Kenya: The Prime Minister has committed Britain to a struggle against the ‘existential threat’ of terrorism in Africa that he says will take ‘years, even decades’ of patience, intelligence and toughness. Well, there’s some truth in what he says, but not in the implication that this is a new threat to Africa — nor that our response should be a military one.
In a way this same struggle was happening when the young Winston Churchill was covering Kitchener’s war against fanatical Muslim, Mahdist forces in the Sudan in 1898. ‘Year after year, we see the figures of the odd and bizarre potentates… It is like a pantomime scene at Drury Lane,’ wrote the young Winston in his memoir of the battle for Omdurman. ‘For a space their names are on the wires of the world and the tongues of men… And then the audience clap their hands, amused yet impatient, and the potentates and their trains pass on, some to exile, some to prison, some to death…’ The Victorians had the Mad Mullah and the Khalifa. Today we have Mokhtar Belmokhtar the ‘One-Eyed’, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.
As for Osama bin Laden, I first heard his name in 1992. I was a Reuters correspondent in Mogadishu when a US Army Humvee was blown to bits, killing three American military police and their Somali interpreter. Later, at a briefing with an intelligence officer, there was, for the first time, talk of bin Laden.
At that time, bin Laden’s designs were on Africa. He had just been invited to take sanctuary in Sudan from where he planned al-Qa’eda’s opening attacks against the Americans in Somalia. Luckily for him, having promised to fix the spectacularly failed state of Somalia, the Americans then abandoned it after the bloody Black Hawk Down battle. So al-Qa’eda moved in and organised the August 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
‘The West claims to love democracy but not in Islamic countries,’ Al-Shabaab military commander Abu Mansoor once told me over a cup of tea. ‘Look at Algeria.’ Indeed, in 1991 the pro-French government annulled the country’s first democratic election because an Islamist party won. In response, Algerian Salafists who were veteran volunteers in the CIA-funded, anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan launched an ultra-violent insurgency. Across Africa in the 1990s, other ‘Afghan’ veterans came home to exploit environments where states weakened or failed in the aftermath of the Cold War. All you need to start a war, an African rebel leader told a friend of mine, is $10,000 and a satellite phone. ‘You use the dollars to recruit enough fighters to raid the local police stations for their guns. The phone you use to call the world’s press after the attack.’
The consequence of this? I’ve met jihadis on the slopes of the snowy Rwenzoris, the Mountains of the Moon. I’ve met militants in Stone Town, Zanzibar. They’re in Kenya and the Comores, from the Cape to Cairo.
In Somalia, Islamists gained in popularity as a reaction to the ravages of the warlords — and they did an excellent job of restoring law and order until a US-backed Ethiopian invasion spawned the Al-Shabaab insurgency that international forces are still fighting six years later. In Nigeria, Boko Haram — which means ‘Western education is forbidden’ — gained traction because kleptomaniacs rule Africa’s most populous country. Similar groups have emerged elsewhere across states joined by the Sahara, in Algeria, in Mauritania, where there are more coups than any other country, or in Mali, where military strongmen have made a mess of things. We laughed at these groups for a time — at Boko Haram’s belief that the earth is flat, or their rejection of Darwinism — like half of America. We laughed at Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the ‘Underwear Bomber’ who lit up his testicles but failed to blow up a transatlantic flight.
But the extremists in Africa have grown in power and militant leaders are now tapping into a vast underclass that is entirely excluded from Africa’s much trumpeted economic boom. Under these more sophisticated leaders like Mokhtar Belmokhtar, groups such as AQIM, MUJAO, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab have morphed from local brigands into more ambitious, anti-western ideologies. And ironically, militants of all shades have adopted an off-the-peg argument against capitalism that was first generated by the western left.
This argument holds that western investors are ‘land-grabbing’ and out to exploit Africans. There are many who loathe the idea of Africa being the Next Big Thing in the world’s economic growth. Extreme Islamists want to rule over a medieval, atavistic Africa. This is a terrifying prospect, given that by 2050 one in four humans on the planet will be African. In just less than two decades, Africa’s workforce will be bigger than China’s — so what if there are no jobs?
The good news is that Africans themselves don’t want to stay stuck in the past. They want cell phones, highways and washing machines. China is so successful in Africa because it gives Africans what they want, and it’s time we did too. So, instead of thinking in terms of aid — military or financial — David Cameron should be encouraging our companies to invest. Africa needs, more than anything, our geologists, bankers and financiers ready for deployment in the remotest corners of the Sahara.
The ‘patient, intelligent and tough approach’ should be, not to ramp up fears of terrorism, but to push British investment in Africa, while protecting those brave enough to lead it. Our soldiers train African peacekeepers — and deploy special forces to places like Libya — but as we’ve seen almost everywhere, military operations alienate moderates, and in the Sahara they could drive a wedge between ‘Christian’ black Africa and the Muslim north. Our embassies across Africa are stuffed to the gunwhales with SIS officers monitoring Islamist threats from Zanzibar to Abuja — protecting UK interests — but what are they doing to expose corrupt leaders? And, despite criticism, huge DFID budgets still rain down on the continent, doing a great deal to promote human rights without assisting the establishment of judiciaries, policing and the rule of law, without which no development can progress.
To its credit, long before last week’s Algeria nightmare, Cameron’s government was the first to properly address the threat of Islamic terrorism. Whereas previous governments have steadfastly ignored the festering sore of Somalia since the country imploded in 1991, the coalition last year threw its support behind the first legitimate government to be appointed in more than two decades.
But at the forefront of British policy should be business — not rapacious plunder, but decent wealth creation. Africans want fast-food outlets, cinema outings and iPods. The day Kentucky Fried Chicken sets up in Timbuktu and Mogadishu will mark a decisive victory against Mokhtar Belmokhtar the One-Eyed.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013