By Dr Patrick Sookhdeo — Originally published in barnabusfund
No country in West Africa is safe from the threat of Islamist militancy. This was the stark warning by Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama last week in the wake of an unprecedented twin suicide bombing in Niger.
Mr Mahama referred back to the takeover of northern Mali by al-Qaeda-linked groups last year and said that the episode showed how the whole Sahel region had “become an attractive foothold for insurgents”, warning:
If we allow that foothold to consolidate, then it could affect the stability of our entire region.
He said that military intervention led by France had helped to restore stability in Mali but the crisis was not over.
Citing twin suicide bombings in Niger – the first of their kind in the country – on 23 May, Mr Mahama said:
There is the danger of asymmetric attacks like we saw in Niger… and so it is a matter that worries all of us in the sub-region.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) claimed responsibility for the Niger attacks; a spokesman for Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar of Signed-in-Blood Battalion later said that the commander had “supervised” the bombings in conjunction with Mujao. The bombers targeted a military base in Agadez and the French-run uranium mine in Arlit, killing at least 20 people.
Abu Walid Sahraoui, a spokesman for Mujao, said: “Thanks to Allah, we have carried out two operations against the enemies of Islam in Niger. We attacked France and Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against sharia.”
Niger was one of the West African nations that provided troops for the operation in Mali. Mujao was among the groups that were successfully driven out earlier this year.
Belmokhtar, who is believed to have been behind the attack on the gas plant in Algeria in January, threatened further attacks on France, Niger and other African countries involved in the Mali campaign.
He said: “This is the first of our responses to the statement of the president of Niger – from his masters in Paris – that he eliminated jihad and the mujahideen militarily.”
‘Arc of instability’
The bombings demonstrated the reality of the cross-border threat posed by Islamist militants in Africa; the attackers were said to be from Mali, Western Sahara and Sudan.
Moussa Akfar, a security expert in the Nigerien capital Niamey, said: “The problem is Niger is a large country, with instability on three fronts – we have rebels in Libya, the war in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria. The borders are completely porous and these groups have made it clear they plan to carry out further attacks.
As more and more countries become destabilised by the militants, the United Nations Security Council has been warned of an “arc of instability” stretching across Africa’s Sahara and Sahel region, which, if left unchecked, could transform the entire continent into a breeding ground for extremists and a launch pad for larger-scale terrorist attacks around the world.
Islamist militant groups operating in Africa exploit socio-economic discontent to recruit young men, offering them financial incentives as well a violent ideology through which they can channel their latent frustrations.
And as the Ghanaian president has warned, no country, even those which have previously been relatively stable and unaffected by Islamic radicalism, is safe.
In a recent report, the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) said that even the relatively moderate country of Senegal is becoming more vulnerable with more extremist teaching creeping in.
One imam in Dakar said: “More and more, fundamentalist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are tapping into national causes and giving them a religious spin, to create national ideologies – that is part of their new strategy.”
There is growing disaffection with the French-educated elites who have run Senegal along its former colonizer’s secular traditions and people are looking for an Islamic alternative.
As an ally of the West, and like Niger, a contributor of troops to the mission in Mali, Senegal is another potential target for jihadi violence.
Danger to Christians
And where Islamist terror reigns, Christians are targeted. When militants took over Northern Mali, they drove Christians out and destroyed all the churches in Gao and Timbuktu.
In the North and Middle Belt of Nigeria, where Boko Haram is fighting to establish an Islamic state, Christians are being massacred and churches blown up on an almost weekly basis. Despite the emergency rule imposed on three of the worst-affected states, Adamawa, Yobe and Borno, Christians continue to be killed. On 24 May, the Rev. Luka Bazigila from Gwoza, Borno state, and another Christian were shot dead at a Christian gathering.
Christians comprise a very small minority in countries such as Niger and Senegal so are especially vulnerable there.
Efforts are being made by African leaders to combat the escalating threat. Ghana’s President Mr Mahama has backed the African Union plan to create a rapid reaction force. He said: “We need to act collectively as a sub-region and a continent and indeed globally to be able to ensure peace and stability.”
The response needs to be both reactive and proactive, as the UN Security Council has underlined. In a presidential statement on 13 May, it said that the Security Council “recognises that terrorism will not be defeated by military force or security forces, law enforcement measures and intelligence operations alone.” It stressed the need to address the conditions conducive to terrorism’s spread, including promoting the rule of law, protection of human rights, good governance, increasing economic growth, reducing poverty and fighting corruption.
It is a tall order for a continent that has struggled with instability and poverty for many generations. The international community needs to support African nations in this long-term endeavour.