Although religious based conflicts are often associated with the Middle East, they also occur in Africa. Such conflicts are more common in northern parts of Africa in countries such as Libya, Sudan and Egypt. It is noteworthy that though Sub-Saharan Africa faces a number of conflicts, for a long time such conflicts have had little to do with religion. Recent news of violence in Central African Republic (CAR), bombings and attacks in Kenya as well as the Boko Haram situation in Nigeria reveal religious undertones that have boiled over precipitating violent reactions.
With exception of cases of ethnic and political tensions, Kenya has been relatively peaceful, until the Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin (Al-Shabaab) struck. Al Shabaab rose from the militant wing of Somali Council of Islamic Courts which ruled the southern parts of Somali in 2006 until they were subdued by Ethiopian forces in 2007. Despite defeat, Al Shabaab has continued insurgencies against the current Somali Federal Government (SFG) and other countries like Kenya and Uganda who are fighting it under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). They have frequently claimed responsibility for a series of attacks, such as the Westgate siege in 2013 and the Lamu killings in 2014 in Kenya and an attack on two restaurants in 2010 in Uganda. The Kenyan authorities fear that a vigilante group in the coastal area, Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), has established links with Al-Shabaab. The police claim that both groups were responsible for the execution of over 100 people in Lamu. MRC is a group of secessionists who are fighting for the autonomy of the coastal region with the mantra ‘Mombasa si Kenya’ meaning Mombasa is not part of Kenya. Such calls arise from feelings of exclusion of the coastal people who are mainly Muslim.
Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda' Awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad) a.k.a. Boko Haram (Western education is forbidden), is another militant Islamist movement based in the north eastern state of Borno with the intention of creating an Islam state and to stay off western influence in Nigeria. They blame westernization of the country for problems such as corruption, poverty and marginalization. The group is linked to the Arewa People's Congress (APC), a militia group with a similar ideology. Before July 2009 Boko Haram was largely peaceful until the police began an operation to flush the group out leading to revenge attacks. Subsequently over 700 people died in confrontations and the founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody. Later in 2010 they regrouped under new leadership and attacked a prison releasing its members. Since then Boko Haram has reigned havoc using sophisticated weapons and explosives. In August 2011 they attacked UN offices in Abuja killing over 10 staff and injuring many more. Such attacks have been growing and the influence of Boko Haram widening. They are believed to have links with Al-Qaeda and are extending into Cameroon, Niger, Chad and CAR.
In CAR the political crisis has taken a religious dimension. Christians loyal to the former President Francois Bozize formed militant groups anti Balaka (against Machetes) which they use to attack and kill Muslims in their homes as they blame them for murdering fellow Christians. Seleka, an alliance of rebel militia factions that overthrew the government, came about as a result of oppression and human rights abuses in the northern part of CAR by the Bozize government. The group led by Michel Djotodia, took over power from Bozize in March 2013 and presided over persecution of Christians. Michel Djotodia stepped down under intense international pressure. A former Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza then took over as the first female president. Despite her appeals for peace, the sectarian war has continued. The involvement of Chadian and French troops has not quelled the situation as there are more claims of human rights abuse and killings by security forces and militias.
Religious based conflicts in Africa are on the rise. These are mostly instigated by fundamentalists of one religious group against another. Muslim extremists have oft invoked the Qu’ran and the Jihad ideology in their acts of violence. However a close look at the Qu’ran shows little evidence of support for violence. Jihad which means strive in Islam is about making efforts to subdue oppression using religion. Similar to the Qu’ran, the Bible encourages peace and forgiveness (Mathew 5:38-39 and 22:40).
So if religion does not promote violence what does? The above cases in Kenya, Nigeria and CAR speak to causes other than Islamic extremism. In all the situations there is some form of injustice - real or perceived. The victims have some common characteristics such as ethnic origins, religious affiliations, economic status or geographic locations. A sense of persecution or marginalization can lead to radicalization and/or militarisation of a small group which then influences a larger populace against a common enemy, whether through force, persuasion or propaganda. Governments or other powerful groups are then branded enemies. This is the situation the US finds itself in. According to Michael Mukasey a former US attorney general,
“The first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993…the 9/11 attacks, and those in the dozen years since—all were fuelled by Islamist hatred for the U.S. and its values.”
Most governments resort to the use of force to fight extremists but such efforts are usually met with more hatred and possible emergence of splinter groups or affiliations. There is also a high affinity to link with other like minded groups within and across borders for more resources and clout.
In conclusion, religious based violence in Africa and elsewhere cannot be solved with violence or revenge. The international community and religious groups have the duty of preaching peace and tolerance but also ensure lasting solutions to historical injustices. If unchecked these conflicts can spiral, cross borders and cause more catastrophes.
Written by Victor Oteku and published on 14-October-2014