Skip to content

Why Western Efforts at Counter-Terrorism in Africa are Failing? – Professor Hussein Solomon

November 22, 2016

Why Western Efforts at Counter-Terrorism in Africa are Failing? 

by Hussein Solomon[1]

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 4 (2016), Number 6 (November 2016)

Let us be frank. Despite the best efforts of various Western powers both individually and collectively to stem the tide of terrorism in Africa, they are failing. To put it differently, despite the millions of dollars spent on training Africa’s militaries, equipping them, providing them with intelligence and engaging in robust counter-insurgency operations, the terrorist threat is escalating in Africa. No fewer than 22 African countries are directly affected by terrorism and there are 3 terrorist attacks taking place every day on this blighted continent.

Part of the reason for the escalation of the terrorist threat no doubt relates the entry of new players in the African theatre. Consider here the case of Islamic State and its regional franchises from Sirte in North Africa to Boko Haram in West Africa and an off-shoot of Somalia’s Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa. In my view, however, a bigger reason relates to Western efforts at privileging the African state in the war against extremists. Traditional Western efforts at counter-terrorism adopt a realist perspective with its concomitant notions of national interest which necessitates strengthening the `good state’ against the `bad terrorists’. In other words Western nations view African states as simply poorer and under-resourced versions of its Western counterparts. The central objective of Western counter-terrorism efforts then becomes to capacitate the African state.

The fallacy of this approach however is self-evident. African political elites have no sense of the national interest and they are predatory – designed to live against their people as opposed to with or for them. It is a sad truism that African citizens fear their own militaries as opposed to the soldiers of a neighbouring state. The implications for counter-terrorism are obvious. In Somalia, American shipments of arms to the Somali Federal Government in Mogadishu found its way into the hands of Al Shabaab through corruption in the ranks of the Somali National Army. The endemic nature of this corruption and its implications for the fight against the insurgents is also illustrated by the fact that one study has illustrated how 90 million pounds of British aid to Somali authorities were siphoned off and found its way funding Al Shabaab[2].

This nature of the state was also highlighted in the case of Nigeria’s Boko Haram and undermines the simplistic Western notion of the good state taking the fight to the bad terrorists. Boko Haram does not only exist outside the Nigerian state but also has allies and sympathisers within state structures. As one senior Nigerian military officer lamented, “The group [Boko Haram] is backed my powerful northern politicians who use the organisation as political muscle. We know who they are but the government is not ready to go after them and until those people stop supporting the group with funds, weapons and protection, we cannot defeat Boko Haram”[3]. It gets worse. Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan claimed that Boko Haram’s supporters are not only confined to politicians but also senior military and intelligence officers. So how does one fight a war when the enemy is both outside there and within your ranks? The short answer: you do not!

In Mali, the ease with which the Islamists defeated the Malian armed forces is intimately related to issues of institutionalized corruption and the politics of patronage. During President Toure’s tenure, corruption became institutionalized in the Malian armed forces. Recruitment into the armed forces required a relative at the level of a colonel or general. Skill sets or the necessary discipline did not seem to matter. Under the circumstances, should we be surprised that the Malian armed forces crumbled so spectacularly in 2012 at the beginning of the Tuareg/Islamist insurgency? French intervention was needed to ensure that Bamako, the Malian capital did not fall.

The predatory nature of the African state hardly occupies the minds of policy makers in London, Paris, or Washington. This is unforgivable given the vast literature on the subject. Consider here for instance, Jean Francois Bayart’s seminalThe State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly[4]. In the process, Western states continued to treat their African counterparts as merely weaker versions of themselves. The emphassis was on capacity-building. The training of African militaries continued apace. Consider here the case of Mali’s Captain AmadouSanogo, who received extensive training in the US between 2004 and 2010. Upon returning to his country, he promptly staged a coup against the Malian government. Given the rapacious nature of African militaries, there is a real danger that military skills imparted by Western countries may well make a predatory African state even more predatory with new-found military skills and new military equipment compliments of a rather naïve West. In the process disenchanted African citizens may turn to Islamists in droves to protect them from a rapacious state. This danger was recognized by former US Ambassador Princeton Lyman when he warned, “The United States has to be especially careful that we do not become partners in a political process that drives people into the arms of Islamic extremists”[5].

It is self-evident that African states do not possess the wherewithal to fight the likes of Islamic State or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or its local franchises. The West will need to assist African states for some time to come. However the West needs to leverage the aid they provide to such states with pressure for greater democracy and financial accountability.




[1]Dr. Hussein Solomon is Senior Professor in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, South Africa and is Senior Research Associate of the Jerusalem-based Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa (RIMA).

[2]Hussein Solomon, Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Africa: Fighting Insurgency from Al Shabaab. Ansar Dine and Boko Haram. 2016. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 62-63.

[3]Ibid., p. 100.

[4]Jean Francois Bayart. The State of Africa: The Politics of the Belly. 2009. London: Polity Press. 2nd Edition.

[5]Solomon, op. cit., pp. 122-123.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: