Jihadist Takeover in West Africa

When the government fails, who will step in to protect their citizens from the growing jihadist insurgencies?

By Nathan Johnson
A jihadist movement is growing in West Africa.
An African grandmother with two of her grandchildren.

This story was originally published in the February issue of ICC’s Persecution magazine.

02/10/2021 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Food, water, land shortages, religion, and extreme poverty are increasing the tensions between once peaceful sectors of societies in West Africa. Eleven of the poorest countries in the world are in West Africa: Benin (25), Guinea (24), Mali (22), Chad (20), Burkina Faso (15), Togo (14), Guinea Bissau (13), Gambia (10), Sierra Leone (9), Liberia (6), and Niger (4). No other area in the world has this high of a percentage of poverty except East Africa.

Complicating these factors and the strain they place on society is the region’s extreme diversity of tribes and languages. Nigeria alone has 250 different ethnic tribes and more than 400 different languages.

All of these factors combined have led to significant issues in many West African nations. These problems have contributed to the rapid growth of violent Islamic extremist groups in the region. These groups include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, Ansar al-Sharia, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, Ansar ul-Islam, Ansaru, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. These groups all currently operate in one or more West African countries.

All of these factors are driving several of the governments in the region towards failed state status. Mali, the center of most of the jihadist groups, lost control over the country’s northern region in 2012. Since then, the government has been unable to regain control and ceded the area to radical Islam as a training and recruitment ground. Given this safe home base, the jihadists have spread violence and terror throughout Mali, Niger, and northern Burkina Faso. This lack of control also led to a successful military coup in September of 2020.

Once a peaceful nation, Burkina Faso has become one of the fastest-growing global humanitarian disasters due to the spread of jihadism from Mali. Beginning in early 2018, jihadist groups started attacking towns in northern Burkina Faso. The government has been unable to stop these attacks, resulting in thousands of deaths and the displacement of nearly one million people.

In response to the growing crisis, Burkina Faso’s government enacted a self-defense bill called the “Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland Act.” This bill allows civilians from around the country to receive two weeks of training, weapons, and communications equipment. They then set up militias to defend their hometowns. Despite the good intentions of this act, it has already cost many innocent lives. Several of these militias have used their new access to weapons and training to attack other villages and towns.

With all the countries in the region lurching toward failed state status, Christians will face an increasingly difficult time. This is especially true as jihadist groups continually gain control over land in these already weak countries. These groups have allegiances to large Islamist terror organizations that seek to destroy Christianity altogether. If these governments fail, these nations will become a persecution hotbed for Christians for years to come.

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