Militias go on a rampage...this should raise concern

Saturday February 01 2020
ansar dine

A file photo taken on August 7, 2012 shows fighters of the Islamic group Ansar Dine standing guard at Kidal airport, northern Mali. PHOTO | ROMARIC OLLO HIEN | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Militias, said to be mostly Islamic militants, are on the rampage in West Africa and the Sahel.

In Nigeria Boko Haram, that three years ago looked like it was on the ropes, for months it has been a killing spree, and its attacks on roads, bridges, and transmission means it has all but cut off the northeastern state of Borno from the rest of Nigeria.

In the Sahel, escalating violence, according to Unicef has forced more than eight million school-aged children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger from school.

Burkina Faso was once of the most peaceful corners of Africa, with the occasional violence coming from soldiers as they staged coups among themselves, leaving the masses alone. It was the land that produces fashionable and beloved revolutionaries like Thomas Sankara. Not anymore.

Closer home, Somalia militant group Al-Shabaab, which looked like it was on its last legs four years ago, is back with a vengeance, sowing terror in Kenya’s northern and coastal regions.

Some aspects of the violence are familiar. In Mali, for example, in 2012, Ansar Dine militants linked to Al-Qaeda, took advantage of a post-coup chaos in the country and hijacked a Tuareg separatist rebellion in the north. They seized several towns, including the historical city of Timbuktu.


To the shock of the world, they laid waste to its rich architectural heritage, torched manuscripts from its famous library dating back as early as 1204, and an indication of how extreme they were, destroyed the tomb of a local Muslim saint.

Mali troops eventually took back Timbuktu and most of the region, but thanks largely to the French army.

The present turn of the tide toward militants should be cause for concern, because there are things that are very different.

The governments in nearly all the countries affected, earned some democratic credits in recent years, having been elected in free or near-free elections, so they should have the mandate to fight back.

Indeed, in Nigeria’s case, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government cashed in some of his democracy dividend cheques, and used the proceeds to push Boko Haram back.

Now, it looks like his account has run dry. It would seem we have reached a point where legitimacy is no longer a sufficient platform to fight back against militants, in part because these governments have failed to build up their economies and stem poverty.

As a result, the states’ inabilities are even more pronounced than they were before, and their diplomatic bankruptcy is starker.

Something bigger

The leaders from the troubled countries were so terrified when French President Emmanuel Macron expressed displeasure at anti-French sentiment in the region, they went and huddled at his feet in Paris, seeking reassurance he wouldn’t withdraw his army.

Secondly, even Boko Haram that once sought to turn Nigeria into a Sharia-ruled country, no longer mouths such ambitions, however misguided they are. Violence is no longer a means of negotiation for something bigger, with these groups, it is a currency with which they buy livelihoods or organise local economic redistribution.

We could be on the cusp of something very strange in the Sahel; a bunch of armed cattle herders upset that their animals died in a drought or some angry youth who were kicked out of a mosque by the sheikh, seizing power!

The author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Twitter@cobbo3