The child refugees of Africa

Ashley Gilbertson writes: Last year, the news media focused intensely on the European refugee crisis. Some 800,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to Greece, many fleeing wars we had a hand in creating, in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Each segment of their journey was carefully documented by thousands of reporters and photographers.

But there is another humanitarian crisis in Europe we have heard much less about: the roughly 200,000 migrants and refugees who left Africa for Italy since last year. This year alone, some 2,000 have died while making the voyage.

No one gets excited by an epidemic of despair. Some African refugees — largely from Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Ivory Coast and Guinea — are escaping wars, but others are fleeing despots, corruption and poverty, a tapestry of problems that have plagued the Continent for generations. When they arrive here in Sicily, they face an overloaded system that is unable to meet their needs.

In May, I spent a week in Sicily with a team from Unicef taking photographs and interviewing those who have made the journey. In the island’s capital, Palermo, I met Peace, a 17-year-old Nigerian living in a shelter for girls. She fled home after being told she would have to marry a 40-year-old man. “This man took me to his house and made me his house girl,” Peace said. “I said to my aunt, ‘He’s older than my dad,’ but she said, ‘If you don’t marry this man, I will poison you.’ ”

Peace traveled to Agadez, Niger, a waypoint where smugglers load migrants into crowded trucks to cross into Libya. “So many people died in the desert. We saw dead bodies, skeletons,” she said. Upon arriving in Libya, she was locked in a windowless room for six weeks. “There was no water, no changes of clothes, not enough food. There was fighting outside, I could hear shooting.”

Libya is particularly brutal on migrants. Boys are set to work by local residents at backbreaking jobs in construction and in the fields for less than $5 a day until they earn enough to afford the $1,500 passage. Girls are often forced into sex work. “They used to rape us and beat us,” said Tsenga, an Eritrean woman who today lives at a sprawling refugee camp in Sicily. “The girls cried, they cried bitterly. They cried because they are just children.” [Continue reading…]

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Al-Qaeda affiliates are threatening West Africa’s most peaceful cities

The Washington Post reports: In a city where nightclubs and mosques coexist peacefully, Islamist violence long felt like a foreign problem — something residents watched on news clips from the Middle East or other parts of ­Africa.

“We just didn’t worry very much about it,” said Abdullaye Diene, the deputy imam of the country’s largest mosque. “Here you can spend your nights drinking at the disco and then shake the hand of the imam.”

But Senegal and its neighbors are facing a new threat from extremists moving far from their traditional strongholds in northwest Africa. Since November, militant groups have killed dozens of people in assaults on hotels, cafes and a beachside resort in West Africa, passing through porous borders with impunity.

The attacks have occurred in countries that had been rebounding from political turbulence, such as Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Now fears of such bloodshed are growing in this pro-Western democracy, which serves as a ­regional hub for international ­organizations. [Continue reading…]

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With Iran-backed conversions, Shiites gain ground in Africa

The Wall Street Journal reports: Walking from classroom to classroom at the Ahl ul Bayt Linguistic Center, which teaches Arabic and Islam, director Ahmed Tijani pointed at his students, a mixture of teens and young adults.

“This one is Shiite, these ones are also Shiite,” he said. “And these ones, they are still Sunni.”

Mr. Tijani, whose office in the Cameroonian capital is decorated with an Iranian flag and a poster of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also once a Sunni Muslim. Then he made the life-changing choice of enrolling at a similar Iranian-funded academy in the coastal city of Douala.

Since converting to Shiite Islam a decade ago, the 39-year-old educator has risen through the ranks, establishing this school in Yaoundé and even visiting Iran on a government-sponsored trip in 2012.

“There is a big difference between Shiite Islam and Sunni Islam,” he said. “Only the Shiites are spreading the truth.”

Such sectarian talk used to be exceedingly rare in much of Africa. So were actual Shiites. The few who could be found in Africa belonged to immigrant communities from Lebanon or the Indian subcontinent. Now, parts of the continent’s Sunni Muslim heartland are living through the biggest wave of Sunni-to-Shiite conversions since many Sunni tribes of southern Iraq adopted Shiism in the 19th century.

Hard figures are difficult to come by. But in Nigeria alone, Africa’s most populous nation, some 12% of its 90-million-strong Muslim population have identified themselves as Shiite in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, up from virtually zero in 1980. The number is 21% for the Muslims of Chad, 20% for Tanzania, and 8% for Ghana, according to the survey.

That demographic change is occurring just as the Muslim world becomes increasingly polarized along sectarian lines, with Saudi Arabia, a self-proclaimed standard-bearer of the Sunni cause, engaged in proxy struggles from Yemen to Syria to Bahrain against a rival axis led by Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

“The core of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation over power and territory is in the Middle East. But West African Shiites are of symbolic value to Iran, for it to be able to say that its vision of Islam is expanding rather than shrinking. They give Iran more of a claim that they’re able to speak for Muslims in the whole world,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of a book on the Shiite revival. [Continue reading…]

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Riots, slowdown and corruption eat away at southern Africa’s promise

By Stephen Chan, SOAS, University of London

These are dark days for southern Africa. The last month has seen xenophobic riots and killings in Zambia, once an almost immaculately peaceful country, and the reinstatement of several hundred corruption charges which could be delivered against South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma.

Times have changed in Zambia since its first president, Kenneth Kaunda, galvanised the country’s 72 ethnic groups (not counting European and Indian populations) into a united nation. During his decades in power, he defied the white minority regimes to his south, Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa. He hosted the exile headquarters of the ANC and sheltered the Namibian exile group SWAPO, whose country South Africa occupied in defiance of the UN.

Landlocked Zambia took a terrible hammering as the white regimes controlled its transport links to the sea. From time to time there were military incursions into Lusaka, the capital city – yet the Zambians took it all with a stoicism born of genuine solidarity.

But times have changed. Kaunda’s successors have not developed their own moral stature, and the country has been badly mismanaged.

[Read more…]

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Refugee crisis focus shifts to North Africa

Der Spiegel reports: Abdul Kadir Mohamed Moalim has seen hell. Originally from Somalia, a country ravaged by civil war, he traveled via a refugee camp in Yemen and then to Libya. From there, he crossed the Mediterranean to Europe.

On April 16, an overloaded wooden vessel capsized on the high seas and only a few people on board managed to survive. Moalim was one of them. Now, he is in Kalamata, the Greek city that rescuers brought him to. In an interview conducted there by the BBC, he was asked if he had a message for those still in Africa who are waiting for their opportunity to flee to Europe. His answer: “It’s so dangerous,” he said. “You have to believe in your country and … stay where you are.”

Moalim bore witness to a tragedy in which up to 500 Somalis, Sudanese and Ethiopians drowned, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). That would make it the worst such accident of the last 12 months. In April 2015, a fishing boat sank while on its way from Libya toward Italy and up to 800 men, women and children died. Then, too, most of the victims were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Europe continues to focus primarily on the war refugees coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is often forgotten that increasing numbers of people from countries south of the Sahara are trying to head north as well. In 2015 alone, according to the European Union border control agency Frontex, 108,000 Africans made their way illegally to Europe. That represents an increase of 42 percent over 2014 — and experts believe the total is but a harbinger of what Europe may soon be facing. [Continue reading…]

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Africa and the drama of migration

Tidiane Kassé writes: Migration is as old as Africa itself. People have always moved in search of a better life. The economic crisis in Africa fueled by development policies imposed on the continent by the World Bank, IMF and other donors is one of the factors forcing some Africans to undertake dangerous journeys to Europe in an attempt to improve their lot.

In some African cultures, travel is an initiatory act. One becomes a man when he leaves his family to go far to discover other people and other cultures, to confront the real world realities. This means going away from the comfort and care of a mother, far from the protection of a father. Going away is getting more experiences; coming back is enriching one’s group with what was learned in the other world. This culture brands the Soninkés – a crossborder community living between Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. In this area, the villages are empty. The houses resonate essentially with the laughter of women and children screaming. The men left. They migrated elsewhere. Soninkés are one of the most mobile people in Africa. Their mobility has lasted since the empire of Ghana (8th – 11th century).

In Diawara, a Soninké village located 800 kilometers from Dakar, more than 50 per cent of the population are French nationals. Almost all of them are returning migrants, who came back to resettle in their land of origin once their European or African courses ended. Those who have not returned yet left their wives and their offspring in luxurious residences. The houses that grow in Diawara breathe an unsuspected comfort. TV, refrigerator, air conditioner, etc., are behind the walls. So far from Dakar, in a rural area where poverty affects 70 per cent of the population, one cannot imagine this state of affairs.

Each month, from France, Germany, Italy or elsewhere, migrants send money for the monthly expense. Medical expenses, tuition, everything goes to ensure the family is taken care of. In Soninkés community, success in emigration is measured by the ease in which the family is left in the village. Remittances are considerable. In 2015, the World Bank estimated money transfers from emigration to $601 billion, including $441 billion to developing countries. In Senegal, around $2 billion has fueled this circuit. This represents more than the Official Development Assistance (ODA).

The money sent is not just for families. It also contributes to community development. Since the implementation of financial recovery plans imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the 1980s African states have turned their back on social development investments, building neither hospitals nor health centers, schools, etc., but privatizing and firing hundreds and hundreds workers instead. These policies have began to change today. Africa is a continent where, for ten years, the growth rate turned at around 5 per cent, but the damage of the past is immeasurable. Reconstruction is difficult. [Continue reading…]

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UN says up to 500 migrants may have drowned on their way to Italy

The Washington Post reports: As many as 500 migrants seeking a better future in Europe may have drowned last week in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, U.N. refugee officials said Wednesday.

If true, the toll would make the incident one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants over the last year.

On Tuesday, a team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spoke with some of the 41 survivors of the alleged accident who had arrived at Kalamata, a Greek town on the Peloponnese Peninsula, the U.N. agency said in a statement.

“If confirmed, as many as 500 people may have lost their lives when a large ship went down in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy,” said the agency.

The survivors included 37 men, three women and a 3-year-old child. They were from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. All were rescued by a merchant ship that then brought them to Greece. [Continue reading…]

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Refugees at sea: Surviving one of the deadliest routes to Europe

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U.S. strikes in Somalia kill 150 Shabab fighters

The New York Times reports: The fighters had just completed “training for a large-scale attack” against American and African Union forces, said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Pentagon officials would not say how they knew that the Shabab fighters killed on Saturday were training for an attack on United States and African Union forces, but the militant group is believed to be under heavy American surveillance.

The Shabab fighters were standing in formation at a facility the Pentagon called Camp Raso, 120 miles north of Mogadishu, when the American warplanes struck on Saturday, officials said, acting on information gleaned from intelligence sources in the area and from American spy planes. One intelligence agency assessed that the toll might have been higher had the strike happened earlier in the ceremony. Apparently, some fighters were filtering away from the event when the bombing began.

The strike was another escalation in what has become the latest battleground in the Obama administration’s war against terror: Africa. The United States and its allies are focused on combating the spread of the Islamic State in Libya, and American officials estimate that with an influx of men from Iraq, Syria and Tunisia, the Islamic State’s forces in Libya have swelled to as many as 6,500 fighters, allowing the group to capture a 150-mile stretch of coastline over the past year.

The arrival of the Islamic State in Libya has sparked fears that the group’s reach could spread to other North African countries, and the United States is increasingly trying to prevent that. American forces are now helping to combat Al Qaeda in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso; Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad; and the Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, in what has become a multifront war against militant Islam in Africa. [Continue reading…]

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The world’s most cutting-edge renewable tech is powering rural Africa

Quartz reports: Distributed power — where electricity is generated locally, instead of delivered via complex grid infrastructure — makes lots of sense for Africa. About 600 million Africans don’t have electricity. But sunlight is a widely available resource across most of the continent, making distributed solar power one of the more sensible options for electrification.

Plenty of companies see the potential. This has made parts of Africa a testing ground for cutting-edge solar power. Some countries are developing a whole new type of infrastructure not seen elsewhere in the world: mobile-phone-led, flexible, and controlled by the user rather than big utilities and government.

“We are now seeing the first innovation where the leading technologies are actually being deployed in Africa, not being deployed in the mainstream West,” said Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of Azuri Technologies. Azuri is based in Cambridge, UK, and installs rent-to-buy solar systems for homes in Tanzania and several other sub-Saharan states. Power from the panels are paid for by mobile phone or scratchcard. The payments also serve as installments towards owning the system outright. After about 18 months the homeowner has typically paid off the cost of the panels, or can buy them for a very small sum (say, $5). [Continue reading…]

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Why Burkina Faso is a choice target as al-Qaeda bids to reclaim stolen thunder

By Berny Sèbe, University of Birmingham

The latest terror attack in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, on Friday 15 January, announced the bloody entry of an al-Qaeda franchise into a country that had so far been spared the traumas of radical Islamism.

At first glance, this looks like the spillover from a wider conflict with militant Islamists across North and West Africa – but the attacks have as much to do with Burkina Faso itself as with global jihadist movements and their goals.

Nestled just underneath Mali and Niger in West Africa, Burkina Faso is still in the midst of a democratic transition which began in 2014 with the ousting of its president of 27 years, Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré was a towering regional figure: having orchestrated the assassination of his predecessor Thomas Sankara in 1987, he changed course and made his country a staunch ally of the West.

As abductions by militant groups in the region steadily mounted from the early 2000s onwards, he became a go-to negotiator whenever Western powers tried to free hostages held in the Sahara. Ouagadougou became a natural base for negotiations and regional dealmaking, whilst at the same time remaining a crucial logistical base for the French army.

[Read more…]

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Burkina Faso attack demonstrates al Qaeda revival in Africa

CNN reports: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, often seen as a fractured and undisciplined group, apparently has carried out its second major terror attack in two months — claiming more than 20 lives in the assault on a luxury hotel and two other targets in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

The gun attack on the Splendid Hotel bears many similarities to that on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, on November 20 in which 22 people were killed.

Both targets were popular with Westerners and international (especially U.N). officials; they were “soft,” rather than military installations or police stations. The attackers (two in Bamako, possibly four in Ouagadougou) were armed with automatic weapons, their aim to kill and then take as many hostages as possible.

And both operations apparently were carried out by an AQIM group called Al Mourabitoun.

The group’s statement after the latest attack claimed the Splendid Hotel was “frequented by staff of the nations of global disbelief;” the attack was “to punish the cross-worshippers for their crimes against our people in Central Africa, Mali, and other lands of the Muslims.” [Continue reading…]

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Mokhtar Belmokhtar, ‘The Uncatchable’ desert jihadist

AFP reports: Wily one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed the attack on a hotel in Burkina Faso, shot to global notoriety with a spectacular assault on an Algerian gas field in 2013, but had long been known as “The Uncatchable”.

Washington has offered a $5 million (4.7 million euros) bounty for the 43-year-old, born and bred in the Algerian desert, and of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region straddling the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar who is most wanted.

He was behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south of his homeland, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed.

And his Al-Murabitoun group, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, also claimed responsibility for the jihadist siege at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako that left 20 dead in November, including 14 foreigners. [Continue reading…]

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Jihadists deepen collaboration in North Africa

The New York Times reports: A group of light armored vehicles skated over the moonscape of the Sahara, part of one of the largest detachments the French military has deployed here since colonial times. Its mission is growing ever more urgent: to cut smuggling routes used by jihadists who have turned this inhospitable terrain into a sprawling security challenge for African and international forces alike.

Many of the extremist groups are affiliates of Al Qaeda, which has had roots in North Africa since the 1990s. With the recent introduction of Islamic State franchises, the jihadist push has been marked by increasing, sometimes heated, competition.

But, analysts and military officials say, there is also deepening collaboration among groups using modern communications and a sophisticated system of roving trainers to share military tactics, media strategies and ways of transferring money.

Their threat has grown as Libya — with its ungoverned spaces, oil, ports, and proximity to Europe and the Middle East — becomes a budding hub of operations for both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to reach deeper into Africa.

And as Africa’s jihadists come under the wing of distant and more powerful patrons, officials fear that they are extending their reach and stitching together their ambitions, turning once-local actors into pan-national threats. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS owns headlines, but Nigeria’s Boko Haram kills more than ever

NBC News reports: One terror group killed nearly 11,000 people in 2015 — and it wasn’t ISIS.

While the Sunni militants in Syria and Iraq dominated the headlines in 2015, Boko Haram was killing more people than ever — potentially eclipsing the tally of its partner in terror.

Nigeria’s new government pledged to oust Boko Haram and has boasted of successfully retaking territory from the extremists, but experts warn this might merely have forced the group to change tactics and possibly prompted a higher civilian casualty toll. [Continue reading…]

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