Through the looking glass: Counterterrorism and the securitisation of Africa's politics

How 'smart' African leaders have appropriated United States-funded counterterrorism efforts to criminalise legitimate domestic opposition.

Three distinct phases in US-Africa relations can be discerned in the post-Cold War era. 

During the George Bush Snr era, fuelled by the confidence gained by defeating communism, the United States projected a maximalist approach centred on humanitarian intervention. However, the end of Operation Restore Hope in Somalia (December 1992-May 1993) saw the 1993"Blackhawk Down” incident in which 18 US servicemen were killed, eroding the aura of invulnerability the United States had acquired in the aftermath of the Gulf War. 

After its chastening experience in Somalia, the second phase of US-Africa relations was more minimalist and nuanced; it was guided by the realisation the US is not good at engaging in intractable “tribal"fighting. The consequence of this was the United States’s hands-off approach during the Rwanda genocide in 1994. This was a case of learning the wrong lessons from the Somalia debacle. 

The Somalia syndrome persisted until it was replaced by the third phase that emerged after the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam US embassy bombings in 1998. Under this new outlook, the United States argued that the threats to the United States come from non-state actors without a return address, as it were. 

This required a “smart” military engagement. This was accentuated after the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11 2001, whereafter national security became the overarching consideration for US strategic thinkers. The 2002 National Security Strategy states: “The events of September 11 2001 taught us that weak states… can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.”

Securitisation of Politics 

The central plank of this new security policy is counterterrorism funding and training of African militaries. As a result,counterterrorism funding has skyrocketed as has the United States military’s footprint in Africa under the guise of the United States Africa Command (Africom).  

This new security posture is in sharp contrast to a decades-long public diplomacy centred on promoting good governance and deepening human rights. Military support is taking place against the background of military coups in Africa. Since independence, a total of 67 coups have occurred in 26 African countries. 

AmadouHayaSanogo, who led the coup in Mali in March 2012, participated in the US International Military Education and Training Programme.Under the new foreign policy regime, the line between security, development and humanitarian assistance has become blurred. 

This has led to insidious militarisation of Africa by America with a host of implications. Moreover, domestically, “smart” African leaders have cleverly exploited this new “securitised” environment to shrink political space and criminalise dissent by labelling their political opponents “terrorists”. 

These African leaders are adept at exploiting the mixed signals emanating from the United States government; the State Department will come around and issue fluffy rhetoric about democracy, good governance and respect for human rights, but provide little money, while the Department of Defence hardly says anything in public, but gives out plenty of money. 

As an added advantage, 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. Further, the US treatment of alleged terrorists at home has denied it moral standing in questioning human-rights violation abroad.

The Pakistan-isation of Kenya 

In the war against the Taliban, Pakistan was the centre of gravity as much as Afghanistan, providing a safe haven from where al-Qaeda and the Taliban operated. In the War on Terror in the Horn of Africa targeting al-Shabab in Somalia, Kenya has become the new Pakistan; it provides Western intelligence with the infrastructure and base from where to wage the war. 

Unlike in Pakistan, there is marginal political cost to the political elite in Kenya for backing the Western-led operations. Not yet at least. However, this uncritical embrace of the counterterrorism project coupled with sending the Kenya Defence Forces into Somalia in October 2011 has exposed the country’s domestic security underbelly – its inability to police and provide adequate security domestically.

The systemic and structural problems within the security machinery mean it lacks finesse in operating in the new and ever-shifting security ecosystem. Further, the intervention has revealed that Kenya cannot police its border adequately. The consequences of intervention in Somalia are an increasing blowback of insecurity in Nairobi and the northeastern and Coast counties,particularly a series of grenade attacks against government targets,public meeting spaces, and churches. 

The highlight of the security blowback post-Somalia intervention was the September 24, 2013 attack on the high-end Westgate shopping mall popular with Western expatriates and a symbol of the conspicuous consumption of the new Africa. While al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for some of the grenade attacks, others are likely to be the work of opportunistic criminal groups. 

The consequences of Kenya’s intervention are hard to ignore:since KDF entered Somalia, there have been over 50 attacks involving grenades or improvised explosive devices. According to a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service,an independent public policy research arm of the United States Congress,“Kenya is one of the top five global recipients of State Department Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) funding, which supports border and coastal security and law enforcement programmes. 

ATA funds support counterterrorism training for the Kenyan police, and have averaged $8 million annually in recent years.” Since 2003, Kenya has received extensive aid from the State Department’s anti-terrorism assistance fund known as the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism, or PREACT. According to the State Department: “It uses law enforcement, military, and development resources to achieve its strategic objectives, including reducing the operational capacity of terrorist networks.” 

For most African governments, participation in counterterrorism is akin to a “bullet-proof vest” that buys them immunity against criticism over any domestic malfeasance. 

Kony: From a war criminal to a terrorist 

Uganda’s political opposition is, undeniably, under tremendous pressure from a state ready to employ overwhelming force to suppress any alternative voices. Remarkably, there is a collective desensitisation regarding the state’s gratuitous brutality towards opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who has been under indefinite house arrest for several years now. 

In fact, the constant abuse he has experienced in his attempts to defy his house arrest has ceased to make news at all. Besigye’s attempt to lead a March 2012 demonstration against the rising cost of living was met with maximum force. 

The use of special military units not only demonstrated how seriously President Yoweri Museveni and those close to him took the threat, but was also a demonstration that political space in Uganda is a battleground. The appointment of a military officer as the Inspector General of Police is another indication of Museveni’s determination to securitise law and order. 

Museveni’s selling point to the West is Uganda is an anchor state in the volatile Great Lakes Region, never mind that he has been the biggest purveyor of violence himself. To the West, his domestic indiscretion and regional adventures are a cost of doing business. He has sent his military to join peacekeeping missions in Somalia and South Sudan. 

Appreciating discourse
Further, Museveni’s success in appropriating the terrorism discourse has bought him time, immunity and plenty of funding. Initially, he referred the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army’s leader Joseph Kony to the International Criminal Court, but when he realised his army could become implicated, he labelled Kony a terrorist. 

Museveni’s canny grasp of the terms between himself and the United States was clear and was vindicated immediately after he signed one of the harshest anti-homosexuality laws in the world. The US, after initial mumbling and public pronouncements, sent the regime more money and weapons in the fight against Kony. 

Ugandan observers will tell you that Kony’s capacity to inflict any harm on the Ugandan state diminished drastically a long time ago, the successful but ill-timed anti-Kony social media campaign aside. Uganda was the first country in the East African region to pass an anti-terror law, in 2002. 

The labelling 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 AmamaMbabazi– who has hinted that he may contest against Museveni for the ruling NRM party’s presidential candidacy in 2016 – to terrorism. 

Vanguard positioning
In Ethiopia, any form of dissent is terrorism. The late Meles Zenawi,an ambitious, articulate and driven leader, saw the rise of radical Islam in Somalia as a perfect opportunity. Meles positioned Ethiopia as the vanguard state in the fight against terrorism in the Horn. 

In July 2009, the Ethiopian House of Peoples’ Representatives passed the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. With his domestic support among a number of ethnic groups such as the Ogadens and Oromos having always been tenuous, he used the counterterrorism law as a blunt instrument to hammer the opposition,legitimate and otherwise. 

Most voices critical of the state have been silenced under the law. While the State Department continues to release it annual state of human rights report criticising Ethiopia, that hasn’t prevented the Department of Defence from continuing on its part to underwrite Ethiopia’s many development projects and to praise the Ethiopian leadership.

Muzzling the media In the past, in countries like Kenya, a compact between local activists and foreign donors placed pressure on the state. The media was the key conduit of disseminating critical information. However, counterterrorism, like communism in the past, has relegated other concerns to the backburner. 

Digitally suave
The mainstream media has been frequently closed down as in Uganda’s case, or individual journalists have been detained as in Ethiopia. But the explosion of social media has filled in the gap to some extent. The state has responded to social media either by embracing it as in Kenya’s case, or banning it altogether. 

In Kenya, social media platforms have helped in releasing pent-up anxiety. Civil society organisations have employed innovative forms of protest such as taking pigs to parliament. But the digitally suave Kenyatta government has gone to great lengths to drown out critical voices. 

In Ethiopia, the state is pretty much in control of the telecommunication architecture, such that even those in the diaspora cannot escape the state dragnet. As a result, it is clear that with the advent of terrorism and counter terrorism in Africa, mobilising against the state has become incredibly difficult, holding back the evolution of democracy.

•Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a Horn of Africa analyst. Twitter: qulshtm


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