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Could Islamist rebels undermine change in Africa?
By Matthew Tostevin OCTOBER 28, 2011
Creeping from the periphery in Africa’s east and west, Islamist militant groups now pose serious security challenges to key countries and potentially even a threat to the continent’s new success.
The biggest story in Africa south of the Sahara over the past few years hasn’t been plague, famine or war but the emergence of the world’s poorest continent as one of its fastest growing – thanks to factors that include fresh investment, economic reform, the spread of new technology, higher prices for commodity exports and generally greater political stability.
Nigeria and Kenya, the most important economies in West and East Africa respectively, are pillars of the change in Africa as well as having the largest and most easily accessible markets for foreigners.
Both now face growing battles with Islamist groups; Kenya throwing troops into neighbouring Somalia in pursuit of al Shabaab fighters, Nigeria struggling with bombings and shootings by its homegrown Boko Haram sect.
Kenyan forces have pushed into southern Somalia to drive back al Qaeda-linked militants blamed by Nairobi for a string of border incursions and kidnappings, including the abductions of foreign tourists from coastal resorts which have damaged one of Kenya’s most important industries.
Shabaab has in return called for all out war on Kenya and “huge blasts” by its unknown number of supporters there. Grenade attacks this week have killed one person, wounded more than 20 and jangled nerves in Nairobi, where more than 200 people died in an al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in 1998.
Killings by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect (whose name means Western education is sinful) had been largely confined to a remote corner of the semi-desert northeast and ignored by much of the country until bombings struck the capital Abuja a few months back. A suicide car bombing on the U.N. headquarters in August killed 24 people.
Boko Haram is now by far the biggest security headache for President Goodluck Jonathan in Africa’s most populous nation – which, if estimates of population and the Muslim-Christian balance are to be believed, might have more Muslims than any country in the Middle East.
While Islam in Africa has traditionally co-existed comfortably with other religions, more heavily Muslim regions are often relatively marginalised economically and politically and that leaves plenty of ground for radicalism to sprout.
Nigerian elections this year showed how starkly the largely Muslim north; arid, poor, less well educated, lacking in resources and facing the decline of its few industries was divided from the more prosperous and dynamic south, home to Africa’s biggest energy reserves and booming factories.
Changing that is a huge task for President Jonathan and could be complicated still further by a heavy security response to Boko Haram.
Getting sucked into a foreign war against a Somali enemy which drove out Ethiopia’s far more experienced army in 2009 is just what Kenya doesn’t need at a time it is already in the doldrums due to drought, soaring inflation and a plummeting currency. Although the growth outlook of 4 percent may still sound healthy by Western standards, that has been cut from earlier expectations.
It is not only the cost in lives and money that count.
Counter insurgency wars – even in regions distant from the main centres of business – can do nothing for foreign investor sentiment starting to warm to Africa. They drain resources that might better be used improving infrastructure or education and lead to a greater role for security establishments at the heart of power and policy making, rarely a recipe for success in post-independence Africa.
Beyond the biggest countries, poorer neighbours may be at greater risk. A flood of weapons across the Sahara desert from Libya’s civil war – as well as hundreds of thousands of now unemployed former migrant workers – could further destabilise West Africa’s Sahel countries, already prey to kidnappings and attacks by al Qaeda’s regional offshoot.
Overall, optimism for Africa remains strong. Businesses draw comparisons with China and India in past decades and eye a market of a billion consumers with money to spend on more than just basic survival.
Whether or not the threat of Islamist militant groups can be contained to the margins, the extra strain could certainly be felt in a continent where many have only recently seen good reason to believe in a better future.
17 comments so far | Comments RSS
NOV 2, 2011
7:48 AM EDT
how to deal with a ruthless foe ?
Posted by thomasvesely | Report as abusive
NOV 2, 2011
8:01 AM EDT
oh, yeah….quickly.
Posted by thomasvesely | Report as abusive
NOV 6, 2011
3:10 PM EST
I share your concern Matthew about what Kenyan involvement may have on investment, but look at it another way;
In the countries economic and developmental strategy known as Vision 2030 under section 2.9, it is recognised that future economic growth will not be secure so long as we have an unstable neighbour.
Ships need to be safe to and from Mombasa, Illegal arms shouldn’t be circulating, Tourists should be able to take in all the country has to offer, north to south, east to west !
The al-shabaab and other militant groups are now the final obstacle on what has been the long road to Somali stability, Kenya wants to reach the end of it sooner rather than later.
Real security lies not in ignoring threats, but by being bold and facing up to them. It is that security we want to put in place, the only security good enough to achieve Vision 2030.
Posted by morethanone | Report as abusive
NOV 7, 2011
3:56 PM EST
Insurgent attacks, supported by al-Qaeda’s advisors and instructors, threaten areas that aid the West. Somalia continues bleeding, and war moves into Kenya and back again. Bomb attacks in Kenya are al-Shabab, and their veterans slow advances by untested Kenyans. Kidnappings and bombs hurt Kenya’s tourist economy. Piracy hurts the West, but harm to captives is unlike normal pirates. Piracy is a business, and captives are products who must be alive for ransom. However, al-Shabab fights the West and views captives as enemies. Recent reports of abuse suggest that al-Shabab has found that piracy can pay for their war and cause economic loss to the West. Economies pay for armed forces and military, technological tools. Every Special Forces training manual shows sabotage that causes economic and military damage. The Libyan War made Kadafi’s army leave war with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb. Part moved south to join Boko Haram in Nigeria, and others continued to the Niger Delta to train pirates in tactics to improve the Gulf of Guinea’s piracy. Ship seizures rose dramatically. In Benin’s waters, none were taken in 2010, but the number is at least 20 in 2011. Two were taken in the Niger Delta last week, including one oil tanker and a ship with oil industry ties. In August, 2011, a group of global insurers put Benin and Nigeria in the same risk category as Somalia, raising the price of oil for the West. 51% of Nigeria’s oil goes to the US. Increased piracy, abuse of foreign captives, and focus on oil indicate al-Qaeda helps pirates to gain money from the West and to hit their economies and militaries that need oil and economic growth. They may or may not sail boats, but they know how to train troops on land.
Posted by alanchristopher | Report as abusive
NOV 10, 2011
6:40 AM EST
The unfortunate (?) truth is that regardless of the rhetoric and macho posturing by black leaders on the continent – Africa needs the West. Pan Africanists chant “Afrika for the Africans”. But the sorry reality tells us a different story. Billions given by the west in aid, advice, trade agreements and now military support. When is that white elephant the African Union (AU) actually going to get its act together and achieve something valid and lasting?!
Posted by jndluli | Report as abusive
NOV 11, 2011
6:19 AM EST
What is required is a slow pacification…this seems to be what the KDF are doing, at the same time trying as much a possible to limit civilian casualties, while allowing humanitarian aid to flow as some form of administrative authority is established in the pacified areas…they agreed to stop air strikes since the rebels are merging with civilian populations to avoid bombs..the only real threat in my view is internal clan politics…as long as the Somali factions and clans cant agree on some form of government whether within specific regions and then gradually form a kind of coalition or federal state then no amount of military action will save them….
Posted by Protest | Report as abusive
NOV 13, 2011
6:50 PM EST
This is really true. Particularly in Nigeria, Boko Haram is really messing up Nigeria’s attempts for progress.
Posted by ChangeTheWorld | Report as abusive
NOV 14, 2011
12:37 PM EST
Islam really need modernization and reform! You don’t please God of the Universe by bringing pain and sorrow to your fellowman, His Creation. We want peace in Africa! Arab and their religion has brought nothing to Africa but pain and sorrow and dessertation! We Africans, especially the Christians, want to get along with our African brothers and sisters, irrespective of their religion.
To be still practicing religion as it was in the Dark Ages don’t make any sense at all. I CALL FOR REFORMATION OF ISLAM IN AFRICA IN ORDER TO BRING PEACE, JOY, HAPPINESS AND ECONOMIC GROWTH TO AFRICA. May God Bless you all. AMEN
Posted by Imperialrobert | Report as abusive
NOV 14, 2011
6:32 PM EST
Somalia, for abject poverty, ugnorance crooked leadership and the lingering effects of soridid colonialism, is a hotbed of criminal enterprize, and murder for sport. Islam has very little to do with it.
Posted by bwanahadi | Report as abusive
NOV 16, 2011
9:11 PM EST
It seems the reason for recent uprisings in middle east are economic and not religious. I believe this view will help in the battle against islamism. I also believe that the call of the stomach is greater than religious belief.
Posted by amoybaby | Report as abusive
NOV 23, 2011
1:59 AM EST
Ethiopia lives under constant attack and threat of Islamist’s throughout history, what is new now is the threat is reaching other African countries and they are feeling it. It is the right time now Africa to stand united against this threat.
Posted by Bisrat | Report as abusive
NOV 24, 2011
8:58 AM EST
At one point it used to be civil wars caused by tribal differences, the future of all wars in Africa is all about the 2 middle eastern religions.
I say we stop ignore all religions and follow African religions only. We can have our own ‘jerusalem’ and ‘mecca’ here itself.
Regarding this issue to be political, I say if the continent does not develop then they shall always be seeking help from the west, China…
Posted by Smart123 | Report as abusive
NOV 27, 2011
1:37 PM EST
Africa as been under constant attack from Islamist for centuries, if not for European colonization, the continent would have succumbed to this Arab imperialism disguised as a religion. That would have been the end of indigenous Africa cultures as they exist today, only to be replaced by Arab culture.
Posted by dapp | Report as abusive
DEC 28, 2011
9:59 AM EST
There can never be real change where Islam is…. Just what level of brutal oppression will you have… Islam is brutal oppression and if you are a Muslim you clearly like that. The rest of the world should just let all Muslim nations go to the hell they so want and deserve
Posted by Shivering | Report as abusive
JAN 9, 2012
3:46 PM EST
Indigenous African States were economically and militarily more advanced than their Arab neighbors for hundreds of years of Islamic history. Case in point the Malian an d Fulani Empire. It was the European colonialists that ruined the balance of power. Yes, the West African’s became Muslim. And Islam was in West Africa has a military history, but it wasn’t from the Arabs, it was from the indigenous West Africans. Christianity has been no less lethal to indigenous people in Africa, Caribbean, Latin America or North America. But, it 2012, and the colonialism is dead isn’t it? There are far bigger fish to fry than what’s happened 100s of years ago.
Posted by Hamza804 | Report as abusive
JAN 12, 2012
4:05 AM EST
What becomes of Ghana which is the final destination of these Nigerians. the economy of Ghana is flooded with foreigners from neighbouring countries including Niger, Togo and mostly Nigerian. there are alot of fulani kids begging in the street of Accra without any human right body taking up the issue and obviously no policy from the sector ministry. the universities are also flooded with nigerians causing a serious surg in fees.
Does the influx of these foreigners pose a serious threat to Ghana’s Security and young democracy now that Boko Haram are potential causing civil war in Nigeria.
Posted by AEDS | Report as abusive
JAN 12, 2012
4:15 AM EST
Hi Mathew, you didn’t get it right when you described the muslims in northern Nigeria as poor and marginalised. These people chose their ways of life and have refused to embrace anything that could change these ancient cultures. Their animal breeding activities have had negative impact on the ecology of that region. Thousands of nomads and their cow herds can be seen moving from one state to another in search of green grass. While most countries no longer practice such ancient, wasteful and destructive method of animal production, inhabitants of this region, mostly the fulanis, have refused to establish ranches and have instead acquired arms to forcefully occupy new lands for grazing. But these are people that were favoured by the British colonial authorities who forced other ethnic tribes in the region to become subjects under the Othman Dan Fodio caliphate system through the indirect rule system. What stopped them from making use of their superior position within the British arrangement to educate themselves? Instead, they started humiliating and marginalising those ethnic groups who had defeated them during the Jihad of the Dan Fodio era. Their primary concern still remains the Islamisation of the entire Nigeria, that is why any group that comes up with even muderous agenda in the name of Islamisation receives huge support from the muslim population in northern Nigeria. The so-called elites in the region are the brain behind this plan as vindicated by the arrest of a serving Nigerian senator in connection with the boko haram attacks.
Posted by Tivian | Report as abusive
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Reuters general manager for Africa, responsible for operations of the team of journalists south of the Sahara. Based in Johannesburg, I have been covering Africa for more than two decades. I joined Reuters in 1995 after starting out as a reporter with BBC radio and for a local newspaper in Sierra Leone. I have been posted in Lagos, Abidjan and Kinshasa as well as working for a spell in the Middle East.
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