Recently, we have seen a series of attacks on churches in Mali and threats made against Christians by jihadists warning them that they should not meet to pray.
There is a real risk that we could see in countries such as Mali, Niger and even Burkina Faso a replication of what has happened in Northern Nigeria. The implementation of sharia enforcement by Northern Nigerian states that began in 1999 was followed in 2002 by the creation of Boko Haram, which called for all of Nigeria to become an Islamic state and a year later declared a jihad against the government.
Boko Haram initially claimed Christians would be “safe”. However, in 2006 65 Christians were killed and 57 churches burnt down in riots supposedly sparked by a Danish magazine publishing cartoons of Muhammad the previous year.
Since then Boko Haram have murdered thousands of people, both security forces and Christians and repeatedly attacked churches and their religiously cleansing of Christians has now spread across the border to Northern Cameroon.
More recently Fulani herdsman have also joined in attacks on the Christian villages, so that by 2014 more people were being killed in Nigeria than any other country.
That is a pattern that now seems to be repeating itself elsewhere in West Africa, with an increasing number of jihadist attacks in countries such as Mali and Niger which now appear to have moved on to the stage of specifically targeting Christians. So, why is this happening?
First, there is a rivalry in the region between groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria who a few years ago swore allegiance to Islamic State (IS), and al Qaeda (AQ) linked groups who are now emboldened as they see Islamic State collapsing in its middle eastern heartland.
Secondly, for more than a decade al Qaeda has exploited local Muslim grievances to encourage various tribal groups to engage in jihad. For example, the Tuareg bitterly resent the imposition of national boundaries that cut across their traditional nomadic routes and were therefore encouraged by a Qaeda to fight alongside AQ linked groups in 2012 and declare northern Mali an independent state until French military intervention the following year led to a “peace” accord.
Thirdly, al Qaeda is specifically exploiting the history of this region which until the nineteenth century contained a number of jihadist kingdoms. In the last year or so Al Qaeda has cleverly rebranded itself as a federation of groups with local names such as the Katina Macina group in Mali. The name refers to a Fulani jihadist state which existed until 1862 in southern–central Mali, where Christians are now being attacked.
Countries such as Niger and Mali have historically had relatively tolerant forms of Islam, but have now seen hundreds of attacks by al Qaeda linked groups this year. What we are now seeing in terms of attacks on Christians there has deeply disturbing parallels to what we earlier saw in Northern Nigeria.
In 2012 a large Muslim mob burnt down a church in Zinder, Niger’s second city. Then in January 2015 over seventy churches were destroyed and ten people killed in riots closely paralleled those seen in Northern Nigeria in 2006. The Niger attacks occurred after Charlie Hebdo, French satirical magazine, published an edition focused on Islam in response to jihadists attacking its Paris’ offices.
Significantly, the riots saw all the churches in Zinder and 55 of those in the capital city Niamey destroyed, suggesting that this was a deliberate plan of religious cleansing of the tiny Christian minority in Niger. Nor, was this a one off event, further attacks on churches occurred last year which led to four Christians being killed.
Now, we are seeing a similar pattern of attacks on Christians starting to emerge in Mali, with Christians being warned by militants not to gather to pray. Since September several churches in Mali’s central Mopti region have been ransacked and set on fire. In February jihadists kidnapped a Columbian nun working in the country. Then last month at least three churches in the central region of Mali were visited by jihadists who desecrated the church and warned Christians not to meet for worship. Significantly, this was not in northern Mali which Islamist rebels took over in 2012, but in the central area.
International governments and the UN all need to wake up to the fact that religious cleansing of Christians is not just happening in Iraq and Syria it is a very real threat in West Africa.