The recent attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya and the continual challenge to security posed by Islamic militant insurgent groups in Mali, Nigeria and Somalia provide clear evidence of the new security challenges that African security forces face. These new security challenges are happening in a backdrop of a theater of on-going internecine conflicts that many countries on the continent are already struggling to address. Understanding the new security challenges and rethinking how to efficiently counter them could save lives and mitigate potential threats.
Without doubt, the terror attack by the Somali Islamic militant group Al-Shabab that recently killed about 67 at the Westgate Mall in Kenya has served as a wakeup call to many African countries. The attack seem to have caught Kenya and the world off-guard as evidenced by the emotional but slow, long and inappropriate response by the country’s security services. Investigation into the attacks revealed that the insurgents had time to surreptitiously plan their activities – including storing a large stockpile of ammunitions within the heavily guarded upscale mall in the heart of the country’s capital, Nairobi. This security incident underscores the lack of security preparedness to respond to new threats at a moment’s notice.
What happened in Kenya highlights a glaring failure that characterizes other African countries currently assailed by terror groups across Africa. For instance, the takeover of Mali in 2012 by the combined efforts of Islamist insurgent groups such as Ansar Din, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), happened in the context of a dysfunctional security system rife with strife and allegations of corruption. Credible evidences indicate that while the threat of Islamic insurgency was looming on the country for over ten months, the country’s security forces lacked the capability to intervene to counter the terror activities. Nigeria, where the country’s security services have been unsuccessfully battling the Boko Haram Islamic insurgents, might also attest to the inadequacy of security means and strategies employed to counter the new security threats on the continent.
Indeed, African countries have often benefited from the help of regional and international peacekeeping forces to address their security needs. At present, half of all UN peacekeeping missions worldwide operate in Africa alone. Additionally, the UN peacekeeping forces are regularly complemented by regional forces on the continent. Unfortunately, the continual return of insurgents in the last few years indicates once more that these forces are far from effective. For instance, the joint cooperation of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the UN peacekeeping forces in Somalia have prevented the complete takeover of the country by the Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabab, but there is little indication that their efforts are effectively tackling the Islamic militant threats, as evidenced by the group’s regular attacks both within and without the country. Perhaps these efforts must best be understood as part of a much wider political strategy rather than a sufficient condition in themselves.
Whether African security forces will be able to effectively address the new security threats depends on how quickly they readapt and reposition their security strategies. One way to do this is to invest in operational training, intelligence and equipment to build capacity that could help reduce security threats. The promotion of civilian- military partnership with a special focus on human rights, accountability, and the responsibility to protect could also undercut insurgent activities among civilian populations. Equally important, African countries must reinforce their border controls to deter arms smuggling across their mostly porous borders. Finally, tight cooperation among countries in intelligence sharing and the tracking of insurgents will be needed to track down potentially dangerous individuals.
Yonmon Tchinsala is a PhD Candidate and Fulbright Scholar at Southern Illinois University.