Survivors said the attackers surrounded the village of roughly 300 inhabitants, setting homes ablaze and slaughtering farm animals in an hours-long assault that also left 24 children dead.
There has been no claim of responsibility so far, but authorities suspect it was part of a series of tit-for-tat attacks in recent years between ethnic militia made up of members of the Fulani and Dogon communities in central Mali that have killed hundreds.
Yet hours after Sunday’s attack, the Dan Na Ambassagou, an ethnic Dogon militia accused of carrying out a massacre in March which left 160 Fulani villagers dead, blamed the Fulani community for the assault on Sobane-Kou and “declared an open war” to protect Dogons.
Semi-nomadic Fulani herders and settled Dogon farmers have lived side by side for centuries, but the presence of “jihadist” armed groups and a growing number of ethnic militia in recent years have inflamed tensions and led to violence.
At the same time, weak state institutions in central Mali and competition for land and water amid climate change have made things worse.
The latest attack has left the government reeling, with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita warning that his country now faces an existential crisis as he called on Malians to unite to “allow our nation to survive, because this is a question of survival”.
After the March attack, the prime minister and his government resigned amid intense criticism over the failure to deal with the deteriorating security situation. The president also ordered Dan Na Ambassagou disbanded, but the group, which has denied involvement in the March bloodshed, has refused to lay down weapons.
Analysts told Al Jazeera that unless there was dialogue between all parties and accountability for victims of attacks then community grievances would continue to flare and perpetuate the cycle of violence.
Rise of armed groups
Mali, a landlocked West African state straddling the Sahara desert and the Sahel, a semi-arid belt which runs from east to west across Africa, is home to a large number of diverse ethnic groups.
Tensions between these groups mounted in 2012 when Tuareg rebels proclaimed a breakaway state in northern Mali with heavy weaponry they had used to fight as mercenaries on the side of Muammar Gaddafi during the war in Libya.
The separatist Tuareg, a tribe which primarily inhabit northern Mali and other parts of the Sahara, allied for a time with Ansar Dine, a local al-Qaeda affiliate, before they both turned their guns on one another.
In 2013, a military intervention led by French troops dislodged the separatists and Ansar Dine from the vast desert in the north.
But in central Mali, community tensions had begun to fray. As Malian authorities turned their focus on the rebellion in the north, they left a power vacuum in their wake which allowed for bouts of violence between members of neighbouring communities to occur.
Caught in the middle – both as victims and perpetrators of violence – were members of the Fulani tribe.
Vulnerable to pillage by Tuareg rebels, some Fulani herders living in central regions adjoining the north had joined armed groups such as Ansar Dine for protection, but nevertheless committed atrocities.
When they returned to their central Mali villages after the French intervention, the army followed, persecuting those Fulanis suspected of joining armed groups.
A turning point came in 2015 with the formation of the Katib Macina (KM) by Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa whose fiery radio sermons infused with religious rhetoric in the Fulani language struck a chord with those who harboured grievances over government corruption and persecution.
The al-Qaeda-linked KM soon began a series of attacks on army and government positions as it sought to overthrow the Malian state and establish rule according to its own interpretation of Islamic law.
While the makeup of the KM was not exclusively Fulani, some neighbouring Dogon interpreted its violent rise as a sign of Fulani tribal aggression and began to organise for their own protection.
The formation in 2016 of the feared Dan Na Ambassagou and other ethnic Dogon militia was then met with the formation of ethnic Fulani militia, setting the stage for a cycle of violence that has become increasingly brutal.
Violence becoming ‘normalised’
At least 488 Fulani civilians died in attacks carried out in the central regions of Mopti and Segou between January 1, 2018 and May 16, 2019, according to the United Nations mission in Mali (MINUSMA). In the same period, armed Fulanis had “caused 63 deaths” among civilians in the Mopti region.
The razing of whole villages, the cutting of limbs and the slaying of livestock have all become a common part of the gratuitous violence.
Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, an analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), said the attacks were radicalising people and pushing them into the hands of armed groups.
“The jihadist insurgency and the justification of ethnic militia to protect their communities has meant that violence is becoming increasingly normalised.”
Ibrahim stopped short of describing it as an inter-ethnic conflict, noting that “communities haven’t given mandates to those militia”, but warned that it could become one.
“We’ve seen that the violence is very localised, but those same communities also live together in other places, meaning the violence could spread,” he said.
The situation in central Mali is compounded by a poverty rate that lags well behind national averages, estimated at around 60 percent compared with 11 percent in the capital, Bamako. An exponential population boom is also putting pressure on water and food resources that have become increasingly scarce due to drought and desertification.
The latest wave of violence comes as the UN attempts to renew the mandate of MINUSMA, a 14,700-strong international peacekeeping force.
Mali also hosts two European Union peacekeeping missions which provide training to the country’s forces.
French counterinsurgency mission Operation Barkhane has since 2014 been operating in Mali and across the Sahel where fighters linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent (ISIL or ISIS) armed group have also taken root.
Nadia Ahidjo, from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), one of the Open Society Foundations founded by US-Hungarian investor George Soros, said the overwhelming focus of these missions on security often failed to deal with the root causes of violence.
“There is a global obsession with stability over democracy. So as long as there is some sense of physical security then it’s OK, it’s business as usual.”
“The security agenda is not driven by local groups and ownership, it’s driven by geopolitical interests,” she said.
Instead, a “human security approach” which also offered accountability to victims of attacks could help to build trust between communities.
“If you take a long-term human security approach when you’re addressing the real causes of concern and you’re investing in local development then you’ll see a change and the building of a new social contract and building trust between communities and government, ” she said.
Ibrahim, from the ICG, added: “The ultimate solution has to be a political solution. There has to be an inclusive dialogue that involves all the communities and armed groups. I insist that the jihadists have to be part of the solution.”