Interview: Jesuit journalist on the roots of insurgent violence in Africa—and how faith communities are responding
Across Africa’s vast north from the Horn of Africa westward through the 10-nation Sahel region, violence has been on the rise, contributing to human suffering and political instability that has displaced millions of people. Christopher Chatteris, S.J., a South African journalist and administrator of the Jesuit community in Johannesburg, has been a longtime observer of regional political and security trends in Africa in commentaries for the Jesuit Institute. In an interview with America, he discussed the roots of insurgent violence and growing banditry in northern Africa and his worries about where the current disorder may be heading.
What nations in Africa are currently struggling the most with insurgencies or banditry?
In Nigeria, Boko Haram and other Islamicist extremist violence has been a plague for decades, but criminal gangs and rising clashes between villagers and pastoralists, who are moving livestock for grazing and watering, have created even more suffering. Across Africa’s Sahel region, including Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, Islamic and ethnic insurgencies and criminal violence have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. And al-Shabab extremists still trouble Somalia, Kenya and Mozambique.
If much of the so-called terrorist activity in Africa is fueled by a scramble for resources, could this continent be in for a new “scramble for Africa” by the opposing superpowers?
In Mali, a north-south divide has sparked a Tuareg-led secessionist movement that has resulted in general political instability and led to the intervention of the Russia-based Wagner mercenary group on the side of the central government. The Malian conflict has spilled over into neighboring Burkina Faso. This complicated conflict is fueled by a struggle for control of gold mines and trade routes. There is also an unpleasant ethnic component to the conflict—the government has apparently armed “self defense” militias that emerge from Mossi and Dioula communities, pitting them against Fulani herdsmen who are identified with the Islamicist insurgency. The militias have been accused of using excessive, vigilante force against Fulani people.
Niger is rated as the fastest-growing country in the world and also the poorest. It, too, has experienced the Sahel instability, with groups like Boko Haram operating there and criminal groups competing to control human trafficking routes.
There has been intermittent conflict in the Central African Republic for years, some of which reached the proportions of a civil war. In 2018, there were more than a million displaced people in the Central African Republic, and half the population in this diamond-rich country needed humanitarian aid. Ethnicity and religious affiliation have been instrumentalized by the various groups vying for power.
Observers routinely note that in most of these countries the civil, extremist or criminal violence has been fueled by resource extraction, especially of coltan, a metallic ore used in mobile devices and other modern electronics. That is particularly true in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Why do some nations in Africa appear to have such a tough time containing insurgencies?
The success or failure of insurgent movements is obviously related to the capacity or lack of it in the targeted state. There is a reason insurgencies, for example, in Nigeria seem unstoppable, while in a country like South Africa, they are not able to get off the ground. It’s not for want of trying.
Violence in Nigeria has gone through many phases, but the very troubling present phase is one in which whole areas of the country are under the sway of kidnapping gangs.
Four years after the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, the country experienced a brief spasm of urban, insurgent violence. A splinter group from a Muslim organization set up to counter drug trafficking went rogue and planted bombs in a Cape Town restaurant that was part of the U.S. franchise Planet Hollywood, killing two people and injuring dozens of others. The group claimed that their action was in response to the U.S. cruise missile bombardment of targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, which were in retaliation for the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which 224 people died and 4,000 were injured.
This Cape Town group clearly chose the wrong state at the wrong time. With remarkable speed and efficiency, the gang was rounded up and one individual was rapidly extradited to the United States.
That case throws into relief the more typical picture in the rest of Africa, where we have poorly resourced states with porous borders and vast areas where the writ of the central or even local government hardly runs. It is important to note that geographically, Africa is over three times the area of the United States, while the collective gross domestic product of its 54 countries is only one-sixth that of the United States.
Compare the resources that the United States was able to mount on its so-called war on terror to what the average African state can muster. The United States was able to strike almost anywhere on the globe while many African states struggle to police their own territories.
Once armed and dangerous, an insurgent group can become self-supporting by extorting protection money from the people or they can exploit the local mineral or agricultural resources.
A further contrast between South Africa and other African countries is instructive. The Muslim community in a city like Cape Town is a prosperous, well-established minority community with a rate of unemployment much lower than in the population at large. That meant that the community had nothing to gain from supporting violence originating in its midst and plenty to lose. The speed at which the perpetrators of the bomb attacks were picked up is thought to have happened because they were “shopped” by informers within the Muslim community.
What are the socioeconomic ingredients for a state’s susceptibility to insurgency?
A state that is failed or failing, Somalia, for example, where the population is poor and desperate, the borders are porous and much of the territory is bush, is a place that makes an ideal target for any outlaw group, whether it is motivated by religious zeal or lust for lucre or perhaps a little of both. Financing such a group and procuring its arms is done by tapping into foreign sources—sympathetic governments or wealthy individuals who may wish to undermine the regime of the country.
Once armed and dangerous, an insurgent group can become self-supporting by extorting protection money from the people or they can exploit the local mineral or agricultural resources. Drugs, of course, are an extremely lucrative trade for insurgencies to get into, and even apparently religiously motivated movements like al-Shabab in Somalia have managed to set aside their scruples in this regard. Kidnapping, especially the kidnapping of expatriates, can yield handsome ransoms which are frequently paid but rarely admitted to having been paid.
What are some other drivers of conflict?
Inequality among a nation’s regions or within its ethnic groups and classes also plays a role. In Nigeria, 75 percent of the more Muslim north lives in poverty, while only 23 percent of the more Christian south does. Resentment is a powerful political force, easily manipulated for political ends. Ethnic affiliation and culture also play a part. The Hausa-Fulani herders in the north of Nigeria are mostly Muslims and the Igbo farmers in the South are mostly Christian, but the historical background to this conflict is extraordinarily complex and cannot be reduced to religious or even ethnic identity. The Biafran War (1967-70), during which the predominantly Igbo regions attempted to secede and which saw mass killings of Igbos who had migrated to the north, is still a painful memory.
Inequality among a nation’s regions or within its ethnic groups also plays a role. In Nigeria, 75 percent of the more Muslim north lives in poverty, while only 23 percent of the more Christian south does.
Today, poverty, unemployment and corrupt politics are used by extremists to justify violence. Competition for the all-important resource of land between the herders and farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region is often the spark that ignites the violence between the different ethnic groups.
How are Africa’s faith communities responding?
Religious leaders can bring whatever influence they can to bear on the leaders of the insurgencies and their followers in the interests of peace. The history of the competition for adherents between Christianity and Islam in Africa is a reality that needs to be faced. The fact is both religions regard it as a religious duty to proclaim and spread their respective messages.
In the past this has been done through violence. That is a history which we all have to acknowledge, confront and beg pardon for from God. The ongoing confrontational approach—where, for example, Christians build churches opposite mosques and vice-versa and ring bells or sound the call to prayer while the other faith is assembled for their services—needs to be reassessed. Frankly, we need to grow up and adapt to a multi-religious world.
Ultimately, two religions, both of which have the solemn duty to propagate their faith, will have to formulate codes of conduct for the sake of the peace that they both proclaim is their aim. This movement of reconciliation, which is being pursued in some places such as the Central African Republic, where the political divide breaks along ethnic and religious lines, is a good thing in itself and it will have the long-term effect of pulling the rug from under those who would exploit religious tensions for their own nefarious ends.
Anything else the Chrisitan community especially should focus on?
Christians need to accept that a tendency to think of terrorism as predominantly inspired by a warped view of Islam harbors an unconscious or even conscious Islamophobia. It is therefore worth mentioning that there are secular, and indeed “Christian” groups, whose modus operandi differs very little from al-Shabab or Boko Haram or others who say they are inspired by Islam.
Ultimately, Christianity and Islam, both of which have the solemn duty to propagate their faith, will have to formulate codes of conduct for the sake of the peace that they both proclaim is their aim.
The notoriously brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, which terrorized parts of Uganda and Congo for decades, is a case in point. When it comes to organizations that employ brutal practices like forcing children to become “soldiers,” mass kidnapping of schoolchildren and marching them into the bush where some become the “wives” of their captors, it becomes clear that their religious designations make no sense at all and what we are really dealing with is banditry, plain and simple.
How does that assessment change the political dynamic?
Banditry is as old as humanity, but some observers contend that there is something new to be noted in many of the conflicts between these bandits and the state presently going on in Africa. This phenomenon has been given the designation “new wars” by the academic Mary Kaldor.
In contrast to the wars of national conquest, these new wars often take the form of a “privatization of violence” by ragtag militias led by warlords acting on their own authority. Of course they claim that they are liberation movements or that they want to set up a new religious regime for those who have been persecuted or they are fighting to right other historical or present wrongs.
Perhaps they start out with such ideals, but over time they morph into military businesses, private armies that exist merely to get power and booty for their members. And in a context where there is not much economic opportunity for young men, these groups are not eager to win decisively and disband. They are not strong enough to overthrow the state and take over and so it is in their interests to keep fighting because fighting is all they know and the only gainful occupation they are likely to find.
The country which is most in the global eye on account of the rise of insurgent militias waging these long-term new wars is Nigeria. A few years ago, Nigeria was adjudged the third most terrorized country in the world. The violence there has gone through many phases, but the very troubling present phase is one in which whole areas of the country are under the sway of kidnapping gangs. There are areas through which one does not travel without the fear of being abducted, and these for-profit kidnappings are perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the commercialization of violence. If the violence is lucrative and impunity reigns, why should the perpetrators ever stop?
Does geopolitics play a role in the conflict in Africa?
There is a global dimension to all this. Nigeria is not the only West African country affected by violent insurgency. Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a tour of the African continent, trying, with varying degrees of success, to garner African support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
One of the quid pro quos which he was able to offer countries battling against insurgents was Russian military support. Mali, in particular, is a West African nation that has welcomed Russian Wagner mercenaries and Russian military equipment. The Russian support strengthens a Malian regime that just came to power in a coup in 2021. Once again, the presence of groups for whom war is an explicit business enterprise augurs badly for a rapid return to peace.
Meanwhile, the United States is looking to counter Russian influence in Africa, including militarily. I recently noticed an American military transport aircraft landing at Lusaka in Zambia. If much of the so-called terrorist activity in Africa is fueled by a scramble for resources, could this continent be in for a new “scramble for Africa” by the opposing superpowers?
I hope I am wrong, but the signs are ominous.