By Tafi Mhaka
It is a fairly mundane Friday morning in March, in Ummari, a small village on the outskirts of Maiduguru, the capital of Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria.
Muslim worshippers are gathered at the local mosque for early morning prayers.
A veiled young lady, who is barely distinguishable from the female traders selling vegetables at the market close by, calmly strides into the holy temple and detonates a home-made bomb.
Hordes of terrified and injured congregants intuitively rush to the relative safety of the yard outside the mosque.
There, a second female bomber is lying in wait for the mortified men and women running scared, and she detonates a second improvised explosive device.
The female suicide bombers kill 24 worshippers and would-be helpers and injure 18.
With the job successfully done, Boko Haram, the spine-chilling West African jihadist outfit, briskly assumes responsibility for the bloody attack.
This is simply another Friday, another day, in the highly volatile Sahel region.
In another part of the vast Sahel region, in March, as well, hundreds of local and foreign tourists gathered in Grand Bassam, a colourful beach about 25km from Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast – are relaxing in the magnificent splendour of the lush green picturesque environs of the south-eastern coastal resort.
Six heavily armed gunmen suddenly storm three busy hotels in the resort area and randomly fire bullets at hotel workers, tourists and bystanders.
At least 18 defenceless beachgoers are gunned down in cold blood by the jihadist militants.
Some 33 people shot by the militias survive the bloody onslaught.
Almost immediately, panic grips Grand Bassam – and Abidjan, as widespread fears of further attacks by Islamic extremists on Ivoirian soil mount.
A few hours later, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), swiftly claims responsibility for the mass murder.
This is simply another run-of-the-mill terrorist attack in the Sahel.
The Sahel, which covers parts of northern Senegal, Southern Mauritania, Central Mali, Northern Burkina Faso, the extreme south of Algeria, Niger, the extreme north of South Sudan, Eritrea, Cameroon, Central Chad, central and southern Sudan, Cameroon, Central African republic and the extreme north of Ethiopia, is a gigantic and active military zone for violent jihadist groups.
“Attacks by AQIM and Boko Haram have killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more within and across national borders. Boko Haram killed 6,500 civilians in in 2014, and 11,000 in 2015, more than were killed by ISIL in Iraq and Syria in the same period,” says a report released by the New York-based Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) in September 2016.
So, why are jihadists running riot in the Sahel?
“The communities of the Sahel face an interrelated set of economic challenges, with chronic stressors, recurring crises, and mounting pressures for land, resources, and employment, making these states amongst the most vulnerable in the world. Niger, Chad and Mali have for many years languished at the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) which measures basic indicators like health, education and standard of living,” says the CSIS report.
Islamic militants in the Sahel often prey on highly-vulnerable and fairly marginalised people, who live in ultra-traditional communities, which are sorely plagued by deep poverty.
An extreme condition that is further exacerbated by strongly-held feelings of exclusion.
“The areas in which violent groups have taken root are among the most disconnected from national political life and basic indicators – child and maternal mortality, level of educational attainment and empowerment of women – are, with few exceptions, significantly worse than national averages”.
Worryingly, for the African Union, the EU and America – ISIL and Al-Qaeda have found their way to the Sahel.
Military setbacks, and sustained losses of territories in traditional stronghold such as Syria and Iraq, have forced the jihadist groups to form fresh alliances in Africa and declare new battlefronts in the Sahel.
This shift to Africa started on October 11 2011: the day Muammar Gaddafi died in Sirte.
The failed transition to democracy following the demise of the long-time Libyan strongman provided ISIL with a platform to establish a military presence in Libya – edging it ever so close to embedding itself in African political affairs.
ISIL, which had managed to secure a stronghold in the city of Sirte, is now battling to hold on to the few remaining military outposts it controls there.
While small bands of ISIL fighters and Al-Qaeda operatives are still operating in the second biggest city in Libya, Benghazi.
The holy crusade in Libya has hardly been profitable for either group, as Libyans are uniting to push out Al-Qaeda and ISIL fighters, and unilateral French military action in parts of Eastern Libya – including Sirte, has put ISIL under increased pressure to abandon its campaign there.
So the Sahel beckons.
Failed states in Mali and Somalia – and failings in systems of governance in East-Central Africa, North Africa and West Africa have gifted religious extremists with fertile grounds to spread their disputed gospels of radical faith.
Young, uneducated and impoverished men – and women – who reside in impoverished communities in the Sahel are easily drawn to radical Islamic groups for a number of reasons, the principal factor being: Working as a jihadist is a job of sorts, and it pays.
“Traditional livelihoods are becoming less viable over time, and at present, there are few other good options. A predominantly young population faces a future with few employment opportunities. For the region’s young men, this also means that their chances of marriage – and hence the social stature of childhood – diminish as well. This factor alone figures prominently in the appeal of violent extreme groups”.
In Mali – long-held political feuds between Malians in the prosperous south and poorer pastoral communities in the north, where the nomadic Tuareg communities reside – have repeatedly triggered much discontent and mistrust – and military conflict.
In 1962 and 1992, the Tuareg rebelled against the civilian authorities in Bamako.
More recently, thousands of fighters, fresh from returning to Mali from fighting in the civil conflict in Libya, staged a rebellion against Bamako in March 2012, under the banner of the national movement for the Liberation of the Azawad: a movement fighting for the independence of Northern Mali.
A month prior to this military insurrection – rogue soldiers forced President Amadou Toumani Toure out of power.
In the days following the ouster of President Toure – Ansar Dine – an Islamic group based in Mali declared war on the government in Bamako.
The political and military situation deteriorated so rapidly, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu – the three biggest cities in Northern Mali – were captured by Azawad rebel forces in three days.
The Azawad expeditiously proclaimed independence from Bamako after the three-day struggle culminated in victory.
But the conflict didn’t end there.
The Azawad were later defeated by Ansar Dine.
And so it went on.
Although the main political parties in Mali later signed a tenuous peace deal promising a devolution of power, the situation in Mali remains ever so shaky.
Powerful actors from Northern Mali, who are working behind the scenes to frustrate moves to forge a national peace and consensus which is all-inclusive, are vehemently opposed to sharing power and wealth with their counterparts in the south – a region which has very little in the way of natural resources.
“Rather than follow through with genuine devolution, successive governments in Bamako have sought instead to conserve resources and manage the north by proxy. Government elites have used patronage and local administrative appointments to co-opt and maintain allies and have supported local militias to exploit ethnic divisions and help neutralise challengers,” say the CSIS.
In Nigeria – where Muslims dominate the north, and Christians are the majority in the south – the factors behind the rise of Islamic extremism are many – and complex.
The country, which “at 180 million, the most populous in Africa – defies easy categorisation. Where there is conflict, it is likely driven by ethnicity, regionalism, land or grazing rights, or by supporters of different political godfathers as it is by religion” the CSIS opines.
Although Nigeria has Africa’s largest economy – states in the north-eastern part of the country like Borno State, where Boko Haram is largely active, have not benefited from Nigeria’s economic gains as much as states in the south have, as they don’t have an abundance of natural resources.
Adding fuel to the proverbial fire burning in people’s hearts there, is the festering stench of rampant corruption and incompetent governance.
“It used to be that if someone from your neighbourhood came home with a really nice car, people would come out to admire it and congratulate the owner,” said an official in Maiduguru. “Now they are more likely to throw stones at it. People are angry, and they assume people with wealth are corrupt”.
It is no wonder drug trafficking is rife in the Sahel.
As competition hots up in the USA and anti-drug agencies are making it hard and expensive for big South American cocaine cartels to sell narcotics there – Europe and Asia – two hugely lucrative markets, have become key destinations.
Massive amounts of cocaine from Peru, Bolivia and Colombia are trafficked through key transit routes in the Sahel.
Heroin from Pakistan and Afghanistan – as well as cannabis, methamphetamines and counterfeit medicine also pass through the Sahel.
According to the World Drug Report 2016 – drug trafficking in West Africa and the Sahel generates about $800 million a year.
The trade in illicit goods also includes the shipment of counterfeit goods and a thriving small arms trade.
The death of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and the ensuing civil strife there, triggered a rise in the small arms trade across the Sahel.
There is also widespread human trafficking and smuggling: a nefarious industry worth $800 million dollars, according to the UN Office of Crime and Drugs.
Thousands of desperate sub-Saharan migrant keen to migrate to Europe are being smuggled to Europe for exorbitant fees of up to $US800 per person.
Thousands of would be migrants are being forced into sex work, forced labour or indentured servitude in markets in Asia and the Middle East.
Thousands of would be migrants, who never leave transit hubs such as Gao and Agadez in Mali for mostly financial reasons, are falling prey to organised criminal elements, who force them into sex work or forced labour.
Lording over the criminal gangs working their black magic in the Sahel are the religious gangs: Boko Haram and AQIM.
Both Islamic groups support a far-right puritanical version of Islam named Wahhabism: a brand of Islam shaped in Saudi Arabia.
Ultra-conservative, austere and fundamentalist are just some of the words used to describe Wahhabism.
The religious movement, which is named after an eighteenth century preacher and scholar named Muhammad Ibn Abd Wahhabism, is strongly supported by Saudi Arabia.
The Middle East nation funds madrasas – Islamic schools, mosques and proponents of this pure form of Islam.
Boko Haram and AIQM have both used a combination of soft power and money to ingratiate themselves with followers of Wahhabism in the communities they thrive in.
Boko Haram used to entice new recruits with promises of micro-finance and one-off payments – as well as money to finance marriage ceremonies – something held in high regard in Borno State, as marriage brings with it pride and status in traditional societies.
The journey into adulthood remains unfinished for young men without a bride to flaunt.
But, when persuasion and financial incentives have fallen short of expectations, both gangs of faith have used brute force to recruit new members.
“Boko Haram came to the boy’s home in a nearby village. They told him to join them. He said no, and they killed his father. The next day they came back. He said no again, and they killed his mother. The next day they came back and said “We will kill all your whole family”. The boy said, “Okay, I will join” recalled a commander of a state task force in Maiduguru.
AIQM, whose roots can be traced to the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, is one of Al-Qaeda’s wealthiest affiliates.
Forced to leave Algeria – the group migrated deep into the Sahel, and has attracted recruits from as far afield as Senegal, Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria.
A 2014 report by Rukmini Callimachi entitled Paying Ransoms, Europe bankrolls Al-Qaeda terror, which was published in the New York Times, alleges that between the period of 2008 and 2014 AQIM received $125 million in ransom payments from European governments.
Internal conflict within the ranks of AQIM led to the creation of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa – MUJAO.
This came after allegations of an Algerian bias and racism towards black African members of the Islamic group surfaced.
Surprisingly, though – members of MUJAO are recruited mostly from the Arab states of Mauritania and Algeria – and the Western Sahel.
Most of its operations are chiefly confined to southern Algeria and northern Mali.
The militant group gained international notoriety when it kidnapped three western aid workers from a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria in 2011.
The hostages were later released in 2012 in exchange for a reported ransom fee of US$18 million.
All three militant groups – Boko Haram, AQIM, and MUJAO, hold no territories, and have been severely weakened by joint regional military interventions, including the Regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJT), which comprises Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, the G-5, as well as strategic military support from France the European Union and America.
The challenges in the Sahel today are multifarious and pose a serious threat to regional, African and global security.
It might yet be time to put a final stop to the horrific tales of these unholy butchers.