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Factbox: Islam in West Africa

ICC Note

This report by Reuters indicates the role of Islam in West Africa. The growth of Islamic radicalism has increased persecution of Christians Africa. Radical Islam has also posed security threats to many countries in Africa.

06/28/2012 Nigeria (Reuters)-Al Qaeda-linked Islamists declared on Thursday they had secured full control of Mali’s desert north from separatist rebels with whom they had temporarily joined forces to seize territory earlier this year [ID:nL6E8HSFJ7].

Separatist Tuareg-led MNLA rebels and armed Islamist groups, swept through northern Mali in March and April and declared an independent state of “Azawad” in the north after routing the regular troops, in disarray after a March 22 coup in the West African country.

The Tuareg separatists said they wanted an independent secular state while the Islamists said their objective was to impose sharia or Islamic law across the whole of Mali, which mostly follows a moderate form of Islam.

The relationship between the state and Islam differs significantly across western Africa, in part because of variations in the complex interaction between Islam and ethnic politics.

Here is a look at Islam in a few West African countries:


– Islam arrived in sub-Saharan West Africa as early as the 8th century, travelling with Arab traders from North Africa. The Muslim merchants brought trade and goods to exchange for gold and facilitated trade by introducing concepts such as contract law and credit arrangements. They were valued also for the literacy they brought, which African rulers quickly discovered could help them administer their kingdoms.

– Today, countries to the north of the region such as Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali and Niger are predominantly Muslim. To the south of the region, in countries such as modern Ghana, Muslims are in the minority.


– However tension between the two communities has been a part of the landscape of Nigerian politics since independence in 1960 and problems have been exacerbated recently by the election of Goodluck Jonathan as president. He is a Christian southerner, and in the eyes of many Muslim northerners it was a northerner’s turn to rule.

– The shadowy Islamist sect Boko Haram has attacked Christians, possibly hoping to trigger a religious conflict.


– A religious, economic and social force with no real parallel elsewhere, Senegal’s Brotherhoods are a pillar of the moderate Sunni Islam espoused by over 90 percent of the nation who co-exist with minority Christians and others.


– In Mauritania throughout the 1990’s, political liberalization allowed Islamists to participate in elections as participants and the Tawassoul party became a significant minority moderate voice. However there are more hardline Salafi activists in poorer areas.

– However Bamako has accused the Tuaregs of lending support to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) by sharing their desert expertise and navigational skills, opening up their trade networks. It would be impossible for AQIM to operate in northern Mali without some sort of acceptance by the Tuaregs, some Sahel researchers have said.

– AQIM had its roots in Algeria’s Salafist movement, but has pushed south into the lawless Sahel region in recent years where it funds operations by collecting kidnap ransoms and by siphoning off the West African drugs trade. AQIM has established an operating base for itself in the Sahara desert – spanning northern Mali, Niger, Mauritania – by exploiting the vast expanses, official corruption and weak militaries in the region.

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