Africa's next terror frontline: Militants aim their guns and bombs at judges, prosecutors

Murder of top ranking Ugandan and Nigerian state prosecutor could further complicate the lives of a growing number of countries.

HAVING already disrupted the social order and strained the scarce resources of some African states, terrorists are now opening another flank by targeting judicial officials as they attempt to further erode the legitimacy of states.

A few days ago, Egypt’s state prosecutor Hisham Barakat was assassinated in a Cairo car bombing, the most senior government official killed in the North African country’s jihadist insurgency yet.

In May, three Egyptian judges were shot dead in the northern Sinai city of al-Arish, targeted while travelling by car, hours after deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was sentenced to death.

Their deaths came as Egypt’s affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group urged its followers to attack judges, in a scenario that could play out elsewhere in the region where the caliphate has links, with Nigeria most at risk but eastern Africa not exempt.

Sinai has been the setting of a jihadist insurgency launched in 2013 after the army, under now-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s command, overthrew Morsi. Another judge had days earlier survived an assassination attempt.

Jihadists have since then killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers in Sinai, which was this week the setting for a brazen surprise attack by Islamic State fighters where scores were killed, many of them soldiers. 

Militants took over rooftops and fired rocket-propelled grenades at a police station in the town of Sheikh Zuweid after mining its exits to block reinforcements, exposing the army’s lack of expertise in fighting the increasingly-sophisticated insurgents.

While judicial officials in North Africa are frequently targeted by militants, until now the targeting of judicial officials by terrorists in sub-Saharan Africa has been rare, confined to Somalia where at least two Somalia judges are known to have been killed over the last two years, the most recent in June 2014.

The killing of Mozambican judge Dinis Silica a month earlier was not linked to terrorism.

Uganda prosecutor killed

But in March, the top Ugandan state prosecutor in the trial of 13 men accused of a deadly Al-Shabaab bomb attack, was shot dead in the capital city of Kampala.

Joan Kagezi, like Barakat, was gunned down as she drove her home by gunmen who had been trailing her on a motorcycle.

Uganda is a key contributor to the African Union mission fighting Al-Shabaab inside Somalia. The militants, who have in the past week scored a succession of victories against AU and government troops, regularly target countries which contribute soldiers to the peacekeeping force.

The trial of the men, in connection with the 2010 Kampala suicide bombing which killed 76 people who were watching football, has been suspended.

Her killing sparked concern in neighbouring Kenya, which is also trying several terrorists in its courts.

The country’s director of public prosecutions, Keriako Tobiko, termed Kagezi’s murder as a big blow to efforts made in fighting terrorism in the region.

“The demise of Ms Kagezi, the lead prosecutor in the Al-Shabaab terrorist case in Uganda underscores the need for governments to urgently look into the security of prosecutors, investigators and judicial officers handling emerging and transnational organised crimes,” he said in a condolence message, urging Kenyan authorities to better secure its judicial officials.

Al-Shabaab is not known to be affiliated to ISIS, but has more than once been said to be mulling over the possibility. But Nigeria’s Boko Haram earlier this year pledged allegiance to ISIS, which could also serve to put judicial officials there on notice.

The targeting of judicial officers is meant to prevent authorities from pursuing trials or forcing them to hold them in, and to overreact, which would project that as also being lawless, thus undermining their constitutional legitimacy and further drawing public sympathy to the terrorist cause.

In Egypt, it is already having the required effect. Authorities this week responded to the growing insurgency by passing a controversial anti-terror law and requesting the appeals process be shortened, in measures they said would “achieve swift justice and revenge for our martyrs”.

An infuriated Sisi, facing his first real challenge to power, has pledged to enforce death sentences more swiftly, complaining that the speed of justice had been held back by the law. 

“The hand of justice is shackled by the law. We’re not going to wait for this,” he said. “We’re going to amend the law to allow us to implement justice as soon as possible.”

“A death sentence will be issued, a death sentence will be implemented. A life sentence will be issued, a life sentence will be implemented,” he said.

Egyptians have until now wearily supported a crushing crackdown of challenges to Sisi’s authority, which has seen hundreds killed and even more sentences to death, while tens of thousands have been detained.

The situation will be closely watched to see if the spectre of even more repression will stir unease with brutal regime methods which even the UN has faulted, and which threaten to further sink the country into more turmoil.

Nigeria troubles

Nigeria’s government was elected largely on a security platform, with new president Muhammadu Buhari, an ex-military man, expected to snuff out the six-year threat out for good.

But as he sets up his regime, Boko Haram has killed 200 people just in the last two days, suggesting an uphill road even for the military man known to have during his first stint in power in the 1980s instilled order in a chaotic Nigerian society. 

The militants have also roped in neighbouring countries, with Niger, Chad and Cameroon in the frontline, and consequently exposing their internal institutions to counter-attack.

Kenya and Uganda have in recent years also tightened up their spaces, with the latter seen to have accidentally morphed into a soft military state as a spate of horror attacks by Al-Shabaab last year shook its national foundations.

More attacks on judiciaries are a fresh headache that already-strained African states would rather do without, as they scramble to fight back an enemy that has increasingly evolved and is seemingly now a moving target, while simultaneously courting public support for strong-arm tactics.

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