Justice in the Sahel

How local conflicts in the Sahel-Sahara over justice, or rather its absence, get dragged into tensions between outsiders.

Image credit Gérard Bontoux via Flickr (CC).

In the long memory of most societies, the first and last obligation of the sovereign—or as we now say, the state—is justice. In interviews, I had with Fulani from the border that Niger shares with Mali, this was the dominant theme: justice, or rather its absence, and its necessity.

Across the tough ecological terrain of the Sahel-Sahara, in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, the “Fulani” are the focus of conflict. Their foes in central Mali, we are told, are the Dogon; in Burkina, the Mossi. Their enemies in Niger would be Tuareg, but mainly Tuareg from Mali (who, however, have brotherly connections in Niger).

They are seen as “terrorists,” the foot army of the Macina Liberation Front and its leader Amadou Kouffa. The impression that arises is of a vast war of the Fulani against everyone else, which might be described in an either/or fashion. Either the Fulani are the villains, because so many different peoples can’t be all wrong and they are known for being aggressive, as nomads often are; or they are persecuted in the mode of the abhorrent shared aversion that explains the plight of the Jews. One hears the two notions, though more often the latter (or a combination of both). They are difficult, or perhaps impossible to verify. They also obfuscate the fact that there are distinct conflicts in the region involving subsets of Fulani who do not have the same interests—and in so doing, they play into the agenda of outside forces who would rather have everyone enlisted in two big camps, the Jihadists and their foes, so that the Sahel could become the type of battlefield that places like Afghanistan have been turned into. These outside forces are the Salafi extremists who initially descended from North Africa (especially Algeria) in the early 2000s, and the western armies who are here to prevent them from menacing Europe from strongholds in West Africa. Indeed, western commentators often compare the Sahel to Afghanistan—dubbing it at times “Sahelistan” or “Africanistan.” But they conveniently forget how Afghanistan came to be what it is: Salafi extremists imported from Arabia, and western armies airlifted to fight them—with everyone in the area forced to choose a camp.

In the borderlands of Mali and Niger where I conducted research, the story I heard varied little, whether it was told by a Fulani or by someone from a different ethnicity. It starts somewhere in the 1970s, when rogue Malian soldiers who were rotting in idleness in their remote outposts of Gao and Kidal, took to pillaging nomadic Fulani herders from Niger. Though at first occasional and limited—in particular the soldiers were careful not to cross into Nigerien territory—this behavior started something bad. A pattern took shape of raiding Fulani for cattle, sheep and goats, in which some local Tuareg groups got involved. Via networks overseen by rogue elements in Mali’s military and administration, the animals were carted to southern Malian markets where they brought huge profits—especially since they were stolen, not bought. In sum, this was good old (if one may say) freebooting.

Later, in the chaotic context of the 1990s, where both Mali and Niger were rattled by Tuareg rebellions and unruly democratization processes, the freebooters were emboldened and started attacks within Nigerien territory. In the past, it was difficult for the Fulani herders to seek redress in Niger since everything was happening in Mali. Now, however, they were able to appeal to the state of Niger for justice and protection, especially since attacks within their home base were more devastating than those on the transhumance path. Niger’s authorities shrugged their claims off, the Fulani formed a self-defense militia, and things predictably got out of hand. A major Malian Tuareg leader was killed by the militiamen in 1997 and this set off a cycle of razzia and vendetta in the parched borderlands.

There is here, in the series of events, something rather telling. The few attempts to fix the problem—in 1999, 2007, and 2011—all came from Niger (Mali couldn’t bother). The first one was led by coup-maker Daouda Malam Wanké, who was then leading a military transition regime in Niamey; and the two other ones were both launched by high-ranking Nigerien Tuareg officials, Mohammed Anako (then head of a peace-brokering institution) and Brigi Rafini (Niger’s prime minister). To many Fulani observers, this is yet again evidence that justice for them is possible only under a military ruler (under General Seyni Kountché, in the 1980s, they pointed out, no one dared to attack them within Niger) or through the goodwill of an official with a nomadic background. In their view, democracy dominated by the sedentary ethos marginalizes herders and nomads. However, if Tuareg officials did play a positive role before 2011, the consensus today is that they are now inflaming the situation from within Niger’s most Tuareg-centric government ever, the one installed by President Issoufou in 2011. The final effort to restore peace in the borderlands failed for reasons that could partly be blamed on Niger’s government—although the main cause was the breakout, in 2012, of a Tuareg rebellion-cum-Jihadist onslaught in northern Mali. But since then, Niger turned against the Fulani, initially (2012-13) by supporting their Tuareg tormentors, ostensibly because it was seeking their assistance in its (successful) bid to prevent the northern Malian turmoil to engulf the neighboring parts of Niger—and later (since 2013) by tarring them with the label of “terrorists” and “Jihadists.” This stance of the Niger government has been solidified by its alliance with western militaries who see what is happening in the region through the prism of their experiences in Central Asia and are acting in a “you-are-with-us-or-against-us” mode. Nigerien Tuareg lobbies supportive of their brethren in northern Mali naturally take advantage of this to further corner the Fulani. Equally naturally, the latter have turned for succor to the only existing force that could provide them with arms and training, the Jihadists.

As a result of this tragedy of errors, the border Fulani, who have been seeking justice for over two decades, have been turned into the ideal enemy by Niger and its western allies—who need an enemy, just as a hammer needs a nail. In my discussions with Fulani and other residents of the borderlands Niger-side, I have heard a justification of violence that has more to do with the concept of justice than with Salafi ideals. Putting it in a political-theory terminology, the argument is that the violence wielded by the state—here via its gendarmerie, which was often approached by Fulani herders seeking redress—is legitimate only insofar as it serves justice. When it does not, it loses its legitimacy, and any violence that serves justice becomes the legitimate one. So, the state does not have, by definition—à la Weber—a monopoly of legitimate violence. It has to earn that monopoly. By killing the gendarmes who they had long hoped would be the arm of justice, the Fulani militants are not so much pursuing a caliphal utopia as calling the Nigerien sovereign to account.

Unfortunately, they are doing so in a terrain where the grand history of “the west versus the caliphate” is also grimly unfolding, and some—especially among the younger cohorts—are dragged into it.

Further Reading