For the past decade or so, the swanky hotels sprouting up in African capitals have been considered a sign of growing affluence on the continent, providing a setting for big deals involving either an increasingly spendthrift middle class or Africa’s plentiful resources.
Now they risk being seen as representative of one of the continent’s top challenges: security. The response to that risks rolling back both the economic and democratic gains of the past two decades.
Metal detectors and body searches are already common in parts of countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda – even in shops and churches. The same security measures are now cropping up in other countries as transnational terror groups compete to expand their operational spheres.
From Accra to Abidjan, in capitals not recognised as targets for militants, heavily armed security officers are increasingly visible.
“This situation where we are searched before entering hotels is new to me and Ghanaians,” said Dotse Mortoo, a 38-year-old construction engineer at Accra’s prestigious Kempinski hotel. “We could be at risk more than we think with what we are seeing nearby.”
Mortoo was referring to the January 15 attack in Burkina Faso, where 30 people from more than a dozen countries were killed when three assailants attacked a restaurant and a high-profile hotel in the capital Ouagadougou.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack, and the attackers were identified as being from the country’s northern neighbour, Mali. In November, the same group had attacked the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, killing dozens of people.
The two hotels are the kind of setting preferred by foreign visitors, from diplomats and expatriates to business people, executives and aviation crews.
Burkina Faso was not the most obvious target. Its 1 325km border with fragile Mali left it exposed, but the troubles there had not typically spilled over the border.
But the weekend strike at its very heart lends credence to the fear that the franchise holder, al-Qaeda, for months overshadowed by the Islamic State, is revitalising its operations as it seeks to rebuild a global brand that competes with the rival that it spawned.
A day before, al-Qaeda-allied militants struck at a Somali military base manned by Kenyan soldiers, the death toll of which remains in dispute. The militants claimed they killed more than 100 in the dawn attack, although the Kenyan army said only that a “company-size” contingent, or between 80 and 250 soldiers, were attacked.
Already active in Mali, Niger, Mauritania – countries that have had military coups since 2008 – and Algeria, al-Qaeda’s seeming expansion southwards leaves many previously unlikely target countries reconsidering their vulnerability.
Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are facing militants on three sides.
In July, Côte d’Ivoire had to scramble forces on its northern border with Burkina Faso following an attack there by militants.
Last week, Abidjan asked the United Nations to carry out a joint terror attack response exercise, the first in the country, a day after France warned it and Senegal that militants could be planning attacks on their main cities.
Last month Senegal, among Africa’s most stable democracies, arrested suspected militants.
In Nigeria, two primary terror organisations are vying directly for loyalty. Al-Qaeda has cells in Nigeria and, according to the United States’s state department, previously worked with the headline-grabbing Boko Haram. But in March, Boko Haram pledged itself to the Islamic State.
Debate continues on the strength of Boko Haram’s links to the Syria-headquartered Islamic State. Boko Haram may have signed up with the Syrian group in a simple search for much-needed resources as it came under intense pressure from the Nigerian military. But, with Islamic State operations in Egypt, Algeria and Libya, Boko Haram may now have a pipeline of resources stretching back to the Syrian organisation’s heartland.
The zone of competition between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State roughly parallels a line of US military outposts stretching across the continent in an east-west belt. That serves to bring new, high-value targets closer to the militant groups. But attacks on civilians still predominate.
The US presence has proved valuable to some African countries in their own operations, such as when American intelligence supported the Burkina Faso anti-terror operation.
Such support, and the goodwill it buys, will grow. In December, the US military command highlighted its intention to increase its number of bases in several parts of the world, including in Africa.
Although it was at pains to describe the proposal as being at an early stage, all indications are that there will be a greater US military presence on the continent, which will provide a rallying cry for militants.
Local governments are also providing potential recruiting propaganda for terror organisations. As has happened in other parts of the world, alarmed populations put pressure on their governments, which then overreact with their security measures, such as the ban in the Maghreb on Muslim women wearing veils. The resulting sense by Muslim populations of being under siege has traditionally provided fertile ground for recruiters.
US support for oppressive, and sometimes suppressive, regimes does not help. In Djibouti, which hosts the only acknowledged full-blown US military base on the continent, President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh is aiming to extend his 17-year rule of the nation in elections in April, despite swearing in 2011 that he was taking his oath of office for the “third and final time”.
The US has been seen as supportively quiet on the matter.
High levels of poverty contribute to the appeal of terror organisations, with some fighters reportedly earning large sums of money.
But the greatest long-term supporting factor for terrorism may stem from its broader economic effect: in a country’s fight against these organisations, resources are diverted to anti-terror measures, money is spent in secret, growth is retarded and inequality increases.
The risks have been addressed in different ways by different governments. The Côte d’Ivoire government has reportedly asked religious leaders and Muslim organisations to notify police about newcomers in their communities and of any suspicious behaviour.
Such a community-level approach has been tried in other countries with varying results – in Ethiopia it has broadly worked, but in Kenya it remains stillborn.
The most tried and tested response is also the most difficult: regular and credible elections that strengthen the people’s faith in the ability of democratic institutions to create space and opportunities for the continent’s 1.1-billion people.