WITH a motley assortment of terrorist groups rapidly mushrooming across the entire landscape of West Africa, leaders of the sub-region seem to have however agreed on the wisdom of forging a united front to effectively combat the frightening crisis of insecurity in their domains. This new thinking follows a meeting held recently in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where the current security situation was extensively reappraised, a pledge of $1 billion made to combat insecurity from 2020 to 2024, and greater global support was canvassed.
Although multinational forces are already in place, trying to fight off a dangerous mix of homegrown terror groups and their counterparts of foreign origin that have gained a foothold in the region, the forces still seem to operate in a desultory manner. The insurgents have continued to strike their targets tellingly and with unhindered frequency, adopting the guerrilla and asymmetric tactics. While Nigeria, confronted with a decade-old challenge of Boko Haram Islamist group and its mutants, is allied with Cameroon, Niger and Chad, another group referred to as the G5 Sahel Joint Force, backed by France, also operates in the region, drawing its membership from Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad and Niger.
The impact of this unfocussed and uncoordinated approach has been inconsequential, as communities continue to be easily overrun by terrorists, with resultant mounting civilian and military casualties. Speaking at the Ouagadougou summit, the President of the ECOWAS Commission, Jean-Claude Brou, lamented the escalating casualty figures, saying, “Two thousand and two hundred attacks in the last four years, 11,500 dead, thousands wounded … millions displaced and economic activity has been greatly affected.”
Such generalised submissions may not capture vividly the destruction wrought by the terrorists. For example, on August 19, a day the President of Burkina Faso, Roch Kabore, described as a “dark stain in the life of our national army,” terrorists killed no fewer than 24 soldiers in an attack on a military base in Koutougou, a town sharing a border with Mali in the northern part of the country. Just last Sunday, the BBC reported that a splinter faction of Boko Haram, the Islamic State in West Africa Province, released a video showing the execution of two men in orange jumpsuits, describing them as “Christian soldiers” of the Nigerian Army.
On November 18 last year, over 100 Nigerian soldiers were reportedly killed when Boko Haram overran a military base in Metele, Borno State, destroying and looting weapons and equipment. How terrorists make light work of the military in battles is the kind of story that dominates discussions on a regular basis. When the soldiers seem to be having an upper hand, the terrorists switch over to suicide bombing, ambush of military convoys and kidnapping of girls, women and children.
In the past, there were attacks in popular tourist resorts of Grand-Bassam, near Abidjan in Ivory Coast; the Hotel Splendid and Cappuccino Café in Ouagadougou and the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali. The assaults on Ouagadougou and Bamako produced a combined death toll of 42, while the one on Grand-Bassam claimed 16 lives, aside from those who escaped with injury.
While Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Burkina Faso may have suffered these attacks on a more consistent basis, there are fears that the insurgency could soon spread to other West African states if proactive actions are not taken to stop it in its tracks. For instance, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, who confessed that “we are not winning the war against terrorism” in the region, expressed fears that Ghana, Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast, currently spared incessant attacks, might soon be witnessing the full weight of terrorism.
The promise to raise $1 billion to tackle the terrorists is a welcome development, but ridding the region of terrorism is not something that can be handled by the West Africans alone. Just as a coalition of global forces came together to root out the Islamic State forces from Iraq and Syria, there is a need for such a coalition to converge on the Sahel region, which is fast becoming a home to terrorists sent packing from other parts of the world.
Fortunately, some of the leaders appear to understand the nature of the crisis, with the Nigerien President, Mahamadou Issoufou, insisting that the “international community cannot afford to turn a blind eye and must assume its responsibilities.” Nobody should assume that terrorism would be limited to West Africa because, as Kabore said, the “threats transcend borders.” The mistake being made even by the UN is to think that only the G5 Sahel Joint Force needs support; Guterres was quoted as saying, “I am in favour of funding by the United Nations, with obligatory contributions for G5 Sahel force.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The last West African meeting in Ouagadougou represents a last ditch attempt by the leaders to save the sub-region from the iron-fisted grip of terrorists. Money may be useful in acquiring weapons, but very vital to winning the war will be winning the confidence of the ordinary people. According to the International Crisis Group, most of the areas controlled by the terrorists are ungoverned and the insurgents are able to provide the basic services that the government should provide. So, the people pledge their loyalty to them.
The governments should therefore sit up and provide good governance and make their presence felt in remote areas. When terrorists are chased away from certain areas, the government should be able to hold down such places. The fight at this stage should be intelligence-led. Without the support of the local people, it is obvious that only very little can be achieved. So, as the governments seek international support, they should also be prepared to court that of the people. In an area with some of the poorest countries in the world, what West Africa needs now is good governance, not the kind of insecurity that comes with terror attacks.