Africa is no stranger to the horrors of international terrorism. The continent has seen some dramatic incidents, not only the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 but also subsequent attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, and retaliatory military action against terror-linked targets in Sudan and Somalia.
Across Africa, other countries face similar dangers as they try to address immediate security threats while simultaneously pursuing long-range peace and development priorities. But because the continent confronts so many pressing problems, tackling terrorism has usually not taken a high public profile, despite the calls to wage “war on terror” that have been so prominent internationally since the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. As Kenyan journalist Mutuma Mathiu put it: “For people who have to work reasonably hard to put bread on the table, have to fight AIDS and the escalating cost of living, terrorism appears to be a distant threat. The threat of having nothing for dinner is more immediate.”
Africa, with UN help, has sought to combat terrorism with a more nuanced approach that combines concerns over security with the pursuit of development and the promotion of human rights. A meeting of counter-terrorism experts in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last year, for example, stressed the importance of Africa’s becoming more engaged in efforts to counter terrorist activities on the continent. But it also highlighted the need to “strengthen the African voice in the global discussion on terrorism,” said Patrick Hayford, director of the UN’s Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA), which organized the event (3–4 June, 2009).
After attacks, unity
Attacks against innocent civilians by rebel groups and governments alike have long been features of armed conflicts in Africa. But it was the near-simultaneous truck bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which claimed the lives of hundreds that brought home the continent’s vulnerability to attacks by international terrorist networks like al-Qaida.
The following year, African leaders adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism. Although it lacked strong enforcement powers, it nevertheless was the first continental treaty anywhere on countering terrorism. According to Martin Ewi and Kwesi Aning, two African experts on terrorism and conflict resolution, “At a time when the international community was starkly divided on the issue, the convention united African leaders behind a common position for negotiating an international convention.” Since then the OAU’s successor, the African Union, has further developed Africa’s common approach.
Such threats are spread unevenly across the continent, says Eric Rosand of the non-governmental Centre on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation in New York and a contributor to the OSAA meeting. But it is Somalia that has aroused the greatest international concern. A raid by US commandos into Somalia in September reportedly killed a suspected al-Qaida operative working with one of the Somali factions, showing that Washington continues to view such forces as a threat. In the wake of the September 2001 attacks in the US, many governments felt pressure to adopt anti-terrorism legislation and sign new military training and cooperation agreements with the US and European countries.
“Heavy handed” responses aid terrorists
This bred some resentment. According to Mr. Rosand, there is a widespread view in Africa that the international campaign against terrorism has been “developed without the input of Africans, imposed from the outside.” In Nigeria, early efforts to introduce counter-terrorism laws met particularly stiff criticism in the predominantly Islamic northern states, where many viewed them as anti-Muslim.
Some analysts have argued that external powers have too often disregarded such perceptions, and their actions have been seen as heavy-handed, especially in Somalia, the Sahel and other predominantly Muslim societies. Such interventions, critics argue, risk alienating more moderate elements and providing ammunition for terrorist recruiters. Many African critics recall that not long ago the colonial authorities and the apartheid regime in South Africa routinely branded all their opponents as terrorists.
Safeguarding human rights
In response to both domestic threats and external urging, however, numerous African governments have adopted new laws to strengthen the ability of the police and courts to go after those who use terrorist methods. Unfortunately, critics have pointed out, in some countries leaders have misused the legislation to suppress dissent or discredit political competitors.
In Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and elsewhere, argues Samuel Makinda, a Kenyan professor of security and international relations in Australia, new anti-terrorism laws tighten financial and border controls or protect communications and other infrastructure. But some laws are so broad that they have gone “far beyond constraining terrorism” and could instead stifle “legitimate political activities.” In Zimbabwe scores of activists of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have been arrested in recent years on terrorism charges.
“All any corrupt, undemocratic or insecure government needs to do to ensure the support of the West is to sign up to the anti-terror war and introduce ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation,” notes Rotimi Sankore, a Nigerian human rights campaigner. That authority “is sure to be used to suppress or undermine democratic opposition and human rights.”
Boubacar Gaoussou Diarra, director of the African Centre for Studies and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT), agrees: “How can we, as democratic societies that respect human rights, assure our collective protection and fight effectively against this form of intolerable violence?” The ACSRT, based in Algeria’s capital, is part of the answer. Opened in 2004 as an institution of the African Union with 42 national and seven regional offices, the centre shares information, provides training and carries out detailed research on the causes and features of terrorism in Africa. By strengthening both law enforcement and social justice programmes, experts say, Africa can turn the tide against those seeking to justify terrorist violence.
Mr. Ernest Harsch writes for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.