Young Africans have been failed by their governments and are increasingly turning to extremism.
The foiled attempt by young Nigerian extremist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day has baffled many Africans and sent them scrambling for an explanation. This is not the stereotypical poor and desperate young man usually associated with violence on the continent. For one, Abdulmutallab is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and former government minister. His father even tipped off the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to his son’s growing radicalism. Second, neither Islam nor Christianity is indigenous to Africa, and the idea of dying on behalf of a foreign religion is absurd to most Africans. Third, the United States was never a colonial power in Africa and, therefore, it seems an odd target. In fact, it’s a popular destination for many young Nigerians looking to emigrate.
And yet, Africa only has to look within to find the causes for radicalization. About 60 percent of Africa’s nearly 1 billion people are less than 30 years old. In the past few decades, these young people have become increasingly disaffected, lost, and restless, and who can blame them? Poorly educated and jobless, they have few role models with moral stature. The value system has collapsed. Hard work and entrepreneurship no longer assure success and wealth. Political connections matter. The richest men in Africa are often heads of state and ministers. Of the 209 African heads of state since 1960, fewer than 15 can be classified as good, clean leaders. The rest — an assortment of military brutes, briefcase bandits, and crackpot democrats — are decidedly uninspiring. How can Africa claim to be fighting terrorism when the chairman of the African Union itself is Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, an admitted sponsor of terrorism?
At the United Nations’ May 2002 Children’s Summit in New York, youngsters from Africa stunned the audience by ripping into their leaders. "You get loans that will be paid in 20 to 30 years … and we have nothing to pay them with because when you get the money, you embezzle it, you eat it," said 12-year-old Joseph Tamale from Uganda. Adam Maiga from Mali weighed in: "We must put an end to this demagoguery. You have parliaments, but they are used as democratic decoration."
Disenchanted by their own societies, African youth have become increasingly susceptible to radical ideas and religious extremists — not just the Islamist fanatics in northern Nigeria and Somalia, but also the Christian variety (the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda) and the traditionalist (the Mungiki sect in Kenya). Some seek escape in rickety boats to Europe. Others turn to crime (drug trafficking, Internet scams), prostitution, and extremist groups that seek violent change. It is sclerotic leadership and catastrophic government failure — not poverty — that breed this hopelessness and despair in Africa’s young people, luring them to extremism.
In many African countries, government has ceased to exist or function. In its place is a vampire state — a government hijacked by unrepentant bandits who use the machinery of the state to enrich themselves, crush their enemies, and perpetuate themselves in office. In Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, governments that scarcely provide basic social services are even at war with their own people. And their people have responded with violence. Just last week, a separatist group, Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), opened fire on a bus carrying the Togolese soccer team to the Africa Cup, killing the driver and two team officials. FLEC seeks independence from Angola, whose government is one of the worst of these dysfunctional bodies. What motivated these young men was likely not that different from what compelled Abdulmutallab to board that plane.
Abdulmutallab’s home country is a case in point. Nigeria’s government is a towering edifice of ineptitude, corruption, and waste. The country is rich in natural resources, but 60 percent of its people live on less than $2 a day and lack access to basic social services. Its rulers have looted more than $430 billion in oil revenue since independence in 1960 — or six times the United States’ Marshall Plan for postwar Europe. The educational system is a shambles. University degrees are openly bought. The electricity supply is intermittent; only 30 percent of Nigerians have access to a reliable supply of electricity. The clean water supply is spasmodic. It is an oil-producing country but must import refined petroleum products from abroad.
Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, was elected in a brazenly rigged election in April 2007 and has been absent from the country since Nov. 23, recovering from a heart ailment in a Saudi hospital. That in itself is a telling commentary on the dilapidated state of health care in Nigeria.
Whole states and groups are now in open rebellion against Nigeria’s decrepit federal government. Twelve northern states have defied the Constitution and adopted their own state religion — sharia. A local Islamist fundamentalist sect, Boko Haram ("Western civilization is forbidden"), has emerged in the northern state of Borno, denouncing "the wicked political parties leading the country, the corrupt, irresponsible, criminal, murderous political leadership" and calling for jihad across Nigeria. Clashes with security forces in Maiduguri in July left more than 800 dead.
These dangerous developments have received far too little attention in the West. Then again, few people take anything coming out of Nigeria — the scam capital of the world — seriously. Perhaps this was the reason why the tip from Abdulmutallab’s father wasn’t given top priority. U.S. policymakers are finally starting to take notice of Nigeria’s growing extremism, but it would be a grievous mistake for the United States to partner with the Nigerian government to fight terrorism. In fact, this war has become a huge joke in Africa.
Back in 2001, when then-U.S. President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism, rogue regimes that were terrorizing their own people saw an opportunity. They quickly began parroting the war cry in order to receive U.S. aid. Liberia’s Charles Taylor, the indicted war criminal, set up an Anti-Terrorist Unit run by his son. And Somali warlords, who had been terrorizing residents of Mogadishu, even formed a "Coalition Against Terrorism" and secured CIA funding in 2006.
The current collection of U.S. allies in this war in Africa — Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda — reeks of scandal. Much like America’s "allies" in Afghanistan and Yemen, they are characterized by repression, corruption, and government malfunction. Partnership with such corrupt regimes carries the risk of propping up governments that have failed their people.
Ultimately, Africa’s war on terrorism will not be fought at the national level — the countries have no credibility left — but in individual villages, mosques, and families. This will require a much better understanding of African tribal identity on the part of Western policymakers and might involve embracing an idea that will make many of them uncomfortable: collective responsibility.
In the West, the individual is the focal unit and held accountable for his or her actions. In traditional African societies, it is the collective or community — the family, the village, and the tribe. Consider the African saying made famous by Hillary Clinton: "It takes a village to raise a child." Conversely, it takes a village to produce a criminal or a terrorist.
If an individual commits a crime, he brings shame to his family. Further, the family is held liable for any damages the individual may cause. It was this value system that propelled Abdulmutallab’s father to tip off the U.S. Embassy of his son’s growing radicalism. We must learn from this example.
A mosque’s fear of being shut down or a village’s or family’s fear of shame may motivate them to cooperate with authorities to prevent terrorism and, hopefully, begin disciplining the extremists among them. Unlike what happened with Abdulmutallab’s father, authorities must be ready to take advantage of these opportunities as they emerge. These tips are just as credible, if not more so, than the intelligence provided by the self-serving security services of African countries.
Illiterate and tribal people also have their own ancient ways of dealing with government failures that breed extremism. When Benin was teetering on the brink of implosion in 1991, it convened a "sovereign national conference" — modeled after Africa’s native institution of village meetings — and replaced its Marxist dictatorship with a democratic order. South Africa followed suit in the early 1990s with a similar vehicle (the Convention for a Democratic South Africa).
Ultimately, even the best counterterrorism strategy will fail without this type of political change and improved governance. As long as young Africans are coming of age in a society where leadership is morally bankrupt, the only road to success is corruption, and extremists are the only figures to look up to, there’s nothing to prevent a generation of Abdulmutallabs from emerging.