Bad Government Creates Space for Extremist Groups
24 Jun 2015
A history of corruption and bad government in three African countries has created space for extremist groups to spread their ideologies. Regaining trust is vital to defeating them, writes Emily Mellgard.
Many African nations are in the midst of religious revivals characterised by a rising trend of religious fervour and proliferation of ideologies. Unfortunately this trend in some countries is developing in tandem with an absence of stable, open minded societies governed by democratic and just governments. In some cases this combination has opened a path for extremist groups to advocate violence in pursuit of material advance or interpretations of religious purity. Three countries that have experienced this are Nigeria, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Kenya.
Nigeria, where an expanding area in the northeast has been ravaged by the violence of the Islamist insurgency Boko Haram, recently experienced its first peaceful transfer of political power between political parties. There are now high hopes that the new administration of President Muhammadu Buhari will address the entrenched political corruption, indiscriminant military violence, and economic stagnation across the country, but especially in the northeast.
These conditions contributed to the context in which Mohammad Yusuf established an isolationist welfare community at Railroad Mosque in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital. Yusuf was an Islamic preacher who rejected engagement with the government, seeing it as un-Islamic and a corrupting influence on Muslims. Instead, Yusuf advocated for strict implementation of Sharia, including the extensive provisions of justice for the poor and accountability of those in power. He drew in part on the Islamic principle of 'hijra' or migration for the sake of religious purity. His message attracted a large following of people disillusioned by the excesses of those in power, the comparative poverty of much of the country, and the lack of transparency or social justice delivered through Nigeria's experience with democracy.
The eventual violent repression of Yusuf's followers by the security forces, with whom there had been periodic disagreements and clashes over several years, and the absence of any judicial process in the execution of Yusuf and over 800 of his followers precipitated an evolution in the group's ideology. This was facilitated by the ascension of Yusuf's more violent former deputy, Abubakar Shekau, to lead the group. In 2010 Boko Haram launched a bloody revenge campaign against the security services, civilians, and Islamic leaders critical of the group's ideology. Shekau sought to overthrow through violence the established secular government institutions, believing this would lead the way for the establishment of pure Islamic rule.
Extremist idologies often coalesce around perceptions of marginalisation.
In the Central African Republic, which has announced that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on 18 October 2015, deep seated economic corruption and wealth disparities, often along religious or ethnic lines, and a deeply embedded cultural awareness of the legacies of slave raids conducted by Sahelian Muslims, which continued into the early years of the 20th century, contributed to the collapse of the country in 2013. The Séléka ('Alliance' in the local Sango language) coalition of rebel groups that overthrew longtime president Francois Bozizé in March 2013 was in the north and eastern regions of the country, where the majority of the country's estimated 15 per cent Muslim minority lives. The rebels mobilised around the shared grievances of failed previous agreements with the government for increased autonomy and resource allocation, and marched on the capital Bangui to overthrow and replace the government. The rebels' impunity in violence against the majority Christian communities in the south caused a fracturing of the nation along religious lines, in which self-protection militias ( the Antibalaka) developed under a largely Christian and animist banner against the Séléka. While the roots of this conflict are not religious, and are more economic than ideological, the cooption of religious symbolism and rhetoric by both sides has provided a valuable opportunity for religious leaders to act as often the only legitimate voice within a community to bring about peace.
In Kenya, large scale violence has not yet broken out and is still preventable. There are, however, periodic high profile and high casualty attacks carried out by elements of al-Shabaab, which is based in neighbouring Somalia. These attacks are often claimed to be in response to Kenyan actions across the border in Somalia where troops are combatting the jihadi organisation. Increasingly, however, the rhetoric emanating from those claiming attacks in Kenya make reference to Kenyan treatment of its own Muslim communities as justification for violence. Kenyan Muslims make up an estimated 12 per cent of the population and rank lowest on all socio-economic and educational indices. Kenyan Muslims also speak with anger about community punishments following attacks and of security force excesses and corruption disproportionately directed toward Muslim communities. Such indiscriminate policies followed the 2012 attack on Nairobi's Westgate mall by a small group of al-Shabaab fighters after which thousands of Muslims and ethnic Somalis were rounded up and deported or incarcerated for days before being released or sent to refugee camps.
Following the attack in April 2015 on Garissa University in the north, some Christian residents of the region, which is majority Muslim, demanded the government relocate them to the south, claiming to feel unwanted and unsafe. However, Muslim, often ethnic Somali, residents of the region continue to articulate travelling to central or southern Kenya as "going into Kenya," symbolising the extent of perceptions of marginalisation in the region that extremist religious ideologies have been shown to coalesce around.
The experiences of Nigeria, the CAR, and Kenya illustrate the allure extreme ideologies can have within segments of societies that feel marginalised or persecuted and who have lost faith in state institutions to protect and speak for them. Economic and political grievances are vulnerable to cooption into extremist religious ideologies and even the mobilisation for violence. Extremist groups, including al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, have become very adept at exploiting these narratives for their own political ends.
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