YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Mali’s bishops have expressed concern that an ethnic conflict in the country could be manipulated by Islamist groups.

Fighting between the nomadic Fulani and the farming Dogon communities has continued to escalate, and the bishops of the African country say they are worried this could spell doom for a country already suffering from continuing jihadist attacks.

“We are worried because of the instrumentalization of conflicts between the Fulani and Dogon peoples in the center of our country,” said Bishop Jonas Dembélé of Kayes, the president of Mali’s bishops’ conference.

The Fulani are mostly Muslim, while the Dogon follow traditional beliefs, although some have converted to Christianity or Islam.

Both groups are minorities in the country, with the Fulani making up about 17 percent of the country, and the Dogon just over 6 percent. About 90 percent of Mali’s population is Muslim, while 5 percent are Christian, with the rest following indigenous beliefs.

Dembélé noted that there had always been tensions between the Fulani and the Dogons, fueled mostly by scarce resources such as land, wood and water, but the advent of jihadist groups in the north of the country in 2015 has further escalated the tensions, leading to bloody attacks.

The latest was on Jan. 26 in Sokolo, when 26 paramilitary police officers were killed by suspected jihadists.

As armed jihadists carry out raids in central Mali, the Dogons have organized self-defense groups to counter the attacks.

The country’s bishops fear that the sporadic attacks could degenerate into an inter-ethnic war.

Last week, France announced it would reinforce its 4,500-member military contingent in the Sahel region. These new troops will be in addition to the 220 reinforcements already announced.

France is the former colonial power in the region, and earlier this month French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad to discuss the security situation.

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has appointed former acting president Dioncounda Traoré as his representative for the center regions of the country. His mission will be to restore peace amongst the communities and build trust between the communities and the government.

In his first press conference, on Jan.23, Traoré said population expansion and scarcity of resources lay at the root of the inter-communal conflicts, but noted that such conflicts had always been resolved through cultural, religious and social values, which he claimed are unfortunately now being lost, triggering an uptick in conflict.

“Unfortunately, due to the abandonment of the values underlying these socio-cultural mechanisms by current generations and also and above all due to poor governance, the failure of the State, many of whose representatives had become true predators – the agents of water and forests, gendarmes, police, customs and administrators – and ransomed the populations,” Traoré said.

“Justice was badly administered… Unresolved conflicts have multiplied, frustrations, resentments and grudges have painfully accumulated, worsened and exacerbated creating a situation of continuous and compressed violence which should erupt at the first opportunity,” he told journalists.

He said the “the gradual withdrawal of the state, or even its total absence in certain areas,” provided fodder for the growth of inter-communal violence in Mali.

“The hour for settling old conflicts has struck, generating intra- and inter-community violence which was quickly to lead to the creation of militias, self-defense groups, some of which will evolve rapidly as to their initial vocations,” Traoré said.

The country’s bishops have condemned “the growing violence that terrorizes your daughters and sons, on your streets, on your roads, in your schools, in your fields, in your squares and even in your media, especially on your social networks.”

The remedy, the bishops said, is ensuring that development flows to various parts of Mali, with the provision of social services, and the equitable distribution of natural resources.

Cardinal Jean Zerbo of Bamako said the bishops have committed to praying for the nation and called for that fraternal love among the citizens.

“We must all cultivate brotherly love by being threads and needles to sew our social fabric in favor of the new Mali of which we all dream and where, once again, peace and stability prevail, by ensuring that the scars do not lead to revenge, but rather to draw lessons,” Zerbo said. “We need peace and stability.”

The Mali bishops’ warning comes just a week after the Catholic bishops in Niger and Burkina Faso also warned against inter-communal conflicts in their countries.

The arid Sahel region – located at the borderland between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa – has been plagued by attacks from various Islamic groups, including some aligned with Al Qaeda and Islamic State, for years. Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have been particularly affected.

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