Though some believe the war on terror winds down with the US departure from Afghanistan, the threat it was supposed to address burns fiercely on my continent. Africa is the new frontline of global militancy. Yet few expect the outlay expended here to be as great as in Afghanistan.
The fight against terrorism begun under the George W Bush administration was never truly global. Despite rising attacks across Africa in the past decade, international assistance has not followed in step.
Mozambique is merely the latest African state in danger from terrorism. The Sahel remains vulnerable to Boko Haram, 20 years after its formation, and other radical groups. Somalia is in its second decade fighting the equally extreme al-Shabaab.
Many African nations are submerged under the weight of insurgency. As Africans, we face our day of reckoning just as some sense the west is losing its will for the fight. It is true that some of our western allies are bruised by their Middle Eastern and Afghan experiences. Others face domestic pressures after the pandemic. Africa was not then, and even less now, their priority. But the threat cannot be ignored.
Covid-19 has been like oxygen for terrorism, allowing it to gain in strength while the world was preoccupied. Sooner or later, the reverberations will be felt beyond Africa. If extremist groups are able to hold territory, it can inspire disillusioned people living in the west to commit heinous acts of terror in their own countries. The self-proclaimed caliphate of Daesh in Iraq and Syria fulfilled that propaganda function, boosting transcontinental recruitment.
We must not complacently assume that military means alone can defeat the terrorists. If Afghanistan has taught us a lesson, it is that although sheer force can blunt terror, its removal can cause the threat to return. The US and its western allies cannot be expected to underpin the security of others everywhere and indefinitely.
Africa has enough soldiers of our own. However, more can be done to help with technical assistance, advanced weaponry, intelligence and ordinance. The US air strikes last month against al-Shabaab in Somalia — the first of the Biden administration — show what can and should be done. But what Africa needs most from the US is a comprehensive partnership to close the disparity between our economic and demographic growth. Despite having six of the world’s top 10 fastest-growing economies, my continent’s gross domestic product gains are insufficient to provide for burgeoning populations.
Since the start of the US-led war on terror in 2001, Africa’s population has nearly doubled. Every day, every month, this means more unemployed or underemployed entering the labour market, far outstripping economic expansion. A lack of hope is the chief recruiting sergeant for the continent’s new brand of terrorism. What we need above all is investment in infrastructure.
Transport and freight lines can spread opportunity across nations unequal in economic strength. In parts of Africa, a government’s grip on remote territories can be tenuous. Militant groups step into the void. Some even provide a form of governance, however perverse. These areas must be connected with their surroundings. The recent attacks in Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique illustrate the point. Their target was a vast natural gas project, part of an international investment which extracts wealth but provides few jobs for locals. This fuels grievances in a poverty-stricken province. It is a landing pad for the likes of Daesh. That is why we in Nigeria have begun building a train line from the southern coast through the north-east to Niger, our neighbour.
My government has been accused of wasting money, because trade between our two nations is minimal. But that is hardly a surprise, given that there is no trade infrastructure between us. The train line will pay dividends in security, a prerequisite for economic growth. Some will remember that Boko Haram originated in north-eastern Nigeria, along the border with Niger.
First, they agitated against a lack of opportunity. Then they radicalised into the terrorists we face today. The US already has schemes such as Power Africa, which invests in the continent’s essential energy infrastructure. However, more must be done. Ultimately, Africans need not swords but ploughshares to defeat terror. Yes, we require the technological and intelligence support that our armies do not possess. Yet the boots we need on the ground are those of constructors, not the military.
Africa’s fight against terror is the world’s fight. We will defeat them one highway, one rail link — and one job — at a time!