Africa's Belt of Misery: Religion and Climate Change Fuel Chaos in Sahel

By Horand Knaup

Bloody conflicts in a band of Africa stretching from Senegal to Somalia are hampering efforts to bring progress to the troubled region. Muslims are increasingly pitted against Christians, and nomads against sedentary farmers. Matters are made worse by climate change and a flood of weapons.

Photo Gallery: Violence in the Sahel Photos
AP

The imam climbs across the wreckage that was once his home. Then he bends over. "These are criminals," he mumbles as he pushes aside a few bricks with his calloused hands.

It was the same thing that had already happened so many times since last summer. Shortly before dawn, the residents of Kauda could hear the dull roar of an ancient Antonov airplane belonging to the Sudanese Air Force as it approached the town. Then the bombs fell. One landed right in front of Ismail Alokori's house. The 60-year-old cleric was lucky because the bomb only destroyed his house. A neighbor was hit by shattered wood and lost her leg.

Kauda is in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, the border region between Sudan and South Sudan, which gained its independence last summer. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been waging a bombing war against his own people in South Kordofan for almost a year. The bombing is punishment for resisting government oppression, for challenging a manipulated gubernatorial election and for refusing to give up their weapons -- and because they have always been tolerant Muslims, as opposed to Bashir, who is a fundamentalist. The government of South Sudan has now sent in troops to help protect the Nuba people from Bashir's soldiers.

Last week, American movie star George Clooney testified before the US Senate about his experiences in the combat zone. He had gone to Sudan to draw attention to the conflict.

But the feud in the Nuba Mountains is only one of an entire series of bloody conflicts stretching roughly along the 10th parallel north across the entire African continent, from Somalia on the Indian Ocean to Senegal on the Atlantic.

A Region Cursed by War

For more than a decade, a zone of violence, misery and anarchy unparalleled throughout the world has formed along this geographic divide. It has developed into a huge, virtually lawless region in which the law of the strongest applies, claims are asserted with AK-47s and governments have largely lost control over rules and conventions. Instead, trigger-happy clans, religious fanatics and unscrupulous soldiers shape life in the region.

Millions of Africans are on the run in this death belt, fleeing violence, drought and hunger. They have become stranded in refugee camps such as those in Dadaab, Kenya, and Yida, South Sudan. They are kept alive by the United Nations World Food Programme, which has been issuing increasingly dramatic warnings at shorter and shorter intervals.

The regions along the 10th parallel north, which divides the dry Sahel zone from the wet tropical regions of Africa, have never been home to peace. There have always been confrontations there, between Arab conquerors and indigenous people, or between herdsmen and sedentary farmers. These conflicts have always been about assimilating and standing apart, about water for people and animals, and about the dividing line between Christianity and Islam.

Chaos from East to West

But there has never been this much war across the entire continent, stretching from East to West Africa. Starting in Somalia, warlords, pirates and Islamic militants belonging to al-Shabab turned the country into an ungovernable chaos years ago.

Neighboring Kenya, once Africa's model country, has also allowed itself to be drawn into the conflict and is now embroiled in a heated battle for territory with the radical Islamic militias -- a war that seems unwinnable by either side.

A little farther to the west, the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border between Sudan and South Sudan is the longest and among the world's most dangerous lines of conflict. Armored units from both sides face off in the disputed regions of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. What's more, unless the governments can soon agree on a peaceful distribution of oil reserves, the two countries can expect their respective economies to collapse.

Even farther to the west is Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. Islamists with the extremist Muslim sect Boko Haram are currently bombing Nigeria to the point of being ungovernable. There are already signs of a division into a Muslim north and a Christian south.

In Mali, government troops are fighting on three fronts against Tuareg rebels, who receive support and weapons from Libya. Europeans and North Americans can no longer travel in large parts of Mali, Mauritania and Niger unless they want to risk being kidnapped by Islamist groups or criminal gangs.

Even countries that were once regional anchors of stability, such as Senegal, have degenerated into scenes of bloody conflict. The decision by 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade to amend the constitution so as to allow himself to run for a third term has pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

The Breakdown of Traditions of Cohesion

What's going on along the southern edge of the Sahel? What has led to this dramatic accumulation of conflicts, hunger and waves of refugees at the beginning of the new millennium?

Austere living conditions, mass migrations and religious fanatics are, in fact, nothing new in this zone south of the Sahara Desert and north of the equator.

But there have always been special forms of assimilation and compromise between Arabs and black Africans, as well as between herders and farmers. The trade routes were avenues of communication and convergence. Christians and Muslims tolerated each other, and wandering nomads and sedentary farmers took advantage of each other's lifestyles in ways that benefited them both.

But now the time-tested understandings have broken down, old rules no longer apply and traditions have lost their cohesive force. Several generations of politicians have tried but failed to transform the euphoria of the independence phase that began more than half a century ago into a period of growth for all. To make matters worse, the region has endured a series of periods marked by droughts, which has made life even more difficult than it already was for millions of farmers and cattle herders.

The Causes of Violence

The most recent conflicts in Nigeria began in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, where supporters of the sect staged their initial attacks, targeting police posts and other government institutions for the first time. Maiduguri is in the bitterly poor state of Borno, not far from the border with Niger and Chad. It is one of the hottest and poorest parts of Nigeria. Likewise, it sees very little of the wealth of the south, which produces 2.1 million barrels of crude oil a day.

In this remote part of the country, Mohammed Yusuf, the founder and spiritual leader of Boko Haram (whose name means "Western education is sinful") established his state within a state some 10 years ago. Before being murdered by security forces in 2009, he had gained hundreds of supporters. His small realm was a response to rampant corruption, incompetent politicians and rapidly growing poverty. The overwhelmingly young men the preacher had gathered around himself turned against a secular nation and the West, "which echoes long-standing mistrust in northern Nigeria of colonial and Christian influence carried through schooling," according to a 2010 report on Nigeria by the International Crisis Group.

Maiduguri is a case in point for how religion, poverty, lack of education and, eventually, violence are interconnected.

The city, which is not far from Lake Chad, was once a flourishing center for slave dealers and salt merchants. Today, 1.2 million people inhabit its squalid neighborhoods. Maiduguri is still renowned in the Islamic world for its Koranic schools. Parents send their children to the city's madrassas from far and wide, even from as far as Chad and Cameroon. About 5,000 religious schools are registered in the entire state, but most are in Maiduguri.

Koranic Schools

Malam Goni, located on the banks of the municipal canal, is one of these schools. Some 320 children, including 50 girls, receive Koranic instruction there. Most are young children, usually between 7 and 11 years old, but children as young as five are also accepted. The school grounds cover an area of about 500 square meters (5,400 square feet), and garbage is piled up against the walls. Classes are held under a corrugated metal roof meant to shield the children from sun and rain. At night, the children sleep on grass mats tightly packed together under the roof -- without mattresses, blankets or pillows.

The instruction has only one goal: teaching students to be able to recite as much of the Koran as possible. Arithmetic? "No, we don't teach arithmetic," says Ibrahim Goni, the school's director. History? "Yes," says Goni, "Islam and the history of the Middle East." The students also learn Arabic so they can read the Koran, but science or other foreign languages are not part of the curriculum. Still, Goni says, that doesn't matter because "only those who have mastered the Koran are capable of higher things."

The school has modest funds, with only 10 percent of parents paying tuition. There are no textbooks, and the pupils write on old slates. Is there lunch? "The boys go out to get their food," Goni says. In other words, those who want to eat have to beg for it in the streets. This is one of the reasons why there are so many children to be seen wandering Maiduguri's streets.

A Demographic Time Bomb

The blatant poverty stands in stark contrast to political leaders who treat foreign aid as an invitation to stuff their own pockets. Until recently, the senior official in the region was a governor who bought votes with cash and turned down World Bank projects unless the aid money was paid directly into his private account.

In this symbiotic mix of poverty, corruption and religious zeal, about the only things that thrive are desperation and radical ideas, of which Boko Haram has plenty. Within a few years, the group has grown from having a few hundred supporters to attracting tens of thousands throughout northeastern Nigeria.

"Poverty is the basic problem," says Abubakar Muazu, a lecturer in political science at the University of Maiduguri, "and so is religion. For many men, having four wives and 30 children is normal. There are often fertility contests among the wives." Since no one can feed this many children, they are forced to leave home and start to beg. "Of course, they become difficult as soon as they're older, and they become a time bomb," Muazu says.

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