Jason Burke reports: It is a war within a war, fought across thousands of miles of desert, scrub and forest, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Indian Ocean coastline.
It pits the Islamic State (Isis), the Iraq and Syria-based group that has expanded deep into Africa since surging to international attention in 2014, against al-Qaida, the veteran extremist group, which has maintained a significant presence in much of the continent in recent years.
Both groups and their affiliates are also fighting an array of armies and counter-terrorist agencies: French soldiers, US special forces, British military trainers, as well as the local armies of a dozen states. Last week, it was revealed the US was building a $50m base for drones in Niger, which is at the very centre of the conflict zone.
But at the same time, the extremist groups are fighting each other. Such internecine struggles between militant groups may seem esoteric to casual observers. But the eventual result will have an enormous impact on the security of dozens of often fragile states in Africa and, more broadly, on the future of Islamic militancy.
Though they share many aims, al-Qaida and Isis have divergent strategic visions and favour dramatically different tactics. Al-Qaida has largely avoided attacks on other Muslims, including Shias, and has sought to build support from local communities. Though still committed to strikes in the west, it does not appear to see a terrorist campaign in Europe or the US as a priority. Isis, also known as Isil, has made other Muslims who do not share its beliefs a key target, often used violence to keep local communities in line, and launched bloody attacks in the west. [Continue reading…]
Bel Trew writes: The smugglers forced the last 100 frightened migrants to board a listing ship at knifepoint. They were 12 kilometers (8 miles) off the Egyptian coast and the battered fishing boat was already packed. The smugglers snarled death threats at the appointed “captain” who refused to set sail for Italy because, with over 450 people on board, the vessel was dangerously overloaded.
One we’ll call Mohamed, because he is only 17, is an impoverished Egyptian tuk-tuk driver who waited on the bow of the crammed ship with a dozen of this friends as the fight erupted. It was 4:00 a.m. and nearly light but the new influx of passengers had sparked panic on deck.
The battered ribs of the ship began to groan as the shifting weight rocked the vessel violently to the side. Locked inside a fish refrigerator in the hold, dozens of people clawed at the walls to get out.
Mohamed and his 15-year-old friend, whom we’ll call Osman, were the first to jump into the churning water after failing to coax their best friend Karim, also 15, to join them. Karim, like many others on board the boat, could not swim.
“From the water I saw something snap on top and the boat suddenly flipped on its side. It was as if it was sucked under the waves,” Mohamed said days later from his impoverished hometown of Green Island, east of Alexandria.
“We watched people drowning each other to get air. The living were floating on the dead,” he added, his voice cracking.
Osman spotted Karim, 15, clutching onto a water bottle. “He was slipping. We tried to reach him. But I looked back and he was gone.”
The two boys, who swam for seven hours looking for land, were among the 163 people dragged out of the water by fishermen, who came to their rescue when the Egyptian coastguard failed to show up.
An estimated 300 people from Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, and Somalia drowned that morning of Sept. 21, although only 202 bodies have so far been recovered. On Tuesday, 33 corpses, some unrecognizable after a week on the sea floor, were pulled out of the hull of the ship, which was finally brought to the surface and towed to shore.
Dozens of Egyptian children like Mohamed were onboard, part of an increasing number of minors leaving alone for Italy, because they cannot be repatriated under Italian law and so can stay to make money to send home.
Over 16,863 unaccompanied children have made the perilous Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Italy so far this year, nearly double the 8,354 who traveled last year, according to an email sent to me by Save The Children. Over 2,666 of those unaccompanied minors were Egyptian, more than triple the 854 who traveled in the same period last year.
Desperation is driving families to urge their young sons to take the deadly 10-day sea trip. A crumbling economy in Egypt, fueled by five years of unrest and political oppression, means few have opportunities if they stay. [Continue reading…]
Nick Turse reports: From high above, Agadez almost blends into the cocoa-colored wasteland that surrounds it. Only when you descend farther can you make out a city that curves around an airfield before fading into the desert. Once a nexus for camel caravans hauling tea and salt across the Sahara, Agadez is now a West African paradise for people smugglers and a way station for refugees and migrants intent on reaching Europe’s shores by any means necessary.
Africans fleeing unrest and poverty are not, however, the only foreigners making their way to this town in the center of Niger. U.S. military documents reveal new information about an American drone base under construction on the outskirts of the city. The long-planned project — considered the most important U.S. military construction effort in Africa, according to formerly secret files obtained by The Intercept through the Freedom of Information Act — is slated to cost $100 million, and is just one of a number of recent American military initiatives in the impoverished nation.
The base is the latest sign, experts say, of an ever-increasing emphasis on counterterror operations in the north and west of the continent. As the only country in the region willing to allow a U.S. base for MQ-9 Reapers — a newer, larger, and potentially more lethal model than the venerable Predator drone — Niger has positioned itself to be the key regional hub for U.S. military operations, with Agadez serving as the premier outpost for launching intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions against a plethora of terror groups. [Continue reading…]
Marc Parry writes: Help us sue the British government for torture. That was the request Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, received in 2008. The idea was both legally improbable and professionally risky. Improbable because the case, then being assembled by human rights lawyers in London, would attempt to hold Britain accountable for atrocities perpetrated 50 years earlier, in pre-independence Kenya. Risky because investigating those misdeeds had already earned Elkins heaps of abuse.
Elkins had come to prominence in 2005 with a book that exhumed one of the nastiest chapters of British imperial history: the suppression of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Her study, Britain’s Gulag, chronicled how the British had battled this anticolonial uprising by confining some 1.5 million Kenyans to a network of detention camps and heavily patrolled villages. It was a tale of systematic violence and high-level cover-ups.
It was also an unconventional first book for a junior scholar. Elkins framed the story as a personal journey of discovery. Her prose seethed with outrage. Britain’s Gulag, titled Imperial Reckoning in the US, earned Elkins a great deal of attention and a Pulitzer prize. But the book polarised scholars. Some praised Elkins for breaking the “code of silence” that had squelched discussion of British imperial violence. Others branded her a self-aggrandising crusader whose overstated findings had relied on sloppy methods and dubious oral testimonies.
By 2008, Elkins’s job was on the line. Her case for tenure, once on the fast track, had been delayed in response to criticism of her work. To secure a permanent position, she needed to make progress on her second book. This would be an ambitious study of violence at the end of the British empire, one that would take her far beyond the controversy that had engulfed her Mau Mau work.
That’s when the phone rang, pulling her back in. A London law firm was preparing to file a reparations claim on behalf of elderly Kenyans who had been tortured in detention camps during the Mau Mau revolt. Elkins’s research had made the suit possible. Now the lawyer running the case wanted her to sign on as an expert witness. Elkins was in the top-floor study of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the call came. She looked at the file boxes around her. “I was supposed to be working on this next book,” she says. “Keep my head down and be an academic. Don’t go out and be on the front page of the paper.”
She said yes. She wanted to rectify injustice. And she stood behind her work. “I was kind of like a dog with a bone,” she says. “I knew I was right.”
What she didn’t know was that the lawsuit would expose a secret: a vast colonial archive that had been hidden for half a century. The files within would be a reminder to historians of just how far a government would go to sanitise its past. And the story Elkins would tell about those papers would once again plunge her into controversy. [Continue reading…]
We continue to witness violent attacks – bombings and murders in France, Germany, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq; fighting in South Sudan and the continued civil war in Syria. These conflicts have renewed interest in the global refugee crisis and the movements of displaced persons around the globe.
The United Nations Human Rights Council announced in June that 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2015. This is a record number and is equal in population to the U.K. or France.
People who have been forced to leave their homes, their nations and occupation against their will are often referred to as “displaced.” And 65.3 million is a lot of displaced people. They are found across the globe in response to crises that range from the social to the environmental, and include Syrian refugees fleeing civil war, Central American children crossing international borders to reach family and security in the U.S., Colombians moving internally to avoid warfare and violence and Filipinos who are forced to relocate in response to changing climates and environmental disasters.
The UNHRC’s report identifies important global patterns that we must acknowledge. But, the overwhelming size of the displaced population reported confounds a complex issue and creates new fears. The numbers overwhelm and make it difficult to define potential solutions.
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…]
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…]
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…]
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.
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…]
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…]