(Mis)Understanding Terrorism in Africa
Posted on 2nd June, 2021 in Director's Blog
Image: Malian troops in the north of the country. Credit: Fred Marie.
The nature of terrorism in Africa has been both much studied and much misunderstood. Both African and Western governments are still making fundamental mistakes in their efforts to tackle the problem. In many parts of Africa terrorist, jihadi and separatist insurgencies are therefore not only persisting, but growing stronger.
Why are these mistakes being made and what should be done instead? The cost to African citizens, and ultimately to the whole world from the economic, environmental and migratory consequences will keep mounting until more effective policies are applied.
It is a cliché to say that terrorism is a political not a security problem and therefore needs a political not merely security solution, but it is true for all that. What is neglected is that the political problem arises from underlying social and economic trends that have deep African roots, even if their latest manifestations are profoundly modern and heavily influenced by Africa’s interaction with the rest of the world.
Jihad has been a regular phenomenon in Africa’s past, particularly across the Sahel, from Sudan in the east to Senegal in the west, during the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time, as the historian Toby Green has explained, “Islam was being adopted by the dispossessed as a religion of struggle to resist inequality and the rising power of capitalism” and to redress the abuse of power and entrenched hierarchies (A Fistful of Shells, pp. 460 and 473).
The nationalist and liberation movements that overthrew colonial governments were also inter-generational conflicts, often led by young men (and few women) who baulked at the hegemony of traditional rulers, instrumentalised by the colonial state, and seized the state partly in order to radically reform the social order.
The legitimacy provided by nationalist and liberation ideology, however, has dissipated fast. Most citizens accept the nation state as a unit of political loyalty, but that loyalty is conditional on receiving benefits. ‘Nationalism’ has run out of ideological steam and politics has become a process for parcelling out the benefits – revenue, jobs – that accrue to those who control the institutions of state. These provides little for those in peripheral regions or without access to political leverage. So in many places the state is fraying, ideologically and physically.
It is no surprise that soldiers are unwilling to fight for something they don’t believe in, as in Nigeria or Mozambique, or only to preserve their own privileges, as in Mali. It makes training such troops to fight terrorism both frustrating and pointless – as the EU and UK have found in Somalia, Nigeria and Mali. One of the most illuminating studies of what Nigerian soldiers really think of the fight against Boko Haram has just been published in African Affairs, and should be essential reading for every policy-maker involved in counter-terrorism in Africa.
Not that external forces are irrelevant. Very few insurgencies, terrorist or territorial, can be resolved by one country within its own borders. African governments must recognise that collective effort – and collective responsibility – are essential, and therefore regional organisations – AU, IGAD, ECOWAS, G5, SADC – have a central role to play. External actors from further afield can also have influence, both disruptively as ISIS, Al Qaeda and even some foreign states prove to be, or constructively in supporting local efforts to resolve the conflicts, as the EU and UN do.
Global jihadist groups are of course happy to piggy-back on any local grievances to establish a foothold in new territory, and these can indeed be used to train terrorists who may target western countries. But trying to solve the problem through suppression, as in the Sahel, has simply not worked.
The problem with external intervention goes wider. Terrorism or jihadism is often seen through an assumption that liberal democracy, with the military subordinated and accountable to civil authority, should be the true object of political evolution. Of course this is the ideal, and repeated Afrobarometer polls show that most Africans would like to live in such democracies. But in the short term, for many peace, stability and the opportunity to make a living and raise a family take priority. If their government, however nominally democratic, cannot provide this, they have no option but to tolerate whatever organisation exerts physical control in their area, settles disputes and levies taxes. Life under jihadist rule is rarely free, fair or comfortable (as the film Timbuktu illustrated graphically). But for many in the Sahel, around Lake Chad, in Somalia, and now in northern Mozambique, it is a fact that must be accommodated.
The insurgency in northern Mozambique has all the hallmarks of a protest by young men in a peripheral area suffering neglect, lacking opportunities and witnessing ever-growing inequalities of wealth. It should be no surprise they choose to assert their own agency, and seek outside support to do so, despite the lack of history of Islamic radicalism in the region.
Frelimo, as a former liberation movement, should understand this. But no: power corrupts, and Frelimo’s history is seen as a source to be mined for political legitimacy, not political lessons. Just as Frelimo’s cadres were Mozambican nationalists first, yet sought ideological and material support from Soviet bloc countries, the insurgents of Cabo Delgado, aiming to overturn a corrupt and incompetent system that embeds rather than tackles their inequality, seek ideological and material support from ISIS. The young men, with no jobs to go to, find purpose and reward in wielding their Kalashnikovs and taking what they please.
This fraying of the state and loss of legitimacy are also evident in Ethiopia and the Horn. Though President Isaias of Eritrea may seem the immediate winner of the war in Tigray, as the Ethiopian state erodes it is Al-Shabab that stands to gain most. Terrorism thrives on disorder.
Nigeria will be the test case. It has a ramshackle political system that has nevertheless proven remarkably robust. But it now faces an existential crisis from the escalating breakdown of law and order. The question again is whether a corrupt and ageing hierarchy can spread wealth and opportunity more widely before the tensions break it apart.
Yet many African states are stuck.
Without a political process to allow renewal, to remove corrupt and incompetent elites and address inequalities – which two centuries ago happened in West Africa through the jihadist movements of Usman Dan Fodio and his like, and today happens in Europe and the US through regular and open elections – there is no way regimes can change. Of course incumbents like to pull the drawbridge up behind them and hang on to power as long as they can by hook or by crook. They might see out their lifetime in that way (though Mobutu and Mugabe were not so lucky), but chaos and insurgency will inevitably ensue. People, and especially young men, have no option but to resort to the old ways – violent revolt against corrupt and entrenched hierarchies.
If African countries themselves do not have the political wherewithal to resist such disorder, terrorist or otherwise, no amount of outside help will solve this. So is the solution to let the social and political revolution run its course, in effect letting one elite replace another? Or to impose ever tougher political conditionality on any support provided, ‘interfering in the internal affairs of other states’?
Neither option recommends itself. The answer lies in African citizens themselves asserting their voices, and neighbouring leaders understanding that ‘live and let live’ between autocrats no longer works: chaos in one country will sooner or later cause chaos in their own. It took Europe two world wars to learn that sharing sovereignty is better for all than asserting national supremacy. Africa would be wise to take a short cut.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society