Fighting the Wrong Enemy in Africa

In the West, citizens have for years been given the impression that ‘jihad’ is spreading like a ‘contagion‘ n the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. News editors in London and New York know that adding the magical letters I and S to a story gives it instant wings.

Pentagon analysts’ dire warnings about the ‘risks of radicalization’ in our least developed continent are being echoed in Europe. Yet the fight in Africa against ‘insurgents’ who happen to be Muslim is the wrong fight. They’re merely rebelling against a system that has left them behind.

Why do all these young people sign up to Boko Haram, Islamic State in West African Province, and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb?

In Somalia, the name of the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab, (‘the youth’) provides a clue. Africa’s demographics, with a rapidly expanding youth, and its rampant inequalities, are what we really need to be paying attention to. The real dangers for the future lie in the systemic corruption and rapacious resource extraction that characterizes much of Africa.

In Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, attacks on coastal towns were blamed on an Islamic State ‘affiliate’, but the group, also dubbed ‘al-Shabaab’ by local people, were merely in agreement with local imams that Sharia law would likely ensure a more equitable distribution of the region’s wealth in natural gas. Locals live in abject poverty; the promises of trickle-down wealth in their remote region are empty rhetoric. Government functionaries in the faraway capital of Maputo carry on skimming millions.

Unless serious attempts are made over the next decade to address the core issues, there will be more waves of migration from Africa into Europe, exacerbated by the short-term Covid-19 slump and the medium- and long-term ravages of climate change. A report published last week by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center says a record 55,000,000 people are now internally displaced worldwide. 40.5 m were uprooted in 2020, and more than 30 m of these were fleeing natural disasters such as floods and droughts. How many are now intending to flee the poverty created by Covid-19? The shenanigans in Ceuta of late provide a worrying indication.

Serious academics, as opposed to CIA dilettantes, are clear about the root causes of much of the violence in Africa. Dublin University professor Catriona Dowd argues that ‘conflict research often emphasises the specificity of Islamist violence; but these conflicts can be understood as a form of political exclusion and grievance-based violence, comparable to other forms of political violence.’

Norweigan academic Stig Hanssen agrees. He says that in Somalia, al-Shabaab offered local people functional justice, unlike the officially recognized government: ‘[The] al Shabaab leadership’s ideology and its well-developed problem-solving mechanism…made it the most unified actor in southern Somalia.’

The corruption and inequities that drive this dynamic are facilitated and exploited by Western banks, corporations, mining companies, and antiquities collectors, for whom the status quo, as it is for the Pentagon, is just fine and dandy. We need to change this narrative before it becomes tragic for all concerned.

John Clamp writes for Maqshosh.