An overnight attack this past Sunday in central Mali left nearly 100 people dead. An additional 19 villagers were reported missing according to the Malian government, but numbers are likely to increase as authorities continue to investigate. The casualties belong to a traditional village, Sobame Da, primarily home to the Dogon ethnic group. Ethnic tension, exacerbated by the flow of arms and prevalence of Islamist extremists allied with Al-Qaeda and, in some cases, the Islamic State, has increased in the region since 2013. No group has claimed responsibility for the massacre according to the Washington Post, but sources such as Reuters and TIME suggest the attackers likely belong to the Fulani ethnic group. The conflict between the Dogon hunters and Fulani herders is part of a longstanding history but has increased in recent years, particularly after a March ambush left more than 150 Fulani people dead.
The Malian government points to “armed men, suspected of being terrorists” as having “launched a murderous assault on this peaceful village.” The UN Secretary-General condemned the attack, sharing his “outrag[e] by reports that at least 95 civilians, including women and children, have been killed and many injured,” and called on Malian authorities to investigate and “engage in intercommunal dialogue to resolve tensions and differences.” The mayor of the Sangha district, where the attack took place, told Reuters that only 50 of the 300 village inhabitants were accounted for the following day. Mahamat Saleh Annadif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Mali, told reporters, “Everyone is responsible […] The situation has passed the threshold of tolerable, and it is time for the nation to wake up.”
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has implemented some crisis response measures; MINUSMA’s security personnel in central Mali will be redeployed to support the Malian Defense and Security Forces to provide additional protection, and the UN Mission will respond with increased air assistance in support of Malian authorities. MINUSMA currently works to promote human rights and support Malian judicial investigations. The UN Secretary-General emphasized the need for non-violent responses to the attack, calling on all parties in the state to “show restraint and […] refrain from retaliatory acts.”
While rhetoric aimed at easing tensions and responding peacefully is more productive than physical retaliatory responses to such events, more direct action may be necessary to de-escalate the ongoing violence and address the conflict’s origins. For example, disarmament and measures aimed at reducing the flow of arms may reduce lethality of the ethnic conflict: a report issued by the UN Secretary-General in May suggested a response to the arming of ethnic self-defence groups and proliferation of arms in central Mali, lest there be a “high risk of further escalation that could lead to the commission of atrocity crimes.” Restructuring of UN peacekeeping missions to protect civilians may also be necessary to apply international pressure and reduce casualties. International actors could also bolster refugee programs and temporary residential areas to assist those who have lost assets and basic necessities in the ongoing conflict.
While international actors such as the US, France, the EU, and the UN have advocated for greater attention to human rights in Mali, human rights violations and ethnic violence persist. The latest attack in Sobame Da and Islamist militants’ increasing influence in Mali underscore a need for greater international attention, particularly with regards to the armament of extremists and human rights violations.