In the era of global terrorism, African governments must still learn from the past

Most societies in Africa endured centuries of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism led by the Western world, with degrading sociopolitical consequences. Yet, there is a sense in which African governments have not learnt from this past of externally-orchestrated tragedies. Ghana is a case in point.

In January 2015, the government of Ghana, among some other countries, gave permission for two former Guantanamo Bay detainees, Khalid al-Dhuby and Mahmoud Omar Bin Atef, to stay in Ghana for two years under unusual circumstances. This followed President Barack Obama’s constrained resolve to close Guantanamo Bay after the facility has become a policy conundrum for the United States. The Guantanamo Bay detention reminds of former US President Bush in his problematic foreign policy choice in the so-called global war on terror (WOT). On one hand, it may be a good show of a global community in action to partake in decisions that would eventually lead to closing Guantanamo. Yet on the other, there is the question of why African societies should be so willing to get mired into such highly risky unilateral choices, especially when there is a tendency for these societies to be drawn into the adverse effects of the policy mistakes of current global powers.

The very character of 21st century terrorism makes the above a concerning possibility in Africa. The first is that contemporary global terrorism is presented as almost entirely Muslim in both membership and appeal, although this is quite faulty. Yet, as in other societies, this presents a particular challenge. Attempts at addressing terrorism effortlessly appear like a targeted and negative profiling of Muslims. Additionally, if we bring the cause of bigotry and xenophobia down to little knowledge of the ‘other’ person, community or group, then low level of education and civic consciousness in many African societies is recipe for disaster. In the context of the fragile and ‘no peace, no war’ nature of most African societies, communal resilience becomes weakened overtime. Clearly, where conflicts fault lines are perverse, a sense of national unity and communal cohesion becomes significantly elusive. In such situations, the threat of ideologically-flavoured violence is evermore grave. It is not unsurprising that in countries like Nigeria, South Africa, the Central Africa Republic and others, Africans have turned against fellow African with destructive fury. With a number of terror cells in the continent, these contexts make terrorism a major challenge to African governments and societies. In the end, there is the potential for global security issues to complicate existing challenges of governance in Africa.

In Ghana, the issue of the Guantanamo Bay duo led to claims and counter-claims from either side of the two major political parties—the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP). While the NDC and the US Ambassador to Ghana claimed that they consulted the NPP in negotiations with the US government over the deal, the NPP claimed otherwise. This led to the intervention of Ghana’s Supreme Court which sought to clarify some aspects of the deal. Still, by polarising this issue, Ghanaian society was potentially divided on a subject that required a united sense of purpose and direction. Ghana became divided on political lines (between NPP and NDC), as well as on religious fault lines, since the detainees in question were Muslims in a Christian-majority country. In a series of public outrage and commentaries that had the potential to be detrimental to security, the spokesperson of Ghana’s National Chief Imam is also on record to have commented that the Christian Council of Ghana was ‘xenophobic’, and that the latter’s position on the issue was biased because of the faith of the former detainees. Moreover, it is still unclear whether the above former detainees were in fact cleared of being involved in terrorism. Elsewhere in Africa, there are stories that former detainees are engaging in terrorist activities. Must African governments continue to entertain global and externally-contrived decisions which may adversely impact its local national interests?

In the past, Africa endured centuries of slavery in which her people were commodified and their humanity tortured away. Later colonialism reared its head. During colonialism, Africa’s local political dynamism was questioned, and eventually reduced to irrelevance. Slavery and colonialism were both sustained through a false logic of an ‘inferior’ African. Following what has been called the Second World War , superpower politics also led to years of proxy Wars where Africa became a strategic testing ground for hegemonic economics and geopolitics. These African histories—what have been described as the ‘African predicament’—have been told, and retold into a cliché. In hindsight, these historical scars on Africa’s ontological body should amply demonstrate that—for the danger they pose to African peoples—political preferences and socio-cultural decisions emanating from the so-called global “North” must be carefully measured, if not outrightly rejected. Yet this does not appear to be the case. In the 21st century, Africa is potentially becoming negatively caught up (again) in the generational gaffes and policy blunders of current global powers. This is a real worry, and lessons must be leant.


Muhammad Dan Suleiman is affiliated to the University of Western Australia, Perth.  

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