African business, politics and lifestyle
Could Islamist rebels undermine change in Africa?
The biggest story in Africa south of the Sahara over the past few years hasn’t been plague, famine or war but the emergence of the world’s poorest continent as one of its fastest growing – thanks to factors that include fresh investment, economic reform, the spread of new technology, higher prices for commodity exports and generally greater political stability.
Nigeria and Kenya, the most important economies in West and East Africa respectively, are pillars of the change in Africa as well as having the largest and most easily accessible markets for foreigners.
Both now face growing battles with Islamist groups; Kenya throwing troops into neighbouring Somalia in pursuit of al Shabaab fighters, Nigeria struggling with bombings and shootings by its homegrown Boko Haram sect.
Kenyan forces have pushed into southern Somalia to drive back al Qaeda-linked militants blamed by Nairobi for a string of border incursions and kidnappings, including the abductions of foreign tourists from coastal resorts which have damaged one of Kenya’s most important industries.
Shabaab has in return called for all out war on Kenya and “huge blasts” by its unknown number of supporters there. Grenade attacks this week have killed one person, wounded more than 20 and jangled nerves in Nairobi, where more than 200 people died in an al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in 1998.
Killings by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect (whose name means Western education is sinful) had been largely confined to a remote corner of the semi-desert northeast and ignored by much of the country until bombings struck the capital Abuja a few months back. A suicide car bombing on the U.N. headquarters in August killed 24 people.
Boko Haram is now by far the biggest security headache for President Goodluck Jonathan in Africa’s most populous nation – which, if estimates of population and the Muslim-Christian balance are to be believed, might have more Muslims than any country in the Middle East.
While Islam in Africa has traditionally co-existed comfortably with other religions, more heavily Muslim regions are often relatively marginalised economically and politically and that leaves plenty of ground for radicalism to sprout.
Nigerian elections this year showed how starkly the largely Muslim north; arid, poor, less well educated, lacking in resources and facing the decline of its few industries was divided from the more prosperous and dynamic south, home to Africa’s biggest energy reserves and booming factories.
Changing that is a huge task for President Jonathan and could be complicated still further by a heavy security response to Boko Haram.
Getting sucked into a foreign war against a Somali enemy which drove out Ethiopia’s far more experienced army in 2009 is just what Kenya doesn’t need at a time it is already in the doldrums due to drought, soaring inflation and a plummeting currency. Although the growth outlook of 4 percent may still sound healthy by Western standards, that has been cut from earlier expectations.
It is not only the cost in lives and money that count.
Counter insurgency wars – even in regions distant from the main centres of business – can do nothing for foreign investor sentiment starting to warm to Africa. They drain resources that might better be used improving infrastructure or education and lead to a greater role for security establishments at the heart of power and policy making, rarely a recipe for success in post-independence Africa.
Beyond the biggest countries, poorer neighbours may be at greater risk. A flood of weapons across the Sahara desert from Libya’s civil war – as well as hundreds of thousands of now unemployed former migrant workers – could further destabilise West Africa’s Sahel countries, already prey to kidnappings and attacks by al Qaeda’s regional offshoot.
Overall, optimism for Africa remains strong. Businesses draw comparisons with China and India in past decades and eye a market of a billion consumers with money to spend on more than just basic survival.
Whether or not the threat of Islamist militant groups can be contained to the margins, the extra strain could certainly be felt in a continent where many have only recently seen good reason to believe in a better future.