Magazine article The Spectator

What Africa Needs Now

Magazine article The Spectator

What Africa Needs Now

Article excerpt


The Prime Minister has comm itted 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 annu l led 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. …

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