Terror threat puts African leaders on back foot

As fear grips a number of African countries due to a wave of Islamist terror attacks on civilians, the continent’s leaders are struggling to explain what they are doing to ensure the safety of their citizens.

Heads of state of the African Union (AU) met in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, last week for their biannual summit meeting with the theme Agriculture and Food Security.

The meeting took place against a backdrop of a growing campaign of bombings and kidnappings by the extremists Boko Haram in Nigeria, which was followed by the bloody killings in Mpeketoni in Kenya by the Somalia-based al-Shabab.

“The cowardly kidnapping by Boko Haram of over 200 young girls in northern Nigeria [on April 14 this year] elicited outrage from the heads of state and government, who also welcomed the ongoing AU efforts to address the scourge of terrorism,” the leaders said in their final statement following the summit.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told the heads of state at the summit that Africa was “plagued” by the threat of terrorism.

“The continent faces an increasing challenge in trans-border threats, with terrorism at the forefront,” he was quoted as saying.

Inability to protect
Al-Sisi was the star of the show, having clinched Egypt’s readmission to the grouping after it was expelled for “unconstitutional change of government” last year.

Despite signing a number of protocols committing them to co-operate in the fight against terrorism, AU member states have not, however, implemented many of these plans, says an AU insider who attended the summit. Citizens are getting increasingly weary of the inability of leaders and their own security forces to protect them against the terror threat.

Islamist terrorism has been around for a long time in Africa, ever since the 1998 al-Qaeda-linked bombings of the United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Yet, the scale of the latest wave of attacks and their spectacular nature, such as the bombings at shopping malls, bus stations and the kidnapping of the girls in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria, have raised alarm and attracted the attention of the international media.

According to the Nigeria Security Tracker, run by the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, more than 20 000 people have died in violent attacks in Nigeria since 2011.

In the week of the AU summit, from June 22 to 27, more than 400 people were killed or kidnapped in violence related to Boko Haram.

International focus
Until May this year, the Boko Haram threat was, however, largely seen as a domestic issue and although the Nigerian media has been talking about “the insurgency” for years, the country was not usually cited as a security hot spot in general conversations on crises in Africa.

The kidnapping of the girls and the worldwide #BringBackOurGirls campaign contributed to highlighting the threat posed by the Islamist group.

AU officials say it is not true that nothing is being done to try to fight the scourge, but the AU Peace and Security Council, a 15-member body that oversees decisions on security, put Nigeria on its official agenda of crises for the first time on May 23 this year.

Regional intelligence services did meet on May 19 in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso to discuss co-operation in the fight against Boko Haram. News of this meeting was, however, eclipsed by the controversial Paris summit on Boko Haram, attended by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on May 17, which shocked many Africans, who believe these discussions should have been held on African soil.

Whereas Jonathan is increasingly referring to the international aspects of the threat and the links between Boko Haram and other jihadist movements in Africa, such as the al-Qaeda-linked groups in Mali, his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, is increasingly emphasising the alleged local political aspects of the wave of terror in Kenya.

Kenyatta’s statements caused alarm when he blamed opposition politicians for the attacks in Mpeketoni, on the country’s east coast on June 15 and 16, in which 60 people were killed.

The Islamist group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the assault, the second-biggest attack since the Westgate Mall attack in September last year, in which at least 67 people died.

No common strategy
Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari, a senior research fellow at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg, says AU member states will struggle to implement common strategies against terrorism because of the complexity of the issue.

“There is a common concern that terrorism can spread throughout Africa, but [there is] no common strategy [for tackling it],” he says. Ethiopia has so far managed to contain the Somalian extremists thanks to its good intelligence services, but it is a real threat to security in many countries, he says.

Hengari believes that poverty and underdevelopment in Africa make the continent an ideal breeding ground for extremism.

Domestic issues play a huge role in Kenya, Nigeria and countries such as Mali, where Islamists occupied the northern part of the country in 2012.

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Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is an independent journalist and Africa expert. She lived in Senegal for many years and has reported from over 20 African countries. She is a regular commentator on African issues in the local and international media. From 2002 to 2008 she was the Africa Editor at Media24 newspapers in South Africa and still contributes to newspapers such as the Mail&Guardian in Johannesburg. Liesl also works as a consultant for the Institute for Security Studies, notably as editor of the African Union Peace and Security Council Report.
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