Deciphering Radicalisation: Misuse of a concept

boukary2012-11-16 12.52.41

Douentza 2013 @Boukary Sangaré

This blog post is part of a series of blogs that I will publish the coming months within the framework of the Voice4Thought Festival on Digital Radicalization (23-29 September) and the Voice4Thought @Dakar events (15-18 November). In these blogs I will try to understand (also with other authors) what radicalisation means in different situations in the Sahel, and the world. What are the undercurrents? What historical parallels are there? Why is it happening now? With this text I try to understand how the hype of radicalisation – that was probably first of all a discourse born out of fear and othering – became a reality and has in Mali even transformed into ethnic scapegoating:  ‘la question peule’.

A concept
The meaning of the concept ‘radicalisation’ anno 2017 is related to a context defined by fear and panic for violence, in the name of religion and anti-western sentiments. It is especially used in western media and policy circles to depict a situation that has to be countered. It has become related to negative action, to violence and extremism. Zoe Reddy, artist and conservator, and Cindy van der Aa, artist and designer, compiled the exposition ‘Radicalisation: a range of defiance’ during the V4T festival 2017 and kunstroute in Leiden. Zoe made a video clip in which she tried to get to the fundamental signification of the concept radical. She deconstructs the meaning of radical, which brings it to: a radical affects the poster kunstroutefundamental nature of something, i.e. it leads to change. She questions where the word or concept comes from and what meaning it has gained over time. How has it become equal to violence, extremism in our times? In our present day world we seem to have forgotten about the root meaning of the word. Many people who were radical did bring very positive change. Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King were considered radicals (with a negative connotation) by the regimes in power, but they have changed values in our world deeply and not negatively. In today’s world however radicalisation related to violence and extremism has become a means to create opposition and accuse others of being wrong. It allows those who are in this discourse and reality to define the other as a negative force, whom we need to destroy to make our world safe again. On the other side of this opposition the so-called radicals formulate their own ideologies and have their own reasons to act as they do. In the process they may in the end adopt radical strategies to reach their goals. A concept and the meaning we give it acts, it has consequences in the real world.

Central Mali
How the concept acts becomes clear in the situation of Mali, where since 2012 a complicated war has become a (international) fight against radicalisation, violence and Muslim extremism. In Central Mali the Fulani/Peul have become central target and players in this war. They have become more conscious of their ‘marginal’ position vis-à-vis the Malian state and made their demand for a better life heard. The unemployment, lack of good pasture areas and a general neglect of development in their home area are the root causes of these demands. Insecurity in the region that only increased every year pushed them as well to defend themselves. The non-response to their demands has pushed some of the Fulani into the hands of armed groups that are often inspired by religious ideologies and a similar discourses of marginalization. The Fulani are of old inhabitants of Central Mali. They are citizens and have shared spaces with other groups for so long in relative peace. However with the turn in history after 2012 they have become enemies of the state and are considered radical and extremists that the State has to fight.

Adam Thiam, a well-known journalist in Mali, wrote a booklet ‘Centre du Mali: enjeux et dangers d’une crise négligée’ (2017). At the end of his nuanced analysis he also presents the thesis of ‘la question peule’. Although this was certainly not his intention this expression has nourished sentiments in society that are based on fear and also on the unknown. Southern Malians feel threatened by these northern situations and the apparently nomadic-jihadist spirit that settles in the North.


internet image of Fulani

An analysis of Mali newspaper articles and its online conversations (chats) also show an increasing anxiety towards the role of the Fulani/Peul in the problems in Central Mali, reporting on violent actions, and creating an image of the Peul as the enemies of the State. In the articles and reactions an undertone of racism transpires. ‘La question peule’ has become internalized as the threat for mainstream society in Mali. (First explorations in Media research within the programme:  ‘ As Boukary Sangaré concludes in a forthcoming article ‘la question peule’has become a fact (‘Le centre du Mali: vers la question peule’, in Deciphering Radicalisation, Langaa, 2017, forthcoming) promoted by the frames in the media. Fulani are arrested en masse with the approval of many in the general public who have internalized the radicalisation discourse as the synonym of violent extremism with a religious inspiration.

Internalisation of ‘la question peule’
Where cohabitation used to be the way to discuss Fulani-farmer relations, or to experience the presence of Fulani in society in general, there is now the discourse of ‘la question peule’ in which they are depicted as radicals, jihadists and extremists. This is not only a discourse, but a discourse that leads to action: the arrest, fear of policemen for the Fulani, etc. that in turn leads to a sharpening of the discourse, or probably better said: a confirmation of the discourse. And gradually this becomes the normal way of doing, the accepted style. Newspaper articles no longer shy away from these and in the online world accusations etc. are repeated and the oppositions confirmed. The word radical has become synonymous with jihadism, and violent extremism. The acts that result from the internalization of this discourse is at the same time a reason for people to re-act radically. It would be wise for policymakers, the mainstream citizens of Mali, for those who govern to decipher their own understanding of concepts they use and see if in their acceptance of this discourse there is probably also a possible critical point of view possible. This might lead to a real debate about the so-called radicals. More understanding of the reasons to become radical, and in some cases extreme and violent. It is important to be conscious of the origins of our thoughts and not hide behind a wall of shared values without questioning these. Inviting artists to decipher the concepts and situations could be an interesting first step to open a discussion in society.


‘Les cicatrices c’est notre passeport’, Disappearing histories in Southern Chad


Roro: a market where three countries meet @Mirjam (2017)

The taxi driver who brings us back to Sarh from Kyabe is a young man. He wears the signs of his family on his face. He is Sara-Kabba, an ethnic group that has its main living space around Lac Iro in Central Chad. He shares a story with us: He once searched adventure in Yaoundé, Cameroon. He went without a coin in his pocket and was wandering the streets of Yaoundé when a person talked to him, asking where he came from, pointing at his scars. They were from the same region and same ethnic group, brothers. Hence he found his place to stay. You see, ‘les cicatrices, c’est notre passeport’. But he adds that this is also the past. It has not much meaning today.

Forgotten cultures
We are travelling to Southern Chad, through Moundou, Sarh to Kyabe and final destination Roro, the region of Lac Iro. We enter a forgotten land, not flooded by NGOs, where the state’s social services are almost absent. The few health centers that we see are equipped by religious missions of various denominations. There is one ethnographic work on the region, written by Claude Pairault (1923-2003)° and based on research done in the 1960s.

During our trip we meet Yaya Sarria, a dancer from Chad. He is travelling the region for a month to find out about songs and dances that are at risk of being forgotten. ‘All artists should know this’, he exclaims. We listen to the songs he and his friend gathered: beautiful stories told on rhyme, women singing at funerals, and so much more. Almost everything they have recorded is the art of old people. Young people do not learn these songs any longer. They also recorded interviews with people who relate about their traditions and lifestyles that are in danger as a consequence of subsequent wars and new religious forms.

Loss of resources
Southern Chad has been suffering – like all other parts of the country – from more and less intensive periods of wars and rebellions. The main heritage is non-development. Conflict and war eat resources that are hence not invested in the country for infrastructure or other purposes. The exploitation of oil during the past decade did not


A ministry building in Sarh, renewed colonial building @Mirjam (2013)

change much, apparently. Even though the road from Moundou to Kyabe was built by means of oil money, after Kyabe the road stops altogether and, so it seems, all other things we see as modernity as well. The recent developments in the region can be summarized around issues of land and refugees, partly the result of conflicts in neighbouring countries. Add to this the kleptocratic character of the state’s ruling clan and the recent crisis that has hit Chad and one can imagine that the relative stability of the past ten years, including the oil money, has not changed much to the conditions of the people in this region.

However, the market in Roro is a space of encounters, here the three countries (Sudan, CAR and Chad) meet and the people from the region come to sell their cattle, food, and Kalashnikovs. It is an impressive market. Roro is a far-away place for those who come from N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, but a central place in the region. It’s also a place where the government receives a lot of tax income, but these revenues cannot stay in Roro, as it depends on Kyabe, the district capital, where the money goes to. The money flows somewhere but not back into this region.

Identity and belonging
How does the population in this region relate to recent history? What are their points of reference? Where do they belong to? In a recent study Souleymane Adoum a Chadian historian, explains about the lack of archives in this region. All archives in Sarh-region have disappeared in fires or pillage or have simply been destroyed by the rains in the dilapidated houses. During the various rebellions people were also forced to abandon their ‘modern’ objects, as those objects did not fit the rebellions’ anti-Western ideology, hence all letters and pictures or other objects that are reminiscent of personal histories are gone. For his research Souleymane depended almost completely on oral histories and life stories.


Cailcidrat, colonial trees through the ruine of Hôtel de Chasse @Mirjam (2017

In Sarh we come across a small museum. It has no money to buy objects. Hotel deChasse, a colonial legacy, was burned down ten years ago – an accident. However, the state did restore the colonial buildings in this town. It seems a strange contrast to me that the colonial legacy is conserved, while the region just outside Sarh is lacking all social services. The museum could have been an important point of reference for young and old people to discover their identity. But it is visited only rarely and contains so little objects that it feels as if the country has no history nor memory.

Chinese art


Place de la nation: N’Djamena (internet picture)

What then is the orientation for the youth? The ethnic markers? As the young taxi driver continues, referring to his scars: ‘These are now remnants of the past. We no longer do this; things are changing’. Many people from the region Sarh now live in N’Djamena. The search for a little income cracks up most youth; the university is on strike all the time, surviving in the city is difficult. The image they develop of the world is a polarized one, due to differences with Europe and the USA but especially due to the differences within their own country: between the rich who flourish well and the poor who are denied a normal subsistence. The president promised a ‘renaissance’, but this is only captured in symbols created by Chinese artists, such as the Place de la Nation in N’Djamena, or in the restauration of colonial remnants in Sarh. Are these really meant as new symbols of identity? In Chad people cannot choose their own symbols of belonging. Their symbols of history and identity have disappeared and the replacements are empty.

Yaya Sarria’s art project should be continued!

°Claude Pairault, 1966, Boum-le-Grand,, village d’Iro, Paris, Institut d’ethnologie, collection Travaux et Mémoires LXXIII. ;  Claude Pairault, 1994, Retour au Pays d’Iro, Chronique d’un village du Tchad, Paris : Karthala

The Nigerian Dream: being successful in Enugu

Fashion designer and shop owner Oge, sided by Mirjam and Inge.

Fashion designer and shop owner Oge, sided by Mirjam and Inge.

Traveling in Nigeria, meeting people with Inge Ligtvoet, PhD student in the research programme Connecting in Times of Duress.

Nigeria has lots of oil, but access to water and electricity is a serious problem. Generators are polluting the public space, creating dusty air and a noisy environment. Here one could easily forget what it is to be in silence. But Nigerians have to endure more, due to increasing levels of ‘insecurity’. Criminality, now combined with Boko Haram threats and the 2015 election tensions, feed into a general emotion of insecurity. That emotion is exacerbated by a lack of general trust in the government’s intentions to take care of the people, as they are too busy enriching themselves following rules of corruption. Although nothing might actually happen and life is relatively calm, this discourse dominates the attitude and action in daily life. Remarkable is the absence of night life for the commoner. Many people rather go home around 10 pm or even earlier, except during holidays or on special occasions. Nevertheless, the number of cars, the shopping malls and the festivities do show that Nigeria is a relatively rich country, with a substantial middle class. The advertisements in the streets all cry out the better life, a life of well-being, good food and good cars. And indeed, things do work: taxis function and are well controlled, communication infrastructure is very good, and cheap. Universities and schools keep up high standards. As a young lady commented when we were discussing the situation in the neighbouring countries: ‘No no, life is ok in Nigeria, except for this “insecurity”’. Energy through generators has become the norm, but only for those who can afford the 97 naira per liter for fuel. Acceptance is smoothened by the deep religiosity of most Nigerians. Religion and churches or mosques are such an indispensable part of life here. Their adagio: work hard and trust God, and you will succeed in life. Which translates very well into the general ‘religious’ sigh of the people in the south of Nigeria: ‘It is well’.

The shopping mall.

The shopping mall.

The Nigerian Dream
In this environment we hook up with some young people who are Inge’s informants. Young people who struggle to become the person they want to be. These young people work hard to sustain themselves and they have a dream. It’s the ‘Nigerian dream’: to become someone starting from zero, from poverty to wealth. From nobody to somebody. But while achieving this dream and becoming rich, one should do good. Share whatever one attains with family, friends and the people in need – be valuable for society.

Oge in the bar.

Oge in the bar.

Oge is certainly one of them. He has a broad smile and is very talkative. We meet on the day of our arrival in Enugu, after a long trip by road from Ibadan, in a nice open air bar. Before we got here, we were visiting the shopping mall, where many inhabitants of Enugu spend their free time. The mall is the place to be. Oge likes it as well, but he will only buy there if he can make his girlfriend happy. This first meeting was an immediate introduction to Oge’s openness: he started explaining us about the first kiss he shared with his girlfriend in public, his girlfriend blushing next to him. This evening was an outing and he dressed for it, wearing nice trousers and good sneakers. His girlfriend clearly prepared to look good as well, having her hair done stylishly and wearing a playful dress. Both appearing as a young urban and successful couple, real urbanites, enjoying life.

Life lessons
Oge’s story is not what it seems at first sight. Oge’s father is a retired military man who fought in the Biafran war. He returned from the war carrying his brother’s dead body home on his own already weak body, a hero in his community. But listening to Oge’s story about his father, that is all: he returned. He was never a happy man and father after these experiences. Although Oge acknowledges the fact that he inherited his creativity from his father, who is a great painter, he describes his father as a man failing to take care of his family. His mother maintained her children and their education in her own way, by selling porridge and bean cookies. When Oge finally went to secondary school, he started taking care of himself. With money obtained from petty jobs, e.g. in a dry cleaning store, he found his way through school without putting any more pressure on his family. Currently, Oge is taking care of his younger sisters and his parents with the work he is doing in his own shop in Enugu. The sour memory of his childhood in poverty pains and rages him. Especially the time he was sent to his uncle, where, instead of experiencing a lovely youth, he was turned into a house slave. But it also taught him a lesson about life and how to become somebody. Supported by his faith, he is chasing his own ‘Nigerian Dream’.

Oge in his workshop.

Oge in his workshop.

Shoes, fashion and wealth
Oge is a fashion designer and a very entrepreneurial person. He is active everywhere, both on- and off-line. He sells his products mainly through Whatsapp and Facebook, but also benefits from word-to-mouth advertisement. His shoes and bags are real fashion. His workshop is a

The bad Oge made for Mirjam.

The handbad Oge made for Mirjam.

place of wisdom. With him works a young female student who wants to learn his skills. Oge already ‘graduated’ more than 5 shoemakers. He enjoys transmitting his skills and is not afraid they will become his immediate competitors. He is certain of his own style and sure that he will soon have a real factory. Creativity and skills are his ideology. He is aiming at buying machines. The generator that he bought on the day we visited him in his workshop, symbolizes his wish for independence. This generator means liberation of the caprices of the odd functioning electricity company.

Watch the generator and listen to the noise!

He set the scene for our filming endeavor, fabricating a handbag for Mirjam. We filmed the whole process in which he showed to be a very precise and concentrated worker. He used the cloth we bought for the making of dresses and he enjoyed the idea that I would later be dressed complete with dress, bag and shoes in similar style. Fashionable! After finishing the bag he embraced us and we took pictures, one of which he immediately posted as his Whatsapp display picture (see page top).

Oge showing the handbad he made for Mirjam.

Oge showing the handbag he made for Mirjam.

Independence is the core of Oge’s Nigerian dream. His wishes to build an empire of skilled shoe and bag makers, to create a community of independent young people, avoiding contact with the destructive Nigerian State mentality of corruption and neglect. By doing so, he can build a new Nigeria. Wealth will help him to do so, because being wealthy is definitely the way out here. It will be as God wishes, he confirms with his big smile!