/ 24 May 2016

Terror attacks mar Africa Day celebrations

Webster Zambara explores the challenge that terror attacks pose on African unity
Webster Zambara explores the challenge that terror attacks pose on African unity

As the continent and its diaspora commemorate Africa Day on May 25, there is a growing sense of insecurity because of the increasing number of terror attacks.

This year’s Africa Day theme is: African year of human rights with particular focus on the rights of women.

Liberation from colonialism and apartheid has been achieved – save for Western Sahara, under Moroccan domination – as aspired to at the formation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. But recent events across the continent call for drastic measures to halt the rise in terror attacks, which have worsened the security situation in many countries.

The unresolved case of the Chibok girls, who were abducted by Islamist group Boko Haram in April 2014 in Nigeria, remains a blight on the conscience of humanity.

Besides killing many, Boko Haram’s relentless attacks on innocent people in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad have displaced 2.6-million people. Their partners in crime, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the January 15 hotel attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, that killed 30 people of at least eight nationalities and injured 55.

A similar attack was carried out in neighbouring Mali in November. Gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako and took 170 people hostage, ultimately killing 21. In March, al-Qaeda gunmen opened fire on beachgoers at a resort in Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast, killing at least 18 people and injuring 33 others.

A common denominator is these attacks targeted places frequented by Westerners, making the continent an expanding battleground for the vicious wars raging in the Middle East.

In North Africa, more than 5 000 Islamic State militants are operating in Libya, where they have seized oil fields to fund their operations. Chaos has reigned in Libya since the Western-backed ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, leaving an “arms bazaar” in Libya that helps fuel attacks across the region. Last year’s sporadic attacks in Tunisia highlighted the need for urgent measures.

In East Africa, al-Shabab targeted countries contributing troops to the African Union Mission to Somalia, a regional force trying to stabilise the violence-ridden country. Kenya has suffered the most: this time last year, it was mourning the April 2 slaughter of 148 Garissa University College students. The country remains on high alert.

Southern Africa has not experienced terror attacks of this nature. But here have been reports that the Islamic State has been recruiting in South Africa and that British citizen Samantha Lewthwaite, believed to have been involved in the Westgate Shopping Mall attacks in Kenya in 2013,once lived in Johannesburg. In 2009, United States buildings in South Africa were shut down because of a security scare. Such threats should keep the country’s security agencies on alert.

The recent establishment of the African Standby Force (ASF), after its Amani Africa II field exercise in South Africa, gives hope that the continent is preparing itself to improve the security of its citizens.

The AU faced resistance from the regime of Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, as he took an unconstitutional third term in office despite opposition.

The question is: If the AU cannot timeously deploy forces in a member country, what are its chances of deploying against nonstate actors such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab and al-Qaeda?

The ASF is one of the five arms of the AU’s peace and security architecture, the other four being the Peace and Security Council, the Continental Early Warning System, the Panel of the Wise and the African Peace Fund. The biggest problem is funding for troop deployment, because most of the countries likely to contribute a military presence are too poor to finance expensive exercises.

But it is important to understand that peace cannot be brought by guns alone. The civilian component deployed to assist such peacekeeping forces need to be equipped with the skills to bring about reconciliation, as well as justice those committing heinous crimes. But these civilian deployments are almost nonexistent, resulting in a collapse back into violence, as demonstrated in Burundi.

The rise in acts of terror is a serious blow to liberation and freedom in the post-colonial and post-apartheid era. It obstructs the march towards a prosperous, peaceful and integrated Africa – the Africa espoused by the continent’s Vision 2063, “where development is people driven, unleashing the potential of its women and youths”.

Webster Zambara is a senior project leader for Southern Africa at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.