Thursday September 4 2014

Terror fight needs democracies, not metal detectors and dictators

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

Spy chiefs from across Africa were in Nairobi last week for their annual gathering and, as expected, were preoccupied by the threat of terrorism.

Terrorism is not new in Africa, but the cross-border appeal and operations of groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria have presented a threat level that national-level intelligence and security agencies are not well prepared to deal with.

So their meeting in Nairobi was, predictably, dominated by talk of cooperation and joint operations. These will help, no doubt, but it will take a lot more to deal with the new faces of terror across the continent.

While terrorism is a security issue, it is often a manifestation of underlying political, social and economic dynamics. To deal with the symptoms we must understand and treat the cause.

A lot of focus has been paid on the internationalisation of the ideology of terrorism and groups like the Islamic State in Syria have so many nationalities among their fighters, they are like an army of United Nations Volunteers. However, most of the violent extremism has its roots in domestic inequalities, bad governance and outright oppression.

In the post 9/11 era, African governments rushed to push through anti-terrorism legislation legalising interception of communications and expanding powers of arrest and detention. However, with the exception of perhaps Algeria, we have seen more, not less, terrorism and violent extremism in Central African Republic, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Nigeria, Chad, and even hitherto peaceful Tanzania, not to mention the mayhem in Libya and Egypt.

The leaders of these groups might share inspiration and might claim to be held together by common threads, including Islamic fundamentalism but they each feed on existing domestic political realities like unemployed youth, corrupt elite networks that act with impunity, poor social services, the inability to change leaders democratically, incompetent and inefficient governments, as well as the overall indignity of living in hopelessness.

Not every country with these problems suffers from terrorism, of course, but every one of those that does has some if not all of these characteristics. The response from the governments has been largely of a security nature, through counter-terrorism operations, including extra-judicial killings, illegal renditions, torture and arbitrary detentions without trial.

In places like the restive Kenyan coast, these strong-arm tactics have pushed more young people into the willing arms of those recruiting for violent extremist groups. In Nigeria the army has been lukewarm in its response to Boko Haram, which, those in the know claim, is at least nominally, the private army of the Islamist north in its ever-present contest with the south.

Even where they work, these strong-arm tactics can only succeed in the short-run, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Labelling all these violent extremist groups as terror groups allows us to isolate them and, in the language of hawks, “deal with them decisively”. However, it does not allow us to examine and understand the underlying circumstances that would, for instance, push an 18-year-old student to strap himself with a suicide vest.

Many intelligence chiefs privately say that the best antidote to terrorism is to build inclusive societies that provide basic services and opportunities to all, and whose institutions are strong enough to effectively govern the territory and enforce law and order.

Sadly, that is not a conversation our leaders have when they meet at security summits and conferences. Extremists who seek to use violence must be dealt with firmly and within the law. However, it doesn’t matter how many metal detectors maniacal dictators install; we can’t defeat terrorism without building meritocratic democracies.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi.
&Twitter: @Kalinaki