Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Islamic Extremists in Africa - the Big Picture

The Economist has an interesting article on violent jihadists in Africa, with this nice map (I try to always include an adjective when using the term jihad because according to Islamic scholars, the word jihad itself does not necessarily imply violence).

As the map shows, most deaths inflicted by Islamist terrorists in Africa are from Boko Haram attacks in northeast Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. But Boko Haram isn't the only such group in Africa. Al-Shabab is a Somalia-based group that has "pledged obedience" to Al-Queda and has spread into Kenya. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) also has a presence and has launched attacks in Egypt and Libya. Al Queda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is, obviously, part of Al Queda and was launched in Algeria, spread to Mali where it took over half the country until the French dropped some bombs, after which it expanded into Tunisia and Morocco. Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) is a splinter group of AQIM, also based in Algeria and active in neighboring countries such as Mali. 

So obviously the ECOWAS countries, especially Mali, Niger, and Nigeria have more than their fair share of jihadist terrorist attacks. 


Academics often argue that civil war movements generally are caused by greed (and resource availability) and grievances. The Economist article has a similar explanation for attacks by Islamic extremists in particular:   
"Although the extremist groups are backed by well-financed elites, they could not survive without popular support. Every one of them taps into well-known local grievances. From Mali and Nigeria to Kenya and Tanzania the story is the same: extremists emerge from and woo Muslim populations on the national periphery who are fed up with decades of neglect, discrimination and mistreatment by their rulers. Jihadists are able to exploit existing religious tensions and latch on to disgruntled Muslim communities."

Furthermore, the repression of these groups can lead to metastasis (as they spread to country neighbors) and recruiting opportunities (refugee camps are vulnerable to radicalization, and government brutality increases grievances). 

The Economist article argues that Islam is "uniquely powerful" as the continent's "new ideology of protest" because Africa politics tends to revolve around ethnic and tribal loyalties, and Islamic groups can position themselves as "above tribe." It is true that identity politics in Africa are more commonly focused on ethnicity rather than religion. In a country such as Mali, where nearly everyone is Muslim, religion may not be very salient politically because it is difficult to divide groups between "us" and "them" based on religion. 

The prominence of Islam alone might explain why terrorist attacks tend to be launched by groups that are Muslim in these areas, but it doesn't seem to explain why these countries have more terrorist attacks. For example, this study finds that Muslim percentage of the population has no effect on the occurrence of terrorist attacks in all 12 model specifications where religion is included. 

Countries where religion is a prominent source of political competition or conflict are often those with more than one major religious group, such as Iraq with its Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Nigeria is one of the few countries in Africa where Christians and Muslims each make up approximately half of the population, and so religion tends to be salient in that country.
In (Muslim) Buhari's recent electoral victory, he won many predominantly Christian states over the (Christian) incumbent candidate. In previous presidential elections, however, a Muslim candidate often won in the north and a Christian candidate often won in the south. 

Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is another country that is split between a Muslim north and a Christian south, but for most of its history religion was not a salient cleavage until events in the 1990s, such as a change in the electoral code to require presidential candidates to have two native-born parents (to preclude a popular candidate from the north) enflamed a north-south divide, which facilitated religion-based mobilization. (John McCauley's dissertation and published work goes deep into these topics.) 

The Economist's recommendation to address the problem of violent Muslim extremists grabbing political space is more or better democracy: "Only genuine political competition could change this dynamic." 

There is academic research, such as this paper by Quan Li, that supports the argument that more democracy leads to fewer terrorist attacks. If a group with a grievance is able to seek alleviation of that grievance through elections, then there should be less need to resort to violence. However, if a government can successfully repress groups from organizing, then that should also prevent terrorist groups from mobilizing and launching attacks. This paper finds that the relationship between democracy and terrorism is curvilinear - very repressed countries are unlikely to experience terrorist attacks, it is the countries in the in-between area that are most likely to experience attacks. Aggrieved groups are not able to participate fully in the political arena, but they are free enough to organize violent attacks. 

How well does that explain which of the ECOWAS countries have experienced attacks? Here are the Freedom House categories, based on political rights and civil liberties, for each country:

Free, according to Freedom House in 2010
Cape Verde

Partly Free, according to Freedom House in 2010
Burkina Faso
Sierra Leone

Not Free, according to Freedom House in 2010
Cote d'Ivoire

So of the "Free" countries, one (Mali) of four, or 25%, experienced major terrorist attacks, and of the ten Partly Free countries, two (Niger and Nigeria), or 20%, experienced major terrorist attacks. So this suggests that the level of political freedom may not be the determining factor. 

If Muslim populations and lack of democracy are not the main explanations, what else is there? 

The Economist mentions that "No grand caliphate stretching from Mosul in northern Iraq to Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria is likely to emerge." However, the motivation of many in these groups is to establish an alternative political entity to the nation-states they currently find themselves in. All of these nation-states, in Africa and the Middle East, were created during the colonial era. For example, if Muslim populations were placed in countries with non-Muslims, and if the population had a history of Islam-based politics, this may have been seen as a problem. In Nigeria, for example, much of the area that is now northern Nigeria was a pre-colonial state called the Sokoto Caliphate

Pierre Englebert argues that many of the problems in independent Africa are the result of a mismatch between pre-colonial political structures and post-colonial independent states. If there is little mismatch, then the post-colonial state is perceived as legitimate and citizens are less likely to challenge the state. For example, Cape Verde was largely uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived, and so its (immigrant-based) citizens did not question the legitimacy of the borders and authority structure established by the colonists. (Similarly, the United States was perceived by its residents as legitimate, despite ethnic diversity, because the continent was "depopulated" in the years after the colonists arrived.) 

In Nigeria, on the other hand, many pre-colonial kingdoms were divided by the colonial border, and so many Nigerians questioned the state's legitimacy and challenged it physically. In turn, governments of such newly independent states responded to these challenges by dispensing state resources to buy support, leading to corruption that today creates grievances that violent Jihadist groups exploit to recruit supporters. 

Another mismatch between pre-colonial ethnic groups and post-colonial states is the population of Tuaregs and the borders between Mali, Algeria, and Niger, as seen in this map:

Many Tuaregs historically don't think they should be part of the modern states of Mali and Niger, and launch rebellions when they sense opportunity. Tuareg rebellions were launched against the French colonists during World War 1, against the Mali government in 1962 (when the country had just recently gained independence), in 1990 (at the end of the Cold War), and in 2012 (with the help weapons from Libya after the fall of Qaddafi). In April 2012, the rebels declared the captured territory in Mali was an independent state, Azawad, until the French military came in to remove them in 2013.  

Since the origins of these issues come from history, it's a challenge to deal with them. Improvements in the quality of democracy is probably part of the answer, but Mali's democracy was pretty good compared to the rest of the region and that wasn't enough. Military repression of the groups helps some but also helps the groups with recruitment and leads to metastasis, as the Economist article mentioned. I guess letting the desire of these groups to have "more legitimate" states could be allowed to run its course - let them create their own states with battle-established borders (Stephen Walt considers such a possibility for ISIS) but there would be a whole lot of death and destruction along the way (and, given the ideological flavor of such states, Larry Rubin argues there may be a domino effect if they did become established).

So that probably leaves us with a best-available strategy of supporting democracy, good governance, economic development and all that stuff in Africa. But it's not going to be a problem quickly solved. 

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