On Sporadic Radicalism

Last week I participated in the third Marrakech Security Forum which this year focused on “Issues and security consequences of transition in North Africa”. It also included several panels on the consequences for the Sahel region, as well as the problem of drugs trafficking in West Africa. In this well-ordered event organized by Federation Africaine Des etudes Strategiques/Centre Marocain des Etudes Strategiques  there were participants from some 50 countries, about 120 men but only 10 women, clearly indicating the male biased interest in the security business. Participants came chiefly from the MENA region but to quite some extent also from francophone Africa south of the Sahara. It was a crowd of senior diplomats, high rank militaries and professors. It appeared that everyone was a director of one institute or another other. There were naturally also a number of Europeans and Americans. Many of the more than hundred, too brief, presentations were quite general statements on the political situation in North Africa and in the Sahel region. Interestingly U.S. officials and academics choose to humbly downplay the U.S. role in Africa in the years to come, except for in a few strategic countries. French officials raised concern over the situation in Algeria and also talked about the situation in the Sahel as “war” and showed concern for the increasing interconnectedness of militant Islamist groups in the region and all the way down to Nigeria. Participants from Africa South of the Sahara gave quite divergent views on the possibilities of an “African spring”, but the Sahelialists were equally afraid of developments around AQIM, Boko Haram and other radical groups. I gave a broad talk on radicalization in West Africa:

On sporadic radicalism

presentation at the 3rd edition of the Marrakech Security Forum, January 19-22 2012

This month marks 20 years since I first went to Sierra Leone. For the past 15 years I have conducted research on rebel soldiers and militia in Sierra Leone and Liberia. My predominant focus has been on rank and file soldiers, but also more recently on mid-level commanders, a few even trained in Benghazi, Libya under the Gaddafi regime, during the second half of the 1980s. I have also worked a bit on Somalia; mainly focusing on big businessmen who have become wealthy during the war in that country, but also on supporters of al Shabaab. I will spend only a few minutes of your time today as I have chiefly one observation to add to what others have already said during the conference. My observation has implication of how we perceive and deal with groups such as AQIM in the Sahel. I am interested in extremism, political and or religious; Christian and Muslim alike. From an analytic perspective I think we should be careful to separate them.

I have a particular research interest in radical groups of predominantly young men – part of what others here at the conference called the youth bulge, but which for social and political realities on the ground make sense only if we include “youth” well into their thirties (as I and others have argued elsewhere). My experience working with radical rebel elements is that political agendas are secondary to the vast majority. The reason for joining such movements is rather a hunt for fresh social turf, or social platforms; aiming for social mobility and escaping socio-economic marginality. I want to stress that economic motives are not a sufficient explanation. Young people become revolutionary or radical because they want to escape “social death” (ref. Ghassan Hage) – death before dying – experiencing no possibilities of living a worthy life, and thus radically shift their own private life predicament, by the usage of violence and at times radical political rhetoric.

Many are indeed resentful of national leadership and commonly also local leaders. They urge to see rapid social change and consider radical movements, such as rebel groups or militant religious groups as the only opportunity. This goes for rebel groups such as RUF in Sierra Leone, but also for al Shabaab in Somalia or AQIM in the Sahel. BUT they are sporadically radical, the title of a paper that I am currently writing together with Danish anthropologist Henrik Vigh. They are radical for the moment, as there is an opportunity for it – but it ought not to be seen as a constant. That is also a partial reason why we see business and military action hand in hand. Mining, trafficking of drugs or contraband cigarettes, or migrants is as much part of the deal as is for instance religion.

Joining rebel groups is equally about finding security for self and family, but it is most often also a question of morals. It is about contesting the low morals of a dominant other, a national political leadership. That is nothing new as such; we need just to look at historical sources from northern Nigeria, as Murray Last has done, pointing out that Islam has been radicalized over the centuries since it arrived to that region – it has been cyclical. Radical Islam, just as radical version of Christianity come and go, wax and wane and is to quite some extent a, at times, violent commentary on a particular political geography. The current active Boko Haram easily comes to mind, but also semi-formalized groups of Christian and Muslim radicals in other Nigerian cities such as Jos. If we push members of these groups too hard with military, other forms of violence or structural action they have little chance of political reversal, and will no longer be sporadically radical, but enter a state of chronic radicalism as seen in many places across the world today.

Instead we need to work towards the creation of alternative social and, but not only, economic opportunity structures for young marginal citizens whether in Sierra Leone, Somalia or Mali so as they will not see radical movements as their only path to escape social death; you may suggest that they are radically confused (indoctrinated and what not), but they are also in a radical way trying to escape social death.

1 Comment

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