Similar to other terrorist attacks in Africa, the September 21 Al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, was a significant blow to the difficult process of state building on the continent, producing a sort of fear that prompts advocates of good governance to give states a blank check in the so-called war on terror. The consequences undermine some of the limited gains made by countries in the struggle to construct states with both the power to govern and the propensity to temper its exercise consistently with principles of good governance. These include such things as accountability, respect for human rights and the rule of law, popular participation, and efficiency. Beyond calling for the blood of terrorists, singing national anthems, waving flags, and asserting national unity, people in Somalia—where Al-Shabaab originated and is based—and other countries touched by Somalia’s instability should, above all else, rededicate themselves to the fight for good governance. They should try to recapture the respect for human rights (including those of terrorists) and the commitment to the rule of law (including when dealing with terrorists) that such attacks tempt us to cast aside.Transnational terrorist activities, previously perceived as problems of Europe and the United States, are becoming more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and are among other emerging threats such as trafficking of persons and drugs, piracy, and cyber crime. We can count among such activities attacks that targeted the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998; the Al-Shabaab bombings of the Kyadondo Rugby Club and Ethiopian Village in Kampala in 2010; the ravages of groups like AQMI, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine in the Sahel; and the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria.
The prominence of terrorism on the security agenda in Africa is partly about images and power relations. Compared to many other persistent threats in Africa (like malaria, tuberculosis, gender-based sexual violence, and food insecurity, for example), terrorism has relatively few actual victims and has gained a lot of attention for two primary reasons. First, its spectacular nature and unpredictability have captured the imagination of many ordinary Africans. Second, unlike drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, and other such crimes in which even senior politicians and security officials are sometimes involved, it directly and openly challenges the power of the state and its leaders.
Referring to the realm of the imaginary is not to downplay the physical costs of terrorism. In addition to loss of life and dignity, its tangible effects include the heavy expenditure of funds on counterterrorism that could have been used for education, health, and poverty alleviation, as well as addressing the dampening of business activities. More than many other threats, terrorism encourages people to prioritize effectiveness over all the other aspects of good governance. Like Singapore’s former leader Lee Kwan Yew, a few African leaders who govern reasonably well have not hesitated to tell human rights and democratic governance campaigners to “shut up” about other aspects of good governance as they brandish the effectiveness of their own policies.
Unfortunately, even human rights and democratic governance advocates often willingly jettison respect for human rights, adherence to the rule of law, and the principles of participation, accountability, transparency, efficiency, and sustainability in exchange for effectiveness in counterterrorism. During the week of the Westgate attack I was at a forum with a group of human security practitioners from around the continent. Only a few thought human rights and democratic governance principles should be high on Kenya’s agenda as it grapples with the Al-Shabaab problem.
This attitude amounts to a dangerous rollback of gains made in the struggle for good governance in many African countries, as some heads of state have used antiterrorism laws to crack down on opposition groups. The extreme opacity of spending on counterterrorism provides fertile ground for corruption and inefficiency. The idea that counterterrorism is a secret and violent activity carried out by shady security specialists in back alleys leaves little room for popular participation and accountability.
In the long run, the principles we so eagerly abandon in the face of horrific terrorist slaughters are those without which sustainable progress cannot be made in state building in Somalia and its neighbors. Somalia today needs an inclusive and open process through which chosen leaders will be held to very high standards. The sort of backroom wheeling and dealing among warlords, their allies, and the “international community” that has become the hallmark of efforts to rebuild the state there will not bear much fruit.
Holding the state and its leaders to principles of good governance is not something we should keep for “normal times” once a capable state has been established. Capable states that ensure peace and security for their people in Somalia and other countries and pose no threat to their neighbors will not be established without an effort to adhere to these principles in these “exceptional times.” In the event that capable states are established in the absence of these principles, nothing will bar them from using methods akin to terror to repress opposition and subsequently foster radicalization in the absence of spaces to air legitimate grievances. Many countries threatened by Al-Shabaab and the crises in Somalia, like Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Ethiopia, have checkered histories with regard to the consolidation of accountable states. Besides sharing threats posed by Al-Shabaab, they should share vigilance in resisting the urge to jettison human rights, the rule of law, and other aspects of good governance in the name of fighting terror.