Africa is increasingly viewed as a “new centre of gravity” in the global fight against violent extremism. Last year Nigerian terror group Boko Haram chalked up more victims than its mother ship, Islamic State. Across a vast swathe of Africa from Somalia in the East to Morocco in the West, governments nervously await the next asymmetric attack by Jihadist groups in their midst. Places frequented by Westerners have become favoured targets.
Growing security interdependence and connectivity of threats provide a strong basis for strengthening Africa’s engagements with countries such as the UK, France and the US, with whom African defence forces have long-standing relationships. This was a central theme of a recent dialogue co-hosted by The Brenthurst Foundation comprising African officials and security experts along with their counterparts in these three countries. Key takeaways included a sober reminder that nothing should be taken for granted.
History – recent and past – cautions against facile assumptions about common interests. This holds for intra-African relations as much as external ones. Notwithstanding a vibrant spirit of pan-Africanism, in practice Africa has rarely spoken with one voice on global issues, even of direct relevance to the continent. Getting 54 states to cohere around one set of priorities and interests is a daunting task, even if they face broadly similar challenges. Though what nearly all share is a weighty experience of colonialism, which filters events and narratives in ways that are still under-appreciated outside the continent. Take the Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and, especially, Libya. They resonate with different lessons for Africa and the West. Reconciling them is not easy.
This is not to say that security relationships have not evolved. Co-operation between Africa and its external partners has achieved significant successes in areas such as military training, counterpiracy and the response to the Ebola crisis. Notable, too, is President Barack Obama’s Security Governance Initiative (SGI) with six African countries. Through various mechanisms of consultation, SGI promotes a shared culture of mutual responsibility and accountability.
But in a broad sense such relationships have reached an inflection point. While there is a strong consensus on the need for “African solutions to African problems”, that consensus has at times dissolved in the face of both inadequate African capacity and political will on the one hand, and the assertion of Western interests on the other. Two issues likely to shape where Africa’s main security relationships go from here – towards more equal partnerships or something more akin to patronage – are the mushrooming problem of violent extremism and the spectre of mass forced migration.
Despite deep historical roots in the continent, the United Kingdom’s interest in African security has narrowed recently to specific challenges to the UK and Europe emanating from the continent’s demographic boom. Africa’s population is predicted to double to 2.4-billion by 2050. This astonishing demographic shift will place enormous demands – for jobs, services and so on – on all African states. Although this could be framed as an historic chance for rapid development – in the way, for example, that East Asia benefitted from the so-called “demographic dividend” a generation ago – the language of “threat” rather than “opportunity” tends to dominate British discourse on Africa. Namely, that in the future Africa’s comparatively fragile institutions may be unable to cope with the demographic expansion and will result in the exporting of security threats to Europe, in the form of terrorism and forced migration.
Compounding the problem is Africa’s flagging economic growth due to the fall in commodity prices and the failure of most resource-based economies to diversify and invest during the boom years. Crudely put, European nations do not want to be the victim of African problems.
Not without reason, Africans may feel incredulous at such assessments. Africa’s “rise” may have stalled but armed conflict is at historic lows. Neither African civilians nor soldiers are dying in violent conflict in anywhere near the numbers seen in the 1960s through to the early 2000s. Despite the recent uptick in coups and political volatility, there have been major advances in political participation and elections during the past two decades. Competitive politics has opened the democratic space to a greater chunk of the citizenry but also, not surprisingly, heightened tensions in societies divided sharply along ethnic lines.
What grates most, however, is Libya. The 2011 intervention to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the consequences of which infected the whole Sahel region, is an open wound between Africa and its external partners. President Obama recently described the coalition’s failure to plan for the “day after” Gaddafi’s removal as the “worst mistake” of his presidency, but for Africans it’s the whole Libyan experience which has emboldened perceptions that major power interests can still thwart African solutions and undermine stability in parts of the continent. Trenchant, collective reflection on what “Libya” means is needed to heal a rift that still divides Africa and the West.
Libya aside, US interests in Africa have generally attenuated since the end of the Cold War. The development of AFRICOM (US Africa Command) in the 2000s raised fears of a militarisation of US policy towards Africa. But over time the main raison d’etre for its establishment put forward by Washington – a rationalisation of its disparate African defence structures into a single command – has been borne out. There is no evidence to support claims by some analysts that the US Department of Defence is furtively executing a pivot to Africa. With comparatively light resources – AFRICOM has no assigned troops or dedicated Navy, Air Force or Marines components (it shares them with European Command) – it’s clearly a neglected step-sister to the likes of CENTCOM (Central Command) or PACOM (Pacific Command).
Even the dozens of new “bases” the US has reportedly established in Africa are mostly nothing more than warehouses and storage facilities at airstrips that are used in support of assistance to African militaries. The exception is Camp Lemonier, its permanent base in Djibouti, which hosts thousands of US troops and the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. Even then, as it shares assets with CENTCOM its operational activity is likely directed more towards the situations in nearby Syria, Yemen and the Straits of Bab el Mandeb than AFRICOM’s area of operations.
None of this is to suggest that the US is not concerned about Africa becoming a “new centre of gravity” in the fight against violent extremism. But for now the main US effort in Africa is on training African militaries for increased capability to address asymmetric threats and non-state actors. In defence-speak, it’s a minimalist “economy of force” approach.
In contrast, French troops are conducting significant security operations across a number of countries. France played a decisive role in Mali, the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic, all at significant cost to the French purse. France’s role in Africa is, as ever, subject to contrasting interpretations given its colonial past and the deep ties it’s retained especially in West Africa. Some African states still express unease over France’s agenda in the region, though its recent interventions have been at the behest of African states on mandates given by the UN Security Council and on the basis of bilateral defence agreements enshrined in existing partnerships. The current administration in Paris was, in fact, initially sceptical about the efficacy of French intervention in Africa.
But France’s pivotal military role – particularly in Mali, which it all but saved from being completely overrun by insurgents – has raised stark questions about the political will and capacity of Africa’s regional and continental bodies to generate timely and effective responses on their own.
For their part, the reputation of African militaries is still tainted by colonial and postcolonial legacies, where armed forces historically served the narrow interests of the regime and were feared by the citizenry. But since the end of the Cold War civil-military relations and the professionalisation of African armed forces have improved considerably. Militaries are accepted more and more as part of society, not somehow outside it. Concerns remain over how adequately and transparently they are funded and equipped for the tasks mandated by the civil power, whether peacekeeping and peace support roles or counter-insurgency. Without due transparency and care in budgeting for armed forces, they can become domestic political and economic actors, resulting in various forms of rent-seeking and off-budget financing (i.e. involvement in business deals) that harm civil-military relations and erode their credibility. But overall, Africa’s militaries are far more effective and accountable institutions.
By 2030 the majority of Africans will live in cities. Between now and 2050 Africa is expected to add 800-million urban dwellers, a quarter of them in Nigeria alone. Rapid urbanisation presents huge development opportunities. But depending on the quality of governance, infrastructure and investment, the growth of African megacities could also significantly amplify existing security challenges to the state. This places particular emphasis on the role, skills and capacity of police forces, a critical but much neglected player in Africa’s future stability. The make-up and performance of police forces have been given scant attention in Africa’s external partnerships compared to countries’ armed forces, which have generally received greater support due to legacy agreements and a desire by international forces to train in Africa. An emphasis on the rule of law, rather than militarisation of the security environment within Africa’s urbanised space, will be a key driver for the furtherance of democracy and stability across the continent.
Africa’s rapidly expanding cities could serve as incubators for radicalisation, especially if they exacerbate the problem of marginalisation rather than ameliorate it through wider employment and better livelihood options than found in rural areas. Africa’s impressive economic growth trajectory of the 2000s will need to be renewed and strengthened in order to keep up. Even if that were to happen, however, most forecasts still suggest that the problem of violent extremism is set to worsen – everywhere – with spillover of violence across borders, possibly further fuelled by mass forced migration. Although this places added importance on greater trust and sharing intelligence among partners, part of the response must be more effective counternarratives against terrorism and radicalisation. In the African context, such counter-narratives could also help knit citizens together in highly diverse states which are, in nation-building terms, still in their infancy. One of the core challenges for African countries will be to devise their own models, and find within their own traditional African systems, the means to counter the actions and, critically, the ideology of violent extremists.
For their part, Africa’s external partners need to have more direct conversations with the countries they believe are exporting insecurity and terrorism. The multifaceted nature of the terrorism and migration problems in Africa require a less reactive, more forward-looking strategic approach. There is arguably too much focus on dealing with the problem only when it gets to their frontlines. In addition, there needs to be more public awareness of both the nature of the challenge and the range of national instruments available to counter it. In this respect, the vital moral dimension and human rights must become operational considerations.
As ever, Western policy towards Africa will be informed by myriad interests and factors. Issues such as democracy and human rights will be always be balanced against economic and security considerations. The principle of “doing no harm” and the dangers of unintended consequences will be tested by the ubiquitous pressures “to do something”. Resolving all the inevitable conflicts will not be possible. But the prospect of resolving the most vital ones and building a more stable Africa will be enhanced by longer-term engagements and partnerships. Shared values are important, but so too is more transparency on the oft-evaded question of interests. Whether acknowledged or not, all states have them. DM
Dr Terence McNamee is the Deputy Director of The Brenthurst Foundation. This article draws on the Foundation’s recent Discussion Paper by the author, ‘External Defence Engagement in Africa’.
Photo: French soldiers patrolling in the northern town of Diabaly, Mali, 22 January 2013. EPA/NIC BOTHMA
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