This week saw yet another horrific attack by extremist Islamist militants. 148 students at Garissa university in Northern Kenya were slaughtered by four men from the Somalian jihadist group al-Shabab. The men broke into the campus before killing students in their classrooms and dorm rooms, separating Muslims from Christians as they went. It took hours for the Kenyan army to regain control of the situation, and parents are still faced with the task of identifying the victims. It was as brutal, personal, and on the same mass scale as an attack that left me similarly lost for words five months ago. So who is al-Shabaab, and why are they fighting a war in Kenya? Continue reading
For the second week in a row, it looks like I’ve been wrong. Luckily for me, I’m in good company. The mistake goes back to when President Goodluck Jonathan Nigeria postponed the Nigerian elections for six weeks in February, giving the Boko Haram insurgency as an excuse. I – along with the actual experts – scoffed at the idea that six weeks would be enough time to deal with the conflict that had been so drastically neglected by his government. I also suggested that violence would be likely to follow once the elections actually took place. Yet here we are six weeks later, and Boko Haram is apparently badly damaged, and elections have gone ahead peacefully – leading to the victory of General Muhammadu Buhari. So what difference did six weeks make? What was Goodluck Jonathan’s best decision of his presidency? And how will his successor govern?
As so many have pointed out on social media, the massacre at Charlie Hebdo wasn’t the only such horror to take place in recent days. This week reports began to reach the outside world of atrocities in Borno State in northern Nigeria, committed by the Islamist group Boko Haram. It appears that after overrunning a military base in the town of Baga, the militants went on a rampage of burning and killing. Despite what some reports on social media have said, it’s still unknown how many were killed, with guesses ranging from 150 to 2000. So why do we know so little about what’s going on? And why is the Nigerian government doing so little? Continue reading
Bob Geldof’s got the band back together to release a new version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise funds for fighting the Ebola outbreak. Just like the original version, released in 1984 to raise money for the victims of the Ethiopian famine, this year’s version (Band Aid 30) features a whole group of celebrities, from Bono to X-Factor runners up. But as soon as it was released, the song came under fire from commentators in both the West and Africa, who saw it as patronising and a lyrical ‘White Man’s Burden‘. So what are the problems with the song? And how should we react when the West tries to help the Rest? Continue reading
No. We’ll probably be fine. West Africa on the other hand might not be. The Ebola outbreak in the region has been covered extensively in the media, far more than any other African epidemic. At the same time though, the global community has been slow to react with aid to the nations struggling to deal with a flood of cases and paralysed infrastructure. So what is Ebola, and should we really be so scared of it? What is happening in West Africa? And what is the world doing about it? Continue reading
On Monday Nigeria received the first news in weeks of 200 girls who had been kidnapped from their school in the north of the country. Boko Haram, the Islamist organisation that has terrorised the country in recent months, released a statement saying that they would “sell them in the market” because they should “get married”. The news sent a shock around the world, and brought attention to the plight of people in Nigeria’s north. So who are Boko Haram? How has the government responded? And why can such a group get any support in Africa’s biggest nation?
The attack took place last month on the 14th of April, in remote Borno state. Boko Haram arrived in trucks at a girls school, where hundreds of schoolgirls aged 15-18 lived in dormitories. The militants proceeded to round up as many of them as they could, before burning down the school. The girls were then driven off into the bush, and nothing has been heard from them since.
Boko Haram’s statement on Monday confirmed the worst fears of the families of the girls. The leader of the Taliban-like extremists declared that the schoolgirls had been taken as slaves, and that they would be sold on the market. “God instructed me to sell them, they are his properties and I will carry out his instructions”. According to him, the girls should be getting married as soon as they can have children, instead of getting an education.
So who is this group? Boko Haram is an Islamist movement that has been carrying on a low-level insurgency since 2009 that flared up violently in 2013-14. They stand for an incredibly extreme and medieval version of Islam, have little interaction with other local Muslims, and reject all contact with the West. In a bizarre interview one of their previous leaders told the BBC that evolution was a lie and that the earth was flat. Whether he actually believed this was another question. However, it is certain that they especially despise Western-style education. Boko Haram can even be interpreted as “Western-education is forbidden”. As a result their worst attacks have been on schools. In numerous night attacks they have entered dormitories to murder dozens of students in their beds, as well as carrying out suicide bomb attacks throughout their powerbase in the Muslim north of Nigeria.
Their extreme violence has left the government struggling to cope, and northerners have felt ignored and left behind by President Goodluck Jonathan. In the weeks after the event he barely mentioned the kidnapping, with one advisor merely calling it “unfortunate, embarrassing and evil”. The word order is telling. The kidnapping has once again exposed the lack of funding devastating the Nigerian army and police. Soldiers on the frontline complain that the militants are better armed than they are, and police are regularly seen on the streets begging for handouts. Faced with this lack of resources, the President has been embarrassingly eclipsed by his wife, whose efforts to involve herself in the search for the girls has gained the media spotlight, as well as infuriating many other politicians. The main opposition party accused her of putting on a “distracting, absurd and overbearing show”.
Unfortunately for the families of the girls – and Goodluck Jonathan – there is no quick fix for the situation. The schoolgirls have most likely been taken to remote parts of the country, near the border with Cameroon. Even with international assistance arriving, the chances of getting them back without a deal being made are slim. The deeper rooted causes of Boko Haram’s support are even harder to combat. The fact that such an extreme organisation has even a small amount of support shows badly the Muslim north is marginalised. The lack of government support for education and health has alienated many, and it may be a long time before Boko Haram’s shocking ideology fails to attract any more followers.
Earlier in January I wrote about the French intervention in the Central African Republic, and the causes of the terrible violence there. Unfortunately my pessimism regarding the effectiveness of the French has been justified in the short-term. Violence has only gotten worse, as the capital Bangui is torn apart by lynch mobs. So what exactly is happening now? Is there any hope for improvement? And why do these terrible things always seem happen in Africa?
Firstly a short recap of the events in the CAR though. As you might remember from my earlier post, the country descended into chaos after a Muslim rebel group, the Seleka, came to power, disturbing the religious balance of the country. Christian militias known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete) were set up to protect Christians, and in effect the country turned to anarchy with no effective government. Last time I wrote on the CAR the Muslim president had just resigned, but unfortunately that hasn’t yet helped the situation.
This situation is one of horrific violence and brutality. The Seleka have been forced into retreat, and many of their leaders are heading for the border with Chad, protected by Chadian peacekeepers. The Muslim population has been left to fend for itself. In Bangui the mob violence is extreme, and happening right under the eyes of the French soldiers there. A director of Human Rights Watch described a mob killing and then mutilating two Muslim men while French soldiers stood by. In other cases however the French stepped in. The BBC’s Thomas Fessy saw a Muslim man rescued from the mob by two soldiers, who had to fire in the air to keep the anti-balaka back (video). Meanwhile the Seleka and Muslim mobs have committed their share of atrocities, in a constant back-and-forth of death.
So will the new president and the international community be able to bring a halt to this violence? This is a task which is gets harder by the day. The new president is Catherine Samba-Panza. She has been mayor of Bangui and a founder of a successful women’s rights organisation. She is a good choice, but her challenges are enormous. I wrote about some of the structural problems of the country in my first post on the CAR, but the immediate problem now is the effect of the violence on the population.
Incredible hatred has sprung up between the Christians and Muslims. The BBC’s Paul Wood interviewed a man whose pregnant wife had been killed by Muslims. He had then joined a lynch mob and murdered a Muslim man, before completely devouring the man’s leg, in an act of extreme cannibalism not yet seen in this conflict. I’m not telling this story merely as a shocking detail. Too often we do this with African conflicts: shudder at the violence like we might at a horror film, before turning away again. But this incident shows the incredible hatred that can arise out of anarchy and ethnic or religious clashes. When asked why he had eaten the man’s leg, the killer simply said “Because I was angry”. This is the sort of anger that breeds, that passes on like a disease, and that can destroy a country. Though there are many good ideas for strategies to help rebuild the CAR, it is this kind of anger and hate that they will have to deal with.
As a final thought, many will read this and think “It’s just Africa…” without wondering why. Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, and now the Central African Republic; why does this almost unbelievable level of violence seem so common there? This is of course a hugely complex question which can’t easily be answered here, but I have a few quick thoughts on the so-called ‘uniqueness’ of Africa.
Firstly, these are just the African countries that grab the headlines. There are plenty of countries like Zambia, Tanzania or Namibia that have nothing like this sort of trouble. The Western tendency to see Africa as a ‘country’ is an easy trap to fall into. Secondly, the situation that this level of violence arises in is generally (not always though) a situation of anarchy. If we look back to a sustained period of anarchy in Europe, the Thirty Years War, we see many of the same signs. Murder, rape, and even cannibalism; when the institutions of government and society fall away, people in constant fear for their lives and surrounded by violence will turn to terrible things. This is true no matter where the people involved come from.
It will take time and well-thought out assistance from the international community to help rebuild the CAR. In the short term more troops may help to suppress the violence, and allow for work to be done on putting the country back together. In the long term more sophisticated help will be needed. However, through all of this the people of the CAR will somehow need to recover from the fear and hatred that dominates at the moment, and find the strength to work for reconciliation.
This last thought of ‘why always Africa?’, and whether it is true or not, is a subject I hope to return to in a later post.