Six African presidents attended Paris Charlie Hebdo unity rally. Why are so many outraged?

Part of the reason is that none of their countries are categorised as free, with marches there either banned or restricted, and the media targeted.

WORLD leaders don’t picket every day. Indeed Sunday was the first time the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Israel and the United Nations among over 40 others  marched in the same demonstration and in the same city.

Alongside them in Paris were hundreds of thousands who marched in a show of unity and defiance against terrorism, following last week’s horror attacks in the French capital that claimed 17 lives and wounded nearly 20 others. In France alone, it’s estimated 3.7 million came out all over the country, with one million in Paris.

And then there were “The Six”;  the presidents of Mali, Niger, Togo, Benin, Gabon and Senegal, understandably all former colonies of France and a reminder that Francafrique remains alive and well.

The world was last week left reeling after terrorists attacked the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, massacring 12 people.

Another gunman shot dead four people in a kosher supermarket in the French capital, while a policewoman was also killed in a separate attack. 

Africa is no stranger to terrorism: Boko Haram early this month pulled off their deadliest single day of terrorism, with 2,000 people feared dead. Mali, Niger, Kenya, Libya, Egypt and a whole host of African countries continue to be held hostage by a mortley of terror merchants, from Al Shabaab and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.

In this sense the presence of the six African leaders was justifiable—the 9/11 attacks in the US are now recognised for highlighting the “globalisation” of terrorism. Any country in the world is now fair game for those who would use violence to achieve their goals, aided by among other factors vastly improved world travel and communication.

But the question can also be asked—why haven’t the continent’s leaders similarly marched in any African capital to show their fortitude against terrorism? Far too often terror attacks in the region are politicised, the security of citizens subjugated and confined to convenient “us-against-them” chiffoniers.

Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta once attributed terror attacks that claimed over 60 lives in the country’s coast to “local political networks”, alleging members of his ethnic group were being targeted.

Instead, Africa’s anti-terror fight is run by the West, who fund everything from the crafting of security policies, to the training of elite units. The opportunity and interest for the West is obvious—its multinationals are among the biggest beneficiaries. 

France president Francois Hollande for example remains a major player in Africa’s security; he has intervened in almost every terror hotspot from Mali to Central Africa and Niger, and is currently busy setting up a counter-terrorism force that would hunt down terrorist groups in Sahelian countries, with the operational command in Chad looking out for Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and Gabon, which will all either host troop bases or satellite units.   

Boko Haram, sympathetic to both the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, has for years run amok in north-eastern Nigeria, and is now further looking to regionalise the conflict with Cameroon, Chad and Niger in its sights. Yet the only semblance of impetus by the region’s leaders was after Hollande called a high-profile security summit in Paris, where leaders agreed to wage “war” against extremists.

African leaders often protest that they do not have the capacity to fight sophisticated terrorists. Yet the fight does not need radical “paradigm shifts”. the buzz phrase of the myriad of think tanks and security consultants who earn a living from studying terrorism on the continent.

Small focused steps have infinitely bigger results than the latest weapons from the West—fight corruption, share resources equitably, implement existing laws, end marginalisation. 

The marches in Paris and other European cities on Sunday were also in favour of liberty and the freedom of opinion and expression. These are not just quaint terms, they are captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, contained in the Charter of the United Nations.

Yet despite all being signatories of the UN charter, none of the African countries whose top leaders were in Paris are categorised as “Free” by democracy Watchdog Freedom House. 

The organisation classifies countries as either “Free,” meaning there is open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties and independent media; “Partly Free,” meaning there is corruption, weak rule of law and ethnic strife; and “Not Free,” in which basic political and civil liberties are absent.

In nearly all the six countries at the Paris rally executives continued to consolidate power, marches and protests are ironically, either banned or clamped down upon, judiciaries wilfully weakened and media outlets either suspended or legislated out of existence, a trend that several media watchdogs faithfully document every year. 

The continent’s rights organs, ordinarily among the last refuges for the oppressed, continue to be ornamental. The African Union Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights is based in Banjul, The Gambia where president Yahya Jammeh is regularly criticised for major rights transgressions. It is a toothless body, and its record is poor—only last week did it begin to hear its first freedom of expression case.

The general disregard for rights in Africa in these and many other ways thus makes a mockery of the presence of its leaders in Paris chanting Liberte! Those that died in Paris deserve much better.

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