At a recent peace and security forum in Senegal, African leaders called for greater international support in two key areas: fighting terrorism and fighting the coronavirus.
Speaking at the event in Dakar, Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum expressed concerns over continued arms smuggling from Libya, which is exacerbating terrorist activity in the region. His warning comes in the wake of recent incursions by militants in Mali, including explosions at UN camps in Gao and the ambush of a bus leading to 31 deaths in Bandiagara.
The international handling of the coronavirus was also condemned, with South Africa's President, Cyril Ramaphosa, claiming that the policy of vaccine hoarding by wealthy nations amounted to ‘vaccine apartheid’ and was hindering African countries’ response to other challenges including extremism.
Incubating a growing terrorist threat
Indeed, the international community needs to step up to the plate on both accounts. Africa’s Sahel region is the epicentre of a serious security crisis, whose steadily expanding range the world can’t afford to ignore.
It’s feared that the jihadists currently acting in the Sahel have their sights set on the Gulf of Guinea; a strategic manoeuvre that has been presaged by armed attacks in both Benin and Ivory Coast. The insurgents’ current campaign, which began almost a decade ago in Mali, has already claimed thousands of lives, displacing millions across the region – including in Burkina Faso and Niger – and crippling countries’ economies.
While attacks have been low key to date, experts believe that plans to infiltrate the region – allowing jihadists to create new supply lines for food and equipment – are already at an advanced stage. A coordinated counter-terrorism response, the Accra Initiative, is underway but observers fear that the lack of focus on early intervention and addressing the structural causes of insurgence means it’s too late to prevent attacks.
The evolving situation lends credence to a recent report by UN experts claiming that Africa is the region hardest hit by terrorism this year. The report, delivered to the UN Security Council, pinpoints areas in East and West Africa where extremist groups, many linked to Islamic State and al-Qaida, are not only gaining ground and inflicting the greatest number of casualties, but are also expanding their fundraising efforts and amassing a frightening weapons arsenal.
An international counterterrorism response is required
The region does have some strong security actors and leaders committed to the fight against terror.
Mahamat Idriss Déby, who took over Chad’s transitional government after his father Idriss Déby was killed in April by rebels, has continued his father’s fight against extremist groups. Mahamat Déby has embarked on a multi-pronged strategy to stamp out violence in Chad and the broader region, both by coordinating military strategy with close ally France and planning to nearly double the size of Chad's army to deal with the security challenges, as well as embarking on a national dialogue with opposition figures and rebel groups in hopes of building “a Chad of peace, stability and security by involving all Chadians”.
Déby’s continued commitment to counterterror has undoubtedly served as a relief to Chad’s international partners given that N’Djamena has historically been one of the best-equipped and most reliable Sahel countries in terms of the fight against extremism. Chad’s fellow G5 Sahel countries Niger and Burkina Faso have also stepped up their counterterrorism efforts in recent months, with the two carrying out a joint military operation between November 25 and December 9 which neutralised roughly 100 terrorists and dismantled two extremist bases.
However, none of these nations can stamp out extremism without support and the region’s traditional partner, France, is facing waves of strong anti-French sentiment and a distrust of French intervention which dates back to the colonial period. After nearly nine years of a counterterrorism offensive in Mali, French forces left Timbuktu on December 14, handing over a key military base to Malian forces. Paris is hoping to transition to a more African-led initiative with a broader base of international partners, but these hopes will depend both on whether other Western allies—such as the United States—step up to the plate, as well as how other major issues, including the pandemic, play out.
The coronavirus complication
Indeed, African countries can’t focus on the fight against terror while they’re still battling the coronavirus with a fraction of the international aid they were promised. Ramaphosa’s recent accusation that poorer countries are receiving the ‘crumbs’ from richer nations’ tables is especially poignant when viewed through this wider socio-political lens.
Even though 1 billion doses of Covid vaccines are expected to arrive in Africa in the coming months, a global shortage of other essential equipment – including syringes – coupled with political instability in a number of countries, inadequate health systems and vaccine hesitancy is likely to further impede the rollout. Only 7.5 percent of people in African countries have been fully vaccinated so far – a potentially catastrophic situation that expert predict will lead to the emergence of new – and possibly more dangerous – Covid-19 variants.
The arrival of Omicron has only underlined how urgently the world needs to take a more coordinated approach to combatting Covid-19, if we want to avoid tackling an ‘Omega’ strain further down the line. ‘Vaccine nationalism’ is increasing the gulf between rich and poor, setting back some nations’ social and economic progress by decades—and slowing progress on other vital issues, such as the security crisis in the Sahel.