Terrorism in Africa is no longer somebody else’s war


Terrorism in Africa is no longer somebody else’s war

Until about a decade ago, Africa was little more than an arena in a widening global contest between militant jihadism and Western power. Staged attacks on the continent that killed and maimed innocent bystanders had, as their declared objective, Westerners and Western targets.

Indeed, groups such as Al Qaeda, most notably in its East African US Embassy bombings in August 1998, regarded the killing of Africans as collateral damage. Instructively, in the aftermath of the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, African victims pursued compensation claims with the US government, tragically emphasising the sense that they, too, regarded themselves as bystanders in other people’s wars. There are important exceptions, of course, but for the most part, Africa has found itself in the cross-hairs of a violent global contest. And as happened during the Cold War, Africa and Africans must once again contend with the disruptions of foreign wars being fought by local proxies on African soil.       

However, considering the West’s long-standing record of deploying the terrorist label to suit imperialist ends – the 1986 Reagan administration’s bombing of Muammar Gathafi’s compound and the murder of his three-year-old daughter comes readily to mind – terrorism remained an all-encompassing term throwing together warlords, secessionists, radical Islamic clerics, leftist dissidents and common thugs.    

The terrorist label has always been problematic in the African context. Yesterday’s terrorist is often today’s liberation hero – and possibly tomorrow’s autocrat.

Technically, many African countries have had terrorists as their presidents. Nelson Mandela, Samora Machel, Salva Kiir, Joachim Chissano, Jomo Kenyatta, Houri Boumédiène, Yoweri Museveni, Paul Kagame, Meles Zenawi, Joseph Kabila, Pierre Nkurunziza, and Robert Mugabe have all come to power by the fact of having been members of organisations that used armed violence to achieve political ends. Some, like Kenyatta, Mugabe and Mandela, were even officially branded terrorists by the powers opposed to them at the time.

Beyond the issue of labels, the past decade has brought home the reality of violent insurgencies on African soil. The thousands killed and maimed in the Lake Chad basin from attacks staged by the Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād, otherwise known as Boko Haram, and those in East Africa by the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, commonly called al-Shabaab, has led to perhaps the most serious security crisis in sub-Saharan Africa today.

Three things stand out in particular.  The first is the increasingly regional nature of the threat. From a relatively small area of operations in the north of Nigeria, Boko Haram now stages attacks in four out of the seven countries of the Lake Chad basin. Likewise, militant groups in Somalia, most notably al-Shabaab, now regularly attack civilian targets in Kenya, have done so in Uganda and are determined to do so in Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries involved in the regional effort to stabilise Somalia.

The second point is the often weak and incoherent responses – and they often seem to be only responses – of the national armies of what are supposed to be some of the stronger states on our continent.

In 1992 in Dakar, the OAU passed a resolution pledging to coordinate the fight against extremism and terrorism among member states. A decade later in September 2002, the AU established the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT). Exactly a year after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks in the US, the AU’s commitment to playing its role in combating terrorism – now little more than a byword for the global war against militant jihad – also opened the door for member states to partner with the West in its counter-terrorism initiatives on the continent.

Several of the articles in this special report raise the red flag over this partnership between Western and African governments and question whether these partnerships themselves have fuelled jihadist insurgency on the continent. Whether or not that is the case, the dovetailing of a Western counter-terrorism agenda with African security needs comes with its own dilemmas.

As individual African states committed to the War on Terror without necessarily defining their own priorities, the rise of the security state in Africa – with all its implications for the erosion of democratic freedoms – has become a major feature of the emerging landscape.

Under the guise of anti-terror laws, governments often tailor definitions of terrorists to fit their own political ends. Extra-judicial abuses typically accompany the passage of these laws: arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, disappearances and renditions and extra-judicial killings.

It is an open question whether these actions themselves have led to the very pathologies many governments now struggle with: the militant radicalisation of swathes of the population, especially the youth in politically marginal regions; the rise of conflict economies and human rights abuses fuelled by the opportunism of armies fighting insurgents; and the “blowback” exposure of their own populations to militants’ attacks.

Just as troubling is the effect that these armed insurgencies are having on the credibility of the state. By organising the massacre of unarmed civilians, the armed groups remove the one thing African governments claim to have been able to deliver to their populations: security.

On the day the AU convened a Heads of State meeting in Nairobi in September 2014 to discuss terrorism, a US drone attack killed several people at a meeting in the port town of Barawe in Southern Somalia. Among those killed was Ahmed Abdi Godane, leader of al-Shabaab. The State Department would later describe it as “a major symbolic and operational loss to Al Qaeda’s largest affiliate in Africa.” Launched from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, the US’s main military base on the continent, it speaks volumes about Africa’s role in Western counter-terrorism that the Barawe attack was conducted without the knowledge of any of the Heads of State gathered in Nairobi.

From a longer historical lens, the current insurgencies roughly coincide with what was once the southernmost expansion of the Arabic spread into the African continent, just below the line demarcating the Sahel. Are the Islamist insurgents operating on the premise of the long-held Arab expansionist ambitions in Africa?

The current debate about what to do to bring this security and human rights crisis to an end is so heavily laden with cultural impositions and misunderstandings, that it is doubtful if Africa – and in particular, the African Union – will be able to come up with a robust and lasting remedy. First, the concept of terrorism on the African continent has become for many, interchangeable with Islam. This is as true for the terrorist actors as it is for the managers of the African state and their allies.

Second, there is the way the fight against armed insurgency has been conflated with the interests and agendas of Western countries (in particular the US) regarding Africa.

That being the case, Africa runs the risk of finding itself a passive observer to, and arena of, other peoples’ battles; influencing neither the “problem”, nor the “solution”. And in this war between militant jihadists and their Western enemies, who is to say who is the terrorist and who the victim?

Established states have used these same methods to undermine either each other or others. The 1939-1945 war saw the German city of Dresden firebombed from the air, killing about 25,000 people and destroying over six square kilometres of the city centre. The stated purpose was to disrupt economic production and the railway system that helped feed the German war machine, but critics during and after the war insist it was simply punitive, aimed at unsettling the population, especially given Dresden’s cultural significance.

We should always remember that the only time that atomic/nuclear weapons have been used in war was when the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War.

More recently, the US-led invasion of Iraq, in which an estimated 650,000 civilians were killed, many by uranium-enriched cluster bombs, was itself an act of deadly terrorism against the people of Iraq, and one waged under entirely false pretexts.

At the same time, many African regimes could also be correctly accused of basically terrorising their own civilian populations as a strategy for remaining in power. The challenge therefore is not simply coming to grips with “terrorism”, but also, raising the question, “terrorism by whom, and for what purpose”? The activities of the organisation known as the Islamic State have certainly left a cultural imprint on the idea of what constitutes an act of terror, and what motivates them. It is presented to us as the method of work emerging naturally from an “extremist” mindset.

This is often presented outside any historical context.The earliest religious beheading I have come across is when one Mukasa, the Katikkiro (native prime minister) in the Kingdom of Buganda, described by exasperated Christian Anglican missionaries as an “inveterate pagan” was thus dispatched during the religious civil wars in the 1890s that resulted in the formation of present-day Uganda. The execution spot now forms part of the car park of the main Anglican Cathedral in the capital, Kampala.

Once there is a determination to fight, then ways of fighting will be found, as will ways of other people taking advantage of that fight. A case in point is Somalia, where the worst and most infamous fighting took place among the warlords who emerged from the disintegrating army as the state collapsed in 1992. Religious belief had little, if anything at all, to do with this. In fact, it was the failure of the essentially secular warlords to bring an end to their conflicts that gave rise to religious interventions that also then armed themselves. As with Boko Haram, those religiously founded groups now find themselves being taken over by co-religionists from outside Somalia, with a broader agenda.

Beheadings aside, many of the methods now “branded” Islamic, such as attacks on civilian sites, suicide bombings, the destruction of cultural artifacts and grave-sites, conscription of children, taking of women as sex-slaves, and the like, have long been practices in many a theatre of conflict.

A quick internet search will bring up a 1947 police “Wanted” poster from British Palestine, looking for – amongst others – one Menachem Begin as a prime suspect in the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, in which 91 people, including a UN mediator (and 12 Jewish people), died. Begin was later to become Israel’s prime minister and negotiate with Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat at Camp David.

In Africa, the experience with modern-day terrorist methods is not new. For instance, many of the longest-established mission stations in Buganda are built directly on top of destroyed native shrines. And neither does the practice of recruiting children into war belong exclusively to the Foday Sankohs, Lubangas and Charles Taylors. Much photographic material exists showing a youthful Yoweri Museveni interacting with very young children who constituted a chunk of his then rebel army. Africa must tackle “terrorism”, but must first develop her own discourse, on her own terms and based on her own experience, to provide an African framework to understanding the challenge.

A first step will be to separate mission and motives, from method. Are all the causes being swept up by terrorist movements illegitimate, and equally so? If they remain unexamined, and not engaged with, who benefits? The answer is simple. As with the citizens of Arab nations, African group grievances, if not addressed, will give rise to insurgencies.

The last UNDP report to be released before the onset of the Arab Spring, spoke of a region that had “stagnated“over the previous decade in all the indicators of the Human Development Index. It is obvious that, due the poverty of the African communities, any warfare emerging from them will involve “pocket friendly” methods being used to carry out missions. Unlike the US Air Force over Dresden, the fighter in a poorer army will deliver his bomb on foot, as even Mandela’s army did in its early days.

The African challenge is not to suppress protest and dissent, but in fact to enable it to coalesce around the real concerns of the communities. A trend is slowly emerging whereby Islamist militants now seek to insert themselves inside local conflicts – such as the abominable marginalisation of the indigenes of the Kenyan coast – on the side of the oppressed.

The inference is clear: if the African governments are not listening to their people, then those vending “terrorism” as a means of salvation, will.

This brings in a fourth requirement for the African discourse. Let us not forget that the nineteenth- century European conquest of Africa was also, in effect, a Christian jihad. Nobody is neutral. To their great credit, no African state has (at least openly) allowed the US Africa Military Command (AFRICOM, founded in 2008) a long-coveted base on the continent.

Nevertheless, it is of critical importance that Africa take her own side in this 21st-century challenge, and not end up shielding the big powers from their sometimes well-deserved enemies.



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Written by New african

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