As the Somali militant and extremist group, al-Shabaab, continue to bomb innocent people, and Nigeria’s even more ruthless Boko Haram released video showing them carrying out mass executions and beating their prisoners to death with shovels, it seems like insanity to see any goodness in their actions.
Boko Haram and al-Shabaab are different from previous rebel and anti-establishment insurgents not so much in their brutality, but in their politics. They have moved beyond the demons of Africa’s ethnic and clan politics, and are transnational - both seek in different ways to form caliphates that don’t recognise current borders.
The current civil war in the Central African Republic (CAR), is also different in that sense. It is close to displacing one million people, and thousands of people have been killed, but in pitting the Christian anti-balaka militia and the Muslim Seleka militants, it is a ‘new’ type of conflict that has risen somewhat beyond tribe.
In that sense, the only major conflict on the continent being fought along old ‘backward’ lines, is in South Sudan where the now largely Dinka-dominated regime in Juba led by President Salva Kiir, is in a deadly blood feud with his former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer overlord.
Groups like Boko Haram are still sectarian in that they consider Christians and people from other religions infidels who should be eliminated, and their violence is terrifying, but one hopes they can force a significant change in African politics.
In Africa, religion is still a negotiable identity. Christians can become Muslims, although fewer Muslims become Christians. However, both Christians and Muslims can become ‘bad’ members of their faith, and not practice or violate its tenets. Or they can become atheist, or animist and pray to ancestral graves and hills. Tribe, and clan though, aren’t flexible – you can’t just wiggle out of them.
However, these groups also dramatically challenge the way power and states have been organised, and the spoils of office divided by African politicians and generals in order to keep their supporters loyal and well fed.
So when one party cheats another at elections, is caught, and violence breaks out, peace is sometimes made through sharing power, which means dividing the groceries among rival tribes and regions. Such a formula would not work with al-Shabaab or Boko Haram.
African military, one-party dictatorships, and multiparty despotisms have all developed varying theories of “African democracy” to justify their monopoly of power. Whether a fraud or not, they all invoked democracy. The Shabaabs and Boko Harams reject in absolute terms the concept of democracy in whatever African colours it might be dressed, and adopt a monolithic standard divined by a supreme and only God (Allah).
And like its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), al-Shabaab’s notion of a caliphate, is really a repackaging of a “Greater Somalia” idea that brings back Somali areas of Ethiopia and Kenya. A single state approach to organisations like al-Shabaab, therefore, can only be short-term. Ethiopia, for example, cannot hope to smash al-Shabaab, if it can organise freely in Kenya or Eritrea.
The national military and political elites can still invoke national sovereignty, but they must also embrace transnational solutions as an important ingredient for their survival.
Internally, the advance of extreme Islamic groups can only be beaten back in three ways. Where Christians are feeling imperiled, they can form a broad Christian coalition and fight back - and that will mean they will have to bring together Christians from all tribes and regions.
Secondly, they can form a moderate and ecumenical alliance between Christians, Muslims, Hindus (in East Africa), Jews (in South Africa and parts of North Africa) and confront the Islamic extremists.
That might force a negotiated peace, or possibly end in a fight to the death, but it will have been a different kind of war.
Thirdly, and ideally, they can form a secular democratic alliance, which would subjugate both religion and region, and defeat the extremists because their side is more inclusive and offers a superior model.
It will be bloody and costly, but the changes in Africa that al-Shabaab and Boko Haram would have forced upon the continent’s politics means that while there will continue to be massacres, there will probably no longer be a 1994 Rwanda-style genocide. The regional and tribal alliances that allow strongmen to steal elections will also be difficult.
To hold power in post-extremist Africa, social bribery will have to be more widespread and expensive, ensuring a fairer distribution of national resources.
Those Africans who will survive al-Shabaab and Boko Haram might well secretly thank them for their mayhem. They are likely to live in a far freerer and fairer Africa – with remarkably more graveyards.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com) where a version of this article first appeared. Twitter:@cobbo3