Turf Wars for Uganda's Mosques


Turf Wars for Uganda's Mosques

Emily Mellgard

17 Jul 2015

A series of murders of Ugandan Muslim leaders resembles ideological power struggles in Nigeria and Kenya, which preceded escalating religious tensions, says Emily Mellgard.

In the past three years, more than a dozen Ugandan imams and senior Muslim leaders have been killed by unknown assailants. The attacks have occurred in several towns along the north shore of Lake Victoria from Kampala to Mbale on the border with Kenya. Several of the victims had connections to the  conservative Tabliq sect, including Sheikh Mustafa Bahiga, its leader in Kampala. A few also had connections to the rebel  Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).

The ADF, a now mostly defunct and little understood insurgency that claims to espouse an Islamic ideology, is a composite of several independent rebel groups from the region. It is active in the borderlands between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is reportedly an equal parts bandit, smuggling, separatist, and Islamic group that operates mostly in the poorly governed mountainous region of the eastern DRC. Ugandan security forces wrought significant damage on the group in the early 2000s, nearly eliminating its capacity to carry out organised attacks. The current spate of murders, nearly all of which were carried out by unknown gunmen on motorcycles, have variously been blamed by the security services as unconnected to each other, or the work of the ADF.

The communities around the victims likewise have contrasting views on the culprits of the murders; some blame the security forces, others the ADF. Many, however, blame the Tabliqs, pointing to competition for control of mosques and leadership positions among a generation of, mostly internationally trained, religious leaders.

These tensions appear to be not dissimilar to intra-religious dynamics in Nigeria and Kenya. While each has its own unique context and should not be equated, what has occurred in these two countries can provide a lens through which to better understand what may now be happening in Uganda.

Ideological turf wars can be precursors to increased instability.

In Nigeria, the jihadi organisation Boko Haram has waged a six-year insurgency in the northeast. Mohamed Yusuf, the founding leader, had conflicts with a number of Muslim leaders who disagreed with his ideology, which labelled any connection with a secular government sinful, and preached first isolationism and eventually violence against the Nigerian state. This has advanced under Yusuf's successor Abubakar Shekau. One tactic Boko Haram members employ to advance its ideology and deter opposition is the targeted assassination of imams and religious scholars who speak out against its ideology and violence, thus eliminating their influence over Boko Haram's pool of potential recruits.

Sheikh Adam Albani from Zaria in Kaduna state for example, was killed shortly after publicly criticising the group and supporting a military campaign against it. Similarly, Imam Ibrahim Ahmed Abdullahi in Maiduguri, Borno state (where Boko Haram was founded) was shot in 2011. There have also been assassination attempts on the Sultan of Sokoto (the preeminent traditional Muslim leader in the country) and the Shehu of Borno (the most prominent religious leader in the northeast). In 2014 an  explosion hit the Central Mosque in Kano, the seat of Emir Sanusi, who had the week before preached against Boko Haram and called on Nigerians to defend themselves against the group. There have been numerous other targeted assassinations of local imams and religious leaders throughout Boko Haram's insurgency, many recorded in the Council on Foreign Relations'  Nigeria Security Tracker.

It is possible something similar is occurring in Uganda. At least three of the murdered imams were associated with Tabliq sect, including Sheikh Bahiga. He was also involved, before his death, in a conflict with Sheikh Muhammad Yunus Kamoga over the leadership of a Kampala mosque. Kamoga had also recently been removed as the national leader of the Tabliq after the sect "lost confidence" in him, stating he was "dictatorial" and "arrogant."

The security services arrested a number of Tabliq leaders following several of the murders. After Bahiga's shooting in December 2014, Kamoga and his brother were among those arrested in connection to his murder. Bahiga's last words purportedly condemned Kamoga. Following his murder, a group of Bahiga's supporters occupied Kampala's Noor Mosque, which Kamoga had seized control of a few months before Bahiga's death. His supporters had ousted Bahiga and other sitting members of the mosque's executive council.

This highlights another important aspect of current tensions in Uganda's Muslim communities. The mosque is normally the centre of a Muslim community. Mosques often offer social services, activities, and educational classes for the community throughout the week. The leaders of a mosque, traditionally an executive council chosen by the community, chooses the imam who then sets the theological direction of the mosque as a whole.

However, it is possible for radical groups to gain enough influence within a community to overpower the mosque's executive council, replace the imam, and change the theological direction of the mosque along more extremist lines. If the mosque is in a community where it is the sole source of religious education, this can eventually have a radicalising impact on the entire community.

Targeted assassination of imams is used to deter opposition.

This tactic has been used effectively in several communities in Kenya, particularly in Mombasa, which has a majority Muslim population and  deep-seated grievances against the Kenyan government and security services. The Somali, al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab has, especially since 2011, made significant inroads into Muslims communities in Kenya, at times capitalising on those grievances. Several mosques in Mombasa have reportedly been taken over by  imams affiliated or openly sympathetic with al-Shabaab's ideology and goals. There have also been a number of unsolved murders of Kenyan religious leaders, which follow a pattern very similar to those in Uganda and Nigeria. Extremist and moderate imams alike have been gunned down by unidentified gunmen in what is sometimes described as a turf war to control the mosques – and thus the Islamic teachings in a community.

The Ugandan security services continue to blame some of the imam murders on ADF 'thugs.' It is unclear if there are any direct links, but the pattern of executing religious leaders who have spoken against the Tabliq sect, or who control influential mosques in the country does indicate the possibility of a contest to control the ideological direction of Islam in the country. Similar mosque and ideological turf wars have occurred in Kenya and Nigeria as precursors to increasing instability, and even armed insurrection. While caution should be exercised in drawing parallels too closely, these similarities suggest the situation in Uganda bears close observation.


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