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ISLAMIST THREAT IN THE SUB-SAHARA:
ALIYU MUKHTAR KATSINA
firstname.lastname@example.org PH.D. CANDIDATE
PAPER PRESENTED AT THE DEPARTMENT OF POLITICAL SCIENCE SEMINAR SERIES, INTERNATIONAL ISLAMIC UNIVERSITY MALAYSIA (IIUM), KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA MAY 2012.
This article is a brief survey of the impact of the recent uprisings in North Africa, notably in Libya where it is believed tons of weapons went missing after the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, and how this affects West African regional security. The article builds its arguments based on the fact that besides weapons that were reportedly stolen and found their way in to West Africa, other extremists’ elements freed by the rebels from prisons might have also slipped in to West African region and joined other Islamist groups. This, we argue worsen the ever tense security condition in sub-Sahara which even at the best of times is precarious. Key terms: political Islam, Islamist threat, Arab-spring, North Africa, West Africa, regional security
This article has two broad objectives. First, it aims to analyze, albeit briefly, the impact of the Arab Spring of 2010 that started in North Africa over the West African regional security. Much has been said and written about the spring, including the rather dramatic circumstances that led to it, the unexpected outcomes including toppling some of the most entrenched dictatorships in Africa, and even the prospects for an enduring democracy in North Africa (Way, 2011; Asseburg, 2012). Little is however said about how the collapse of these regimes in North Africa is now making the flow of men across previously closed and guarded borders easier. There is little appreciation of how the mercenaries hired by these toppled leaders most notably Gadhafi in the dying days of his regime are increasingly finding safe refuge in West Africa. Already, evidence has begun to surface that show how arms stolen from armories in Libya and elsewhere, and prisoners freed from state holding have moved into West Africa and may now and in the
future pose real security threat to a region which even in the best of times is not known for enduring stability (Obi, 2008). The second broad objective of this discourse is that we intend to situate the threats pose on West African regional security within the larger narrative of growing Islamist threat in sub-Saharan Africa. Already, there are various manifestations and indicators pointing to a resurging wave of Islamist fundamentalism in many parts of Africa, most notably, Algeria, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Niger, and Nigeria (Cohen, 2008; Storm, 2009). From the beginning of 2007, activities of various groups with the purported agenda of promoting Islamic law and principles in all facets of social life, or outright Islamization of the region have been on the rise (The Economist, April 21, 2012). Groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and jihad in West Africa, and Boko Haram, are believed to have transnational, if not transcontinental affiliations with other groups sharing similar ideology and world vision (Cohen, 2008; The Economist, April 21, 2012). Furthermore, many of these groups are believed to either have participated actively in those uprisings, or have benefited immensely from their outcomes (Bellamy, 2011). Even today, those instances we alluded to above such as the movement of arms, freed prisoners, and mercenaries, could not be separated from the cyclical push of many of these groups. Some caveats are in order here before we proceed with our analysis. This article does not aspire to an exhaustive survey of all these issues raised above. It only seeks to highlight them, and brings them to the front burner of African political and security studies. Having said this, the article proceeds as follows: the first section aim to briefly qualify the term Islamist threat at least within the African context. This is followed by a
survey of how West African security is traditionally linked to security in North Africa. After this, we proceed with an examination of those specific incidences that occurred in North Africa during the spring. The objective here is to understand how these affect security in West Africa. The succeeding section offered a precise picture of some of the events in West Africa such as the Toureg rebellion in Mali, which we consider as the evident fallout of the spring. Based on this exploration, we conclude our article with illustrating how these issues squarely fit into the larger Islamist threat narrative in West Africa, and its impact on wider sub-Saharan stability and security order.
Islamist threat: The challenge of definition
What is Islamist threat; what constitutes an Islamist threat; and how does one determines that a threat has Islamist connotation? These are value-laden questions. And typical of all value-laden themes, answers are laden with the personal prejudices and values of the one providing the answers. Thus, what one may consider an Islamist threat, another may likely consider it a religious obligation and a necessity required of all believers. As a result, much of what has been said and written is characterized by glaring incoherence and inconsistencies. In the post-9/11 world, few issues are expressed with as much sentiment and passion as questions related to Islam, terrorism, fundamentalism, Islamism, and Islamist threat. A key, however, to decoding intellectual permutations about Islamist threat comes from understanding of what is meant by political Islam or in its more mundane usage, Islamism. In effect, to be able to pin down Islamist threat, one has to understand first what is meant by Islamism. Fortunately, Mohammed Ayoob, perhaps the leading scholar in the expanding field of political Islam, has made concerted
efforts aimed at conceptualization these themes. These discourses make it easier for us to reconstruct our discussions on Islamist threat and to ascribe meaning to the term. According to Ayoob (2007), Islamism refers to the “use of religious idiom and religion-based historical references for the mobilization of Muslim populations for political action both domestically and internationally”. In effect, resort to all manner of historical instrumentations for the purpose of mobilizing the Muslims, creating a community of the believers and the inherent struggles this move entails amount to political Islam or Islamism in contemporary period. It goes therefore that in pursuance of this goal, objectives though significantly similar; means and strategies may differ, which may explain the emerging fault line between fundamental Islam and its moderate variant. What is important here is to note that as a mobilization force, political Islam is bound to rankle many of the established socio-political orders, since in any case, it aims primarily at their overthrow. Since 9/11, political Islam has come to be seen and associated with violent struggles to replace the dominant secular democratic order prevailing in most societies, Muslim included, and its replacement with purely theocratic Islamic order. Although, Islamism as Ayoob has argued is not a recent phenomenon, its violent variant at least in contemporary period is in fact an “unwanted diversion” from the largely peaceful agenda of the larger Islamist movement in many Muslim countries (Ayoob, 2007). Examples of these diversions with the most counterproductive effect include Al-Qaeda and its other affiliates (Ayoob, 2007). Islamist threat is thus the entirety of the struggles that aim at the overthrow of the existing secular political order and its replacement with purely
Islamic order as typified by many Islamist groups. It is a threat to the extent that it makes no bones of its desire to uproot, by force if necessary, the dominant secular order. How then does this form of threat plays out in the African context; and how does the uprising in North Africa aids its spread to other parts of Africa, which by implication means growing regional insecurity, especially to the West African sub-region. Let us briefly first turn our attention to how traditionally, the security of West Africa is linked to the politics of North Africa, more specifically, Libya under Gadhafi.
West African regional security: Trends and patterns
Its crippling poverty, higher level of corruption, cases of bad governance, and number of weak and failing states is not the only remarkable narrative of West Africa over the last fifty years. Another notorious feature, probably the most enduring and catastrophic, is the precarious nature of its security situation these last fifty years (Curran & Woodhouse, 2007). Ranging from internal political instabilities, violent overthrow of governments, to rebellions and civil wars, West Africa comes on top of those parts of the world whose stability index is very low (Williams, 2007). Many reasons may account for this. And in fact, many of these reasons are directly traceable to the nature of the political elite at the helm of political leadership (Ismail, 2008). Thus, we often talk of corruption, poverty, unemployment, higher mortality rate, bad governance, dictatorships, and weak state institutions in many of the West African states. However, while it is true these factors are at the forefront of igniting fires of civil unrests, conflicts, rebellions, and civil wars, there may in actual fact be other factors and forces that sustain these fires (Curran & Woodhouse, 2007).
If past indicators are to be used to gauge how these forces sustain division, instability, conflicts, and establish culpability in West Africa, the role of external forces, most specifically, interfering foreign powers is the most frightening. And in this regard, no other non-West African country tops the list of these interfering powers like Gadhafi’s Libya. The extent of Libya’s interference in West African politics over the last forty years will take years and groundbreaking studies to chronicle. It is however sufficient for us to note that in the span of the last four decades, there was hardly a single conflict, political instability, or even civil war in which the hands of Libya did not feature prominently. From supporting Toureg rebels in Niger and Mali, to direct training of rebel fighters for Charles Taylor and Niger-Delta militants in Nigeria, logistic support to different factions in the Sierra Leonean civil war, Gadhafi’s role was ubiquitous (Cook, 2008). Effectively, this Libyan predilection for poking its nose in other countries’ businesses created viable corridors through which money, arms, and mercenaries flow perpetually between North Africa into West Africa and other parts of Sub-Sahara via Chad, Niger, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali (Cook, 2008). The collapse of the Gadhafi regime does not mean the collapse of these corridors. What it really portends is that they are now less centralized, and more fluid. And before these could be brought back under effective control, it will take time and resources. Meanwhile, the effects will continue to be felt across West and other parts of Africa. Already, countries like Nigeria struggling with Islamist Boko Haram, and Mali contending with the Azwad rebels under the umbrella of National Movement for the Liberation of Azwad, are feeling the intense pain (United Press International, April 12, 2012).
Nevertheless, this is just one aspect of this relationship. Another less pronounced, but equally devastating aspect is how mercenaries from many parts of West Africa who fought in the Libyan war banished with their weapons without trace (Lacher, 2012). Many of the sprawling Islamist groups in West Africa are believed to have directly participated in those wars, and have as a result benefited directly from the arms and professional training acquired in those days (Ferran, November 10, 2011). Recall how the foreign powers were dropping arms to the rebels’ strongholds as logistic supports while justifying their actions under the Right to Protect (R2P) principle (Bellamy, 2011). These weapons were in most cases used against Gadhafi, but many found their way west of Libya, into the sub-Sahara. These, we could say have now either become part of the arsenals being deployed by groups such as the Azwadi rebels in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or have entered into sleep mode waiting for strategic openings to unleash them on West Africa. In any event, what is clear is that in the past, Libyan government under Gadhafi had played a role, which was not wholly gentlemanly in West Africa, and today the fallout of the collapse of that regime is being reflected in the expanding Islamist threat in the region (The Economist, April 21, 2012).
The Arab spring and regional security in West Africa
Security students have linked the escalating violence perpetrated by the Islamist group in Nigeria, Boko Haram, with the larger Islamist network based in North Africa (United Press International, April 12, 2012). Many, among these specifically believed that Boko Haram might have in the past two years succeeded in establishing contacts with similar groups in Somalia and the AQIM (France 24, February 23, 2012). These are permutations, which are very difficult to substantiate in a small essay as this.
Nevertheless, there are issues, which could not be attributed to pure coincidence. The escalation in violence and the higher level of sophistication and precision with which Boko Haram carried its activities at least since last year lend credence to this observation. Then, there were the continuing uprisings in North Africa, and
mushrooming of other Islamist groups in both North and West Africa, most notably the Ansar Eddine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (The Economist, April 17, 2012). Is there any discernible pattern that could explain a relationship between these groups, and the events in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa? In order to understand this properly, we need to bear in mind the recent onslaught launched by the Malian rebels, which culminated in their declaration of the sovereign state of Azwad in North Mali. How do these events fit in to the larger argument, which says that the Arab spring may have contributed to this situation? In early April, following a resurging wave of hostilities between Malian armed forces and the Toureg rebels in the northern parts of the country, which directly led to the overthrow of the democratic government by elements of the armed forces, the rebels finally, declared their secession from the sovereign state of Mali (The Economist, April 17, 2012). They announced the formation of an independent state of Azwad. When we recall two important facts, it is easy to see how the rebellion in Mali conforms to a wider regional security pattern immensely aided by the flow of arms from North Africa during and immediately after the uprisings. First, the conflict in Mali was not a recent one. In fact, it has been a protracted one spanning over a decade, which at a point in time experienced a lull because the rebels were starved of their sources of logistical support. Following the breakout of the spring in North Africa, we saw renewal of fighting to the point where
the weapons of the Malian armed forces could not compete with those of the rebels. The second point is no less clear and convincing. Most of the forces that fought by Gadhafi’s side in the twilight of his regime were hired mercenaries, mostly Barbers and Toureg, from West and other parts of North Africa (Lacher, 2012). Many of the weapons these mercenaries used found their way into Mali, and of course, many other parts of subSaharan Africa (The Economist, April 17, 2012).
Expanding Islamist threat: Whither West Africa?
The appropriate question here is what does this situation portends to the security and stability of West Africa and by implication, other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Even at the best of times, West Africa is not a haven of peace and stability owing to problems associated with bad governance, poverty, inequality, and corruption (Ismail, 2008; Williams, 2007). Because of this situation, it would not be farfetched to argue that groups, Islamists or otherwise, could easily mesh with the currents of discontents, which these issues always generate, and provide an impetus for strong mobilization on their basis. In short, discontent and alienation have always provided the cannon fodder that triggers socio-political instability in human societies (Storm, 2009). West Africa is not an exception to this historical rule. However, going beyond this portrayal, there are other issues and implications that need elaboration here. In the first instance, heterogeneous societies like Nigeria have a very alarming history of religious intolerance owing principally to the machinations and other manipulative activities of the political elites to score cheap political benefits. In its period of statehood, most notably, the last one decade, the country has witnessed some
of the most violent inter-religious crises and conflicts in which thousands of lives were lost and properties worth billions were destroyed (Deegan, 2011). The implication of a wider regional threat on such an already tense situation, where adherents of different faiths live in suspicion, could be catastrophic especially when sophisticated and cheap weapons are thrown into the mix. At least since 2009, the increasing audacity and violence of the Islamist group Boko Haram has been linked to regional connections (France 24, February 23, 2012). And even at present, it is not possible to dismiss speculations that the group is not part of wider regional Islamist agenda of religious intolerance that perpetrates violence. Related to this, is the emerging evidence about the spread of Islamist cells and splinter groups in other parts of West Africa and Central Africa, most notably Niger Republic, Guinea, and Chad (The Economist, April 17, 2012; Cohen, 2008). While some of these groups push separatists’ agenda in the name of religion, bulk of them however prefer to remain from within their countries and push, always by violence, for the adoption of their puritanical version of Islamic principles of life and governance. Often, their methods include kidnapping of expatriates workers for ransom, assassination of targeted individuals, to planting of bombs in which in most cases, innocent peoples are the worst affected.
This essay briefly traced the impact of the Arab spring in North Africa on West African regional security. The argument made by this article is that the collapse of the dictatorships in North Africa facilitated huge flow of men and arms into various parts of
West Africa. The situation we showed is largely responsible for escalating the wave of violence in countries such as Nigeria and Mali by groups bearing the banner of Islamic religion. It is our contention that the action of these Islamist groups is a serious source of security threat, especially in heterogeneous countries such as Nigeria where history of inter-religious harmony has never been exceptionally cordial. But as we have pointed at the beginning of this essay, the linkage between the uprisings in North Africa and the resurgence of Islamist threats in West Africa has not been fully and critically explored. It is therefore important that students of African politics devote more attention to this important question.
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