Africa News blog
African business, politics and lifestyle
The al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters who have used pick-axes, shovels and hammers to shatter earthen tombs and shrines of local saints in Mali’s fabled desert city of Timbuktu say they are defending the purity of their faith against idol worship.
But historians say their campaign of destruction in the UNESCO-listed city is pulverising part of the history of Islam in Africa, which includes a centuries-old message of tolerance.
Over the last three days, Islamists of the Ansar Dine rebel group which in April seized Mali’s north along with Tuareg separatists destroyed at least eight Timbuktu mausoleums and several tombs, centuries-old shrines reflecting the local Sufi version of Islam in what is known as the “City of 333 Saints”.
For centuries in Timbuktu, an ancient Saharan trading depot for salt, gold and slaves which developed into a famous seat of Islamic learning and survived occupations by Tuareg, Bambara, Moroccan and French invaders, local people have worshipped at the shrines, seeking the intercession of the holy individuals.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing has been creeping up the radar with an increase in attacks in the Sahara. But some have still sought to play down any strategic threat, citing the lack of key interests in the desert.
Westerners were at risk – a couple have also died in the hands of the Islamists – but incidents had mostly ended with in some sort of agreement involving a mix of prisoner swaps and, say experts, cash being passed to the right people.
One of the few positives of Sudan’s elections, dubbed to be the first open vote in 24 years but marred by opposition boycotts and accusations of fraud, was a tiny opening of democratic freedom in Africa’s largest country.
Direct press censorship was lifted from Sudan’s papers and opposition politicians were given an albeit limited platform to address the population through state media.
I’m blogging from the African Union’s annual summit in Addis Ababa and can see the Somali delegation from where I’m sitting. They’re mingling right now, cups of coffee and croissants in hand, pressing the flesh and smiling and joking with leaders and ministers from all over the continent and beyond. Delegates are responding warmly to the men who represent a government hemmed into only a few streets of the capital Mogadishu as they fight an increasingly vicious Islamist rebellion.
But you get the sense the other delegates are responding so warmly to compensate for something: The fact that the Somalis are here looking for help and nobody is really willing to stick their neck out and give it to them.
Have the Islamists started to go too far in Somalia?
The reaction among ordinary Somalis to an al-Shabaab car bomb attack on African Union peacemakers last week may be instructive.
The attack was billed as an act of revenge against America for a commando raid carried out a few days earlier by U.S. troops, who killed one of the most wanted al Qaeda men in Africa.
One moment everything was quiet on the streets outside the Khartoum courtroom where Lubna Hussein was on trial this morning, charged with indecency for wearing trousers.
The next, a three-way fight had exploded between riot police armed with crackling electric batons, women’s rights protesters waving banners and posters, and Islamists fuelled with righteous indignation and pious chants.
Four months later the Briton was killed by al Qaeda’s North African wing, which had been demanding the release of Abu Qatada, a Jordanian Islamist being held in Britain.
Six Ethiopian opposition parties have joined forces to go up against the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in next year’s parliamentary elections, but their chances of bringing change look slim at best and they complain of heavy-handed tactics by the ruling party.
The foremost opposition figure in Africa’s second most populous country, Birtukan Mideksa, a 34-year-old former judge, has been in solitary confinement since December. She was jailed after the first democratic poll in 2005, which ended in rioting that was bloodily suppressed, was pardoned in 2007 and rearrested last year after renouncing the terms of her pardon.
How times change. Somalia’s new Islamist president has been feted in Ethiopia, whose army drove him from power two years ago – with Washington’s backing – when he headed a sharia courts movement.
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was greeted with a standing ovation from African Union leaders at a summit in Ethiopia, which pulled the last of its troops out of Somalia last month, leaving the government in control of little beyond parts of Mogadishu. The hardline Islamist al Shabaab militia control much of the rest of southern Somalia.
The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia has left a nation beset by conflict for nearly two decades at a crossroads.
Ethiopia invaded to oust Islamists from the capital, but insurgents still control much of southern Somalia and more hardline groups that worry Washington have flourished during the two-year intervention.