Islamist terrorism is rising in the Sahel, but not in Chad – what’s different?

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Since the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the emergence of Islamist-Salafist groups in northern Mali in 2013, the Sahel has increasingly been caught in the maelstrom of Islamist terrorism.

The region is now described as the new global epicentre of violent extremism. The population is suffering immensely, and in some areas more than 2 million people have been displaced. Agriculture and development have come to a halt there.

Five explanations are usually given for the rise of Islamist terrorism in the Sahel: dissatisfaction with the political order, bad governance, corruption and ethnic rivalries to economic reasons such as poverty or unemployment, especially among the youth.

A recent study cited economic precarity as the main factor. This is a scenario where young people in particular face high unemployment and thus lose hope about the future.

Chad is one of the poorest countries in the world. It was ruled for 30 years by the authoritarian president Idriss Déby Itno, who died in 2021 under unexplained circumstances.

The country fulfils all the conditions associated with Islamist terrorism. But, so far, the threat reaches Chad from the neighbouring countries and not from the inside. So then, what holds Chadian society together?

For my research I drew on data from an opinion survey I conducted in five Chadian towns (the capital N’Djamena, Abéché, Sarh, Mongo and Moundou) from 2015 to 2016. My aim was to get the views of all ethnic and linguistic groups in the country. Long-term studies show that people do not change their political and religious attitudes overnight. In view of the actual political transition in Chad and the increase in Islamist terror in the region, the results are still valid today and could allow conclusions to be drawn for other countries.

The results show that one reason the threat of Islamist terrorism doesn’t come from inside is because Chadians want to live together peacefully. Other reasons include the fact that Chadians have high religious tolerance and Deby’s authoritarian regime favoured groups who had a tendency towards religious fundamentalist ideas – appeasing them with economic benefits.

The findings

My research sampled 1,857 people who answered about 130 questions in face-to-face interviews. By analysing the quantitative dataset, I identified groups within Chadian society according to their propensity for democracy, cohabitation and religiosity, and their religious fundamentalist tendencies.

The data confirmed a high fragmentation of Chad’s society along ethnic, religious and economic lines.

Democracy: Chad is one of the least democratic countries of the world. Yet more than half of the survey respondents supported democratic ideas.

Tolerance: A substantial majority of respondents expressed the desire to live peacefully with other groups. But the respondents who labelled themselves Salafists – the spectrum of Salafism ranges from a spiritual renewal of Islam as in the times of Mohammed to a hybrid religious-political ideology seeking to establish a global caliphate – were the least inclined to social coexistence.

During individual interviews, religious Muslim and Christian leaders and opinion leaders also emphasised Chadians’ willingness to live together peacefully. They stressed that both religions are frequently represented in many families.

Religion: Chad, a predominantly Muslim society, is one of the few countries in the Sahel region to have a substantial Christian minority. This is partly a legacy of French colonial rule, which fostered a Christian educated elite in the south of the country.

It is also a consequence of Déby’s authoritarian and corrupt rule which emphasised the balance between the different religions. However, he favoured certain groups from the north who had been Islamised for centuries. Members of these groups were over represented in the highest income categories.

The data confirmed that religion played an important role in the daily life of most of those interviewed. The regular observance of religious practices is firmly embedded in the everyday life of Muslims and Christians.

The religious practices of the other religions were also acknowledged.

I was particularly interested in the respondents’ tendency towards religious fundamentalist ideas that could possibly lead to religious violence. The dataset allowed me to create an “Islamist fundamentalism” index.

In contrast to “religiosity”, which measures religious affiliation, belief and practice, conceptualising the measurement of any religious fundamentalism focuses on: a literal understanding of the sacred book of the respective religion; the exclusivity of one’s religion; and the importance of religion in societal life.

The Islamist fundamentalism index also contained specific items like the introduction of Sharia law. In this way, I was able to identify respondents who were more inclined towards Islamic fundamentalism, and might even be willing to lean towards Islamist terrorism to achieve their goals.

The highest Islamist attitudes were expressed by more than a third of the sampled Muslim population. I found the strongest Islamist fundamentalist attitudes among respondents who attended an Arabic primary school or a Qur’anic school and had no further schooling, and among respondents with two years of higher education.

Only a minority of the respondents who never went to any school showed Islamist fundamentalist attitudes.

Social profile: A large number of respondents who scored high as Islamist fundamentalists were merchants and came from high income groups. Most were most likely to have benefited economically during the Déby era. They displayed the biggest support for the late authoritarian president, embraced above average undemocratic attitudes, and supported authoritarian structures in general.

Why are these results noteworthy?

Research in other countries has shown that dissatisfaction and frustration about bad governance, corruption or poverty fosters the emergence of Islamist terrorism.

In Chad, however, the profiteers of the Déby regime were the most fundamentalist. They admitted that they were willing to take to violence if they did not agree with their political leader. But, with their own position secured, they seem not to have seen any need to turn against the corrupt structures that benefited them. They had made peace with the regime.

Déby’s son Mahamat Déby has taken power by violating the country’s constitution. He was appointed transitional president in October 2022 following a so-called national inclusive dialogue. Like his father, he has to deal with sporadic attacks by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, which is threatened by Islamist terrorism. The economic situation of the country is precarious.

Will Mahamat Déby continue to satisfy his wealthier, non-democratic compatriots, who are more inclined towards Islamist fundamentalist ideas and were the strong supporters of his father’s rule?

Or will he opt for democratic structures and fair distribution of resources and wealth so as not to give fundamentalist Islamist groups inside Chad a reason to turn to violence and against the state?

The answers to these questions are unclear. What’s needed is more knowledge about these groups and their attitudes, their behaviour and propensity for radicalisation. This will broaden our understanding of Islamist tendencies and threats, and to develop long-term peace in the Sahel.

Written by Helga Dickow, Senior Researcher at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institut, Freiburg Germany, University of Freiburg.

Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.