Published 04 May 06
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Militant Islamism's Shadow Rises Over Sub-Saharan Africa
While the genocidal activities currently being perpetrated in the Darfur region of western Sudan at the instance of the country's Khartoum-based Arabist Islamist regime – and this coming after decades of unrelenting warfare against predominantly Christian and animist southern Sudan in which over two million people were killed – have focused attention on the dangers of militant Islamism in Africa, still too little attention is being paid to the spread of that radical ideology on the continent.
Part of the reason for this is the fact – as I repeatedly point out – the perilous "blind spot" that many nations, including the United States, have for sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to geostrategic considerations in general, much less the war on terrorism.
Moreover, as Ali Mazrui has argued, Islam is, in many respects, an "African religion" that over the centuries has interwoven itself into Africa's social fabric and, in many places, being intertwined with – rather than replacing – earlier beliefs and practices and giving rise to phenomena like "Islamic divination" and "Muslim charms" that are widely popular in West Africa among the tariqa (Sufi brotherhoods), but which would be anathema to orthodox Sunni theologians and jurists anywhere else in the Muslim world. For example, just off the courtyard of the Bamako, Mali, home of Ousmane Madani Haidara, an allegedly thaumaturgical holy man with millions of followers in West Africa, one can procure monkey's hands, dried mice, and other assorted animal parts needed for traditional African magic, the mere possession of which would likely get one executed in Saudi Arabia where sorcery is still a capital offense.
But all of this is changing. What is happening, virtually ignored by the West, is that the generally pacific, syncretistic African Islam is being swept aside by a militant Islamism imported from the Middle East that is not only transforming local societies, but also threatening to turn an increasingly significant region into an environment hospitable to extremist violence – with reverberations that will be felt throughout the continent and beyond. Outside of Sudan, which, because of its location on the Red Sea, also has always had one foot in the Levant, is this phenomenon as manifest as in Nigeria. The fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States and Africa's overall most populous nation is home to over 65 million Muslims, roughly equal to half of the country's population, mainly concentrated in the north among the Hausa and Fulani peoples (Christians and animists, representing 40 percent and 10 percent respectively of the population predominant in the Igbo and Yoruba south, although there are significant pockets in the north as well). Traditionally, Nigerian Islam was typical of the flexible African variety and marked by a confusing wealth of doctrinal and ritual pluralism.
The presence of Islamism in Nigeria – itself a colonial construct stitching together of the three major national groups and over two hundred minor ones – can be traced to one man, Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, chief advisor to the northern independence leader Sir Ahmadu Bello, himself a co-founder (in 1962) of the Saudi-funded Muslim World League. A Saudi-educated legal scholar, Gumi was a vehemently anti-Sufi exponent of Wahhabism who went on to found, in 1978, the not-particularly-subtly-named Jamaat Izalat al-Bida wa Iqamat al-Sunna ("the Society for the Eradication of Evil Innovation and the Establishment of the Sunna"), also known as Yan Izala. Yan Izala cultivated a significant following through its management of an Islamic education system during the years of corrupt military rule. Its alumni and fellow travelers went on in the 1980s and 1990s to set up increasingly even more radical movements, including the Ikhwan ("Muslim Brothers") and Ja'amutu Tajidmul Islami ("Movement for Islamic Revival"), whose leader, Abubakar Mujahid, told the BBC that the 9/11 attacks were a justified response to American provocation: "If you put a person in a corner, then like a snake he may feel he has to strike back."
Mujahid's former teacher, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, himself an Iranian trained and funded cleric, whose own group has been involved in the bloody clashes that have claimed thousands of lives in religiously-volatile Kaduna state over the past decade, has claimed that:
"Al-Qa‘eda does not exist, please. It is nonexistent. It exists only in the records of the CIA. Otherwise, al-Qa‘eda does not exist anywhere in the world. Similarly, bin Laden does not exist. Those sites in the Internet have been traced to Texas in the United States of America." This same fellow reacted to the 7/7 bombings in London by a similar feat of denial: "Nobody planted those bombs in London except Tony Blair. The British government is behind it."
The support that Saudi and other sources poured into these groups have paid off handsomely since the restoration of 1999 restoration of civilian rule in Nigeria. In violation of the Nigerian federal constitution's ban on the establishment of a state religion, in October of that year, Governor Ahmad Sani of Zamfara, established Shari'a law, codifying harsh penal sanctions, including flogging for alcohol consumption, amputation for theft, and stoning for adultery. Eleven other northern states subsequently followed Zamfara's example. The almost continual backlash has led to some of the country's worst communal violence since the Biafran war in the 1960s.
One of the few things keeping a lid on the situation so far has been the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a born-again Christian from southwestern Yorubaland, whose professional military background gave him appeal in the north, whose sons tend to predominate within the armed forces. When he was first elected in 1999, Obasanjo won 62 percent of the national vote. Not surprisingly, both the Clinton and Bush administrations courted Obasanjo, eyeing his country's 35.9 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves – the largest of any African country and the eighth largest on earth – as an alternative to the volatile suppliers of the Middle East as well as the mercurial Hugo Chavez's Venezuela (in 2002, the U.S. foreign policy has explicitly recognized West African oil as a "strategic national interest"). However, Obasanjo is now nearing the end of his second and, at least under the constitution as it currently stands, last term in office. And the strains on the country are beginning to show.
In early 2004, an armed group calling itself the "Taliban" launched a rebellion in the northern frontier state of Yobe. After the army put down the uprising, it discovered that the group had been funded by the Saudi al-Muntada al-Islami "charity" whose other "good works" include educating aspiring African clerics in Saudi institutions and setting them up in its own network of mosques and schools back in their native lands upon graduation. Nor are the Saudis the only extremist interlopers to transplant themselves to West Africa's fertile soil: since 9/11 scores of itinerant Pakistanis, alumni of the same madrasas which gave us the original Taliban, have been arrested in Nigeria and charged with inciting violence. More recently, small separatist groups in the Niger Delta have succeeding in disrupting oil production, costing the country $702 million in February of this year alone. While these militants are apparently acting on ethnic rather than religiously grievances, their tactical effectiveness serves to underscore the vulnerability of the resource.
Given Nigeria's global scale hydrocarbon wealth, its continental economic and demographic heft, and virtual regional hegemony, it should hardly be surprising that militant Islamists from the outside should be interested in establishing a foothold there. Couple those significant elements with the fact that the country is also, unfortunately, home to some of the world's most sophisticated criminal enterprises – in addition to the so-called 419 scams that millions of Americans encounter in their email boxes, Nigerians are also responsible for an estimated 40 percent of the heroin smuggled into the United States according to former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria Princeton N. Lyman – and the potential security threat becomes painfully self-evident: people plus money plus networks plus ideology equals trouble. Last year RAND terrorism analyst Peter Chalk demonstrated how Algerian Islamists linked to the al-Qaeda network used false passports and fake credit cards supplied by Nigerian syndicates to gain entry into France, Great Britain, Italy, and other European countries.
More attention needs to be focused on the threat of Islamist actors and groups in sub-Saharan Africa, especially geopolitically important Nigeria – and more resources dedicated to combating them with both "soft power" as well as, where appropriate, hard power – because if militant Islamism manages to become entrenched there, the effects will be detrimental not just to the well-being of Africans, but to America's national interests as well.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.
His primary research interest is the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.
© 2006 J. Peter Pham
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