Addressing the opening session of the 33rd African Union ordinary summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made a keynote announcement on finding more effective African solutions to African problems, most importantly the scourge of terrorism. Al-Sisi — who handed over chairmanship of the continental body to South Africa after a year of intense Egyptian activities that culminated in putting into effect, at last, the African Free Trade Area Agreement, in a bid to further inter-African trade — did suggest hosting a summit in Egypt for another effective mechanism in favour of a more stable Africa: a unified African force to be tasked with countering terrorism across the continent.
The proposal is aimed at finding a sustainable means for confronting the mounting security challenges posed by terrorists, particularly in the Sahel and Sahara region, West of Africa and in Egypt’s western lawless neighbour, Libya. Egypt’s western frontier has recently seen an influx of foreign terrorists carried to Libyan shores by Turkey, particularly after the infamous accord signed unilaterally between the Tripoli-based government of Fayez Al-Sarraj, whose mandate based on the provisions of the Moroccan-sponsored Skhirat Agreement has already expired, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The security deterioration in Libya serves as a direct threat, mostly to Egypt’s national security given the roughly 1200-kilometre-long border with Libya, but also to most Sahel and Sahara countries, let alone the African continent as a whole. Non-African powers are heavily meddling in the internal affairs of one of the top five financiers of the African Union (in 2005, AU member states decided that the top five big economies in Africa should contribute 75 per cent of total funding resources. The list comprises Libya, Nigeria, Algeria, South Africa and Egypt). This is at the time the continental bloc seems helpless in face of the imminent threat Turkey is posing to the stability and security of an important African nation, one which, under late leader colonel Muammar Gaddafi, hosted the famous Sirte Summit in 1999 that triggered the launch of the African Union to replace the Organisation of African Unity.
President Al-Sisi suggested that the unified anti-terrorism force would fall under the Peace and Security Commission, the most powerful of all the eight commissions of the African Union because it is the only body that has the power to interfere, even militarily when needed, to maintain peace and security in all member states.
Cairo is surely not looking for leadership out of the proposal; rather, for the creation of a less bureaucratic and more powerful mechanism to fight terrorism to the bitter end, particularly as it hits hard economies which cannot sustain the fight on their own, such as Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali. Those five nations formed together in 2017 the Group of Five for the Sahel. Still, they have not cleared the danger so far. As terrorist groups, affiliated with the Islamic State group, continue to attack police and army premises in Mali and Burkina Faso, one of the worst humanitarian crises has emerged in the Sahel region, leaving 1.5 million homeless.
In January this year, UN Special Representative and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel Mohamed Ibn Chambas briefed the UN Security Council on the “alarming” humanitarian crisis in the region. The most serious finding of the report he submitted to the council was that the continued attacks by terrorists on civilian and military targets “have shaken public confidence”. The latter is the ultimate target of terrorists and as a result people have left their homes and terrorist groups have gained more ground. The tally of casualties can further explain the situation. According to the UN envoy, a surge in casualties can be noticed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, with the number doubling fivefold since 2016 from 770 deaths to 4,000 in 2019 alone. Mr Chambas has rung the bell, warning that terrorist attacks have greatly destabilised countries in West Africa.
President Al-Sisi’s call is a quick response to the UN envoy on the need to take action now, because of the inability of governments there, be it finance or lack of qualified and well-trained personnel to finish the job, which threatens their very existence. Countries which have the means to stand up firmly in the face of terrorism, such as Egypt and Algeria, suffer from deadly terrorist attacks. They both understand the need for a joint action in sharing of information and high coordination, which can both be attained under a unified force.
Moreover, studies have revealed that Africa is home to 64 active terrorist organisations, the most dangerous of which that have connections to the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda are Al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Al-Shabab is the main reason of instability in war-torn Somalia with endless attacks on AMISOM (the African Mission in Somalia) and government premises. The terrorist group is also active in Kenya, particularly in Garissa, the border town with Somalia and claimed responsibility for countless atrocities in the country. Boko Haram, the Nigerian Taliban, has been causing much mayhem in northern Nigeria, trying to impose an ultraorthodox version of Islam.
Oddly enough, however, and while commenting on the call of the Egyptian president, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita burst onto the scene, speaking to Russian Sputnik on the proposal. Morocco, absent from joint African action for more than three decades only to come back in January 2017, said through Bourita that the country would prefer a common African “vision” in which all countries would participate “independently” but without being under the umbrella of a unified force militarily.
All the concerns of Morocco and other AU member states can surely be discussed if they heed the call of the Egyptian president and put their cards on the table in good faith. A decisive win over terrorism needs more than a “vision”. It necessitates an end to living in ivory towers, forging realistic approaches so that African countries, plagued with terrorism, can fight hammer and tong. The creation of an African force tasked with countering terrorism would help solicit funds either from African coffers or from those powers concerned with realising peace and security in the continent. African peoples have suffered the most because of ethnic violence, outbreaks of epidemics, a lack of basic human needs, and foreign exploitation of natural and even manpower resources. Instability and insecurity owing to frequent acts of terrorism impedes African peoples from leading the better lives the untapped huge potentials of Mother Africa make possible.
Instead of doubting and dawdling while lives are lost on a daily basis, African leaders have an opportunity to win the battle on terrorism. They need to set aside narrow differences and join ranks — something the African Union has been struggling to realise for many years. When there is no security, there will never be development, and should African leaders not work on a powerful mechanism for sustainable peace, the African Union 2063 Agenda will never materialise.
Real danger is engulfing the Sahel and Sahara region in particular as terrorists have remobilised there after they all but lost the battle in Syria and Iraq. They are seeking safe haven and given the unfortunate prevalence of radical thought among average Muslims in certain African nations, it will be easy for terrorists to recruit from young and the endless cycle of violence will never halt. In the absence of a powerful medium to confront terrorist groups, it may be a matter of time before the Islamic State group declares Africa its new caliphate!
*The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.