Monday, June 2, 2014

What the War of Terror Means for Africa

It will soon be 13 years since the United States launched its ill-advised “War on Terror”.  In the intervening years since 9/11, the United States has gone from contemplating military action against a discrete group of people who made an attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, to fighting a much broader “war” against an undefined enemy across the entire world.
Because of the War of Terror, justice and human rights hang in the balance in countries like Kenya.

The result is that our country is much less safe.  Our decision to fight terror with terror as opposed to combatting the underlying causes of resentment and violence has also turned the world into our country’s battlefield.  We wage a conflict which does not contribute to the security or public interest of our country, and which simultaneously makes light of the consequences for people elsewhere.
Africa has become a new front-line of our “War of Terror” as the United States takes on groups like Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and the Lord’s Resistance Army.  These groups are largely motivated by local concerns, but the military involvement of the United States—as our war of aggression in Iraq proved—provides disparate elements with a common cause and often forces them to think of themselves as fighting a much larger conflict.
So far, the various components of the U.S. war in Africa seem very far away to the public.  That is less the case for people on the continent.
Kennedy Opalo, a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford and a leading commentator on Kenyan politics, recently wrote a piece on “The consequences of the U.S. war on terrorism in Africa”.  Describing the growing U.S. presence in Africa, Opalo contends that the “expansion [of the U.S. military footprint in Africa] has serious implications for the continent’s security, the consolidation of democracy and the professionalization of its militaries as well as for respect for human rights across the region.  Unfortunately, these concerns do not rank high on the Pentagon’s agenda”.
“Washington’s strategic calculations and the interests of African leaders who sign on to these arrangements”, Opalo argues, “do not always converge with the interests of the majority of African people”.  Opalo cites a long list of recent abuses of human rights in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda, Kenya, and Somalia, which are connected to or ignored because of U.S. security interests. 
Opalo also notes that the predilection of the U.S. for using violence to address all “security threats in Africa [and elsewhere, I would argue] limits the options available to African governments facing domestic security challenges”. 
But as others have shown, African governments are not witless pawns of the U.S. government and terror agenda.  The South African Mail and Guardian recently published a piece titled, “Through the looking glass: Counterterrorism and the securitization of Africa’s politics”, with the following sub-heading: “How ‘smart’ African leaders have appropriated United States-funded counterterrorism efforts to criminalise legitimate domestic opposition”.
Others have documented the manner in which governments in Algeria and the Philippines took advantage of the “war of terror” to label domestic insurgents “terrorists” and thereby gain moral and material support from the United States to unleash violence on political opponents in their countries.
The Mail and Guardian notes that many African leaders are performing the same maneuver in what the paper describes as a new era of U.S. involvement in Africa.  The paper describes how “there are few accountability mechanisms in counterterrorism funding.  This new reality is rolling back decades of painstaking institution-building as well as advances made in human rights and good governance”.
Citing the case of Kenya (where the country is now besieged by small-scale attacks on the public which emanate from Kenya’s U.S.-backed invasion of Somalia in 2011) and Uganda (which the United States views as a key ally in combatting its fellow terrorists in Africa), the paper describes how “for most African governments, participation in counterterrorism is akin to a ‘bullet-proof vest’ that buys them immunity against criticism over any domestic malfeasance”.
And in some cases that malfeasance is considerable.  The Kenyan government is in the process of alienating the large number of Somalis—some migrants, many others Kenyan-born—who live in the diverse nation.  And in Uganda, the long-time president’s most significant political opponent has been handled like a major security threat, his primary offence being the threat he poses to Yoweri Museveni’s political power.  Museveni is one of the ‘smart’ leaders, whose “success in appropriating the terrorism discourse has bought him time, immunity and plenty of funding”.  The paper goes on, describing how “the labeling of any anti-state group as terrorist has become a default position of the state.  Recently, Inspector General of Police Kale Kaiyahura likened the activities of the Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi—who has hinted that he may contest against Museveni for the ruling NRM party’s presidential candidacy in 2016—to terrorism”.
In Kenya, a country with a vibrant and critical press, the government has begun to tighten the screws on the ability of the media to do its job, once again citing the threat of “terror”.
The meddling of the U.S. and its Cold War allies and opponents in other parts of the world from the 1950s to the late 1980s made a wreckage of many an emerging democracy and civil society.  Vicious dictators prospered by toeing the ideological lines drawn out by the United States and the Soviet Union, and non-aligned countries which hoped to make the best life for their people were forced to turn to the U.S. or the USSR for survival in a world in which political independence was viewed by violent superpowers as a threat.
A similar world is emerging today, in which civil, human and economic rights, as well as a free press and other markers of democracy are being crushed underfoot by the juggernaut of the U.S. national security apparatus.  So far these developments have been felt most acutely in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.  But as Opalo and others show, Africa is now firmly in the Pentagon’s sights, and the full-blow expansion of the War of Terror to that continent will create new threats against the U.S. as well as uncertainty and violence for the daily lives of many Africans.

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