Fulani and Jihad in West Africa: a complex relationship

With Islamist extremism on the rise in several regions of West Africa, Fulani communities are purported to be front and center. In Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, Fulani groups have been accused of waging jihad, supporting terrorists, and committing genocide of Christians. Security forces attempting to root out terrorists have reportedly targeted Fulani communities based on their perceived support for jihadists.

Fulani are associated with modern Islamist movements in part because they are perceived to have strong historical ties to jihad. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, several prominent Fulani individuals and groups waged jihadist revolutions across West Africa, including in Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria. These revolutions shaped the region and continue to exert strong historical and cultural influence today.

In Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, Fulani groups have been accused of waging jihad, supporting terrorists, and committing genocide of Christians.

In the chapter I contributed to Extremisms in Africa Vol 3, I attempted to set the record straight regarding perceived links between Fulani and jihad in West Africa. By exploring case studies from both the 18th and 19th centuries and from modern day movements, it aimed to identify the role that Fulani individuals and groups have played and continue to play in jihadist movements in West Africa. Ultimately, I wanted to explore the strength of the foundation on which perceived equivalencies between Fulani and jihad are based.

Starting with a historical review, I discovered that Fulani individuals and groups were instrumental players in most of the successful jihadist movements in West Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With Fulani elites triggering the jihadist revolutions that brought about the Fuuta Djallon Imamate, the Sokoto Caliphate, and the Macina Empire, jihad in the region had become fully associated with the Fulani by the end of the 18th century.

However, a closer look revealed that jihadist leaders catered to an ethnically diverse group of supporters, and that narratives at this time were often based on a broader ideology rather than ethnic affiliation and loyalty. As a result, many of the fighters in these movements were not Fulani. Additionally, there are examples of jihadist leaders antagonizing and attacking Fulani communities that disagreed with them, and there are several incidents of Fulani communities and subclans refusing to participate in the jihads – for example, Mbororo groups.

Starting with a historical review, I discovered that Fulani individuals and groups were instrumental players in most of the successful jihadist movements in West Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Moreover, modern jihadist movements in these regions differ from their historical counterparts in several important ways. Contemporary movements advocate for a strict and literal Salafi interpretation of Islam, while historic movements were waged under the more inclusive Sufi tradition practiced by the majority of Fulani Muslims. Twenty-first century jihadist leaders also demonstrate more ethnic diversity than their 18th and 19th century counterparts, with group leaders coming from Arab-Berber, Tuareg, and Kanuri ethnic groups in addition to Fulani. Contemporary jihadist campaigns also cater more to lower- and working-class individuals, while historic jihadist movements were predominantly waged by elite groups and clans.

Some analysis of modern jihadist movements in West Africa points to outsized Fulani participation. Fulani are reported to be disproportionately represented amongst some jihadist groups in the central Sahel, and there is evidence of both Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliated armed groups specifically targeting Fulani communities to recruit fighters.

Yet other evidence challenges this picture. Analysts note that jihadist groups in West Africa today lack popular support, even in Fulani-majority areas, and that they represent only a “tiny fraction” of the population. Contemporary jihadist groups often cater to non-Fulani populations and have even attacked and preyed upon Fulani communities. In addition, there are several areas of the region where Fulani are a prominent minority that have not experienced jihadist movements or violent extremism. For example, Guinea, the country with the largest Fulani minority in West Africa, is not affected by jihadism and Fulani groups there are not and have not been particularly involved in violent conflicts.

There is evidence of both Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliated armed groups specifically targeting Fulani communities to recruit fighters.

The aim of my chapter was to set the record straight regarding alleged links between Fulani and jihad, but as it turns out, the record is not straight at all. Allegations of robust links between Fulani groups and jihadist movements are difficult to substantiate due to the dynamic, complex nature of the regional context. The social, economic and geographic diversity within Fulani groups, the ethnic diversity among contemporary jihadist leaders in the region, and the predominantly socio-economic drivers of jihad in West Africa (both in the past and in the present) all complicate attempts to draw direct links between Fulani communities and modern jihadist movements. In this context, the value that highlighting such links can bring to efforts to fight terrorism in the region is extremely limited.

Conversely, the risk that such narratives will yield false equivalencies between Fulani communities and jihadist movements presents significant threats to efforts to combat the spread of Islamist extremism in West Africa. False equivalencies between Fulani and jihad, which are already common, have fueled and will continue to fuel actions against innocent civilians based on ethnic identity, which in turn breeds resentment and grievance on which jihadists can draw in their attempts to recruit new fighters for their causes. The deliberate ethnic targeting of Fulani by security and counterterrorism forces, which is taking place across the region, will breed resentment and grievance among Fulani communities, including among those who originally stood opposed to jihad.

The aim of my chapter was to set the record straight regarding alleged links between Fulani and jihad, but as it turns out, the record is not straight at all.

The relationship between Fulani groups and jihadist movements in West Africa is, and has always been, extremely complex. Narratives implying a simple relationship are harmful, both to efforts to combat the spread of violent extremism, and to broader policies and programmes aimed at stabilising and developing the region. Scholars, policymakers and practitioners interested in reducing violence in the region should avoid ethnic narratives and focus instead on understanding and addressing the political and economic drivers of the phenomenon.

 

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MADELINE VELLTURO is a research analyst with Stimson’s Protecting Civilians in Conflict programme. Her portfolio includes United Nations peacekeeping and multilateral institutions, as well as African geopolitics, with a focus on the Sahel region and an emphasis on pastoralism and herder-farmer conflict. She received a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, focusing on international security policy and conflict resolution. Madeline lived for several years in Accra, where she founded a series of creative writing workshops for at-risk urban youth. She has also lived and worked in Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda with local non-profit organisations in the fields of peacebuilding, literacy, entrepreneurship and public health. Madeline holds a Bachelor’s from Bryn Mawr College.

Why interventions in African conflicts must be aware of hybrid political orders

The following article provides a brief summary of some of the key points covered by Bethany in her chapter contribution to Extremisms in Africa Vol 3 entitled: Hybridity and Fragmentation: Implications for Regional Security Policy in the Sahel and Beyond.

Many of Africa’s most significant challenges today are at their core political in nature, with policies developed in response centering on the incentives and priorities of the elite political class at the geopolitical, national and subnational level. The Sahel is a cruel microcosm of these dynamics.

Elite-driven necropolitics, practices that ultimately decrease human security and increase the prevalence of low and high level conflict, are prone to security sector abuses, politicisation and securitisation of ethnicity, weak peripheries and ”strong” centres, pluralistic security environments featuring statutory and non-statutory actors, and overall erosion of state legitimacy and capacity to handle complex cross-border emergencies.

As militancy and extremisms spread across the continent, we also see an over prioritisation of counter-terrorism (CT) activities, often at the expense of local community needs. CT missions developed at the geopolitical and national level are often misaligned with localised community challenges, creating wedges instead of seams. These efforts have largely failed to achieve decreases in violence and predation – by state and non-state actors alike.

As militancy and extremisms spread across the continent, we also see an over prioritisation of counter-terrorism (CT) activities, often at the expense of local community needs.

The resulting disillusionment and increases in armed community mobilisation creates fertile ground for militant opportunism, and heightens distrust between the state and the community. Though my chapter focuses on the dynamics of hybrid political and security governance in Sahelian West Africa, these umbrella dynamics are legible across the continent in strong and weak states, and serve as both precursor and covariates to manifestations of violent extremism.

All political orders contain elements of hybridity. It is the arrangement of power within these systems that impacts their function and long-term stability. Some define hybrid orders as states where the informal has been injected into the formal, to the detriment of government function. I argue instead that these orders are a spectrum of continuity, where formal and customary reinforce each other’s weaknesses.

Though these hybrid systems contribute to a facade of stability and statehood, they are in reality quite brittle. The constellation of elite bargains and concessions that lend to “function” in peace time, lend to disfunction as violent conflict escalates. Violent extremist organisations (VEOs) take advantage of hybridity and the grievances and weaknesses engendered within to recruit and entrap communities distant from positive state power and presence.

The resulting disillusionment and increases in armed community mobilisation creates fertile ground for militant opportunism, and heightens distrust between the state and the community.

This is particularly relevant from a centre-periphery context, where the outskirts and porous/under- and alternatively governed areas are more likely to have locally driven security and economic relationships with Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) and (potentially) VEO groups. Proximity does not entail support – these local relationships have little to nothing to do with the parochial, globalised agendas espoused by extremist organisations. For instance, local actors will exploit the chaos stirred up by the arrival of jihadists to settle old scores, and engage in the types of escalating intercommunal violence we see in central Mali.

Policy that does not take into consideration how trust, legitimacy, and continuity in governance (both formal and informal) condition the security environment, risk inflaming the vulnerabilities of these hybrid orders rather than taking advantage of potential sources of stability in this complicated, insecure context.

For example, in Niger, inclusion of traditional authorities in the formal government system created continuity between local communities and the state, with chieftains serving as the trusted interlocutor between customary and formal institutions. These traditional actors serve as the connective tissue, the middle space, the seam of governance. It is thus no surprise that the jihadists have targeted local chiefs for assassination and kidnapping, seeking to decouple the relationship between state actors and local communities. In their absence, the hybrid system collapses, pitting community and state priorities at odds.

In Niger, inclusion of traditional authorities in the formal government system created continuity between local communities and the state, with chieftains serving as the trusted interlocutor between customary and formal institutions.

The targeted violence against traditional authorities reflects how aware violent actors are of the positive potential these leaders have as bridges between the community and the state. Customary authorities are critical to area access, to resource management, to conflict resolution. When non-state actors co-opt traditional leaders, they gain access to decision-making processes that further legitimise their position as a governance alternative to the state. As a result, communities bordering the conflict zone are forced to negotiate with these actors for their security. These forced negotiations create an aura of complicity that sets the stage for state security sector abuses of these communities out of suspicion that they are aiding the militants.

Similar dynamics took place in northeast Nigeria, as communities found themselves between Boko Haram and aggressive counterterrorism responses from state and non-state actors alike. The inability of pro-state forces to secure communities, and their subsequent targeting of the same erodes perceived legitimacy of the state. By attacking or co-opting the connective tissue of trust, legitimacy, and continuity of governance, militants have the potential to replace these functions with their own, isolating and endangering communities the state seeks to recapture.

In seeking to address the dynamics laid out above, focus should be on bottom up solutions. Unfortunately, the bottom is quite large, and governance and security resources are scarce. The role of external actors is a further complication, the coordination of which my colleague Stephen Buchanan-Clarke speaks to in his chapter on the escalation of extremist violence in Southern Africa in Extremisms in Africa Vol 3.

When non-state actors co-opt traditional leaders, they gain access to decision-making processes that further legitimise their position as a governance alternative to the state.

Policymakers need to prioritise securing communities for localised stabilisation to take root, reducing intercommunal violence and increasing intercommunal trust, and promoting efforts to realign state security policy towards meeting the security and governance needs of communities outside the capital, while at the same time achieving substantive counter-terrorism gains.

While the Sahel trajectory continues its worrisome spiral, prevention is still possible in the Littoral states. However, rather than solely focusing on preventing individual radicalisation and expanding counter-terrorism capacity, policymakers need to internalise the lessons from the Sahel.

Local matters

Despite years of emphasis on “top down and bottom up” policy responses, the social infrastructure needed to resist militant-driven insecurity is that which has been most neglected by both the state and international intervention – the hyperlocal and historical mechanisms for conflict resolution and inter-communal violence reduction.

Interventions in African conflicts must be hybridity aware, managing the inherent vulnerabilities of hybrid order, identifying fulcrum points in the trajectories of hybridity, and developing pluralistic and inclusive capacity to solve collective action problems – be they terrorism, illicit trafficking, or escalating conflicts over dwindling resources.

 

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BETHANY L. MCGANN serves as research and project manager for the RESOLVE Network, the research component of the Countering Violent Extremism team within the Center for Applied Conflict Transformation at the United States Institute of Peace. Her research focuses on issues of hybrid security governance and non-state actors in sub-Saharan Africa. She has led the design and implementation of multi-year desk and field studies funded by the United States Agency for International Development, which have focused on Sahelian sub-state hybrid armed actors, militias and local security assemblages. She contributed the Africa paper for the 2019 West Point Student Conference on US Affairs. Her most recent research was cited in New America’s 2019 Annual Terrorism Assessment. Bethany holds a Master’s in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, and a Bachelor’s in Government and International Affairs from Smith College. (The views in this publication are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the RESOLVE Network, its partners, the United States Institute of Peace, or any American government agency.)

Building Human Security in Times of Crisis

Traditional security thinking places the State as the primary entity which needs to be protected from external military threats. Territorial integrity is considered a fundamental value and any threats to it endanger national sovereignty. Security is seen as a zero-sum game, and the more a state invests in military capability, the more it guarantees its security.

As argued by Peoples and Williams (2015), this state-centric approach still largely determines how governments consider and practise security despite being wholly ill-suited to the modern challenges facing the well-being and survival of peoples and states today. These challenges are internal and transnational in nature, and include things such as disease epidemics, food scarcity, climate change and environmental degradation, disruptive 4IR technologies, mass illegal migration, and transnational crime.

As shown in Good Governance Africa’s (GGAs) Wicked Conversation blog series on the COVID-19 pandemic, in times of unique crisis and social unrest, as we are experiencing today, governments too often place their survival first, narrowing the security agenda, instead of widening it and building human security which centres the citizen.

This state-centric approach still largely determines how governments consider and practise security despite being wholly ill-suited to the modern challenges facing the well-being and survival of peoples and states today.

The same has been true in how states routinely react to the threat posed by violent extremism organisations (VEOs) and other non-state armed groups (NSAGs). Rather than appreciating that violent extremism is the product of deeper and more complex social and economic problems, as well as both international and transnational in nature, VEOs are treated as traditional security threats which can be defeated by overwhelming military force.

Over the last two decades, several major military interventions have sought to stem the spread of groups such as al Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) and their affiliates, while an extensive web of conventions, laws, and institutions have proliferated to try and deny terrorist actors the ability to mobilize, finance, travel, communicate, and recruit. The estimated costs of the United States’ counterterrorism efforts alone since the al Qaeda-led attacks on 9/11 is around $6.4 trillion USD. While these interventions have had limited successes in certain contexts, overall they have failed to halt the spread of violent extremism and associated acts of terrorism either globally or in Africa primarily because they have sought to address the symptom and not the underlying problem.

In times of unique crisis and social unrest, as we are experiencing today, governments too often place their survival first.

Mozambique is a recent example. In response to a growing civil conflict in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province over the last three years, the government attempted to overwhelm the militants with force, jailed journalists, closed civil society spaces, and made it difficult for humanitarian workers to access communities most in need of food and medical support. The effect has been an almost complete closure of space for citizens to air their grievances in a non-violent manner, increased poverty and fragility, and a consequent surge in recruitment and deepening of the insurgency.

In August 2020, GGA published the third instalment of Extremisms in Africa, an anthology collection of 44 chapters with contributions from a variety of leading experts in their respective fields on understanding and addressing violent extremism and other non-state armed groups on the continent.

What became clear to us is that VEOs are just one set of actors among many which collectively determine the life cycle of a given conflict. They usually emerge and/or spread in regions where they are able to exploit extant political, social, and economic grievances which have already frayed the social contract, and where poor or absent governance, corruption, and access to illicit arms and financial flows allow them to operate with relative ease.

They usually emerge and/or spread in regions where they are able to exploit extant political, social, and economic grievances which have already frayed the social contract, and where poor or absent governance, corruption, and access to illicit arms and financial flows allow them to operate with relative ease.

In this respect, a single-minded focus on traditional counter-terrorism strategies is not a sustainable solution to The security agenda needs to be widened to take into account the many sources of insecurity facing communities in Africa today and consider aspects such as rule of law, human rights, and economic access.

There is often a resistance by states to thinking about terrorism in these terms because it forces governments to consider their own failings and responsibility for creating the conditions under which violent extremism thrives. As Galtung (1996) and many others have argued, states can act as primary sources of structural violence by imposing restrictions on civilians which oppress their human, political, and social rights in order to safeguard the state system.

A shift from state- and military-centric notions of security to a greater emphasis on human security is contingent on good governance, and in particular, good civil-military relations. These factors are both under threat today in the context of declining democracy on the continent. The overthrow of deeply unpopular President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita by Malian soldiers in August seems to be part of a recent increase in coups which have at first been  met with popular public support but quickly slide into unstable military dictatorships.

States can act as primary sources of structural violence by imposing restrictions on civilians which oppress their human, political, and social rights in order to safeguard the state system.

For military regimes, conflict resolution carries little inherent value and conflicts within their region are often considered purely in terms of how they might advance or hurt their interests, or how they could promote or undermine those of their rivals. This is antithetical to the type of regional cooperation needed to address modern transnational security challenges, and is deeply undermining the ability of our regional bodies to advance peace and security.

Over the course of the next eight weeks, GGA will be publishing a weekly blog series using this “wicked problem” lens highlighting chapters from the Extremisms in Africa anthology which speak to the complexity of preventing and countering violent extremism and offer solutions at the nexus of development, humanitarian action, and security.

A “wicked problem” is defined by Williams and Van ‘t Hof (2014) as a problem which has “multiple stakeholders involved in complex and unpredictable interactions.” This systems thinking perspective should encourage the reader to not only focus on the actions and motivations of the individual stakeholder (in this case the violent extremist actor) but the root causes of vulnerability, the linkages between multiple stakeholders within a conflict system at the local, national, and regional level, and how these constituent elements comprise the whole of the system.

A “wicked problem” is defined by Williams and Van ‘t Hof (2014) as a problem which has “multiple stakeholders involved in complex and unpredictable interactions.”

Chapters featured will include:

– Hybridity and Fragmentation: Implications for Regional Security Policy in the Sahel and Beyond – Bethany L.  Mcgann

– The Global Health Threat to Human Security: How Pandemics May Set the Scene for Bioterrorism – Craig Moffat

– The Potential Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Human and National Security in Africa – Futhi Luthango

– Using Evidence-Based Research to Directly Improve P/CVE Programming: A Case Study of a Social Network Analysis in Somalia – Fatma Ahmed, Laura Nettleton & Jem Thomas

– The Libya Crisis and the Need for African Ownership of Peace and Security Processes on the Continent – Lebogang Seshoka

– Neocolonial/Colonial Extremes: Defining Direct Colonialism, Reaction and Resistance in Contemporary Ambazonia and Western Sahara- Matt Meyer

– Fulani and Jihad: The Argument Against Simplistic Narratives in West Africa – Madeline Vellturo

– The Escalation of Extremist Violence in Southern Africa and the Need for More Collaborative Security Responses – Stephen Buchanan-Clarke

 

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STEPHEN BUCHANAN-CLARKE is an independent analyst with several years’ experience working in conflict and post-conflict settings in Africa on national security and development issues. He currently serves as Head of Programme for Good Governance Africa’s Human Security & Climate Change Programme, and has been involved in the editing of all three volumes of the Extremisms in Africa series, as well as authoring several chapters.