Terrorism in Africa
This article explains the history of terrorism in Africa, its causes, and future efforts to bring peace and stability. It focuses on certain nations in West and East Africa – Mali, Nigeria and Somalia.
To discuss terrorism in Africa it is essential to recognize the complexities involved. First, ‘terrorism’ is a problematic term. If terrorism is defined as the use of violence and intimidation against civilians, then some African governments have allegedly committed terrorist acts.
Second, the term is often applied by western policymakers attempting to impose order on fluid, highly-factionalized situations. This habit can create problems as designating insurgent groups as ‘terrorists’ makes it much harder for governments to de-escalate conflict and negotiate peaceful settlements with insurgent groups.
Third, there are no easy, universal reasons for the roots of terror in Africa, the world’s second largest and most populous continent.
The causes of violence against civilians in one African nation differ greatly from another – just as in Europe the UK’s history of sectarian and religious violence is different to that of Serbia’s.
History of terrorism in Africa
The term ‘terrorism’ is problematic. On many occasions it is the right description for obscene acts of violence perpetrated against civilians, such as the June 2021 attack in Burkina Faso. But it is also true that, throughout the 20th century, weak, corrupt, and colonial regimes branded opponents ‘terrorists’ as a way to delegitimize their objectives.
In Africa especially, colonial powers labelled independence movements as terrorists to retain power, demonize their adversaries, and justify the use of extreme retaliatory measures. This was true of the French authorities in Algeria, the British in Kenya during the 1950s, the Rhodesian government during the 1970s, and the South African Apartheid regime.
Only relatively recently have western nations’ perceptions of terrorism in Africa become focused on Islamic jihadism. In 1998, truck bombs at US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania killed more than 200 people, bringing Al-Qaeda to the attention of the US public for the first time.
Since then – and especially following the 9/11 terror attacks – a new narrative of a global jihadist threat became dominant, sometimes pushing the international community to intervene in local conflicts that have little to do with global terrorism or religious indoctrination.
What are the causes of terrorism in Africa?
The causes of violence and insurgency in African nations vary a great deal. The continent is vast with tremendous cultural and language differences at work, and the only truly shared experience is a history of European colonialism.
However, in the Sahel region some similar factors are in play. Countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have suffered from successive weak governments characterized by corruption, impunity, and disorganization. Their elites have failed to provide security for vast sections of the population.
Military forces in the Sahel are often made up of poorly trained, under-equipped soldiers. Corruption has led to unpaid troops mutinying or deserting, as happened in Nigeria.
Worse than corrupt, militaries in the Sahel are often viewed by marginalized groups as oppressors. Soldiers are often non-professional, rarely fighting against other states, and instead used largely to protect the ruling incumbant.
In Mali, the army and allied militias committed atrocities in the central and southern regions in 2018 and 2019 but no trials of perpetrators ever took place. This lack of accountability and justice helped stoke hostilities between nation governments in the Sahel and their marginalized, poor, and neglected communities.
Jihadist insurgencies thrive in such a vacuum, offering some measure of order in the absence of adversarial government forces which provide few, if any, public goods.
Islamic terrorism in Africa
Islamic terrorism is a global phenomenon and a genuine threat to peace and stability in some parts of Africa.
However, insurgent groups are often riven by internal conflicts and motivated just as much by local objectives as by any international jihadist mission.
The line between jihadism, organized crime, and local politics is often blurred and further complicated by global factors such as climate change, population growth, and migration.
Mali offers a clear example of how structural failings, poor governance, and weak state security have been the main cause of the growing insurgency, and long predate the ‘war on terror’ narrative.
Repeated coups – in 2012, 2020 and 2021 – and a history of repression of the northern population, have done more to expand jihadism than the military strength of Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic State (IS) in the Greater Sahara, Ansarul Islam, or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
The French intervention in the Sahel since 2013 has been characterized as an effort to stabilize a troubled former colonial region, and is mainly a military effort to defeat these Islamist groups.
Up to 5,000 troops have been deployed, working with United Nations (UN) troops and other Western special forces, but it has had limited impact.
Arguably this is only the latest in a series of military interventions against Islamist forces which have ended up acting as a ‘praetorian guard’ to unpopular and predatory governments such as those in Mali, and failing to address the root causes of violence.
The French military strategy was further weakened after the death of Chad’s president Idriss Déby in clashes with non-Islamist forces in 2020. Déby, a long-time French ally, was viewed as the military power in the region and a bulwark against jihadism.
The situation in the Sahel is not hopeless. The relative resilience of Niger – a country sharing many of the challenges faced by Mali – demonstrates progress is possible if more inclusive governance can be built.
Terrorism in West Africa
Perhaps the most notorious terrorist activity in West Africa during the 21st century has been in Nigeria due to the activities of terrorist group Boko Haram.
As with Mali, Nigeria – one of the world’s most populous nations – has a long history of corruption and inefficiency in its government and military, exemplified by the unprecedented 2020 #EndSARS movement.
These mass protests demanded action against the brutal tactics of Nigeria’s police, but also expressed dissatisfaction with corruption and injustice across government and society.
Military spokespeople labelled the protests subversive and soldiers opened fire at unarmed protesters at Lagos’ Lekki Toll Gate in October 2020.
Weakened by corrupt patronage networks and reluctant to acknowledge its own failures, Nigeria’s federal government is increasingly challenged by youth to become more accountable and improve livelihoods. But against this backdrop, Boko Haram has defied government claims it has been defeated and continues to operate in the country.