I’m writing an academic paper about the Malian legislative elections that took place back in March/April. While writing, a few details have caught my eye, and here is one that’s worth its own post: the name Marcelin Guengueré appears on the list of elected deputies (.pdf, p. 65). He is at the top of the list for the Koro cercle/district in Mopti Region. Most constituencies in Mali elect one deputy, but a minority of districts elect a party or multi-party list of between two and seven candidates. Koro is a four-member district. Guengueré and his three fellow candidates were elected on a list called “Le Mali Qui Bouge” (“Mali That Moves,” or perhaps “Mali in Motion” would be better) and also called “Alliance Amakéné.” The list was independent of the major parties,
Guengueré has also been the spokesman for Dan Na Ambassagou or “hunters who trust in God,” a network of hunters’ associations primarily from the Dogon ethnic group. Dan Na Ambassagou emerged in late 2016 after the killing of a prominent hunter named Théodore Soumbounou. A good starting point for background on the militia is Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report “We Used to Be Brothers,” which contains a sub-section on Dan Na Ambassagou. The group was also widely and credibly accused of perpetrating the notorious March 2019 massacre of ethnic Peul/Fulani villagers at Ogassagou and Welingara, also in the Mopti Region. The Malian authorities tried to dissolve it afterwards, but Dan Na Ambassagou’s leadership defied them, and the group has continued to exist in some form.
The conflict in central Mali cannot and should not be reduced to one of inter-ethnic tensions, but Dogon-Peul violence is one axis of the violence and Dan Na Ambassagou is both a product and an accelerant of that dynamic.
I actually met Guengueré and interviewed him in Bamako in June 2019. Maybe I will write the full story some time. As I was walking in to meet him, he was on the phone saying to someone, “We are not genocidaires,” a line he repeats in this interview. Guengueré has repeatedly described Dan Na Ambassagou as a Dogon self-defense militia and a continuation of past Dogon self-defense efforts, but I at least found some of his rhetoric against the Peul – and about the Malian state – pretty hardline.
In the Malian press, commentators raised concerns about Guengueré and his list during and after the elections. On the eve of the second round in April, one commentator wrote that Dan Na Ambassagou and other armed movements had openly backed Alliance Amakéné, encouraging their supporters to vote for the Alliance and even restricting other candidates’ access to parts of Koro – a combination of mobilization and intimidation, in other words. That report identifies Guengueré as the ex-spokesman, rather than the current spokesman, of Dan Na Ambassagou, but the report also suggests that the line between the Alliance and the armed group is blurry at best.
Another member of the Alliance, Hamidou Djimdé, walked a fine line when describing the relationship with Dan Na Ambassagou in this interview:
What is the connection between your list and Dan Na Ambassagou?
There are many conflations on that subject. We did not solicit any form of support from Dan Na Ambassagou. And we have not had any support from Dan Na Ambassagou.
Marcelin Guenguere was the spokesman for Dan Na Ambassagou. When we decided to throw ourselves into the race, certain [militia members], in a voluntary capacity, decided to protect us during our movements. These were acts of reconnaissance. They said that when had defended them when they needed it and that it was a duty for them to pay us back.
This was far from the only relationship between candidates and militias during the elections – even opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé relied on protection from militias while campaigning in the Timbuktu Region, before he was kidnapped – but it is hard not to read Djimbé’s statements as a bit self-contradictory.
Is Guengueré’s victory a product of war? One analytical distinction I’ve made between the north and the center is that in the north, the leaders of key militias tend to be longtime politicians, whereas in the center, it has seemed to me that the armed groups have a more bottom-up character. Scanning over Guengueré’s career, or at least the snippets of it visible online, I don’t think I could say simply that militia activity moved him from the margins to the spotlight. After all, unless I am somehow confusing him with a homonym, Guengueré appears to have run for parliament, unsuccessfully, in the immediate past elections in 2013, garnering some 16% of the vote in the first round. He also appears to have been a minor presidential candidate in 2018. 16% isn’t nothing, suggesting Guengueré already had a political network and/or a political constituency prior to the emergence of Dan Na Ambassagou. And there have also been recurring allegations that politicians in Bamako channel financial support to Dan Na Ambassagou, meaning that the shorthand of “hunters’ associations” for describing the group may not capture the whole picture of what this force really is. I wonder whether there is not a broader story to be told here about the interplay of political ambition and militia formation in Koro, in Mopti, and beyond.