African owned and driven strategies key in addressing terrorism

Burundian soldiers training for deployment to the African Union Mission in Somalia 2012
Burundian soldiers training for deployment to the African Union Mission in Somalia 2012

Edward Wanyonyi is a Security, Leadership and Society Fellow at University of London-Kings College. He can be reached on

On 7th February 2015, Nigerians received news from the chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega, that national and state elections, originally scheduled for 14 and 28 February, had been postponed to 28 March and 11 April, respectively. The postponement came against a suspicious electoral climate that had earlier on been shaping pitting President Goodluck Jonathan and his main opposition rival General Muhammadu Buhari. However, the INEC chair clarified that ‘security could not be guaranteed in fourteen local government areas in the north east where Boko Haram has been waging a brutal insurgency since 2010. According to the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, rescheduling ‘the elections by six weeks would still fall within legal provisions and that the government “hoped” to restore normalcy to the north east by then.’

This fact that the security threat posed by Boko Haram could occasion the postponement of General Elections in a country that has perhaps one of the most established military and security infrastructure and legacy in West Africa calls into question the overall preparedness of Africa in combating the threat posed by transnational terrorism organizations, networks and movements.

While the Global War on Terror launched by President Bush following the 9/11 attacks morphed into a coalition of about 60 Western nations engaged mostly in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, this endeavour also attracted global partnerships within the US government and at the global level. The US Government reorganised the intelligence community and established organisations such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Bureau of Counter Terrorism and Department of Homeland Security besides reorganisation of all the state departments. At the Global level, the United Nations established the counter terrorism implementation task force to guide the implementation of the UN counter terrorism strategy adopted by members on September 8, 2006.

All these efforts were constructed in an environment that perceived Al Qaeda as the main source, exporter and backbone of the threat of terrorism. While efforts to degrade and defeat Al Qaeda were largely concentrated in central Asia particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan, little was done to prepare and build the capacity of many African countries to be insulate against the threat posed by terrorism. Indeed, while attacks at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 brought to the world the transnational nature of terrorism, the nature of cooperation that followed sought only to support the US ‘capture and kill’ strategy but little effort was directed in reforming the political and social contexts that would predispose most African countries to the threat of terrorism.

However, this situation changed when Tuareg rebels affiliated to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) almost ran over Niger and Mali. The situation worsened when AQIM established new operational bases in tumultuous Northern African states such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt following the Arab Spring turmoil. Boko Haram scaled its operational attacks from guerrilla based to a full blown insurgency capturing villages, towns and even at times routing the Nigerian military. In East Africa, Al Shabaab, previously pushed out of Mogadishu by the onslaughts of AMSIOM forces, started launching daring cross border attacks within Kenya with fatal casualties.

These developments come at a time when global jihadism is being redefined by the emergence of Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH) popularly known as the ISIL or the jihadist state that is currently active in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. It is not surprising that ISIL attracting over 20, 000 foreign fighters including from Africa is overshadowing Al Qaeda and becoming the leading exporter of jihadi ideology and terrorism leading to possibilities of cooperation with AQIM cells, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab.

Crowd fleeing Westgate shopping mall during 2013 attack
Crowd fleeing Westgate shopping mall during 2013 attack

The fact that global terrorism has direct implications to Africa’s security cannot therefore be underestimated. When terror organizations such as ISIL are able to attract and recruit fighters from Africa, the implications for their return are ominous. Not only do they pose direct security threats to their countries should they return and seek to establish terror cells and networks, they also present a unique challenge to security institutions which are yet to be transformed and equipped to deal with counter terrorism.

And here lies the Achilles heel for securing development and communities in Africa. While astronomical financial allocations are made to the modernisation of security services, these efforts although well intended are not coordinated with wider political and economic reforms in the society. It is one thing to establish national de-radicalisation programs but another to ensure that budgetary and development allocations aimed at addressing structural inequalities, marginalization and extreme disenfranchisement in the society are not politicised or end up excluding certain sections of the population. While the international community has established the coalition to militarily engage against groups like ISIL, African countries that are at risk of terror threat still lack proactive counter terrorism infrastructure and political agency to ensure that terrorism is not allowed to take root, win the hearts and minds of population, acquire military might and financial resources to the level like that of Boko Haram that leads to postponement of national elections.

The threat of transnational terrorism in Africa should not just be construed in terms of the frontline states that border AQIM or the Arab Peninsula. It should be looked at from the dimension of the move to promote a vision for a borderless Africa in order to harness regional trade and economic cooperation. As such, a regional but locally owned and led counter terrorism agenda will go a long way to secure this vision.

For this to take place, a three pronged approach is needed to ensure coordination, efficiency and local ownership. First, African Governments need to shift from this ‘entitlement’ stance where they demand international support as a condition for dealing with their own porous borders, corrupt security services, inefficient justice processes and economic policies that seek to disenfranchise  and push young people towards the appeal promoted by jihadi ideology and extremist narratives.

Secondly, local country ownership driven by an energised policy debate on national counter terrorism strategies, institutions and expertise is very much needed. While the international community has a role to play, the primary responsibility for security still remains the duty and prerogative of elected governments. As it remains now, there is a widening vacuum between commitment local ownership of counter terrorism agenda and the foreign driven, imposed and funded programs with the latter being promoted as the best alternative.

Finally, a new regional counter terrorism contact group that should comprise of the African Union, the United Nations Security Council, the Islamic States Organisation, the European Union and funding basket such as the US led Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) could play a role in the training of Special Forces to undertake counter terrorism operations, providing the technology and military gear, but also support for long term political reforms that can build inclusive governments, strengthen human rights and justice institutions, processes and actors while at the same time countering the jihadi ideologies and narratives.

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