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The Failure of Counter-Terrorism Initiatives in Africa – Professor Hussein Solomon

March 19, 2013

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The Failure of Counter-Terrorism Initiatives in Africa

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 6 (March 2013)

Al Qaeda’s Opportunism

Al Qaeda and its local franchises are conservatively estimated to be operating in 60 countries around the world – having the dubious distinction of being the most widely dispersed non-state terrorist network in history[1]. This raises the interesting question of why Muslims on the African continent would find such a cruel movement attractive – from banning television and music to the stoning to death of adulterers to the amputation of limbs of thieves. I believe that the answer to this question might well lay in the fact that Al Qaeda’s local affiliates piggy-back on very real grievances – exploiting these whilst at the same time reframing it in an Islamist framework. Two recent cases illustrate the point well – Mali and Nigeria.

The Tuaregs in Mali

On 28 December 1893, French troops entered Timbuktu and claimed this desert town as a French possession, prompting resistance by the indigenous Tuaregs that continued until 1917, when Tuareg chiefs reluctantly surrendered to French rule following a series of bloody defeats[2]. These Tuaregs were eventually incorporated into the state of Mali, which achieved independence from France in 1960. However, the Malian Tuaregs resented their separation from the Tuareg kin in countries like Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Libya and Mauritania[3]. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Tuaregs inhabiting northern Mali never viewed the government in Bamako as legitimate from the very beginning.

Tuaregs were also aggrieved by the policies of modernisation and sedentarisation pursued by successive post-independence governments in Bamako[4]. To compound matters further, the post-colonial state in Mali was corrupt. Despite the country being Africa’s third-largest gold producer – producing 52.4 tonnes in 2010[5] and receiving over US $5.6 billion in aid between 2000 and 2010, living standards continued to plummet for ordinary Malians[6].  One of the most egregious examples of corruption under Malian President Toure’s watch occurred in 2010, when it was found that US $4 million had been stolen from project funds from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis[7]. To compound matters further, poverty was differentiated along the basis of ethnicity and region. Whilst Mali’s poverty rate averaged 64 percent, the figure was much higher in the Tuareg-dominated northern cities: Timbuktu had a poverty rate of 77 percent, while the figure for Gao was 78.7 percent and in Kidal it was a staggering 92 percent[8].  

Given the deteriorating living standards in northern Mali and faced with an uncaring government, Tuaregs rebelled in 1963-1964, 1990-1996, 2006-2009 and since January 2012[9]. As one moved from one insurgency to another, there was a growing militancy and Islamist radicalization amongst the Tuaregs. This was greatly assisted by the presence of Islamist preachers from Pakistan (Dawa al-Tabligh) and Saudi Arabia (Wahhabis) who have been making tremendous progress among the local population since at least the 1990s and which have displaced more moderate Sufi Islamic scholars and preachers[10]. In this context Iyad ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine (Supporters of the Faith) won local support by characterizing the corrupt Malian secular state as taghut or evil and together with his allies in the form of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad could wrest control over northern Mali from the secular Tuareg nationalists of the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)[11].

The Rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria

A similar dynamic was unfolding in West Africa’s Behemoth – Nigeria. To fully understand the emergence of the Islamist sect Boko Haram in northern Nigeria we need to come to grips with the legacy of British colonial rule of Nigeria which began in 1852 and ended with independence in October 1960. Under the British, religious and ethnic divisions were reinforced as the British imposed differentiation in how they governed the North, West and East of the country[12]. The post-independent Nigerian federal state inherited this form of governance. Consequently differential governance systems reinforced existing ethnic, cultural, economic, and religious divides. Small wonder then, that since independence, Nigeria has been best with the problem of secession.

As in Mali, the Nigerian state is hardly viewed as legitimate by the majority of its citizens given the kleptocratic political class in power. Despite soaring oil prices benefiting the Nigerian state, the growing impoverishment of the citizenry stands in sharp contrast to the growing wealth of the political elite. Since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigerian politicians have reportedly embezzled between US $4 billion and US $8 billion per annum[13]. At a time when Nigeria’s oil revenues were in excess of US $74 billion per annum[14], more than half of Nigerians live on less than US $1 a day and four out of ten Nigerians are unemployed[15]. To exacerbate matters, this poverty is also differentially skewed with the north bearing the brunt of this economic misery. Whilst 27 percent of the population in the south lived in poverty, the figure jumps to 72 percent for those living in the north[16]. As in Mali, Mohammed Yusuf, who founded Boko Haram in 2002, first attracted followers after railing against the impoverishment of northern Nigeria and the endemic corruption within the state[17].Given the failure of the political establishment, Nigerians increasingly turned to religious leaders for guidance. In one Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, Nigerians were asked if religious leaders should play a role in politics. A staggering 91 percent in Nigeria agreed with this statement. This was the highest of all the countries surveyed[18].

Under the circumstances, the Hausa-Fulani in the north has rebelled against the South and southern ethnic groups since at least 1945. Given the reinforcing ethnic, regional and religious identities these conflicts have pitted competing identities against each other. Examples include the Jos riot of 1945, the Kano riot of 1953, the Tiv uprisings of 1959 and 1960-1964, violence in the Western region in 1962, ethnic massacres within the Nigerian army which preceded the civil war in 1967, the civil war of 1967-1970, the Maitatsine Crisis of 1980, the Ife/Modakeke war of 1981, the Fagge crisis in Kano in 1982, the Tiv/Junkun conflict of 1990, the Reinhard Bonke crisis of 1991, the Zangon Kataf conflict of 1992, the Mangul Bokkos conflict 1992-1995, the recurrent ethno-religious conflict in Jos beginning in 2001 and the current conflict with Boko Haram beginning in 2009[19]. Boko Haram, too, despite the religious overtones of its rhetoric, has been unable to escape its ethnicity as a Hausa-Fulani entity. Following extensive research on the victims of Boko Haram violence, Human Rights Watch found that, “Boko Haram is targeting and killing people in northern Nigeria based on their religion and ethnicity (my emphasis)[20].

The Failure of Counter-Terrorism Initiatives in Africa

Since July 2009, the Nigerian government has embarked on a massive counter-terrorism campaign to bring to heel the violence wrought by the Islamist sect Boko Haram throughout northern Nigeria and the capital, Abuja. This included the establishment of a joint security task force consisting of the army, navy, air force, Department of State Security and the Nigerian Police Force; a State of Emergency was declared in the worst affected states – Borno, Niger, Plateau and Yobo; curfews were established in other areas; multiple checkpoints sprung up in and around the capital following the bombings of Abuja by Boko Haram; a new Anti-Terrorism Bill came into effect giving the security forces additional powers; and borders between Nigeria and neighbouring states were closed to prevent the perpetrators of terrorist atrocities from escaping into neighbouring countries as well as attempting to prevent Boko Haram from receiving reinforcements of foreign jihadi elements in the region. Altogether, 30,000 army, police and security personnel have been deployed in the fight against Boko Haram[21]. These attempts at counter-terrorism, however have largely failed and the carnage in northern Nigeria continues, with each passing week recording a fresh terrorist atrocity.

With northern Mali, under the control of Islamists it was quickly transformed into a terrorist enclave as it attracted thousands of jihadists from other countries[22]. With the Islamists in northern Mali increasing in confidence, they suddenly decided to move south, defeating the Malian armed forces in the strategic town of Konna, and paving the way for an advance on the capital Bamako. This prompted France, following an appeal by Mali’s President Dioncounda Traore to launch an offensive against the Islamists beginning on 11 January 2013. The French troops were soon joined by troops from Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, Niger and Chad. Far from fighting French and regional forces, the Islamists have merely melted away from strategic towns like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal and have launched a guerrilla insurgency campaign – including improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers – against French and regional forces[23]. At the time of writing, there seems no end to the conflict, French and Chadian forces have started suffering casualties and the French have now delayed their withdrawal from Mali from March to June 2013.

Given the failures of contemporary counter-terrorism efforts, academics and policy-makers alike are questioning the narrow conceptualisation of counter-terrorism, in particular its military-centred responses to often complex social problems and its state-centric nature. After all, even with the military defeat of Boko Haram and Ansar Dine, it does nothing to eradicate the underlying root causes fuelling such conflicts in the first place. The RAND Corporation’s Project Air Force, for instance, urges policy makers to adopt a long-term perspective seeking to eradicate the conditions which give rise to terrorism or extremist elements. RAND’s Senior Policy Analyst, Angel Rabasa, eloquently argues, “This will occur only if hard security measures are linked with a broader array of policies designed to promote political, social and economic stability. Otherwise, there is little chance that counter-terrorism will work”[24]. In similar fashion, Rear Admiral Richard Hunt, a former commander of the US Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CTJF-HOA) stated, “We feel the best way to counter-terrorism is to go after the conditions that foster terrorism”[25].

Current counter-terrorism strategies also fail since they refuse to understand the fundamental contradiction in using the predatory African state which created the problem in the first place as the solution. Moreover, when the West, allies itself with an illegitimate state by providing it with counter-terror assistance and the like it serves to anger local citizens further and attract the attention of local terrorists who now view the West as a legitimate target. What is needed is a more critical engagement with Africa state elites to create more inclusive and democratic polities – ones which are responsive to the needs of their citizens. Only in adopting such holistic approaches to counter-terrorism can the likes of Ansar Dine and Boko Haram be defeated.


[1] Barry Buzan, “Will the Global War on Terrorism be the new Cold War?,” International Affairs Vol. 86 No. 6, 2006, p. 1107.

[2] Tor A. Benjaminsen, “Does Supply-Induced Scarcity Drive Violent Conflicts in the African Sahel? The Case of the Tuareg Rebellion in Northern Mali,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 85 No. 6, November 2008, p. 828.

[3] Kalifa Keita, “Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Sahel: The Tuareg Insurgency in Mali,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 9 No. 3, 1998, p. 105.

[4] Benjaminsen, op.cit., p. 832.

[5] Yacouba Kone, “Lessons from Mali’s Arab Spring: Why Democracy Must Work for the Poor,” Christian Aid Occasional Paper No. 8, September 2012, p. 2.

[6] Nicholas van de Walle, “Foreign Aid in Dangerous Places: Donors and Mali’s Democracy,” Working Paper No. 2012/61. World Institute for Development Economic Research, United Nations University, July 2012, p. 7.

[7] Ibid., p. 12.

[8] William D. Farrell and Carla M. Komich, “USAID/DCHMA/CMM Assessment: Northern Mali,” United States Agency for International Development. 17 June 2004, p. 6.

[9] Baz Lecocq, Disputed Desert: Decolonization, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali. Brill. Leiden, The Netherlands. 2010, pp. 182, 220-221.

[10] Farrell and Komich, op.cit., pp. 4-5.

[11] Hussein Solomon, “Mali: West Africa’s Afghanistan,” The RUSI Journal, Vol. 158 No. 1, February/March 2013, p. 16.

[12] M.A. Ojo and F.T. Lateju, “Christian-Muslim Conflicts and Interfaith Bridge-Building Efforts in Nigeria,” The Review of Faith and International Affairs, Spring 2010, p. 31.

[13] Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Lin between Christianity and Islam. Penguin Books. London, p. 19.

[14] International Crisis Group, “Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?,” Africa Policy Briefing No. 79, 24 February 2011. Abuja, Nigeria, p. 6.

[15] Griswold, op.cit., p. 19.

[16] Toni Johnson, Boko Haram. Council on Foreign Relations. 27 December 2011. Internet: http://www.cfr.org/africa/boko-haram/p25739. Date Accessed: 21 January 2012, p. 4.

[17] A.O. Adesoji, “The Boko Haram Uprising and Islamic Revivalism in Africa,” Africa Spectrum, Vol. 45 No. 2, 2010, pp. 101-102.

[18] P. Mandaville, Global Political Islam London, Routledge, 2007, p. 17

[19] C.U. Adora, “Managing Tourism in Nigeria: The Security Option,” Management Science and Engineering, Vol. 1 No. 1, 2010, p. 467.

[20] Human Rights Watch, “Nigeria: Boko Haram Attacks Indefensible”. Human Rights Watch. 23 January 2012. Internet: http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/01/23/nigeria-boko-haram-attacks-indefensible. Date Accessed: 31 January 2012.

[21] Hussein Solomon, “Counter-Terrorism in Nigeria: Responding to Boko Haram,” The RUSI Journal Vol. 157 No. 4, August/September 2012, pp. 6-7.

[22] Hussein Solomon, “Mali: West Africa’s Afghanistan,” The RUSI Journal Vol. 158 No. 1, February/March 2013, 16.

[23] Ibid., p. 17.

[24] Quoted in D.P. Merklinghaus, “The `Forgotten Front’ in the Global War on Terror,” Military Technology No. 9, 2009, p. 19.

[25] Stephen A. Emerson, “Winning Hearts and Minds in the Sahel,” World Policy Journal, Winter 2008/09, p. 58.

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