West Africa's Culture And Its Security

Sun, 28 Dec 2003 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong continues his deep look at developments in the West African sub-region and argues that the current fragile security climate calls for a new security thinking rooted in the region’s culture, history and experiences

“Espionage, technical attack, disgruntled staff, poor conditions of service, sabotage, indiscretion, incompetence/indiscipline and culture of silence among others have been identified as emerging threats to the government of Sierra Leone.” This were words reported by the Freetown-based Concord Times following the launch of a new national security policy for Sierra Leone, a country whose brutal decade long civil, the most horrible in Africa, is expected to generate interest in a West African sub-region prone to instabilities and that itching for a new regional security architecture because of the rate of civil wars, coup detat, armed robberies and general crime compared to other parts of Africa. While the identifiable security variables such as “government buildings and its employees” are laudable, Sierra Leone’s Office of Security Co-ordinator (OSC)’s blueprint is does not give detail explanation as to Sierra Leone and, in the face of new regional security developments, contemporary West Africa security history. Sierra Leone, like other West African states’ security, is tied to the entire region. UNAMSIL will one day leave Sierra Leone and, as it prepares to go to Liberia, leave Liberia also one day. What is lacking in the Sierra Leone’s OSC security policy is a deeper look at not only at Sierra Leone’s, and for that matter, West Africa’s, security history but some of the deep-seated cultural practices that have for long influenced insecurities in not only Sierra Leone but also the entire West Africa.

Comparatively, there are more security problems in West Africa than other parts of Africa. It is, therefore, not for nothing that West African leaders, helpless in the face of overwhelming security troubles, through their regional group, ECOWAS, is asking the United Nations for peacekeepers to be stationed in Cote d’Ivoire a la Sierra Leone and Liberia (Liberia has so much security problems that international police force is being sent there).

Since independence from colonial rule West Africa has seen more coups than any other parts of Africa. It has seen more civil wars and attempted civil wars than any other parts of Africa. And invariably West Africa has had more political paralysis than other parts of Africa. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, West Africa experienced the most horrible civil wars in Africa, aside from the Rwandan genocide. Reports of coups, coup attempts, rumours of coup and bands of armed rebels/gangs roaming the outbacks of the region troublesomely is a common talk. Small arms are so huge in West Africa that experts say it threatens regional stability. The Burkina aborted coup comes at the tail of a successful coup in Guinea Bissau; failed one in Mauritania; rumour of coup in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana (where there have been raids to thwart coup planning); and rumour of coup in some of the states in West Africa for the past six months. There have been a lot of arrests of alleged coup plotters in Guinea weeks before last week’s general elections.

This is not surprising in a region that leads the rest of Africa in political instability, coups, civil wars and political paralysis. Since the beginning of the year it is only in West Africa that either there have been successful coup (Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, and Guinea Bissau), aborted coup (Ghana, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea), rebel activities (Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire) and coup leading to political paralysis (Guinea Bissau). That West Africa is the most insecure region in Africa is incontestable. There may be civil wars in Burundi or southern Sudan or northern Uganda or eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo but the West African region has more security troubles than other regions in Africa. And, believe it or not, the threat comes from within. Even if the coups are planned from outside, as the latest Cote d’Ivoire aborted coup plan reveals, local cultural forces are employed in the final analysis to carry on the coup.

From Guinea Bissau to Burkina Faso, West African peacemakers and other international mediators have been shuttling from one capital city to another to talk peace. The situation is so fearful that the out going Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, is being touted by United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Kofi Anan, as an envoy to mediate in places like Cote d’Ivoire. One day you see Ghana’s President John Kuffour with Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo in Abidjan talking peace, the next day you see Ghana’s Foreign Minister, Nana Akuffo Addo, in Ouagadougou talking about regional security. Inside Mr. Addo’s own country, the northern part, for the past ten years, has been engulfed in communal bloodbath, and despite over ten years of multiparty democracy rumours of coup still make the rounds in Ghana. Sierra Leone is largely peaceful because of the largest United Nations peacekeepers stationed there. Liberia is going the same way. What about when the UN troops leave? Whither West Africa’s security?

Such developments generally call for a critically new look at West Africa’s security with fresh intelligence. The continued deterioration of the region’s security system means a holistic approach is needed, taking into consideration the region’s culture and history. That West Africa’s, like the rest of Africa’s, criminal justice system was colonially imposed is undeniable. Failing to mix the local sensibilities with the European ones means many local values such as juju, marabou, witchdoctors and other spiritualist that have been contributing to criminal activities or security problems have either been underestimated or ignored altogether to the detriment of the West Africa’s stability, where juju, voodoo, spiritualists, witchcraft and marabou are most prominent continent-wide. Despite continent-wide West African being the region with the most incidences of juju, marabou and witchcraft than the rest of Africa, intellectual laziness, policy weaknesses, sociological misunderstanding, crass underestimation or sheer ignorance have not enabled security planners to factor these local variables in the region’s criminal justice system, especially when it comes to heavy crimes such as coup detat, rebel activities and armed robbery. Lest I forgot, voodoo, positive or negative, is only a West African cultural value; it is not practiced in any other part of Africa.

This means in an era of African solution to African problems, as Ghanaian social scientist George Ayittey is credited as having said, we have to attempt to look into West African values that are contributing to its instability. Questions: Is there a link between our culture and security? What does the history of our instabilities tell us? Has there been any attempt by West Africa’s security planners to measure the impact or the influence of juju, marabou and the increasing spiritualists in the region in instabilities? You read through West Africa’s security policies and you don’t see any hint of attempts to take into consideration its environment, its culture, and its history. Still, to open up the influence of West Africa’s juju, marabou and other spiritualists’ impact on the regions rebels’ activities, armed robbery and coup detat for policy debate, let there be a study in the area in relation to the region’s stability.

No group in West Africa reflects the appropriation of the negative aspects of its culture, which has been inhibiting its rapid development, than its military. With advise from his juju/marabous and witchdoctors, whom he spent millions of dollars on, Gen. Sani Abacha, described as spiritually weak, kidnapped innocent Nigerians who were either buried alive with juju potions and charms or beheaded for rituals or their body parts cut off for juju/marabou rituals for his grand ambition to transform himself into civilian president. As the most juju/marabou and witchcraft region in Africa, West Africa has such places like Kankan (Guinea) and Porto Novo (Benin Republic) (other top places are in Senegal) as the centres of marabous and juju where affairs of the region are determined to the detriment of rational choices. Most West African leaders, more especially its long-running military leaders, dabble so heavily in juju/marabou that some developments experts believe it is partly responsible for the troubles in the region. Witchcraft practices, heavily dabbled by its military in its incursion into politics, are so prominent in West Africa that development experts are investigating, and warning of its implications in region’s security.

Nowhere is the projection of juju, marabou (otherwise called ‘Mallam’ in Ghana and ‘Alpha-man’ in Sierra Leone), witchcraft and other spiritualists into national affairs than during military rules and rebel activities. Nigerians believed Gen. Murtala Muhammed was assassinated simply because he forgot to wear his talismans around his waist on the day he was killed. Ghanaians believe Gen. Emmanuel Kotoka was killed because his killers had got the antidote to his juju. Ghanaians believe Rawlings could not be overthrown because he has a lot of juju and talk his unprintable juju/marabou dabblings. Ghanaians believe the key mastermind in Rawlings’ Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), Captain Kojo Tsikata, could vanish or turn into any object—animate or inanimate—and has the ability to “see” coup plotters before they strike. Before he was killed two of Liberia’s Gen. Samuel Doe cousins told me in front of the American Embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone during the first peace conference there that “no bullet can go through Samuel Doe.” Togolese believe Gen. Gnassinbge Eyadema has survived both plane crush and other serious attempts on his life because he is ruthlessly juju-fortified. Benin Republic’s Gen. Mathieu Kerekou, who says he is now a born again Christian, is hotly talked about as deeply mired in voodoo. Cote d’Ivoire’s Gen. Guei, killed in a coup attempt a year ago, was discussed as having a lot of juju and able to vanish. The same is said of Guinea Bissau’s Gen. Ansuman Mann, who was killed in his attempt to regain power. If one of West Africa’s (Mali’s) top marabou man, M. Cisse, who juju-marabou-teleguided most West African leaders in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, more especially its military leaders, mirror how juju, marabou and witchcraft have been irrationally ruling West Africa, as the unfortunate affairs of the region show, Liberia under Gen. Samuel Doe and Ghana under Gen. Kutu Acheampong give us a glance of how juju, marabou and other witchdoctors effectively ruined West Africa (Cisse was arrested during the last coup that toppled Gen. Moussa Troure for helping to destroy Mali with juju-marabou art). In Gen. Doe’s Liberia, through his cohort’s occult association called Zo, virgins were occasionally captured from the streets of Liberia for ritual murder and sacrifice.

On top of all these, Gen. Doe had vast array of juju and marabou mediums and witchdoctors who he consulted daily to the detriment of rationally trained experts. More so, when rebel leader Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) were fast approaching the capital, Monrovia, and innocent people were been killed and property being destroyed along the way, he snubbed off both local and international advise for peace talks and political concessions simply because his juju, marabou and witchdoctors were constantly telling him that the NPFL cannot overthrow him and that their activities will die out. If Liberia is heavily ruined today, it is not only because of its mindless military but it can also be safely argued that Gen. Doe was terribly blinded by juju-marabou-witchcraft to see reality to the detriment of Liberia’s security.

In Ghana under Gen. Acheampong, juju-marabou and other negative spiritualists ruled so much that the country was run aground. A former senior Ghanaian military officer told me Gen. Acheampong, who was told by some juju-marabou mediums to swim in one of the rivers in Accra every midnight to ward off being overthrown, had some sort of juju pot, containing some fearful potions and charms, hanging by itself, through juju-marabou means, in his office at the Osu Castle in Accra. During the “invasion” (as Gen. Acheampong terms it) at the Castle by the top military officers who had gone there to overthrow him because of the state of the nation, Gen. Odartey Wellington, who was later killed by the Rawlings group, is said to have smashed the hanging juju-marabou pot into pieces, ranting at Gen. Acheampong that while Ghana is running aground and “the people are in torment you are dabbling in juju and listening to what the juju-marabou people are saying instead of listening to the people.” Like Gen. Abacha and other military leaders West Africa have seen, Gen. Acheampong brought spiritual mediums from far and near. An American white necromancer, imported by Gen. Acheampong to whip the superstitious and gullible instinct of Ghanaians told Ghanaians how Gen. Acheampong is “God sent.” (Juju and marabou men and women and witchdoctors had told Samuel Doe the same and he preached this anytime he has chance to do so). Like Doe and other West African military leaders blinded by juju, marabou and other spiritualists, Gen. Acheampong run Ghana aground and was subsequently executed (sources close to the Gen. Acheampong regime told me that, Acheampong, himself as bloodthirsty as other West African military leaders, spared the lives of the numerous military officers and civilians who attempted to overthrow him plainly because some of his juju-marabou mediums told him that if he execute anybody his government will be overthrown within days). Security and juju/marabou! At this juncture, it is important to note that when the senior officers who went to topple Gen. Acheampong, weakened by juju/marabou over the years, entered his office to remove him there was a marabou with him. And during Gen. Acheampong’s heavily mired juju-marabou rule, a replication of other rulers in West Africa, juju-marabou blinded so much that, national security was at risk. In Nigeria, Gen. Babangida, a massive juju/marabou dabbler, was said to be so treacherous and deceitful that it formed the basis of the Gideon Okar’s bloody coup attempt. No doubt, Gen. Babangida, who has been involved in all the coup detat in Nigeria, a sign of highly criminally-minded individual, is said to have remarked that he an “evil genius.” You have to be so juju/marabou assured to utter such a statement that has implications in national security, more so from a Head of State. That Nigeria suffers from acute insecurity can be traced to the long-running military rule soaked in juju/marabou and other negative spiritual practices. In Sierra Leone, the military and rebels left in their wake not only acute security problems but mass national trauma, a thing earlier unknown in a country described as the most civilized in West Africa. The dilemma here is that, let the largest UN troops in Sierra Leone leave and lets see if Sierra Leone can fend on its own security. The long-running military regimes in the region open up deadly rebel activities, which are mired heavily in juju, marabou and other spiritual forces. Sierra Leone’s rebel leader, Cpl. Foday Sankoh, said he could vanish and is said to have been involved in fearsome juju-marabou rituals. The same is alleged of NPFL’s Charles Taylor, who has been named in publications to in this regard. It is a common phenomenon to see rebels in West Africa displaying fearsome juju-marabou paraphernalia. It is important to know, at this juncture, that most of West African senior military offices, including the top leaders of their offshoots, the rebel groups, are educated. But their so-called education, more Western values than African values, have not help them to look at the implications of the aspects of the West African culture that have created security troubles since independence from colonial. Charles Taylor, who had military training in Libya, has master’s degree in economics. Gen. Babangida has master’s degree in military science. But because they are born and breed in a juju, marabou, voodoo, and witchcraft culture, it has inextricable influence on them, especially when employing it for negative, unstable activities such as coup detat (which is an act of political armed robbery, and, as we have experienced in West Africa, wealth robbery). The booming arm robbery culture in West Africa is no different from the coup maker; it is all high crime, socially destabilizing activity, and invariably all use the same negative cultural source—juju-marabou, witchcraft, spiritualists and witchdoctors--for disorder and general instability. In fact, it is part of their cultural roots. It is, therefore, not surprising that, weak, gullible and superstitious forces of instability in West Africa have been employing juju-marabou, spiritualists, witchcraft and witchdoctors for their negative activities—activities that have left the West African region swinging between ruin (Liberia and Sierra Leone, say) and paralysis (Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea Bissau, say). Largely, the key sources of West Africa’s instability is the ‘dark’ aspects of its culture, a situation that has made West Africans instability-minded, especially the minority elites who control power. Since they control power and are weak spiritually (as the Nigerian press termed Gen. Abacha), it is easy for West Africa’s elites to dabble in juju-marabou, witchcraft, spiritualists and witchdoctors to the detriment of their formally trained values in rational choices. In the battle in the West African elites mind between rationality and irrationality, irrationality wins largely because of the influence of some aspects culture they were born into, hence the long-running instabilities over the past 40 years that made West Africa roll in a vicious cycle of coups, instabilities and, invariably, poverty. No doubt, West Africa is the poorest region in the world, according the UNDP. The need to look at juju-marabou, witchcraft, spiritualists and witchdoctors in addressing West Africa’s security situation today come from the fact that most of the coup leader and their accompanying rebel leaders had been told by the numerous juju-marabou, witchdoctors and spiritualists that they visit that they will rule their countries through coup detat one day. (Even armed robbers have been told that they will succeed in their crime by juju/marabou, witchdoctors and other wrong-minded spiritualists. Gullible and superstitious, such stimulating messages send the military officer on some sort of juju/marabou-induced high, like a drug addict, inducing them to either topple good regimes (as Gen. Acheampong did against Dr. Kofi Busia’s government) with heavy lies or help others to do the same. Sometimes the juju/marabou men do approach some of these military men and tell them that they will rule their respective countries through coup detat or they will be helped by others to do so. Gen. Acheampong, Gen. Babangida, Rawlings, Gen. Ansuman Mann and a long list other military leaders had been told by juju-marabou mediums they visited that they will rule their countries by coup detat or something close to that—a terrible state of affairs to the detriment of West Africa’s stability. The mother of the main rebel group in Liberia that forced Charles Taylor from power is said to be sorceress and is said to have repeatedly told his son that he will clear Taylor out of power and rule Liberia. Juju/marabou, witchdoctors, spiritualists and other mediums who spark instabilities either through coup detat, civil wars or other threats do so not only because they are ‘primitive’ but because they are not conscious of the implications of their craft in national/regional security. The reason is that they have not been civilized enough to know that their actions constitute treason, instability or crime in the modern nation-state sense. As criminal facilitators, the juju/marabou, witchdoctors and spiritualists are part of the criminal activities or instabilities in West Africa that are almost always left the hook in determining criminal activities in relations to West Africa’s stability. Why did Gen. Mann or Gen. Guei or Gen. Abacha believe they could vanish into thin air in the event of crises? Or Gen. Doe believes no bullet can penetrate through him? Just look at how heavy rebel groups are awash in juju/marabou accoutrements. While there may be security blueprint involving buildings and government employees, as Sierra Leone’s show, human agency, shaped by the culture or the environment, should get more prominence in the new West African security design. As the Ghana Police Service is doing now, juju-marabous, witchdoctors, and other spiritualists are not only increasingly been warned to stop helping criminals but being educated about the implications of some aspects of their craft in national security.

*Mr.Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, a contributing editor of the London, UK-based West Africa magazine and Africa Affairs editor of the Paris, France-based expotimes.net, has BA in sociology and anthropology from Concordia University in Montreal and Master of Journalism (MJ) from Carleton University in Ottawa. He concentrates on African development issues, especially its culture.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi