Over the past few years the Sahel/Sahara region has become a field of conflicts and source of multiple threats due to interwoven causes in which numerous factors operated. Prime among these is the wave of terrorism that threatens all societies and states without exception or discrimination.
Our responsibility as military men has grown more complex in light of the advances in the capacities of terrorist groups. We are required to work hard, think creatively, and summon a strong will and determination in order to ensure optimum success in light of our historical responsibility to achieve the aspirationsof our people.— General Mohamed Al-Kishki, Egyptian assistant defence minister for foreign affairs
Tomorrow, defence ministers from the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) will conclude their meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, held between 22-25 March.
With delegations from more than 27 Arab and African states and numerous regional and international organisations, the conference took place under tight security in Sharm El-Sheikh, the South Sinai resort town. Large numbers of Special Forces from both the Armed Forces and the police were deployed.
A military source told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Egyptian government realises the importance of this meeting as it comes at a crucial juncture in the history of CEN-SAD.
The group is working to reformulate and restructure its organisational bodies and mechanisms to strengthen the economic, military and security capacities of its member states and bolster cooperation in the face of the challenges and threats posed by transboundary changes in the region and their repercussions on the security, stability and development of these states.
The source underscored the “great attention that Egypt is devoting to the realisation of strategic interests it has in common” with all peoples of the African continent.
Participants at the meeting are following up on recommendations made in the CEN-SAD conference in N’Djamena in February 2014, in the framework of the organisation’s commitment to promote peace and stability from the perspective of the countries of this region.
The meeting of CEN-SAD defence ministers was preceded by extensive meetings of experts from the regional organisation’s member states, between 22-23 March.
A source told the Weekly that the agenda of the fifth CEN-SAD conference included the current state of peace and security in the Sahel/Sahara region; counterterrorism measures, evaluating the results of previous defence minister meetings and discussion of new legal documents presented to the extraordinary summit in 2013.
These include draft decisions pertaining to the procedures of the Permanent Council for Peace and Security, the draft protocol creating the Permanent Council for Peace and Security, the modified draft document on the mechanism for conflict prevention, management and resolution, and the draft security and development strategy for CEN-SAD.
The agenda also included discussion on strengthening means of military cooperation between member states (in border security, military arrangements, and landmine clearance) and an Egyptian proposal to create a regional counterterrorist centre for CEN-SAD.
Defence ministers and delegation heads interviewd by the Weekly on the fringes of the conference agreed that the terrorist threat was foremost in the minds of all conference participants. CEN-SAD members have rallied around a single priority: to create a collective framework for cooperation against terrorism, one based on a precise definition of the term, and the development of concrete mechanisms for combatting it.
Sources stressed the need for such a framework to “not leave room for international powers to perform our role and to determine our fate and the fate of our countries, their peoples and their armies.”
One of the delegation heads told the Weekly, “It seems that the Western mentality is still trapped in its self-centred cognitive state, which is perpetually inclined to apply double standards on many issues, including ideological extremism and terrorism.
The media in all quarters of the world cried out against the terrorist attacks against the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris, and leaders from around the world flocked to Paris to demonstrate their deep sorrow over the victims.
He continued, “But the terrorist attacks that Africa has experienced do not receive the attention they merit in international public opinion. They are not on its agenda.
At the very time the crime in Paris occurred, Baga in Nigeria fell victim to a horrific massacre perpetrated by Boko Haram gangs, killing 150 civilians and soldiers. No one launched the solidarity slogan ‘We are all Baga’ along the lines of ‘We are all Charlie.’
Boko Haram (AP)
Even Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who had rushed off to Paris to pay condolences, remained silent on what had occurred in his own country.” The source added: “We, the peoples and governments of CEN-SAD, understand our concerns and our struggles better than others.
We need to fight our own battles. We should not wait forever, or expect help that never arrives from the major powers or international organisations controlled by world powers that see our resources and wealth as booty, but do not care for our peoples and their concerns or the terrorism that is gnawing away at their societies and killing people from the desert to the coast.”
In an interview on “Al-Qahira wal-Nas” (Cairo and its People) TV programme on Saturday, former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa said that reports and documents from the UN and other regional organisations confirm communications between the Islamic State (IS) group offshoot in Libya and Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda groups in Africa.
He also said that the continued terrorist attacks are proof of the existence of international forces that are manipulating terrorism.
Moussa noted that all estimates indicate that 5,000 IS operatives have established themselves in Libya, despite the advances achieved by government forces on the ground.
Reports published by Western intelligence agencies indicate that Ansar Al-Sharia group is controlling crossing points between southern Libya and Chad.
Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in West Africa, which has not declared allegiance to IS, controls corridors between Mauritania and northern Mali and northern Niger, and even Libya.
Also, more recently, southern Tunisia has been dragged into the terrorists’ game of death. The World Terrorism Index of 2014 reports that Africa experienced a marked surge in the number of terrorist attacks. It listed Boko Haram, the Shabaab Mujahideen and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as the most dangerous terrorist organisations in Africa.
Their attacks have killed thousands over the past two years. Boko Haram has emerged has a genuine regional threat, imperilling the security of Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Nigeria.
This organisation, alone, has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced another million since 2009. An African diplomat based in Cairo suggested that the relative lack of Western concern for the severity of terrorism in Africa compared to the excessive attention it gives to terrorist incidents in some Western capitals could be understood in the framework of the “White man’s burden” theory.
Boko Haram (AP)
To the Western mind, Africa has always represented the world of “savagery” and “backwardness” that needed the “wisdom” and “civilising” influence of the white man. “The transformations in the international order after the Cold War have led the West to resort to the same rationale to justify its superiority and civilisational excellence.
This was clearly manifested in the adoption of the principle of the ‘right to protect’ (R2P) and the declaration of the ‘comprehensive war on terrorism’, which were framed in accordance with the prevailing Western logic and mind-set.”
Reports from international organisations, extracts of which were available at the CEN-SAD conference, indicated that 11 militia organisations are operating in Libya, apart from AQIM branches such as Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa and Boko Haram, which recently declared allegiance to IS and whose operations extend from Nigeria, where it created an emirate for itself about the size of Belgium, to Chad, southern Chad and southern Niger and north Cameroon.
An estimated 45,000 to 60,000 members belong to these organisations that use intermediaries and agents to recruit young men and women from schools and religions institutions, exploiting the destitution, lack of government services, and political vacuums in those countries, and especially in towns and villages in border areas.
The terrorist organisations have also used financial resources gained from various illicit trades to purchase the loyalty or cooperation of local leaders, providing financial assistance to poor families or setting up small-scale businesses that also serve to incorporate organisation members into the social fabric.
Poor government services, widespread corruption and the marginalisation of many rural communities have made these societies ready to accept anything, from poisonous waste and adulterated medicines to goods long past their shelf life, and slavery and human trafficking.
AQIM and its subsidiaries are notoriously active in drug trafficking and human trafficking. Other terrorist groups are more involved in smuggling and illicit trade in arms, oil and petroleum substances and foodstuffs, to which activities IS and Ansar Al-Sharia add theft and plunder.
The eight core countries in CEN-SAD, before it expanded to 27 member states, are Nigeria, Central Africa, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania.
These sub-Saharan states extend from the western borders of Sudan to the Atlantic coast. All but Senegal and Mauritania are land-bound. Their combined land area of some 10 million square kilometres consists of 64 per cent arid desert and 30 per cent cultivable land.
They are also among the poorest countries in the world, despite their many natural resources, including oil, uranium and gold. Four of these countries — Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania — head the list of the poorest countries in the world. A lack of fresh water resources and severe draught aggravate the misery of the people and contribute to the spread of disease in these countries. Their societies are religiously conservative, organised around ethnic, tribal and religious affiliations, and illiteracy rates are extremely high, ranging from 45 per cent in Niger to 83 per cent in Mauritania.
They and the areas they live in are therefore easy prey for jihadist militia organisations, especially given conditions of abject poverty, rampant unemployment and lack of central government control over the past 10 years. Of the five major terrorist organisations in Africa, four are in the core CEN-SAD countries (the Somali group known as Shabaab is the fifth). They are:
Boko Haram: Originating in Maiduguri in Nigeria in 2002, it has avowed to fight Western education, which it claims has sown corruption among Muslims who suffer high rates of unemployment and marginalisation. Muslims make up around 50 per cent of the population of Nigeria.
Ansar Al-Din: This organisation emerged in Mali in 2011, following the return of Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of a Tuareg insurgent movement in the early 1990s who subsequently signed a peace deal between his movement and the Mali government. He was then appointed as a consul in Jeddah, but he returned to the Azawad region in northern Mali to mobilise Tuareg fighters against the state.
Tawhid and Jihad (Unity of God and Holy War): An Al-Qaeda splinter group that was also made up of Tuaregs from the Azawad region in Mali. Fighters in the movement, which proclaimed “jihad” against a large segment of West African nations in 2011, are considered to have wreaked the most terror in northern Mali.
AQIM: This group evolved from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) that, in turn, broke from the Armed Islamic Group in 1997.It became a regional organisation following the death of Osama bin Ladin, when Ayman Al-Zawahiri forged an alliance between Al-Qaeda and the GSPC in Algeria. It is currently led by the Algerian Mukhtar Belmokhtar, the founder of a desert emirate in northern Mali.
In October 2015, explosions rocked Mulai, in the district of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria.The attack occurred only three days after a similar attack in Maidaguri. It was said to have been were carried out by two female suicide bombers who entered a mosque wearing explosive belts beneath their clothes.
The two attacks focussed attention on how terrorist groups use female suicide bombers as a weapon. Analysts have indicated that jihadist organisations believe that these “black widows” are more tactically advantageous than male suicide bombers.
These “black widows”, according to observers, see suicide bombing as a means to escape the wretchedness of their lives. More than 20 people lost their lives in the Mulai mosque attack alone.
Boko Haram follows the same approach as IS in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but the Nigerian group has by far outstripped IS in number of suicide bombings. While IS uses almost exclusively male suicide bombers, Boko Haram, which calls itself the “Province of West Sudan”, uses many females.
About half of Boko Haram’s suicide bombers have been women. Information analysts in the Nigerian intelligence service say that the conservative character of Nigerian society makes it difficult for security personnel, including female policemen, to inspect women, especially in rural Nigeria.
The terrorist group capitalises on this for its operations, inspired by the experience of the Black Widow Brigade in the Caucasus whose many attacks targeted Russian civilians and security personnel, as well as Muslim clerics working to promote moderate versions of Islam in Russia.
In February 2014, at the end of a summit meeting in Nouakchott, five African heads of states announced the creation of a five-member Sahel organisational framework to “coordinate and monitor regional cooperation especially in the realm of counterterrorism in this region where Al-Qaeda-linked groups are active.” The Sahel G5, as the organisation is called, consists of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
The member states agreed to establish the permanent seat of the organisation in Mauritania and to elect a Mauritanian president. They also conferred the post of secretary-general on Niger and decided that Chad would host their next summit.
After stressing the importance of economic development, the five heads of state stressed their adamant condemnation of terrorism in all forms and affirmed their determination to protect territorial unity and to work together to safeguard security in the Sahel region.
In their concluding statement at the Nouakchott summit, the Sahel G5 founders announced that they had decided to draw up an action programme for investment and structural programmes that prioritise security, infrastructure development in transportation, energy, communications and water, demographic modernisation, food security and pastural economy.
The Mauritanian president, at a press conference at the end of the summit, stressed that the new group did not conflict in anyway with CEN-SAD or with the Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel.
In 2015, the African Union moved to form a 7,500-strong African force, half of which would be drawn from Chad and the remaining troops from neighbouring Cameroon and Niger. They were joined by a contingent from Benin, even though this country does not share a border along the combat zones.
In the face of what is nothing less than an existential danger, the countries of the region find themselves having to choose between extremely costly options, given the lack of an international anti-terrorist coalition such as that fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, and general neglect on the part of the international community of the fight against terrorism in Africa.
Their options are to support a joint military intervention in the areas with endemic terrorism, as occurred in Nigeria when the coalition of forces from Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin intervened to combat Boko Haram, or to abandon hope for an agreement on collective action, leaving it to each country to fight terrorism on its own.
Naturally, the latter option would be costlier and more risky, as national armies might not be able to sustain a protracted war, and some might have to resort to creating and equipping local militia formations.
The third option is for those countries to relinquish their responsibilities, let terrorist organisations operate freely in the areas they control and perhaps even conclude deals with them.
The option might be all the more tempting now that it appears that some of those organisations have obtained advanced anti-aircraft missilery and radar equipment from international arms dealers, according to documents French forces found during an operation in Gao in Azawad. Now, in 2016, 60 years after African nations won their liberation from Western colonialism, US and European military bases are returning to Africa on the pretext of the need to fight terrorism.
Their sole rival today is China, which has come to Africa to dig for mineral wealth and to use agricultural land and forests in exchange for investing in infrastructural projects, selling consumer goods, and setting up Chinese-language cultural institutes and TV stations. Many delegation heads at the CEN-SAD conference agreed with the view that the Western definition of terrorism is not the same as the African definition of the term.
In their interviews with the Weekly, they observed how this difference was manifested in Western interventions in Libya and the Ivory Coast, which were greeted with considerable African opposition.
They also agreed that there is an international struggle, playing out below the surface at times and above the surface at others, over world powers’ attempts to perpetuate African crises in order to promote their own interests and extend their spheres of influence.
These attempts are reminiscent of the old approach of colonialist expansionism. The Nigerian Vanguard of 28 January 2015 wrote that the US is blackmailing Nigeria over its war against Boko Haram. It cited the Obama administration’s decision to block the sale of American-made Cobra attack helicopters to Nigeria from Israel.
Perhaps this explains the Nigerian army’s decision to turn to Russia and China with requests for training and, also, why Abuja eventually agreed to allow an intervention by the African Union force, which was a tacit admission that its own army was unable to effectively combat Boko Haram.
At a broader level, such developments throw into relief how the fight against terrorism in Africa is connected with the processes of state-building and comprehensive development, which are, first and foremost, an African responsibility.
From this perspective, the current trend at both the African and national levels to rely on repressive measures, using police and army forces to combat terrorism, is deficient and short-term. In the long-term, addressing such essential issues as corruption, lack of sound governance, the fragility of the state, and widespread poverty and marginalisation demands a “soft approach” to fighting terrorism. A “soft approach” entails an array of political, social and cultural measures, such as challenging extremist narratives, revising prevailing religious discourse and instituting rehabilitation programmes.
Civil society has a pivotal role to play in these processes, as terrorism is fundamentally a social issue. Such a comprehensive approach is what is needed in Africa to strike a balance between violent security measures and the “soft” measures that are required to change ideas and forestall the spread of extremist ideology, as well as the rehabilitation measures that are needed to “disengage” and re-assimilate former extremists into their societies.
The majority of CEN-SAD members advocate a comprehensive approach. In their bilateral meetings on the fringes of the Sharm El-Sheikh conference they discussed four basic components: prevention of extremist thought (revising educational curricula, revising religious discourse, launching awareness-raising programmes in the media); protecting society (defending people against terrorist groups); monitoring (intelligence gathering and processing, and cooperation among intelligence agencies in order to dismantle terrorist networks); and rehabilitation (carefully designed programmes aimed at changing the ideas of imprisoned terrorists and rehabilitating those who vowed to reform or who have been released.
The greatest challenge, here, is to build a good level of mutual trust between civil society and the state in Africa. This is essential to strengthen the culture of nonviolence and to affirm the values of citizenship, equality and other democratic principles.
It appears that governments in Africa are still at the root of the problem, which makes it the starting point in any serious attempt to promote an effective remedy and reform.
What is CEN-SAD? The Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) was established on 4 February 1998 in Tripoli
during a summit meeting instigated by Muammar Gaddafi in the presence of the heads of state of Mali, Chad, Niger and Sudan and a representative of the president of Burkina Faso.
CEN-SAD became a regional economic community during the 36th ordinary session of the conference of heads of state and government of the Organisation of African Unity, held in Lomé (Republic of Togo) 4-12 July 2000. It holds observer status in the UN General Assembly under Resolution A/RES/56/92.
CEN-SAD has partnership agreements with many regional and international organisations with the aim of promoting common and shared action in the political, cultural, economic and social fields. This status was confirmed by the 7th conference of heads of state and government of the African Union.
Core CEN-SAD goals include:
Establishment of a global economic union based on implementation of a community development plan that complements local development plans of member states and comprises the various fields of sustained socio-economic development: agriculture, industry, energy, social, culture and health; Removal of all restrictions hampering the integration of CEN-SAD member countries through adoption of measures to ensure free movement of persons, capital and interests of nationals of member states; right of establishment, ownership and exercise of economic activity; free trade and movement of goods, commodities and services from member states; and promotion of external trade through an investment policy in member states; Increase means of land, air and maritime transport and communications among member states and the execution of common projects; Extension of the same rights, advantages and obligations granted to their own citizens to nationals of signatory countries in conformity with the provisions of their respective constitutions; and harmonisation of educational, pedagogical, scientific and cultural systems across the various cycles of education.
This article is published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper on Thursday 24 March