Terror amid Africa Rising

Tolu Ogunlesi
By Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi is a journalist and writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is The Africa Report's west Africa editor. Tolu has twice been awarded the CNN Multichoice African Journalism Awards. He is an avid user of social media, especially Twitter (@toluogunlesi)

Posted on Monday, 5 January 2015 14:57

I spent the final weeks of 2014 attending international security summits. The first was in Halifax, Canada – the Halifax International Security Forum – an exclusive gathering of a few hundred important people (from sixty countries) in the global security arena – military officers, analysts, academics, journalists.

It is no longer war between states but inside countries

There were seven 4-star American Generals, which led Forum President Peter Van Praagh to quip that “we have more stars than the academy awards.” Also in attendance was the largest US congressional delegation to ever visit Canada, led by Republican John McCain and Democrat Tim Kaine.

2014, said Van Praagh, has been a “difficult year in international security and the pursuit of peace.”

Indeed. With the rise of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, and ISIL in the Levant (a symptom of a larger issue, described by George Friedman as “disintegration of the Sykes-Picot world”), Russia-Ukraine tensions over Crimea, escalating tensions between Israel and Palestine, and the unexpected lone-gunman terror attacks in Canada and Australia.

The Halifax Forum covered plenty of ground. Underlying much of the conversation were a number of themes: radical Islam, transnational criminality, and the increasing prominence of “non-state actors” and “asymmetrical” forces.

Three weeks later I was in Dakar, Senegal, for the Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa. Headline participants included Senegal’s President, Macky Sall, Prime Minister Mahammed Dionne, former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, and French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Dakar’s deliberations highlighted the mix of local grievances (arising from social, economic, and religious bases), historical forces, international influences (e.g. “the internationalization of terrorist recruitment”) and institutional dysfunction responsible for Africa’s dire contemporary security situation.

What struck me the most about the two conferences was the absence of official Nigerian representation. No government officials present; no military personnel. Does it perhaps suggest the extent to which the Nigerian government is reckoned with in international circles?

If this is the case, has the habitual government mishandling of the security situation in Nigeria got anything to do with it? Even the fact that the Dakar Forum leaned far more towards Francophone Africa than the Anglophones doesn’t justify the glaring invisibility of the country that is not only Africa’s largest economy, but also its most populous country.

Whatever the reason might be, it’s a shame. In my opinion Boko Haram is as critical a threat to world peace as ISIL is, and by not treating it as such the world is doing itself a grievous disservice. I doubt there is anything ISIL has done that Boko Haram didn’t do first. Abductions, executions, large-scale murders, conquests of territory, etc.

And, as Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council pointed out in Halifax, “Boko Haram has done what ISIS has not yet done – shoot down a fighter jet in combat and behead the pilot.” Also, the majority of terrorist incidents in Africa this year took place in Nigeria – mostly the handiwork of Boko Haram (seventy-one incidents between May and November 2014, accounting for more than 1,400 deaths).

Three phases

Jakkie Cilliers, Director-General of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) provided an insightful overview of the security situation in Africa. He delineated post-independent African history into three phases, from the point of view of conflict and security: first the Cold War phase, in which instability reigned in Africa and Asia because they were the trophies for which the superpowers struggled for control of.

After the end of the cold war, Cilliers noted, there was a significant reduction in instability and violence in Africa. The somewhat unipolar world that existed lowered the stakes regarding competition for Africa. (That has of course now changed, with the entrance of China).

And then a third phase, starting around 2010, in which instability has surged across the continent. “It is no longer war between states but inside countries,” Cilliers said. “Violence in Africa has gained more of a transnational character.”

He pointed out that there is an increase in conflict “around elections” (which should itself hint at an upswing in the prevalence of democratic process, compared with the dictatorships and one-party rule that dominated into the 1990s), and as a result of competition for scarce natural resources.

2010 is the year Boko Haram began to emerge in its new incarnation, under the control of the brutal Abu Shekau, who succeeded the sect’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, killed in a confrontation with the Nigerian Army in July 2009.

It’s also the year Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Tunisia, sparking what would come to be known as the Arab Spring. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell, as did, rather swiftly, Hosni Mubarak.

Muammar Gaddafi in Libya held out for a while, but in the face of US-led airstrikes his regime, the longest on the continent, collapsed.

‘A long time’

One of Cilliers’ conclusions was this one; as true as it is depressing: “There will be some African countries trapped in fragility and instability for a long time.”

Even in Nigeria, Boko Haram’s legacy of trauma and devastation will take several years to roll back. And that’s even assuming that the group will ever be defeated. Imagine if it was to acquire the staying power of the FARC in Colombia?

One speaker said that Africa’s problem is “capacity”, not “will”, citing porous borders, and deficiencies in skill and training as examples. No doubt deep-rooted institutional dysfunctions account for many problems, but the political will to tackle challenges is often itself a problem. But it is not all gloom, fortunately. Southern Africa has largely been free of “serious terrorist activity”, it was noted.

One important lesson from 2014: Africa – its countries, regional groupings, think-tanks, etc – must learn to assert itself more in matters affecting it. (Nigeria especially, on account of its economic and demographic status). The African Union should no longer expect Paris or Washington to always take the lead in continental matters (recall that this was also the year of the US-Africa Summit).

Financial clout is no doubt a big obstacle. In Dakar former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo spoke of his radical ideas regarding raising funding for the African Union: modest surcharges on flight tickets and hotel bookings on the continent, he said, would swell the coffers by $700 million annually, and help build a more responsive and influential organisation.

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