The story of a rising Africa, and specially its economic resurgence, is one that can’t be easily passed over. Between 2011-2015, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted that seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world will be from Sub-Saharan Africa. If these figures turn out to be true, and not just indicators, then Africa could well be on the brink of an economic takeoff. But rising incidents of terrorism and religious extremism are rapidly becoming factors that could derail the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative.
In fact, one can see an emerging arc of extremism and terrorism across the continent. The threats to topple the government of Mali by Islamist militants associated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January. Al-Shabaab’s attacks in Westgate, a busy shopping mall in Nairobi, in September. Two US commando raids in Libya and Somalia in October. These events are not small blips on the radar. They are indicative, rather, of the fact that an increasingly large swathe of the continent is falling prey to terrorism. This swathe is, in fact, being referred to in reports by Pentagon officials and American diplomats as an ‘arc of instability’. The term found credence since January 2013, when the AQIM threatened to topple the government of Mali, while other militants raided a natural gas operation in Southern Algeria, killing 40 foreign workers.
The reasons behind the spurt in terrorism are not exactly easy to unravel, largely because Africa’s socio-cultural fabric is so intricately woven. Along with religious schisms (usually between Islam and Christianity), the population in many countries is mixed. In Mali, for example, the Islamist regime includes Tuaregs as well as Arabs, who regard themselves as ‘white’, ruling over a population it regards as ‘black’. Federal governments in most countries in Africa are poorly equipped to handle the ethnic cleavages of society, and tensions along religious or communal lines are like tinder waiting for the proverbial match. Matters are further inflamed by the existence of porous borders, undertrained militia forces and flourishing drug cartels. Collectively, these factors have created the perfect condition for a number of Islamist extremist groups to organise and thrive.
Small wonder, Africa is now riddled with a slew of terrorist groups and Islamist insurgency movements. Take the case of Al-Shabaab, which purportedly seeks to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia. The group is affiliated to Al-Qaeda, but it is not a homogeneous entity. The attack on Westgate Mall, for example, allegedly involved a mix of Kenyan nationals, Arabs, Americans and other Africans. This only highlights the fact that Al-Shabaab is no longer a domestic terrorism force, but is acquiring a niche for itself on the global stage, as well as across the African sub-continent itself.
In the oil-rich Nigeria, sectarian clashes between Boko Haram, an Islamic insurgent group, and Nigeria’s security services have picked up pace dramatically. Indeed the most recent figures from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker (NST) show that September 2013 was the second bloodiest month in the country since President Goodluck Jonathan’s inauguration in May 2011. Allegations of human rights violations aside, there is a pattern to be detected here. Islamist attacks provoke a heavy-handed crackdown from government militia forces, resulting in the unexplained disappearances of young men from the vicinity of the attack. This injustice is usually the driver behind the popular support for Boko Haram’s anti-establishment position as well as its violent methods. The government is proving to be increasingly ineffective in dealing with the scourge as the forces are usually poorly trained and equally poorly paid, besides being deployed outside their native regions. As a result, entire swathes of population are protected by forces, who know nothing of their customs or even their languages, and have little or no sympathy for the people they are deployed to protect. Boko Haram’s Islamic thrust is toward the Christian minority. Its members are mostly Nigerians from Borno state, or Cameroonians, Nigerians, and Chadians from the border region, and include many from the madrassas of Northern Nigeria. The election of a Christian president has not been quite welcomed by the predominantly Muslim population, resulting in their further alienation from Nigerian Christians.
However, radical Islamism only partly explains the spike in terrorism in the continent. Certainly, Islamic jihadist movements are playing a major role, but there are smaller, but equally important characters that are driving the growth of domestic terrorism. In Nigeria, for example, besides the deteriorating civil-military relations and the push it is giving to Boko Haram, there are factors such as the Ombatse cult in the state of Nasarawa, which claims to be trying to restore Nigeria to its pre-colonial glory. Their methods are as violent, if not more, than that of the Boko Haram. In September 2013 alone, they were responsible for at least 50 civilian deaths and the displacement of tens of thousands of people after they burned down multiple villages. Also prevalent are gangs, recruited by local politicians, in order to harass their rivals and pressure potential voters in the run-up to the 2015 elections.
In other cases, it is the collusion between central governments and negative forces within society that leads to the complete collapse of governance and security within a particular country. This is the case with Mali, where the country’s government’s complicity with elements of organised crime was the main factor behind the flourishing growth of Islamist movements like AQIM. Indeed, these actors currently wield decisive political and military influence in the troubled northern Mali.
What’s alarming is that a domino effect has kicked in. For example, the Nairobi mall attack in September was executed by an Islamist group which is based in Somalia. Kenya and Somalia share borders which have long been not only porous but worrisome with regard to national security. Kenya has already absorbed its fair share of Somalis, fleeing from their own ravaged country. A testament to this is the ‘Little Mogadishu’ neighbourhood in Nairobi itself. The danger: a large number of these Somalis are ardent supporters of Al-Shabaab.
The growth of terrorism in Africa is now longer a concern of the continent itself, but it’s transnational character has caused anxieties in key world capitals, specially in Washington and Paris. The US State Department has deemed Boko Haram to be a ‘terrorist’ group, citing its links to the Al-Qaeda affiliates in West Africa, and extremist groups in Mali. With this new regulation, US agencies will be instructed to block all business and financial transactions with Boko Haram, and it will now become a crime to provide any kind of material support to the group. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously signed off on a peacekeeping mission of 12,600 soldiers drawn from neighbouring African countries in Mali earlier this year. This was followed by the contentious military intervention by France in the country.
The overall implications for security policies in sub-Saharan Africa are stark. It is inevitable that these groups, while mostly keeping to local and national missions, will go international some day. Some of them are already branching out. AQIM, for example, trained the fighters who took part in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. While it will be a long time before Africa’s Islamist militants will be capable of launching attacks in either the United States or Europe, it is best that no chances be taken. It’s time, therefore, for the global community to join hands to map out concrete mechanisms to counter the growing trend of terrorism and extremism in Africa.
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