Analysis: Islamism spreads in West Africa

Sofia Christensen 24 November 2012

A combination of events last week briefly reminded the world of Islamic extremism and its terrorizing presence in West Africa. In Nigeria last Friday, military forces killed a top commander of the militant organization Boko Haram. Earlier in the week, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed to deploy troops against Mali’s Mujao Islamists and Tuareg-led rebels in the north of the country.

Nigeria has been struggling against Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group creating havoc in northern and central parts of the country, since 2009. The group endorses a version of Islam which claims it is ‘haram’ (forbidden) for Muslims to engage in any political or social activity related to the West, including voting and receiving a secular education.

Boko Haram strongly believes that Nigeria is being run by a group of non-believers and is fighting to overthrow the government and impose Islamic law. Over the past ten years, they have launched a series of bombings and assassinations across the country. These include explosions at both police and UN headquarters in Abuja during the inauguration of the current President, Goodluck Jonathan, in May 2011. Last Friday, Boko Haram commander Ibn Saleh Ibrahim was killed in a military crossfire along with six of his lieutenants. An unknown number of civilians also lost their lives in the exchange.

Action is needed as Boko Haram is reaching across the country, claiming innocent lives and fueling tensions between Muslims and Christians. However, Nigerian security forces have also been accused of unnecessary violence and summary executions. Earlier this month, Amnesty International named a range of abuses, including extrajudicial killings and torture, being carried out in the fight against the Islamists.

Meanwhile in neighboring Mali, the African Union (AU) has recently backed a plan to free the north from Islamist extremists. The decision was undertaken by Ecowas to deploy 3,300 troops in order to help the government reclaim the region. Mali’s Mujao Islamists had sided with Tuareg-led rebels in a joint offensive against government forces.

In March 2011, they took advantage of the overthrowing of President Amadou Toumani Toure by a group of disaffected soldiers to seize all of the North’s major towns. Their alliance has collapsed, however, as rebels launched an offensive against Mujao last week. Strict Islamic laws have been imposed all over the region, including in the historic city of Timbuktu, sparking international outrage.

Global concern over militant Islamist groups in West Africa is increasing. In November 2011, the US released a Congressional report claiming Boko Haram was an “emerging threat” to the US and its interests. Although current focus is on West Africa, militant organizations affect countries all over the continent. Niger has been struggling against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of the Sahara; Sudan has only just emerged from a vicious civil war involving Arab militias, and Somalia is over-run with al-Shabab militants. There are also concerns that many of these groups may be forging ties with al-Qaeda.

In the midst of global fear and speculation, it is easy to forget the real victim’s of Africa’s Islamist insurgency. The UN has issued a warning on the harsh versions of Islamic law imposed across areas controlled by the militants. These are areas in which forced marriage, forced prostitution and rape are increasingly widespread. Military intervention may help, but analysts claim the only hope for a stable future lies in poverty reduction and an efficient education system.

Sofia Christensen