AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED
African continent braces for a more dangerous world
The US and its allies need to be more helpful to countries in Africa that are struggling against the odds to remain liberal democracies, Ghanian President Nana Akufo-Addo has told the US Institute for Peace.
Here is some news that you probably didn’t hear through the din of the Middle East these past weeks: Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, has signed a deal to build a nuclear power plant in Burkina Faso.
This shows that Russia wants to prove that it can offer Africa more than guns and mercenaries — it tried the same tactic in South Africa a few years ago.
But does Russia really think it’s a good idea to build a high-security installation in a place where some 40% of the country is already under the control of an Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM)?
The head of Burkina’s military junta, Ibrahim Traoré, is a popular “revolutionary” idol among many young people in Africa. He cuts a striking martial figure with his red beret and camouflage chic and styles himself as the second coming of Thomas Sankara, the revered Burkinabe leader who was assassinated 36 years ago.
Among Traoré’s projects is the construction of an 87m-high “Sankara Tower” skyscraper to honour Sankara (1987 being the year he was assassinated).
Traoré might hope that he has better success at these projects than soldiering in Burkina Faso, where, according to estimates from the Wisconsin-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (Acled) Project, more than 6,000 people had died in terrorist violence by September this year, a 17% increase in civilian fatalities.
Most victims are villagers living in remote rural areas, peasants massacred or caught in the crossfire of a war that reporters or TV cameras are seldom present to witness.
Acled describes the situation as reaching “civil war-like proportions”. In addition to JNIM, there is also a local Islamic State affiliate.
Despite Traoré’s friendly relationship with Vladimir Putin and Burkina’s status as a “strategic” partner of Russia, he has not called in the Wagner mercenaries, who are operating next door in Mali.
Volunteer defence force
Instead, the junta has armed a 50,000-strong volunteer defence force of locals in the hope of eradicating the jihadists. This is creating new problems as there is an ethnic component to the volunteers that has brought them into conflict with the minority Peul or Fulani community who are being identified as jihadists. This also magnifies conflict between farmers and pastoralists.
This failure of the junta in Ouagadougou to control its own territory has created the so-called Burkina corridor — an open door for insurgents to move into four countries to the south: Togo, Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Togo and Benin are experiencing weekly attacks, and there is talk that about 300 crack Rwandan troops will come to the assistance of Benin.
In response, the four nations have created the Accra Initiative, which involves sharing intelligence and police and military cooperation, the core mission being to “close the Burkina corridor”.
It was to elicit support for this initiative — and not for US boots on the ground — that Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo came to the US to deliver a speech at the United States Institute for Peace (Usip). Unluckily, it was three days after the Hamas attacks in Israel.
Though it might qualify as one of the most significant speeches delivered in Washington in recent times by an African leader, it was almost completely ignored by the US media, drowned out by the thunderous noise of the Israel/Gaza horror.
Akufo-Addo warned that the democratic states of coastal West Africa face an existential threat from the very scourges of terrorism and dictatorship that Joe Biden spoke about with Israel and Ukraine in mind — and that the global pillars of the liberal democratic order are crumbling.
Apart from Burkina Faso, the casualty rate is rising in Mali where the army is engaged in an offensive alongside Wagner to recoup territory lost in the north, while in Niger early figures since the 26 July coup show an upsurge in attacks.
There are more than half a million refugees in the region, and six million internally displaced people.
“These terrorist groups,” warned Akufo-Addo, “are evolving by the day as they scramble to control more territories and natural resources following defeats suffered in other parts of the world.”
He described how they moved into the Sahel after the downfall of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya and are now “spreading their pernicious influence eastwards and southwards with the coastal states of West Africa their ultimate destination”.
The jihadists have provided putschists like Traoré with an excuse to seize and hold on to power while Wagner mercenaries are among the competing armies, also responsible for atrocities.
According to Akufo-Addo, Russia’s war in Ukraine has elicited about $188-billion from the US, the European Union and the UK in combined assistance for Ukraine. Total security assistance for coastal West Africa for the same period amounted to $29.6-million.
We do not know what Akufo-Addo was promised in private, if anything, but in his address to the US nation last week Biden announced that he would ask Congress for $60-billion for Ukraine, $14-billion for Israel and $2-billion for the Indo-Pacific. He made no mention of Africa.
Akufo-Addo’s point is that these conflicts are morphing into a global West versus anti-West struggle, and that the US and its allies need to be more helpful to the countries in Africa that are struggling against the odds to remain liberal democracies.
The information war — consisting of social media disinformation campaigns — bears a striking resemblance in its ability to move anti-Western populist sentiment in different parts of the world.
“There is little doubt about the malevolent influence that is coming from abroad, especially in digital media, to assail democratic practices through ongoing disinformation campaigns,” Akufo-Addo told Usip.
Finally, Akufo-Addo weighed in on the anachronistic architecture of the UN Security Council which was created by the victors of World War 2 some 78 years ago and is no longer fit for purpose.
This is a point that has been made many times before, but it has special meaning seven months into the conflict in Sudan where the world has been powerless to stop a devastating war between rival generals that has involved the bombing of cities by the Sudanese military, ethnic cleansing by militias in Darfur and atrocities nearly everywhere.
What has been conspicuous alongside this failure is the silence or even complicity of some of those who now decry atrocities by the Israelis or Hamas. It would be interesting to look back and see how many voices were raised against the almost two-year blockade of Tigray by the Ethiopian government, the worst recent example in recent memory of using starvation as a weapon of war.
Akufo-Addo tried to end with an upbeat note about Africa being the future, but the words that stick are:
“We are virtually out of time to work together to repair multilateralism. If we do not renew our commitments to build, keep, and consolidate peace and democracy all over the world, we will have to brace ourselves to live in a new and more dangerous world.” DM