Mercy Fekadu Mulugeta*
Eleven African Heads of State and Government as well as other prominent Africans are gathering for the 4th Tana Forum to discuss Secularism and Politicised Faith, on 17-18 April 2015 in Ethiopia. Tana Forum, an African platform on security, gathers African leaders and experts under the symbolic “baobab tree.” The baobab “invites participants to sit down in a spirit of commonality and moral duty towards finding solutions in peace and security for the continent.” The question is: can there be an African solution for a problem that is as international and as pervasive as violent politicized faith?
Most violent politicized faith groups in Africa have international connection with Al Qaeda and ISIL. Many scholars have highlighted on how groups such as Al Shabaab and Boko Haram increase visibility and benefit financially from their collaboration with internationally recognized and financially stronger groups. The Forum needs to identify an angle where Africans can tackle the challenge of violent politicized faith.
One issue surrounding the growth of violent politicized faith groups in Africa is their genuinely; whether religion is just a means where they express local grievances as opposed to their commitment to global ‘jihad’. Alliances, in the context of such terrorist groups or even states, are always strategic. Somehow, strategies tell us about the group’s true interest, be it economic, political, social or religious. For Al Jazeera’s Tres Thomas, the reason Al Shabaab might join ISIL is economic. He mentions how the group would be able to draw fighters from other east African countries besides ethnic Somalis. But others also argue that there are “ideological fissures” to it referring to the call to pledge allegiance to ISIL by Sheikh Hassaan Hussein, a radical religious teacher in Nairobi.
Speaking on strategic alliances, we have to understand that those African groups are pledging allegiance to Middle Eastern groups while they themselves are breaking into factions. Like AL-Muhajiroun and AL-Hijra in East Africa, and several factions in the Northern and Western part of the continent should be questioned. According to Rasmi News, Al Shabaab itself is said to be a divided group, even on the issue of which group (Al Qaeda or IS) to be affiliated with. They break because they think they have their own national agenda while others believe they should be a part of global ‘jihad’. On the other hand, Boko Haram’s choice of ally, IS, has resulted a break off between members of Ansaru, an earlier faction of Boko Haram, because a part of the group wanted to rejoin Boko Haram.
These mergers and break offs make local groups’ commitment to global ‘jihad’ questionable. There would not be as many factions breaking from each other if their goals were harmonized. Technically, groups claiming allegiance to another receive military training and support from the other. At the stage of fighting there is very little that Al Qaeda or ISIL can benefit from the allegiances. However, if there are victories the glory is [at least in principle] shared. However, it is difficult to say whether or not Boko Haram (constituted by a majority of young deprived men and women) will willingly share spoils if they were to control a resource rich place. The resource curse might for once become a blessing to Africa by dividing Boko Haram and hastening their defeat.
By the looks of how little Al Qaeda and IS have and might benefit with their relations to the local groups it is very unlikely that they are pursuing partnerships with African groups for economic purposes. The options that cannot be ruled out though are their commitment to global ‘jihad’ and access to a continent that is geographically difficult to penetrate without such strategic partnerships.
The opposite is true for local groups. Even if we cannot conclude that local terrorist groups have no ideological foundation, their commitment to it, at least in times of economic blessing, is uncertain. This might not apply to all their members but the majority of their members will be affected by the decisions made by those few.
This insight is instrumental for future actions undertaken by African states and institutions as well as other international actors. It demonstrates that the fight against terrorism is both an ideological and a military one. But it is should also be accompanied by provisions of political and economic opportunities especially for the young and vulnerable (and therefore restless) in Africa.
A senior researcher of ISS, Martin Ewi, has mentioned that the shift by Boko Haram from Al Qaeda to an alliance with ISIL “confirms Shekau as an opportunist, but also as an unreliable partner.” The same might be true for most African based terrorist groups as their unreliability emanates from their lack of opportunity that made them vulnerable in the first place. Providing opportunity might be the right way to fight back and exploit their opportunistic character.
*Mercy Fekadu(email@example.com) is a Research Officer at the Africa Peace and Security Programme (APSP), a joint programme of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) and the African Union. All views expressed in the AfSol blog are solely the views of the authors and do not in any represent the views of IPSS or APSP. For more information on AfSol Blog, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org