Unexpected and quiet consequence of the pandemic: a drastic surge in terrorist attacks in Sub Saharan Africa

Pauline is an upcoming second year History and International Relations student at King’s and is interested in global politics and diplomacy. 

Africa, like any other country, has not been spared by the Covid-19 world crisis. For the first time in twenty-five years, Sub Saharan Africa will register a recession even more important than anticipated by the IMF in April, with a decrease estimated around -1,6%. If the official number of deaths caused by the virus amounts to only 23 000 people, we can reasonably assume that the real toll is much higher than that. To cope with a vertiginous increase in poverty and thus living conditions, domestic and foreign security forces find themselves distracted and outstretched. A breach that terrorists did not fail to take advantage of.

Resurgence of terrorist attacks in Sub Saharan Africa

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database, violent attacks in Sub Saharan Africa rose by 37% between mid-March and mid-April. The Islamist group Boko Haram has seized the opportunity offered by the general panic and disorganisation to accelerate attacks in West Africa, particularly in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. The first victims of these attacks are national army troops, which offer the first resistance against the insurgents. 92 soldiers were killed in Chad on the 23rdMarch 2020, and again, on this 1stof September when machine gun trucks killed 20 Nigerian soldiers.

The other main target of terrorists is of course civilians, in accordance with the strategic aim to spread fear. In June, at least 81 innocent people died in Nigeria during an attack village, probably by Boko Haram. After an attempt to deliver religious sermons, one of the survivors asserts that the men opened fire at the gathered population, including children and women.

The UN responsibility

M. Ibn Chambas, who is currently theUnited Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel, and head of UNOWAS, said COVID-19 is ‘only amplifying these conflict drivers, with grave implications for peace and security.  Its disproportionate effect on women and girls has placed them at increased risk of femicide and sexual violence’. And as Robert Cooper only too rightly said: chaos spreads, hence the implication of the UN.

The surge in these terrorist attacks can be partly accounted for by the departure of a consequent number of foreign troops who used to participate in maintaining peace. In early summer, UN peace keeping mission was badly hindered when Chief Antonio Guterres suspended the rotation and deployment of all international peacekeepers until the end of June to mitigate the risk of transmission. And for those who stayed, they became the target of attacks. In May 2020, 3 UN peacekeepers from Chad were killed in northern Mali on Sunday when their convoy hit a roadside bomb near Aguelhok.

The risk of the spread of terrorism

This surge in terrorism does not only concern the African nations primarily targeted, because the current context of increased poverty and vulnerability also increases the risk of people falling to terrorism. And this extreme humanitarian distress is very unlikely to improve by itself, given the already outstretched resources, shared as best as possible between health care and military organised humanitarian supplies. 

Hope and help for Africa may come from two directions. Either from the US, following the election of Joe Biden as the 46thPresident of the United States, if the candidate commits to his campaign claims. On his website, Biden says he will renew, “the United States’ mutually respectful engagement towards Africa with a bold strategy that reaffirms our commitment to supporting democratic institutions on the continent; advancing lasting peace and security; promoting economic growth, trade, and investment; and supporting sustainable development.” Or, from Europe, if France decided to take action in that sense, as terrorists seem to have also taken advantage of the lockdown in the country of Les Lumières to accelerate the attacks in name of the Jihad, resulting in three major attacks in just a bit more than a month.

From a global point of view, these scattered and apparently disorganised terrorist attacks, the first and most numerous victims of which are Africans, seem to corroborate Walter’s Laqueur theory of a ‘post-modern’ terrorism‘. It provides one with a solid account for the difficulty of Great Powers to respond in an effective way to these growing attacks, because terrorism essentially changed in nature after the Cold War. By becoming neither left nor right-wing, but both political and military, with an intangible aim of spreading fear in the name of ethnic or religious causes, and above all, increasingly targeting civilians, great powers find themselves at a loss how to fight back. And it seems these governments have not adapted yet to properly respond to the threat. Anyways, it seems the pandemic monopolises their whole undivided attention.

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