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Islam, human development, NGOs and the challenge of terrorism in Africa (part 2)

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It must be noted that armed conflict has not solved Africa’s political and economic problems. The nationalist movements in Africa succeeded in creating new states that have now reconstituted themselves under the banner of the African Union, the successor to the old Organisation of African Unity. Yet, it is abundantly clear that political independence has not translated into economic development. In fact, analysis of Africa’s fifty-five years following independence reveals a drama of civil wars, persecution and violence against the weak and the helpless, failed states, political kleptocracy, and the tragedy of missed opportunities. Poor governance has been rampant in Africa, whether the late Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire who is scornfully remembered as Africa’s greatest villain and kleptocrat, or Idi Amin of Uganda, or the butchers of Kigali, Rwanda, remembered as the most notorious perpetrators of brutality.

It is against this background that we look at the nexus of Islam, international terrorism, and development.  The issue of international terrorism was brought to global attention during and after the September 11 attack. In my testimony on Africa and international terrorism before the US House of Representatives subcommittee on Africa several weeks before the end of 2001, I made it categorically clear to the US government that “Africa is the weakest link in the chain of anti-terrorism.” This argument was based on a number of reasons. The first is the weakness of the African states which have little to no military power to withstand internal or external subversion.  Unwise policies, intended to hamper any political resistance or rebellion, deny the calls for democracy and reform, with leaders desperately holding on to power at all costs. This creates a breeding ground for terrorism.

The second reason why Africa is so vulnerable to terrorism is the continent’s economic conditions. Statistical data from the United Nations and the World Bank have painted a bleak picture. The huge number of Africans who are living miserable lives, subsisting on less than one dollar a day, creates ample possibilities for the political manipulation of African youth. They are recruited by foreign or domestic groups that care nothing about African peace and prosperity, who tap the wells of frustration and then exploit the reality of little to no economic opportunity available to these young people.  The likes of Charles Taylor of Liberia, Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone, and Joseph Kone of Uganda create armies of child-soldiers.  There must be developed practical means of weaning young Africans from the tentacles of domestic terror groups like those just mentioned or international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda.  Africa’s political, social, and economic development is inextricably linked to security and stability. This can only be established by the containment, if not outright elimination, of domestic and international terrorism.

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The third reason why Africa is the weakest link in the war against international terrorism lies in the low level of political and social cohesion, with African society split into varied ethnic, regional, religious, and class formations.  One evidence for this state of affairs is the growing divide between the different religious communities. Thousands have died because of religious riots, and the poisonous rhetoric and religious intolerance, with or without foreign backers, have continued unabated. There is a growing presence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rooted in, and financed by, religious groups that are stalwart not only in the propagation of their beliefs but also in the stigmatization of their rivals. This state of affairs is more prevalent in some countries than others. Where such practices prevail, opportunity is created for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The fourth reason that Africa is a weak link in the efforts against international terrorism lies in the opportunistic willingness of African intellectuals to compromise their ideals. Struggling to maintain a respectable lifestyle in the face of declining economies, and determined to be relevant in the social narrative, many  African intellectuals and scholars have consciously or unconsciously mortgaged their souls and imaginations to foreign organisations whose visions may or may not tally with the dreams and aspirations of the African society. What makes the betrayal by the educated classes so tragic and deadly is that their flirtation with those NGOs, secular or religious, drafts them into the role of an accomplice in the exploitation of the masses and radicalisation of some of their fellow citizens.  NGOs that go beyond propagation of their ideologies and policies and engage in divisive activities foment dissension, impeding cooperation and collaboration. Such NGOs continuously plant the seeds of discord in order to gain advantages over their rivals.

It is important to consider the phenomenon of global solidarity of Muslims. Upon examination, we note that North Africa, Nigeria, the Horn of Africa, East Africa and South Africa have been consistent in the affirmation of support to other Muslims whose societies are undergoing severe political upheavals. This faith-based connectedness can be used for good, for purposes of the pursuit of development and peace; or for ill by groups that agitate and divide. There is need for an enquiry into the nature of such networks and how they can be tapped for peaceful purposes, for development. Without taking action, these groups, such as Hizb ul Tahrir and the affiliates of al-Qaeda, will continue peddling their destructive propaganda. The evidence is strong that many of the foreign insurgents in Iraq were African Muslims, mainly from the east Africa coast. This fact is known to US authorities and attempts have been made to stem the flow.  Although scholars are not in a position to ascertain the numbers and extent of African involvement, they can shed light on the conditions that obtain in the region, the attitudes and policies of the ruling elites, and the receptivity of the Muslim groups to political engagement —  all are crucial elements in the fight against international terrorism in Africa.

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Concluding remarks

First, it should be stated that Islam, as a belief system and a way of life, cannot be linked doctrinally to terrorism. Hiraba, unlawful warfare or the perpetration of violence by those who seek to challenge the social or political system, is behavior that falls beyond the pale of the sharia. Such activities are associated with “spreading disorder in the land,” whether as insurrectionists or highway robbers.  Secondly, terrorism has been demystified and disconnected from its metaphysical roots largely because of the activities of the nationalist/leftist groups that emerged during the liberation struggle in the Third World. Since the rise of the Iranian Islamic Republic in 1979 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the groups that are described as terroristic have become more heterogeneous.  Now, however, we are witnessing the return of metaphysical-based terrorist activity after its displacement by the secular forces of the last century.

The third important point to note is that development in African societies is inextricably linked to the stability of the international system. Africa cannot survive without the international system because of its precarious position politically and economically. Somalia is an interesting example of the paradoxical nature of the interconnectedness of nations, particularly of the US and the Muslim world. As a result of the American humanitarian involvement in Somalia under Operation Restore Hope, Somalis are now scattered across the face of the earth. This unprecedented development of a Somali Diaspora has potentially positive and negative consequences for both the US and Somalia.

Finally, it is important to note that international terrorism of the al-Qaeda variety is not likely to gain ground in Africa. Although the continent is vulnerable to external penetration, the legitimacy of Osama Bin Laden is bankrupt, as his theological arguments are counterfeit. While al-Qaeda taps on the frustrations of Muslims across the globe, its indiscriminate and un-Islamic violence will ultimately undermine its success.


By Dr Sulayman Nyang


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