January 01, 2023

The New Cold War Deepens in Africa Using Jihadism and Terrorism as the Excuse

Vijay Prashad

IN late November, Boko Haram insurgents attacked a post at the Chad-Nigerian border, killing ten soldiers of Chad’s military. This attack is part of a broader jihadi push in the Lake Chad Basin, which comprises Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram (‘Western civilisation is forbidden’) fought the Nigerian military for control over the country’s north so that its preachers could establish a dar al-Islam in the region. The reason for Boko Haram’s growth and ability to withstand attacks from the militaries of the four countries in the Chad Basin is due to the terrible social inequality that afflicts the people and due to the residues of colonialism that oppresses them. The military campaigns by the Nigerians in particular, did have an impact: they split Boko Haram, radicalising one faction that now calls itself the Islamic State (West Africa Province). In recent attacks, such as in late November, Boko Haram fighters operated alongside Islamic State fighters, making their attacks more effective. With political crises ongoing in Chad (which remains under military rule) and Cameroon (torn by a civil war), it is unlikely that these countries will contribute significant military force to quell the Boko Haram insurgency.

The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies – funded by the US Department of Defense – released a report in August 2022 called The Evolution of Africa’s Militant Islamic Groups. That report calculated that violence linked to militant Islamic groups increased by 300 per cent since 2012 and has doubled since 2019. The main theatres of activity have been the Sahel region of Africa and in Somalia. That is perhaps why, on December 23, the US African Command called in an airstrike against al-Shabaab fighters in Cadale, northeast of Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu. Whether those killed in that strike were al-Shabaab fighters or civilians mistaken for militants will never be known conclusively. Aerial strikes of this kind are frequently misused, the numbers of dead entering a bureaucratic account of mission success when in fact it might very well result in the increase in subsequent militant actions.

In May 2022, the African Union created the African Humanitarian Agency (AfHA). While Africa accounts for 18 per cent of the world’s population, about three quarters of the world’s documented humanitarian crises occur on the continent. These crises run from starvation to civil war. The war in Africa’s Great Lakes region that began in 1998 has claimed the lives of over six million people, with the centre of the conflict now in the eastern flank of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Such wars amplify inequalities sedimented by colonialism, which result in mass hunger (a fifth of the total population of the continent went hungry in 2021). The AfHA is intended to go beneath the surface of conflict and seek out its causes, which are not difficult to identify: social inequality and unemployment, hunger and illiteracy, all of them created by the theft of resources from the continent. None of the western warrior states – such as the US – have paid serious attention to the lack of infrastructure and to the heavy burden of debt that impacts the countries of Africa; none of them have been serious about the theft of capital from the continent (the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that trade mis-invoicing accounts for $50 billion in annual losses, while capital flight accounts for $88.6 billion). The AfHA will not be able to get to the root causes that create the insurgencies across the continent without being able to secure these lost funds. It is one thing for the United Nations to formulate Sustainable Development Goals, and it is another thing to find the funding to achieve them. African countries, with depleted sovereignty, are simply not able to meet the objectives set by these goals.

US President Joe Biden invited leaders of 49 African countries to a US-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022. The language is painfully cliched: ‘deliverables and initiatives’ and ‘cooperation on shared global priorities’. For the US, the main aim of this Summit was to try and marginalise Chinese and Russian influence on the African continent. Promises of funds for the continent were made largely as a counterpoint to the actual investments made by China in infrastructure in most of the African countries. It has been widely understood, however, that the US investments – yoked to public-private partnerships – will not really provide the kind of developments (particularly in the electricity sector) needed (whereas a third of the power grid and infrastructure built in Africa since 2010 has been financed and built by China). By 2010, China became the main trading partner of most African countries. The US was less interested in the wars that afflict the African continent than it was to get African leaders to condemn Russia for the war in Ukraine.

Unable to compete with China on commercial grounds, the US has positioned itself on the African continent as the provider of security. However, this is as fallacious a claim as that of being a builder of infrastructure. In July, Chidi Blyden, the US defense department’s deputy assistant secretary for African Affairs, told the US Senate Foreign Relations committee that there has been an increase in ‘violent extremist organisations’ and ‘an exponential increase in their attacks’. She called for greater US military involvement in the Sahel, a region that already has several US military bases (including the world’s largest drone base in Agadez, Niger). The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies shows that attacks by militant Islamic groups in the Sahel region increased by 3,600 per cent between 2016 and 2022. Blyden, typical for a US government official, did not ask why there has been this astronomical increase.

These counter-insurgency wars of the United States go back to the failed attempt to defeat the warlords of Somalia in 1993. However, those wars are now a distant memory. Closer still is the post-2001 counter-insurgency operations against various jihadi groups that have grown up in a continent where half the population is made up of Muslims. After 2001, the US government offered political license and weapons to governments of the continent to ruthlessly suppress any insurgency that came wrapped in the black flag of al-Qaeda and then ISIS; human rights concerns were brushed aside, allowing strongmen to use the excuse of counterinsurgency to hold onto power (the experience of President Mahamadou Issoufou in Niger is the most recent of a long string of examples). The US-NATO war on Libya in 2011 not only wrecked that country but it also created chaos across the Sahel region. Failed US and European attempts to defeat the jihadi groups in Mali and Burkina Faso led to military coups in both countries that pledged to use any and every means to bring security to these countries (starting with the expulsion of French troops). Billions of dollars of US military aid to African strongmen failed to stem the tide of the insurgencies that are motivated less by religion and more by the crises of hunger and unemployment. Due to the Pentagon’s assessment of these insurgencies, US government and private foundation aid has largely gone towards either kinetic (lethal) military action or to the criminalisation of dissent. Words like ‘civil society’ are now used to defend large-scale programmes to ‘counter violent extremism’ (including through neighbourhood surveillance schemes).

Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. This is the word that has buzzed around US security circles since 2001. In 2002, the US established the Pan-Sahel Initiative in the Office of Counterterrorism with partnerships across the central belt of northern Africa from Mauritania to Niger. It was followed by the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, which is now housed in the US Africa Command. Hundreds of millions of dollars went towards fighting what one analyst called the ‘Sahara’s mirage of terrorism’. Many of the terrorist groups in northern Africa grew out of smuggling rings and out of desperation, the root causes being poverty. But this root cause was never going to be the interest of the United States, which focused on the surface – jihadism – and left it at that. Each bomb that fell on a village created distress and the need for revenge, which built cycles of retribution upon cycles of counterterrorism. For strongmen in the region, the idea of the ‘war on terror’ suited them perfectly since it allowed kleptocracies of one kind or another to remain in place as US government audits of their own programmes failed due to direct evidence of corruption and to direct evidence of having supported dictatorships in the name of fighting terrorism.

Boko Haram and al-Shabaab will continue to grow if the root causes of distress remain in place. No amount of counterterrorism funding will slow them down. The US cold war against China on the continent will only further inflame the situation, with the US now eager to shut down Chinese projects – such as electricity grids – that would in fact address the causes of despondency that fuel the insurgencies.