In Africa, terrorism has a long history – some ancient Egyptians carried out atrocities that would be considered terrorist acts today. It also appeared in the historical kingdoms of Kanem-Bornu, Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and the Sokoto Caliphate. Historically, the term ‘terrorism’ did not feature frequently in Africa’s political glossary. When it did, it indicated very different things to different individuals. This is not unusual – internationally, there is no unanimously acknowledged definition of terrorism. A lot of the 20th century in Africa was devoted to colonial politics and the concept of terrorism.
To the white colonial authorities, the warriors of the liberation campaigns were terrorists, while the liberation activities themselves generally involved the term to the colonialists. This paradox endured into the post-colonial era, where Africa’s first continental body – the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – was heeded by the ex-colonial powers as ‘an umbrella association of terrorist groups.’
This disorder could explain the OAU’s unwillingness to use the term. From its creation in 1963 until 1992, the term ‘terrorism’ is strikingly missing from the organization’s documentary history, used only on rare occurrences to Israeli-Palestinian issues and South Africa’s apartheid state. Even obvious terrorist happenings, such as the Lockerbie bombing and the Entebbe hostage problem, failed to merit its use.
However, a transformation in political context in the early 1990s pushed the OAU to take a more active role. Specifically, it was concerned over the alleged climb in radical, religious-inspired terrorism in Nigeria and Nigeria and the public objection to its silence on these types of issues. In 1992, it moved from a non-action policy to non-interference, taking a more dynamic role in continental security problems in general. This was when the bases were laid for a continental counter-terrorism strategy.
When the OAU evolved into the African Union (AU) in 2002, the continental body evolved even more vibrant against terrorism, finally recognizing just how serious a danger it had become. The numbers articulate for themselves: between 1970 and 2013, there were nearly 10,000 recorded happenings of terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
While the AU’s legal mechanisms create a relatively exhaustive and progressive counter-terrorism framework, it has yet to have any appreciable impact in combating terrorism on the mainland. Terrorism in Africa is now a more severe threat than ever before. This is mainly due to the hardships in implementing the framework at a state level and within the AU’s institutions – a deficiency of which the AU itself is well aware.
At a special session on terrorism in September 2014, the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) commented in its final communiqué that ‘despite the improvement made in developing a sweeping normative and operational counter-terrorism framework, profound gaps continue to exist in terms of performance and follow-up, thus damaging the effectiveness of Africa’s reaction to the threat of terrorism and violent extremism
The most prominent indicator is the slow rate at which the Protocol was approved. Embraced in 2004, the AU’s anti-terrorism protocol needed 15 states to ratify it before being put into force. It only achieved this landmark a decade later, in February 2014. And critical state actors in the fighting against terrorism in Africa – including Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, and Uganda – have yet to confirm it. Similarly, only about one-third of AU member states have submitted specific counter-terrorism legislation as suggested by the AU22 – so much for approaching those loopholes. There are sound reasons for this, of course.
Individual states have diverse relationships with terrorism. For some, it is an instantaneous and existential danger that must be handled urgently, while for others, it is a more conceptual concept with little direct effect (for now, at least). In other words, terrorism is not a critical priority for all leaders. Even when it is a priority, many governments need more aid to implement the suggested counter-terrorism measures.
Actions like securing national borders and boosting border crossings are enormously expensive, and states encounter many competing claims on their narrow funding and capacity. So far, the AU has yet to convince the majority of states that counter-terrorism is a pressing priority.
However, it is not just a capacity problem but also one of political will. African states vigorously safeguard their sovereignty and territorial integrity, and a disinclination has long defined continental links to interfere in the internal affairs of other states. This is especially true when it comes to sensitive issues of political opposition, violence, and terrorism, where accepting criticism or requesting help can be noticed as a sign of weakness. These acuities impede the close collaboration required by the AU’s counter-terrorism framework.