politics

Jihadists Close Mali Schools as Revolt Against State Flares

Updated on
  • Almost 400 schools have shut as militants threaten teachers
  • Analysts say local support for Islamist campaign increases

When Islamist militants came to his village school and threatened to kill the teachers if they didn’t leave, Moussa Diallo wasn’t surprised.

“They’d already been to nearby villages,” Diallo, a 33-year-old teacher, said in the central Malian town of Sevare, where he has lived since the gunmen’s visit. “They said they don’t want French schools anymore. They want Koranic schools.”

Malian soldiers on patrol

Photographer: DAPHNE BENOIT/AFP

Almost 400 schools have closed in central Mali since Islamist militants expanded their area of operation from the desert north, where they settled in the aftermath of a 2012 insurgency, toward the more densely populated regions of Segou and Mopti. Scores of soldiers and United Nations peacekeepers have been killed in ambushes in an area that has a population of 6 million. Today, there are more attacks in the Mopti and Segou regions than in the five northern regions combined.

While it’s been five years since a French military intervention quashed the revolt in northern Mali that was fueled by the collapse of the government in Libya, the increasing number of attacks in central regions highlight the instability of the West African nation. The campaign of violence and intimidation hasn’t only spread to neighboring countries; it’s gaining support locally from those who feel marginalized by a government they perceive as ineffective.

Murders, Kidnappings

“Central Mali is now a priority,” said the governor of Mopti, Sidi Alassane Toure. “There’s been some hesitation in the past because all eyes were on the north. We’ve lost ground and the terrorists have had time to settle.”

Mali’s government has been struggling to assert its authority since it was elected in 2013 as the insecurity keeps officials from returning to their posts. Murders and kidnappings of state representatives increased last year, according to the UN, citing an ambush targeting the president of the nation’s High Court and the abduction of the head of a smaller court.

Less than a third of public-worker posts in Mali’s northern and central regions were filled as of late last year, the UN said. That’s left a vacuum militants exploit by establishing Islamic courts and collecting taxes, according to analysts and government officials. 

One of the most influential home-grown militant groups in the Mopti region is the Macina Liberation Front. Dominated by the Fulani, the biggest ethnic group in central Mali, it merged with three other organizations last year to form the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

Local Grievances

The MLF is tapping into grievances among the Fulani, who typically herd cattle, that are rooted in disputes over access to land and the way the state has historically handled inter-communal conflicts, said Amadou Degueni, director of education for the Mopti region. The Fulani feel particularly stigmatized, but there are many others with grudges against the state, he said.

“What we’re seeing is a revolt against the authorities,” said Degueni. “These are people who feel they never derived any benefit from the state. It’s different from the north, where it was about independence. This is a protest against the system.”

Militants organize prayer sessions in small villages and tell people to stop paying taxes to the government, said Fatou Dieng Thiam, who heads the UN mission’s office in Mopti. “Then they threaten every symbol of the state: teachers, administrative officers, mayors.”

Read More: Islamic State, al-Qaeda Support Fuels Attacks in West Africa

The government says it can only enable officials to return by increasing its military presence, which it plans to do this year. There are already more than 13,000 UN peacekeepers in the country, and a West African military force will be stationed near its borders.

Military operations aren’t enough to pull Mali from the “deepening quagmire,” according to Corinne Dufka, West Africa associate director of Human Rights Watch. Many villagers have welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups because they see them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with abuse, Dufka said in a report on the group’s website.

Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of rights violations by Malian forces trying to counter the presence of Islamist armed groups, and says army abuses are fueling the cycle of violence. Mali’s government has rejected the accusations.

Koranic Schools

Improved governance and investments that benefit local economies are also touted by authorities as part of a plan to restore stability. During a visit to Mopti last week, Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said he’ll consider integrating Koranic schools into the national education system. Presidential elections are scheduled for July in which President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is expected to seek a second five-year term.

Such changes are needed if Mali’s government wants to restore its credibility, said Degueni. “In the past, a judge would come to a village and simply do as he pleased. That has to change. We need a state that’s more empathetic.”

(Adds second term for president in penultimate paragraph.)
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