By - Tobi Idowu
The unimaginable power of the social media, arguably the greatest human innovation of the 21st century, has been emphasized countless times. With its kind of almost limitless reach and widely accessible nature, there are bound to be negative activities being attempted to be perpetuated through it. This is exactly what is unfolding in Mali, a French speaking West African country, right now as the deadly Jihadist war there has taken a new turn with the use of social media, especially the ubiquitous WhatsApp, by the Jihadist movement to recruit impressionable young Malians into its fold.
Expectedly, there have also been countermeasures by some concerned citizens of the country to challenge the dangerously alluring message being peddled via the broadcast-message utility of WhatsApp – the messaging app of choice in a country that currently boasts 150 cell phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, but little internet coverage. Mali is thus embroiled in a unique kind of digital war. How is it playing out?
At the centre of this war is a man called Amadou Koufa, who is known to have remarkable oratorical skills which he has deployed to attracting young boys and girls into his movement. What he does has been to transmit his fiery sermons, which he had some time ago only transmitted via the radio, on WhatsApp, and then share via his minions, who will then share the messages wildly.
“Our children are leaving and getting themselves killed with Koufa, and there’s more and more of them every day,” lamented Hama Cisse, a moderate imam, “Jihadists today are recruiting on WhatsApp. We have to stop the bloodshed.” He revealed that Koufa’s divisive messages have been effective in luring young Malians, mostly from the Fulani ethnic community, because of his oratorical prowess and especially because he mischievously themes his messages as an attack on the political elite, whom the young ones are disillusioned with.
It is said that one of the charms of Koufa has been his roving storytelling background. In the 1980s, while a Koranic student, he had recited love poems in exchange for a few coins in the deep-rooted tradition in Mali. Although he has since turned his poetic skill into preaching radical and divisive message, his earlier reputation has given him some form of mileage among the young ones, whom he now purports to stir into resentments against elite for the poverty and stigma bedeviling the country. However, his motive has largely been discovered, is to raise a Jihadist army, whose antecedent has been to foment fatal clashes in the country.
A report by the AFP states that “many in the Fulani community have direct knowledge of a young man drawn into the ranks of the Katiba Macina, the biggest of the militias wrecking carnage in central Mali and stirring up fighting between ethnic groups.”
In addition to the mounting death toll, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and hundreds of schools have closed as teachers flee the jihadists.
Digital technology is being used as a recruiting sergeant. Pictures of butchered corpses or torched villages or footage of clashes with the army are the weapons, aimed at both enraging and persuading.”
Not wanting to leave the destiny of their country into the hands of such divisively radical figures as Koufa, the moderates have also gone into the battle turf, the social media, to preach message of Islamic tolerance to young Fulani, in order to counter distortion and propaganda, being peddled by Koufa and his likes. Cisse, for instance, has been regularly making radio broadcasts from the capital city, Bamako, on the Fulani radio station Tabital Pulaaku; more importantly, his messages have also been transmitted and retransmitted via WhatsApp.
It was reported that in one notable intervention this year, during Ramadan, Cisse directly targeted Koufa and those who “lap up his words”. “He said that before he came, the Macina (a region in central Mali) wasn’t Islamic, that before he came along, it was dark. I told him he didn’t bring Islam to the Macina, he brought the Wahhabis, and it’s not the same,” Cisse said, referring to the Saudi-inspired puritanical strand of Islam. “A few days later, Koufa gave a nasty reply – he was angry.”
Ending a taboo of silence
Buoyed by efforts of moderate figures such as Cisse, others have started to join to combat the dangerous rhetorics of the radicals. Some of these new moderate converts have insisted, however, that their motives have been to end the era of silence which Koufa and the Jihadists have capitalized on to sway the young minds.
One of those at the forefront of ending the cycle of silence is Ousmane Bocoum, 36, who sells cloth skirts at a market in Mopti. He says he uses his spare moments combing the internet for sermons that distort Islam, and pointing them out to his contacts who then counter the propaganda on their WhatsApp and Facebook groups.
“I explain what the Koran really says,” Bocoum said. “Every person is in at least a dozen different WhatsApp groups, people forward the messages and usually I have a reaction within half an hour.” He also reports that although many of the reactions he gets are insults or threats, they are nonetheless useful exchanges. “It’s my faith which prompted me to act,” said Bocoum, “I don’t fight them, I simply want to bring them back to reason.” Last year, Bocum tried to set up a “debate” with Koufa’s men in Mopti. “They accepted but then at the last moment, Koufa issued a message forbidding them to come. He was worried about their safety.”
Nevertheless, Bocum has continued to aim at countering Koufa’s message and hopes, alongside efforts of people like Imam Cisse, the social media battle, with a lot of implications for the future of the country, will be won. Regrettably, government seems to be unware of his responsibilities to the people and the fact that its distance and neglect of the rural people have been largely responsible for the filled day Koufa and his Jihadist group have had in luring young minds into their deadly fold.
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