The past decade has seen a sharp rise in terrorism and extremism in Africa. With the recent abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram sparking outrage all over the world, the issue of terrorism has ceased to be local. This lead piece is by our editor, Baffour Ankomah.
Once upon a time, the only “terrorists” in Africa, if you believed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and American President Ronald Reagan, came in the shapes of Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Samora Machel, Holden Roberto, Sam Nujoma and the other freedom fighters and liberation movements then fighting to free their countries from white minority rule. Not any more. Now the terrain has totally changed.
From the east, in Somalia, where al-Shabaab has been laying waste to human life and property all the way into Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, to Nigeria where Boko Haram thinks boarding school children are legitimate targets of attack in addition to the indiscriminate murder of civilians, to the Maghreb and Sahel countries where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates and competitors have gone as far as launching a full-scale hot war in Mali after years of attacks in Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, the definition of a “terrorist” on the continent has changed dramatically from how Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan saw it in their day, to a dangerous extremist prepared to kill, maim and destroy.
Unlike the rebels of yesteryear, the new terrorists are faceless people with no fixed abode to counterattack and defeat.
All of a sudden, after the disastrous decades of the 1980s and 90s where rebel wars laid huge swathes of Africa to waste, the continent now has an even more dangerous situation to handle – more dangerous in the sense that, unlike the rebels of yesteryear, the new terrorists are faceless people with no fixed abode to counterattack and defeat. And this makes it more difficult to hunt them down. Sometimes they do not even have a coherent political ideology or grievance to tackle or resolve. Therefore the countries that host or are worst affected by the terrorists have been slow to act against them, because some of them do not fit the classical definition of a terrorist, which is “a person who uses unofficial or unauthorised violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”.
With its roots going back to the late 18th century, the word “terrorist”, according to historical records, “was originally applied to the supporters of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, who advocated for repression and violence in pursuit of the principles of democracy and equality”.
Thus, if “terrorist” groups do not have clear political aims at the beginning, their host countries tend not to pay early attention to them until it is too late. And when they finally act, the security agencies tend to over-react and end up radicalising the groups even more, making them more violent and dangerous. This has definitely been the case of Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Some experts have traced the increasing terrorism threat in Africa to global developments and the call many years ago by Osama bin Laden, the then spiritual leader of al-Qaeda, to Muslims in Africa to rise up in rebellion against the West.
But granted that Bin Laden really said that, the reality on the ground shows that apart from AQIM, which has clear early connections with al-Qaeda and global events, the antecedents of the other two largest terrorist groups in Africa – al-Shabaab and Boko Haram – are rooted more in local politics and grievances, even though
one has to admit that religion, and in this case Islamic fundamentalism, has been a major pull factor on which terrorism has ridden to menace Africa.
Again, it has to be conceded that though Boko Haram, the short name given by residents of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria to the group founded between 2002-04 calling itself Jama’atu Ahl As-Sunna Li-D’awati Wal Jihad, is rabidly against Western education, which the group considers to be corrupting Muslims, the core grievances of Boko Haram are local issues.