The thinning world: Mali, Nigeria, India

Many powerful states tend to view current global conflicts through the lens of Islamism, and to put military action at the heart of the response. But the deeper roots and character of these conflicts are to be found in poverty and marginalisation, not ideology.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 July 2012

Many ongoing conflicts around the world are characterised by violent events that tend to receive the greatest amount of media and political attention. This means that their deeper and less visible roots can be neglected. Yet it is only by identifying and addressing these that the conflicts can begin to be resolved.

The current tensions in Mali and Nigeria are a case in point. This week has seen the Ansar Dine group which has expanded its control in northern Mali destroy more religious sites in Timbuktu, making the issue of military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) states (possibly supported by France) even more acute (see "Mali: war, Islamism, and intervention", 6 July 2012). This follows reports that three United States special-forces personnel were killed in April 2012 in Mali's capital, Bamako, after Washington had suspended military relations with the government (see Craig Whitlock "Mysterious fatal crash offers rare look at U.S. commando presence in Mali", Washington Post, 9 July 2012).

It is far from clear what the three were doing in Mali. But the incident appears to be part of an evolving situation where the country is being seen as a new front in the conflict with groups linked to al-Qaida. Alongside further violence in Yemen and Somalia, and the struggle involving the Boko Haram group in Nigeria, it reinforces the sense that a reinvigorated transnational conflict with radical Islam is underway.

This focus on Islamism as the main challenge to established order may have some credence, but other recent events in the past week suggest the need to understand these conflicts as manifestations of a wider global phenomenon often discussed in this series of columns: namely, "revolts from the margins" (see "A world on the margin" [21 May 2010]; "The global crisis: between Cairo and Davos" [3 February 2011]; and "Al-Qaida, and a world in balance" [6 June 2011]).

The Indian story

The most notable of these events is the upsurge in violence in India, where many tens of thousands of personnel in the central reserve police force (CRPF) have been engaged for years in trying to subdue the Naxalite rebellion of insurgents adhering to a neo-Maoist ideology. The Naxalites have supporters in more than half of India's states, and are particularly active in Chhattisgarh where the CRPF has deployed 20,000 troops to counter them.

A bitter controversy has arisen over a major CRPF operation on 27-28 June 2012 at Sarkeguda in the eastern region, when a force of several hundred CRPF launched an attack on what was believed to be a major Naxalite gathering. The initial reports claimed that a score of Naxalites - including two key local leaders - had lost their lives in what appeared from Delhi's perspective a successful operation (see "20 Naxalites killed in encounter with CRPF in Chhattisgarh", Times of India, 29 June 2012).

This account was soon being challenged, from the account of the meeting (a gathering drawn from three small villages to discuss religious festivals and crop-planting) to the deaths (twenty civilians, including two 15-year old boys and a 12-year old girl, had been shot by the CRPF, it was said) (see Praful Bidwai, "Atrocities will further fuel Naxalism", Daily Star, 10 July 2012).

The full story is difficult to piece together, but a detailed analysis from multiple sources suggests that Naxalites had been involved in calling the meeting and a few may actually have been present. It is even possible that some Naxalites ambushed CRPF units, though it is also clear that CRPF troops fired on villagers in a protracted action that lasted hours and resulted in many deaths (see Sudha Ramachandran, "Bloodbath mars anti-Maoist 'success'", Asia Times, 10 July 2012).

It is also evident that the Sarkeguda incident belongs to a long, violent conflict that outside India is rarely reported - though India's prime minister Monmohan Singh has described it as the country's greatest internal-security threat. Moreover, the Naxalite rebellion stems in great part from the severe marginalisation of some of India's poorest communities, which are now further pressed by new mining and industrial developments (see "China and India: heartlands of global protest" [8 August 2008], and "India's 21st-century war" [5 November 2009]). Some politicians in New Delhi argue forcefully for the need to address the underlying motivations of the conflict, yet the Indian government's CRPF persists in approaching the issue in terms of a straightforward insurgency in which poverty plays no role.

The larger truth

This contrast in attitudes is paralleled in west Africa, with analysts arguing that military intervention against Ansar Dine in northern Mali will make matters worse and questioning the security-forces' violent response to Boko Haram (see "Al-Qaida franchise: the Nigerian case", 25 August 2011).

The intense debate in Nigeria is reflected in the comment of an influential Christian leader, Ayo Oritsejafor, that the US Congress should extend its designation of Boko Haram leaders as terrorist to cover the whole movement (rather than just three of its leaders). But, even in the context of the group's attacks on Christians, officials in the Barack Obama administration take a different view (see Shaun Tandon, "Nigerian Christian urges US action on Islamic group", AFP 10 July 2012).

Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the House of Representatives foreign-affairs committee that the wider movement must be distinguished from its top leaders. A blanket label "would serve to enhance [the leaders'] status, probably give them greater international notoriety amongst radical Islamic groups, probably lead to more recruiting and probably more assistance."

Carson continued: "Boko Haram thrives because of social and economic problems in the north that the government must find a way of addressing. A coordinated government effort to provide responsible, accountable governance to all Nigerians, while creating opportunities for economic growth, will diminish the political space in which Boko Haram operates."

This approach, if followed, would be very different from the intensive military-centred strategy of George W Bush's administration; it also presents a great contrast with aspects of Barack Obama's, not least the emphasis on drones and special forces. These comments may signify no more than one astute public servant responding thoughtfully to a discrete problem, but even if so are welcome. They express a basic truth that can occasionally be found in unexpected quarters: if you want to avoid multiple "revolts from the margins", then do something about marginalisation.

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