Africa begins crackdown? Ivory Coast bans foreign Imams, freezes new mosques in north

Last month Chad banned Islamic veils after terror attacks in its capital, following earlier similar action by Congo.

IVORY Coast banned foreign imams from preaching in mosques in the north bordering Mali, newspaper Soir Info reported, citing local government official Sindou Coulibaly.

The construction of new mosques was also suspended in the area around Ouangolodougou, a city in northern Ivory Coast that’s close to the Malian border, the Abidjan-based newspaper said.

The move by Ivory Coast could portend a trend toward cracking down on symbols and practices in Islam, that African governments under siege by extremist groups, believe jihadists are exploiting.

In late June the Chad government banned women from wearing the Islamic veil days after bloody suicide bombings hit the capital, N’Djamena.

The move divided Muslims but the government defended it as part of an anti-terror strategy.

“Wearing the burqa must stop immediately from today,” Prime Minister Kalzeube Pahimi Deubet told religious leaders, after the twin bombings left 33 people dead and more than 100 others injured.

The authorities blamed Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram, which has carried out many suicide bombings inside Nigeria in the past six years, sometimes by women who hid explosives under modest outer garments.

Chad became the second country in Africa to ban the burqa and niqab, after Congo-Brazzaville in May. The Congolese authorities argued that the garments could be used as a disguise to commit terrorist acts; the country has seen an influx of Muslims as people affected by the war in the neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) seek refuge in Congo.

Last week, concerned it may become a target of Islamist militants in the region Ivory Coast, world’s top cocoa producer dispatched security forces to its northern border after an attack by suspected militants on the southern Malian town of Fakola, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) north of its border.

 That followed a June 10 raid on the nearby town of Misseni that killed one Malian soldier.

“In the past year, Ivory Coast has become an increasingly attractive target as it has stepped up its commitment to fighting regional terrorism,” Maja Bovcon, senior Africa analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said last week in an e-mailed response to questions.

Ivory Coast, whose $31 billion economy is the largest in Francophone West Africa, provides a logistics base for France’s Operation Barkhane, a 3,000-member force to battle militants in the western Sahel. So far it has avoided attacks that have struck Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Mali. Islamic State’s gains in Libya are heightening concern the region’s militant movements may coalesce behind its leadership and expand their targets.

“We have to prevent any infiltration, any contagion of this phenomenon in our country,” Ivorian Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said last week by phone. “It’s an alert. It’s in our interest to look at it very closely.”

Ivory Coast and Mali are discussing the possibility of setting up a joint force along their border.

Ivory Coast lawmakers last Friday started considering a vote on new anti-terrorism legislation to give the government greater powers, such as the use of phone tapping, to track suspected militant networks in the country, said Pierre Gaho Oulata, the head of the National Assembly’s Security and Defense Commission.

The country, which is recovering from violence that left 3,000 people dead after disputed elections in 2010, needs to keep a close eye on its young former fighters to ensure they don’t join Islamist militant groups, Oulata said.

-Bloomberg & AFP

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