Africa Brief
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Will the War on Terror Move to Africa?

With jihadist groups on the rise, African leaders from Nigeria to Mozambique are worried about maintaining stability.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
Nigerian soldiers patrol outside the Diffa Airfield in southeast Niger, near the Nigerian border, on Dec. 23, 2020.
Nigerian soldiers patrol outside the Diffa Airfield in southeast Niger, near the Nigerian border, on Dec. 23, 2020.
Nigerian soldiers patrol outside the Diffa Airfield in southeast Niger, near the Nigerian border, on Dec. 23, 2020. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The week’s highlights: Kais Saied extends Tunisia’s suspension of parliament, Algeria blames Morocco for its deadly wildfires, and the joy of African reality television.

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Africa’s War on Terror Is Only Beginning

Watching the Taliban storm Kabul from Aso Villa in Abuja, Nigeria’s president feared a similar fate could befall African countries—without the support of their Western allies.

President Muhammadu Buhari wrote an opinion piece in the Financial Times, calling for a “comprehensive partnership” with U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration as troops from the United States withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years.

“As Africans, we face our day of reckoning just as some sense the west is losing its will for the fight. It is true that some of our western allies are bruised by their Middle Eastern and Afghan experiences. Others face domestic pressures after the pandemic. Africa was not then, and even less now, their priority,” Buhari wrote in the Aug. 15 article.

The “partnership” Buhari envisions comes in the form of foreign direct investment and technological and intelligence support for African armies, praising U.S. airstrikes against Somalia’s al-Shabab as “what can and should be done.”

Buhari’s outstretched hand comes at a time when he faces growing criticism over his government’s continued failure to quell the security threat from Boko Haram as well a lack of investment in the economy. Nigerian security officers responded with violence that led to the deaths of 56 people in October 2020 when they faced criticism from #EndSARS protesters, and despite attempts at reform, the gap between Buhari’s administration and the majority—Nigeria’s youth—is widening.

This was not the point of Buhari’s piece though, which addressed an audience outside the country, mentioning Nigeria’s homegrown terrorist threat, Boko Haram, only in broad terms. Instead, Buhari used the Financial Times article to defend his decision to build a train line from Nigeria to Niger—a nearly $2 billion investment project that Nigerians have roundly rejected, which Buhari pointed to as a means to defeat terrorism “one highway, one rail link—and one job—at a time.”

Terrorists’ easy recruitment strategy. The Nigerian president was right on one front: Prevailing conditions in Africa have made insurgency a viable career option for many young Africans.

In Nigeria’s impoverished north, Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province have had no trouble recruiting new members. Similarly, in the Sahel, the state’s failure to focus on development outside the capital and towns that have no direct connection to the political elite has created a gap that insurgent groups have filled by providing basic services that would normally be the task of a functional government.

Largely ignoring problems closer to home, Buhari mentions Mozambique as the latest example of terror organizations gaining a foothold in Africa but cites the country’s large natural gas projects as a target rather than the cause. The northern Cabo Delgado province, like Nigeria’s north, is the site of chronic underdevelopment.

When gas was discovered in the region, locals hoped it would provide the province’s youth with jobs, but instead, it has enriched the political elite and created enclaves for international companies, with little investment in the region. A ragtag group of disenfranchised young men have now turned into an insurgency that has killed more than 2,600 people in just under four years.

The Mozambican group has, according to some reports, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, a concerning trend on the continent. A July 27 United Nations Security Council report on the group’s continued threat described its growth in Africa as the most “striking development” during a period when the Islamic State’s influence in the Middle East seemed to be waning.

In West Africa, the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau (who evaded Nigerian authorities for years and gets no mention in Buhari’s assessment), galvanized the Islamic State’s influence in Buhari’s backyard. In southern and eastern Africa, the group “attracts new recruits with promises of employment and a sense of belonging,” the report said. The Islamic State has not gained a foothold in Somalia, where al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab already dominates, and in the Maghreb region, where competing insurgent groups battle for control of the Sahel.

Early withdrawals. The sort of Western withdrawal that led to Kabul’s collapse is already underway in Africa. In July, after facing domestic pressure over fears that the Sahel region would be become France’s Afghanistan, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to withdraw more than 2,000 troops from Operation Barkhane, which had deployed 5,100 troops across Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad since 2014.

The withdrawal is likely to happen slowly, with strategy shifting toward the technical support and counterterrorism that has characterized the European Union’s mission in the Takuba Task Force. As with Afghanistan, various humanitarian development projects have struggled to find success amid ongoing insecurity.

Instability is already emerging. France withdrew from Mali after the country experienced its second coup within a single year, seeing supporters of the country’s military regime turn to Russia instead. The G-5 Sahel Joint Force, a multinational military force from the five countries that fought alongside Operation Barkhane, is also showing signs of decay. This week, Chad announced it would withdraw 600 troops—half of its contingent—to redeploy them to fight a domestic rebel threat that has grown since the death of long-time dictator and French ally, Idriss Déby.

In the meantime, sporadic attacks on civilians across the Sahel continue unabated, where unguarded villages have turned to vigilantism as state security is overwhelmed. Just last week, in a Burkina Faso town near the border of Mali and Niger, suspected jihadists killed 80 people, 59 of them civilians.

As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks draws near, observers and policymakers will be assessing the failures of the resulting war on terror. For Africa, the lesson will be the continent’s collective failure to address the conditions that are ripe for terrorist groups to exploit.

The Week Ahead

Monday, Aug. 23 to Friday, Aug. 27: Health ministers from 47 African countries meet in Lomé, Togo, for a World Health Organization regional summit.

Wednesday, Aug. 25: Former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda delivers the annual Nelson Mandela lecture in a virtual event.

Friday, Aug. 27: Tunisia’s nationwide curfew is expected to end.

What We’re Watching

A power grab in Tunisia? A month after Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended parliament and sacked the prime minister, observers fear a power grab is under way in the lone success story of the Arab Spring. His supporters argue he is enacting the will of the people, and his decision to arrest officials linked to corruption seemed to confirm this. However, Saied’s decision this week to place the former head of Tunisia’s Anti-Corruption Committee under house arrest has raised questions.

Prosecutors launched an investigation into the former anti-corruption head on July 29, just four days after Saied took power, over alleged fraud linked to a report on the sacked prime minister. Economists also fear the political deadlock could delay a long-awaited International Monetary Fund agreement and lead to a “Lebanon-style default.”

On Aug. 23, Saied confirmed critics’ worst fears when he extended the suspension of parliament via presidential decree “until further notice.”

Smoke rises from a wildfire in the forested hills of Algeria’s Kabylia region on Aug. 10.
Smoke rises from a wildfire in the forested hills of Algeria’s Kabylia region on Aug. 10.

Smoke rises from a wildfire in the forested hills of Algeria’s Kabylia region on Aug. 10.Ryad Kramdi/AFP via Getty Images

Algeria’s “criminal” wildfires. Algeria’s government is blaming Morocco for deadly wildfires that killed at least 90 people, worsening ties between the North African neighbors. After a high-level security meeting, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune issued a statement on Aug. 18 saying the source of the fire was “criminal,” with 22 people arrested. Then, on Aug. 24, Algiers severed ties with Rabat entirely, citing the wildfires and Morocco’s relationship with Israel as “unacceptable behaviors and actions.”

Algeria’s president has blamed the fires on the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), a separatist movement of Algeria’s Indigenous Berber people. Algiers accused Morocco’s government and the “Zionist entity” of supporting what it calls a terrorist group. Algeria also ignored Morocco’s offer to help quell the fires, part of Rabat’s recent overtures toward Algiers. The MAK rejected the accusations.

Uganda’s shrinking civil society. On Aug. 16, five constitutional court judges annulled the 2014 law aimed at prohibiting the spread of pornography, widely seen as repressive and known as the anti-miniskirt law. Just as civil society groups welcomed the decision, the Ugandan government moved to crack down on critics, suspending 54 nongovernmental organizations over a range of noncompliance issues. The suspended organizations have defended the rights of political activists and criticized Uganda’s plans to build a crude oil pipeline.

The price of booster shots. As wealthy countries announce plans to administer booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, the World Health Organization warns the move could widen inequality between wealthy and poorer countries.

Last week, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was “unconscionable” that countries like the United States were offering booster shots “while so many people remain unprotected.” On Aug. 19, WHO’s Africa director, Matshidiso Moeti, urged wealthier countries to donate their additional doses to countries on the continent, where an average of only 6 doses have been administered per 100 people.

This Week in Culture

Misrepresented no more. In a region where pop culture representation has historically been limited to mindless stereotypes and racist tropes, reality television has become an accidental antidote. In recent years, franchises and spinoffs like Big Brother Naija (Nigeria), The Real Housewives of Durban (the South African spinoff starring one of former South African President Jacob Zuma’s former fiancés and the wife of his wealthy associate), and The Great Kenyan Bake Off have become popular among local audiences and have found international viewership thanks to satellite television and streaming platforms.

The shows offer no great surprises—the housewives are driven by manufactured drama while the dry humor and near total lack of drama that made The Great British Bake Off a hit with Americans endures in Kenya with the same appeal. In the case of Big Brother Naija, it’s become a mirror for the cultural diversity and nuance that is often ignored in depictions of Africa. As Alex Eloho Umuerri writes in The Conversation Africa, the show’s youthful cast has appealed to a young audience, but it has also sparked debates about Nigeria’s conservative approach to sexuality.

The shows have also created opportunities in the local entertainment industry, both on and off camera. Not only have the shows spawned starlets and influencers, but the multi-camera formats have used local production companies, attracted sponsorships, and—in the case of Survivor South Africa—showcased local tourism destinations. And although there is little real about reality TV, there is truth to its representation of Africans, even if it is silly.

Chart of the Week                                    

As wealthy countries prepare to administer booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, Africa remains one of the most unprotected regions. The continent was already faced with a delay as accusations of vaccine hoarding saw low-income countries pushed to the bottom of the list.

Now, just as vaccine-sharing programs—in which developed nations donate their additional vaccine doses to the developing world—are beginning to make an impact, the already slow delivery may dwindle further still.

African Voices

A vaccine delayed; a trip deferred. Kenyan writer Carey Baraka had been fantasizing about a trip from Lake Tanganyika to Victoria Falls until the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as the world reopens for vaccinated populations, in Lonely Planet, Baraka reckons with how the pandemic will make traveling in Africa—as an African—even more difficult.

Nollywood remembers its own classics. Early Nollywood movies were known to be choppy and plagued by bad sound editing, but their unique storylines brought millions of viewers and created an industry. Now, as Nollywood finds a new home on Netflix, Ezinne Ezepue has spotted the Hollywood habit of remakes in Nigeria’s film industry too.

Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel

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