Jihadists on the March in West Africa
Terrorism in North Africa like in Algeria and Mali’s war illustrates the reach of Islamic militants throughout Africa. While the world’s attention has been focused on Iran, Syria, and the evolving results of ‘democracy’ in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, groups like Boko Haram, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other splinter terrorist organizations have made substantial progress in either heavily influencing or controlling significant swathes of territory in some countries in West Africa. The west of Libya, northern Nigeria, and northern Mali are all experiencing extreme levels of violence at the hands of Boko Haram and like-minded Islamic militant groups.
A primary reason West Africa is experiencing so much violence and upheaval from so many Islamist militant groups is because the area is so expansive and the local governments are incapable of exerting control outside of major population areas. Northern Mali fell to Al Qaeda linked militants earlier this year, and their influence soon spread to Niger and Nigeria.
The Nigerian government has been fighting Boko Haram since 2001, primarily in Northern Nigeria, and has been slowly losing the battle. The northern capital of Kano is under siege, with fear gripping the city and economic activity grinding to a halt.
The average number of security incidents in 2010 was under 10 per month. This year, the average is more like 30 and hit a high of 50 one month earlier this year. This has attracted the government’s attention. Last week, the government killed 35 alleged members of BH as violence has been spreading to the eastern part of the country.
As with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, FAARC and the LTTE, Boko Haram, AQIM, and MUJWA are not willing to negotiate. Even if they were, their end goals are not compatible with those of the national governments which they are battling, or the international community. The number of splinter groups are too numerous, and the swathes of territory they operate in too large to be effectively countered. In addition, the region’s military forces are stretched thin, and much of the developed world has neither the inclination nor money to do much about it.
A larger issue is that the region’s governments too often view the rise of these groups as merely security issues, failing to grasp the poverty, economic underdevelopment, and failure to provide adequate government services as root causes of the problem. In addition, the battle against them has become politicized, as politicians use the fight to promote their own political causes, and the region’s militaries use the fight to secure greater government funding.
In Nigeria, the government is being forced to use heavy-handed tactics to try to reverse the tide, which is prompting a backlash from citizens, wondering who the real enemy is. Curfews are frequently imposed, aggravating the already tense situation and adding additional economic pressure to local economies. Although BH’s stated objectives to date have been relatively obscure – a stricter application of sharia law and greater equality for Muslims in the region – more radical elements ultimately seek secession in Nigeria. If the government cannot turn things around in a meaningful way, the tide may turn against the government, which is in the end probably incapable of providing for the basic needs of the majority of its citizens.
It is hard to imagine that the region’s governments will now all of a sudden be successful in meeting the basic needs of their people – particularly outside major population centers – after decades of neglect. Corruption, nepotism, and pure neglect are the greatest enemies of both the region’s people and its governments. While the world’s attention remains focused on other places, there is little reason to believe that West Africa’s growing movement of radical Islamists will be less successful in achieving their objectives.