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Timbuktu tomb destroyers pulverise Islam’s history

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 and France raise the stakes in the Sahara

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sarkoAl 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 step forward, a few steps back

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One step forward, and already a few back. 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. Opposition politicians were finally given an allbeit limited platform to address the population through the state media and journalists were given unprecedented access to many parts of the country, including war-torn Darfur. Still it seemed for the biggest international observer missions like the Carter Center and the European Union the best they could say about the elections was 1: That they happened and 2: That people were not killing each other for once in this nation divided by decades of multiple civil wars. (At least not because of the vote anyway). They all agreed that the crack of democracy opened during the polls must be allowed to continue. It seemed more progressive members of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s ruling party agreed. Presidential Advisor Ghazi Salaheddin told me: “I don’t think we can go back”.  And even the not so West-friendly Presidential Assistant Nafie Ali Nafie was making positive noises post elections, pledging to hold the next polls in four years time. But it seems just one month after the vote, Sudan is sliding back to its old ways. In Darfur, where Bashir is accused by the International Criminal Court of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Sudanese army has after a two-week offensive, taken control of West Darfur’s Jabel Moun – which has been a key rebel stronghold pretty much since the conflict began in 2003. I travelled there once with arguably the most crazy of Darfur’s rebel groups, led by Gibril Abdelkarim. Traversing the Sudanese-Chadian border at will, the rebels drove for hours through largely empty savannah (interrupted only by a Janjaweed attack and getting stuck in sand dunes). It’s an impressive range of hills dotted with villages full of cattle herders and farmers making it an ideal base to defend against attack. It’s also an area where the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) has enjoyed little access because of almost constant military clashes and bombing there. The army said it killed 108 soldiers from the insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which JEM denies. JEM, largely boxed in by a Chadian-Sudanese rapprochement and complaining of constant aerial bombardment, redeployed most of its troops from Jabel Moun leaving them stretched too thin and allowing the army to take advantage. Those “mobile units” as they called them also clashed with the army in North and South Darfur as they edged towards the oil-producing South Kordofan state. The lull in Darfur’s fighting during the elections did not last long. JEM argue even during the voting the government was deploying in preparation for the offensive. And then a late-night raid on Saturday on Bashir’s former close ally turned bitter enemy Islamist Hassan al-Turabi’s home, arresting him. closing his opposition party’s paper, seizing its assets and detaining three of its senior editors. A myriad of reasons were given by different NCP and security officials for his arrest. Ranging from unspecified “security reasons” to accusing him of helping JEM, to his al-Rai al-Shaab paper (which enjoys a limited readership) publishing articles damaging to national security. Editors-in-chiefs of newspapers were “invited” for a meeting at the feared intelligence headquarters on Monday, which many worry could result either in a reintroduction of censorship or at least a veiled warning of what could happen if they did not self censor. The Ajras al-Huriya paper is a shining example of what can happen if they don’t toe the line. They say they have five court cases pending against them (three raised by the intelligence services) for publishing false news among other charges, which could result in up to six months in jail for the acting editor-in-chief. The paper is pretty much the mouthpiece of the former southern rebel turned NCP partner in government after a landmark 2005 peace deal, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). So no midnight raids on them – just long, drawn out summonings and court proceedings. Whatever happens, many of Sudan’s independent dailies, already heavily dependent on government company advertising for the bulk of their revenue, are likely to write cautiously from now on. In the south, which will vote on whether to become Africa’s newest nation state in just eight months, one journalist was arrested for 13 days after trying to take pictures of electoral violence in the oil-rich Unity state. Another said he was detained and beaten by southern security forces, even though he had an identification card saying he worked for the SPLM, which dominates the region’s semi-autonomous government. A senior general revolted and is threatening a main town after he accused the SPLM of fraud in the southern elections. He said he mutinied after authorities ordered his arrest and that he has wide support, although there is little that can be independently confirmed in the remote region of Jonglei. He had said he wanted to negotiate but that attacks by the south Sudan army, sent to surround his troops, have left little room for talks. There’s still time to salvage the political scene in the north and south ahead of the southern referendum on secession which could destabilise the entire Horn of Africa if mishandled. The SPLM should engage those who left the party to stand as independents in the elections, not exclude them. And the NCP can release the ailing Turabi and journalists and follow (preferably daylight), fair and transparent legal proceedings against those it feels have erred. Darfur’s peace talks can restart, the army can stop its bombardment and JEM can haltturabiits redeployment. I had written a blog “one step forward, how many back?” a month ago. I hope these recent transgressions are not my answer.

sudanOne 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.

Why is the world ignoring Somalia?

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somaliaI’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.

Some questions about al-Shabaab

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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.

A tussle over trousers in Sudan

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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.

Why was Edwin Dyer killed?

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Edwin Dyer was among a group of Western tourists kidnapped on the Niger-Mali border after attending a festival of Tuareg culture in late January.

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.

Will democracy work in Ethiopia?

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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.

Somalia’s new chance

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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.

Which way will Somalia go?

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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.

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