AfricaJeremy LuediComment

The growing need to protect Africa's cultural heritage

AfricaJeremy LuediComment
The growing need to protect Africa's cultural heritage

Radical groups not only threaten the populations of African countries, but increasingly also pose a danger to the region’s cultural heritage. The destruction wrought by ISIS in the Middle East or the Taliban in Afghanistan is well documented, with ancient sites and artefacts destroyed in the name of cleansing heresy. Similar trends are also prevalent in Africa, and the continent remains at the forefront of the international community’s collective fight against cultural destruction.

In an August 17th ruling, the International Criminal Court (ICC) made history for the court’s first conviction on Islamist charges, as well as for the destruction of cultural heritage. Former militant commander, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi has been sentenced to nine years in jail for ordering the destruction of cultural and historical sites in Mali in 2012: al-Mahdi is also being fined $3.2 million in damages.

This ruling is in line with changing attitudes towards the destruction of cultural heritage, with such wanton acts being viewed as crimes against humanity. By depriving local populations and the wider human community of these valuable links to the past, radicals transgress against all peoples. This ruling builds off of past legal statutes, but has added a new chapter in international jurisprudence by charging a non-state actor. The ICC is in turn building off the legacy of the UNESCO Conventions of 1954 and 1972, both of which called on state actors in conflict zones to ensure the protection of cultural monuments.

Suspicions of the ICC continue to linger in Africa

The ICC itself is still a young institution having been established in 1998, but only coming into force in 2002. The Rome Statute of 1998, the ICC's founding document, explicitly states that it is a war crime to deliberately attack historic monuments unless they are military objectives (i.e if enemy forces are using them as bases or cover). The creation of the ICC itself was motivated by events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia that blurred the lines between state and non-state actors. The injunction against the destruction of historical monuments was inspired in part by the violence inflicted by parties in the Yugoslav wars against cultural monuments of opposing ethnic groups.


There is growing support for the destruction of cultural heritage to be categorized as a crime against humanity, and “increasingly, people are also looking to certain acts of cultural destruction targeting particular groups as warning signs for other mass atrocities, or even as [...] acts of genocide or preludes to genocide,” notes UN Special Investigator on Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune.

The conviction of al-Madhi further broadens this view by punishing the destruction of cultural heritage in itself. In other words, while the acts of radicals no not always have genocidal connotations in the traditional sense, their actions can amount to cultural genocide - the eradication of a particular cultural identity and history.

The focus on non-state actors culpable of cultural destruction is an important development, yet ICC membership is still determined at the state level. So while al-Mahdi’s case breaks new ground, he could only be prosecuted because Mali is an ICC member. ICC membership in Africa is patchy, and the court has faced criticism from African nations and leaders. African detractors of the ICC claim the institution has effectively become “a court for Africa” as almost all of the court’s investigations have been conducted against African individuals. Consequently, while the conviction of al-Mahdi demonstrates the court’s commitment to protecting African cultural heritage, the conviction of yet another African only reinforces claims that the ICC is biased.

This is no fringe opinion of a handful of despots; the African Union even publicly backed efforts for its members to leave the court in 2016. South Africa, Gambia and Burundi threatened to leave, although only Burundi has maintained this stance, with withdrawal scheduled for late October 2017. Many other African nations have either signed but not ratified the treaty, and Africa’s newest country, South Sudan announced in 2013 that it did not intend to join the ICC.

North Africa's cultural heritage under siege

While some punishment has been meted out for the destruction of cultural heritage in Timbuktu and Goa in Mali, many other places in Africa also face similar threats. This is particularly true in North Africa, region which has suffered in recent years following the upheavals of the Arab Spring. The problems facing this region are also compounded by the fact that only Tunisia has ratified the Rome Statute.

Prior to the Arab Spring, Tunisia witnessed the 2002 bombing of the 2,600 year old El Ghriba synagogue, an attack directed at foreign tourists as well as at the Jewish community and its heritage. Even with Tunisia’s relatively peaceful transition from the Ben Ali regime, since 2011 there has been a marked increase in attacks against heritage sites. Alongside the desecration of the Russian Orthodox Church in Tunis, at least 26 Sufi shrines have been destroyed by Salafist radicals in the country. Another at risk target is the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Home to a world famous collection of mosaics, the museum was the site of the 2015 terrorist attack which killed 25 individuals. While the museum’s cultural heritage was itself not the main target, it nevertheless suffered damage, and remains a high risk target for future attacks.

Antiquities Coalition. 2016. “Culture Under Threat Map,” The Antiquities Coalition.

Algeria and Egypt have also witnessed attacks and desecration of their cultural sites, with widespread looting of historic sites in Egypt following instability and a lack of security oversight during the 2011 protests against Hosni Mubarak and again in 2013 during actions against the government of Mohamed Morsi.

Similarly, the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya has left the country a failed state plagued by internal fighting, two competing governments and extremist infiltration. The arrival of ISIS in Libya also saw the introduction of the group’s attacks on cultural heritage. Alongside destroying cultural sites for propaganda and intimidation efforts, ISIS also loots artefacts to be sold on the black market in order to fund its operations. In Libya the group destroyed the Greco-Roman ruins in Cyrene, as well as Islamic tombs and Sufi shrines. Fighting in the country has also seen the Karamanli Mosque in Tripoli damaged: Sabha castle was hit by rockets in 2014.

Africa's Christians are not innocent bystanders

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are also at risk of such crimes, notably Nigeria. Nigeria has been racked by the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, an Islamist group in the country’s north. Boko Haram has followed the example of ISIS and destroyed cultural sites belonging to the country’s Christian and traditionalist communities. It is important to note that the destruction of cultural heritage in Africa is not only perpetrated by Islamists, as demonstrated by the long-standing violence between Christians and adherents of traditional, indigenous faiths in the south of Nigeria.

Dulue Mbachu, writing for Bloomberg notes that “Nigeria’s Christians borrow Boko Haram’s tactics, [destroying] traditional African religious shrines and art [...] While Islamist militants loyal to Boko Haram in northern Nigeria [...] destroy cultural sites they consider idolatrous, some Christian activists in the south of Africa’s most populous nation are also targeting ancestral religious worship.”

Strife between these two communities saw the uprooting of the traditionalist Ikenga statue in Owerri in 1999 and spree of attacks on traditional shrines by Christian youths in Anambra State in 2002. In 2009 three Catholic priests and members of their congregation were charged with burning the Ezekoro shrine in Anambra. The Archaeological Association of Nigeria estimates Christian churches and leaders have coerced Nigerians to hand over some $500 million worth of traditional artefacts in the past decade.

Many of these have been destroyed in anti-pagan campaigns, while others have been sold on the black market. Looting by both Boko Haram in the north and Christians in the south has led to the illegal circulation of some $1.6 billion in Nigerian artefacts, according to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. Moreover, over 500 traditional shrines have been burned down by Christian mobs in the last ten years in southern Nigeria alone.

Whether al-Mahdi’s conviction ushers in a new campaign against the destruction of cultural heritage in Africa remains to be seen. Communal violence in remote areas is difficult to record, let alone investigate and prosecute at the best of times. Moreover, mobs fuelled by religious zealotry spare little thought for the minutiae of international law. Ironically, the ICC’s focus on Africa may be a hidden blessing if it ends of devoting disproportionate attention to preserving Africa’s cultural heritage from harm.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.