African countries used to primarily observe terror groups from afar, not suffer attacks at home. But those days are truly over. The global network of terror and insecurity has spread over parts of the continent. Desmond Davies reports on how the continent can put its house order in a chaotic world.
The US involvement in the fight against terrorism in Africa is growing and Washington appears to be getting a more favourable reaction from Africans as it increases its military activities on the continent. Although there has always been strong opposition to America’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), it is becoming apparent that many of those against it, including staunch activists, are having a change of heart following the recent growth of terror attacks by groups such Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahel and Daesh (also known as the Islamic State) in Libya and Egypt. The graphic atrocities wrought by these terror groups and played out on a global stage through television and other media, have brought home to Africans the reality of terrorism and many are now in frantic need of solutions.
AFRICOM currently operates in 49 out of the 54 African countries, according to award-winning American journalist and bestselling author Nick Turse. In his new book, published in May, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, Turse says that the Pentagon is fighting a new shadow war in Africa. He says that behind closed doors, US officers now claim: “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”
But, unlike in the past, many Africans feel these US operations should be welcomed in the fight against terrorism in Africa. American soldiers have been reaching out to ordinary Africans to present a different face from the aggressive and insensitive one that is usually associated with the US army.
The Obama White House has something to do with this. Its National Framework for Strategic Communication of 2010 states: “Every action that the United States Government takes sends a message. Aligning our actions with our words is a shared responsibility that must be fostered by a culture of communication throughout the government. We must also be more effective in our deliberate communication and engagement, and do a better job understanding the attitudes, opinions, grievances, and concerns of peoples – not just elites – around the world.”
In 2014, AFRICOM conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 595 “security cooperation activities”. The previous year it conducted 55 operations, 10 major joint exercises, and 481 “security cooperation activities”.
The Americans appear to be looking for reliable partners in Africa to take on the scourge of militant Islamism.
Terror and political footballing
Critics also believe that African leaders are beginning to use the fight against terrorism for their political ends rather than addressing the underlying issues. Some argue that the current situation is reminiscent of the Cold War days when African leaders invoked anti-Communist rhetoric to get unqualified support from the US. But today, things are different and unlike in the days when the Mobutus and other leaders would count on US support even as they suppressed their people, experts say that sort of relationship cannot work in the same way, in a world that is more transparent.
Having studied insurgency in Africa in their work at the African Leadership Centre in Nairobi, Dr Funmi Olonisakin of King’s College, London and Dr Godwin Murunga of Nairobi University write in one of their papers: “African societies are crying out for a secure environment and a security response that is not held hostage by their ruling elite and external allies. The moment for us to learn lessons across borders and think innovatively about security responses is now.”
For more than five years, militant Islamist group Boko Haram has brought death and mayhem to parts of northern and especially northeast Nigeria. In the last four months, the Nigerian military, supported by Nigerien, Chadian and Cameroonian allies, as well as South African mercenaries, has retaken huge swathes of territory that were once held by the terror group.
In the five years that he was in power, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration had woefully failed to deal with the Boko Haram insurgency, due to many factors including a demoralised army. Boko Haram had been emboldened by the activities of Islamic State fighters, who had moved to Libya to take advantage of the vacuum that had been created since the removal from power and the death of Muammar al Gathafi in 2011. The Islamic State is now reported to be providing support and guidance to Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to IS in March.
Terror groups have also been able to develop and grow in the Sahel, which has been an ungoverned space for more than 20 years. As such, terrorists, kidnappers, criminals and other brigands have used this period to hone their skills and carry out terrorist activities, while the continental body, the African Union, miserably failed to be on top of the terror security threats in its member states.
In August 2004, when the global terrorist threat was beginning to have a serious effect in Africa, the AU created the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services in Africa (CISSA) in Abuja. Made up of heads of intelligence and security services on the continent, The CISSA is meant to be the primary provider of intelligence to the policymaking organs of the AU, with the priority aim of providing intelligence on any kind of threat in order to strengthen and preserve stability across Africa.
But given the many lapses of security that have allowed terror groups around in East, West and North Africa, to wreak so much mayhem that culminated in the recent deadly atrocities in Libya, Kenya and of course Nigeria, many observers and critics believe the CISSA has by and large failed to execute its mandate.
As a result, insurgence in the affected countries has instead gained the upper hand, creating deep-seated divisions in these societies.
Olonisakin and Murunga noted: “For a start, the key dangers of Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Kenya do not rest in what damage they inflict to the current regimes. The danger rests in the potential destructive impact the movements cause to society, either in terms of their ability to radicalise segments of society in support of their agenda, the damage within the locales that are attacked or in their ability to cause internal squabbling that fragments communities and opens a vent for further insecurity.”
They add: “These dangers are real in Nigeria and Kenya and in West and East Africa generally. The terror unleashed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Kenya reveals certain similarities in aspects of their evolution, the accompanying elite behaviour and response patterns. This helps explain why neither of these countries is winning its war on these terror networks.”
In all this, the primary goal for African countries is to counter the trans-regional terror threat networks. Improved intelligence gathering and sharing should be a central focus for a pan-African response to these terrorist threats.