by a classic guerrilla strategy combining highly mobile fighters, who often travel by motorbike, and landmines.
Barely a week goes by without an attack on UN and Malian convoys.
Villages that are deemed to collaborate with the army are literally blockaded. No-one can enter or leave without fear of being shot or abducted. Many fields show signs of abandonment by farmers who are too scared to tend them.
Adding to this security nightmare are the tit-for-tat attacks between ethnic groups.
Around 160 Fulani died in March in Ogossagou, near the border with Burkina Faso, in a massacre blamed on a Dogon militia. In June around 75 Dogons were killed in Sobane Da, Gangafani and Yoro.
Agreements on ending hostilities in the Mopti and Segou regions were signed in early August by a dozen armed groups, but their prospects for achieving much look slim.
“With each new attack, with every burned village, resentment and poverty gain ground and the survivors join the armed groups,” a foreign diplomat in Bamako said.
– Harsh life –
Jihadists who take over villages impose their own puritanical interpretation of Islamic law.
Women are required to be covered from head to toe. Smoking, alcohol and even music are outlawed for all.
In these areas, many people held to represent the state — administrative officials, magistrates, teachers — have fled to the cities for safety.
Yet there is also respect among many peasants for the jihadists’ handling of disputes.
“If there is a quarrel over cattle or a family dispute, they decide quickly. If you are in the wrong, you pay your fine. There’s no possibility of an appeal, and no corruption,” said a local official who now lives in Bamako.
“That’s why people like them. Justice is vital for a poor person.”
Boukary Sangare, the researcher, agreed: “The jihadists are not always as unpopular as people may believe.”
Those whom the jihadists imprison or abduct can expect little mercy however.
Makan Doumbia, 62, the prefect, or senior representative of the state, in Tenenkou region, was kidnapped in 2018 after refusing for years to yield or collaborate with the gunmen.
Abducted aboard his 4×4, he was chained for nine months and endured scorching heat, sandstorms and pounding rain as the jihadists used him as a bargaining chip to free imprisoned comrades.The kidnappers said they were “at war” with the government, Doumbia explained.
“They said that the cells in Bamako were filled with their men. So when they came across government officials, they took them — they were their prisoners of war.”
He spent time in four camps, where he met other hostages, including a magistrate and a chief warrant officer from the Malian army, before he was finally freed in February this year.
“The others didn’t survive,” he said.
“At the end, I was the only one left in their hands.”