Although communal violence between Tuareg and farming groups already existed, the severe droughts of the 1970s and 1980s were aggravating factors.
Many Tuareg fled Mali as a result of the extreme weather events and, upon their return in the late 1980s, sharp competition over land further strained the farmer-herder relations. A further issue was the incompatibility over land rights, in which the nomadic Tuaregs were in favour of communal property rights, and farming communities preferred private property rights.
During the Tuareg rebellion of 1990-1995 many farming communities in northern Mali formed self-defence militias. Conflicts often involved indiscriminate attacks on civilians associated with either Tuareg rebels or self-defence forces.
From early 1991, the north of Mali saw a gradual rise of communal conflicts opposing Tuaregs and self-defence forces of farming communities such as the Songhoi. The conflicts often involved land disputes and mutual suspicions. Drawing on inter-communal and racial tensions, these conflicts often involved indiscriminate attacks on civilians associated with either Tuareg rebels or self-defence forces (see Tuareg Rebellion in Mali). In 1994, different self-defence units merged into an organisation called Mouvement Patriotique Ganda Koi (“Ganda koi” literally meaning “land owner” in Songhoi), which officially disbanded in 1996 along with the last active Tuareg rebel group (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, 1997; Hershkowitz, 2005).
Insecurity and sectarian politics in northern Mali
Different factors contributed to the eruption of communal violence in northern Mali. Most apparently, the army’s indiscipline and failure to provide security for northern communities motivated violent responses by both, Tuaregs and farming groups. As renegade elements of the army were indiscriminately attacking and displacing civilians in the North, some farming communities profited from goods and resources left behind by fleeing Tuaregs stirring resentment amongst Tuareg communities. On the other hand, the lack of security in the North provided the opportunity for Tuareg bandits to raid famers and traders, prompting the creation of self-defence forces, which, in turn, got involved in indiscriminate retaliation against Tuareg civilians. This antagonism was reinforced by the perception of the government as being sectarian in favour of farming communities, in some cases even providing weapons to self-defence forces (Keïta, 1998; Humphreys & Mohamed, 2003).
Drought, agricultural encroachment and land disputes
Farmer-herder relations were further strained by the expansion of cultures onto pasture land, some of which had been abandoned by Tuareg pastoralists during the severe droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, when many Tuareg fled to Algeria and Libya. As they returned to Mali in the late 1980s, these herders entered into sharp competition over land and land legislation with farming communities: The Tuaregs were in favour of communal property rights in line with their mostly nomadic lifestyle, whereas farming communities - who had been privileged by past land laws - promoted the extension of private property rights. Given their privileged status, they were afraid of the concessions, the government would make if the Tuareg rebellion was to succeed, thus providing an additional incentive to fight Tuareg groups (Keïta, 1998; Hershkowitz, 2005).
It is however worth mentioning that the relations between farmer communities such as the Songhoi and different Tuareg insurgent groups varied in function of their economic interdependency. Tuareg groups having close business relations with Songhoi famers and traders, for instance, were much less likely to attack these (Keïta, 1998).
Eventually, the Tuareg rebels engaged negotiations with the Ganda Koi in late 1994 and several accords were signed throughout 1995. The Ganda Koi officially disbanded in 1996 along with the last active Tuareg rebel group. They have however been involved in new attacks on Tuareg communities in the wake of renewed conflicts in 2012 (HRW, 2012).
Negotiations between Tuareg rebel groups and the Ganda Koi began in November 1994 and were largely organised by community groups. Several accords were reached throughout 1995, providing for the coordination between Tuaregs and farming communities to prevent banditry and demilitarise the north of Mali. These efforts were encouraged by the Malian president Alpha Oumar Konaré and backed by military operations to suppress the violent activities of community self-defence forces. The Ganda Koi officially disbanded in 1996 along with the last active Tuareg rebel group (Lode, 2002).
Demilitarisation and local peace agreements
Several factors contributed to the demilitarisation process. Firstly, the Government of Mali was able to regain control over its army and to withdraw troops from the North, which had been involved in human rights abuses. Mixed patrols were put in place with a more humanitarian role, facilitating food distribution and engaging in consultations with local communities. Secondly, the Malian army dissociated from anti-Tuareg self-defence units and conducted several operations to suppress their violent activities. The Tuareg rebels, on the other hand, were weakened and financially exhausted by their fight against the government. Lastly, local communities were encouraged to take responsibility for the peace process in northern Mali, leading the way to a series of self-managed inter-community meetings, the creation of localised peace agreements, and the resolution of local land disputes (Keïta, 1998; Lode, 2002; Humphreys & Mohamed, 2003).
Nevertheless, renewed Tuareg insurgencies in 2007 and 2012 have led to the resurgence of farming community self-defence units, such as the Ganda-Izo and the New Ganda-Koi (HRW, 2012).