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Volume 3,  Number 27              August 10 - 16, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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Africa and the War on Terror 

By Mukoma Ngugi

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President Bush, as if to settle the debate once and for all over what form a terrorist exactly takes stated, “you are with us or against us”.  With that bold statement, he cast the world into one of a binary opposition, on one side evil and on the other good, on one side the West and on the other, the rest of the world.  But he was only stating what has been in effect in the dealings of America with dissent, at home or abroad.  Already his guns are set on Iraq, North Korea, the Philippines, Somalia you name it (actually he will).  But he is only doing, with less sophistication, what his forefathers have done: consolidate an empire.   

In this whole milieu there has been no cohesive voice recognizing the effects of the war on terrorism on Africa.  There has been no progressive discussion in regards to what role Africans should play in making the world the safe for Africans and other marginalized people in the world.  When I told two Africanist historians who are opposed to the way American foreign policy is conducted against Africa that I would like to write an article on Africa and September 11th, they had the same response: “Does Africa have anything to do with September 11th?”[i][i]  And in the Kenyan newspapers, following the attacks in Mombassa just this past month (November 2002), the Middle East question has been largely absent-- just as it was following the Embassy bombings in 1998.  But as the slogans – war on terrorism, axis of evil, with or against us - continue to be brandished like weapons, the world (which includes Africa) sits in a precarious position.  These are not innocent slogans: they are intended to close the debate, to put a lid on reason and replace it with nursery school rhymes. 

As Bush conducts American nationalism to an ear shattering crescendo, the casualties from pre-war on terrorism wars are mounting.  Close to a million Iraqi children have died since 1990 as a result of the US led sanctions. Cuba is limping along, after decades of US-imposed sanctions and US-sponsored terror attacks against its civilian infrastructure.  Zimbabwe, whose president under any yard stick cannot be worse than the string of dictators that the United States has supported in the world, is on the verge of economic collapse as a result of declared and undeclared sanctions.  Somalia, still desperately trying to find a measure of peace, has been painted an enemy by Bush.  Already Somalia has lost substantial and much needed foreign currency when Somali owned businesses were shut down in the United States[ii][ii].  Kenya-- ‘stable’ Kenya that conducts ethnic cleansings on Somali Kenyans[iii][iii] in the North Eastern province even as it pretends to broker peace for Somalia-- has given the United States complete control over how and when to use Kenyan space if it decides to attack Somalia (and other African countries to be named at a later date by Bush).  It shouldn’t be surprising.  President Moi allowed an American military base to find a home in Mombassa in 1982 in exchange for dollars and protection from internal unrest.  Djibouti has followed President Moi’s cue and has agreed to let American forces to build a military base.  Because the hoped-for trickle-down of dollars has not happened, the New York Times reports that while President Ismael Omar Guelleh has not demanded a quid pro quo he indicated in an interview that he is hoping for a payoff for his country in terms of development assistance. "It has not yet been decided," he said. "But don't they say hope allows us to live?"[iv][iv]

African governments are dialing in 911 to capacity.  Almost without exception, African governments have rallied around President Bush waiting by his feet to see if arms or dollars will trickle down.  The highlights have been Gambia and Liberia, two countries that have declared September 11th a national holiday[v][v].  The historical relationship of Africa and the United States, marked by Lumumba’s assassination at the behest of the CIA and followed by the US rewarding his killer with military and economic support that anchored the Congolese people to thirty years of terror has been thrown out the window.  Those who pay for the relationship between their governments and the West are the African people.  They are caught between the twin vices of terrorists who fail to make distinction between the people and their governments on the one hand and western sponsored dictatorial governments that oppress them on the other.  Globalization obliges the world to act as one to protect all the marginalized, recognize the intrinsic humanity of all, or perish as one at the hands of a few bent on owning the world.  Africa is not exempt from this struggle.  It is right in the thick of things.  Africans have to seize the initiative from state sponsored and small group powered terror and once and for all find a space in which to continue its struggle towards a true independence.  As we have it now, very few voices have remained sane enough to point out to the United States’ unbalanced historical relationship to the rest of the world.  Amongst, these few voices, we have Nelson Mandela, himself once considered a terrorist by the West.  In an interview with Newsweek, he did not mince words and called the United States a threat to world peace.[vi][vi]

The Embassy bombings

On August, 7th1998, truck bombs exploded simultaneously in Nairobi and Daresalaam.   10 Tanzanians were killed and 75 injured but Kenya bore the brunt of the attacks with 245 Kenyans and 12 Americans killed.  Or, as the American press would have it, 12 named Americans with faces and 245 unnamed faceless Kenyans were killed. On that day, whatever illusions Kenyans might have had about their having been tethered to the United States and Israel through their dictatorial government went down in the rubble of buildings adjacent to the American Embassy. Africa, had grown used to believing in the cliché that the enemy of my enemy is my friend – a cliché it used most effectively during the Cold War. The new slogan, written with the blood of Kenyans, reads as ‘the friend of my enemy is my enemy”.  It is now a case of objective above all else, the statement at all costs.  And Africans are fast becoming the ‘collateral damage’ (a term largely of American creation). 

Civilians are the targets of modern wars, and the US applies the principle in its own policies:  the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki targeted civilians, and most of the million Vietnamese killed in the US’s war against that country were civilians as well.  It is a policy that finds continuation in the sanctions against Iraq that have killed a staggering one million children.  A number that in a sane world would be classified as slow and methodical genocide against the Iraqi people. The cost of getting rid of Dictator Saddam  (if that was ever the goal) is simply too high: we have yet to find proof that Saddam has killed more Iraqis than the United States. But the drums of war must have dancers.  The New York Times of December 2nd reports that Britain “released a dossier today on what it called the systematic rape, torture, gassing and executions of Iraqis by Saddam Hussein”. This report has been cast by Amnesty International as “a cold and calculated manipulation” of the human rights situation in Iraq in order to back up the case for possible military action against Baghdad”[vii].  No one doubts that Saddam Hussein has committed atrocities.  However, the dossier fails to mention the devastation that the US led sanctions has wrought on Iraqi civilians who are now pawns in a dangerous and irresponsible game between the West and Saddam Hussein.

At any rate, during the rescue efforts, largely mounted by the Americans and-Israeli troops, there was talk of racism.  This was not only in terms of how they dealt with the Kenyan living or dead, but also in terms of white and African Americans.  It was reported by the Kenya Times, a government run paper, that an African American was indeed piled up with the Kenyan dead for three days while the white dead were in better mortuaries[viii].  Also, there was talk of the American embassy marines preventing Kenyans from helping the victims.  Now, of course the response by the American government was to deny the racism charge and to say, understandably perhaps, that they did not know who was who and therefore had to close shop to rescue efforts they could not verify.  But this is by itself, even though interesting, is beside the point that Africa has been denied agency, relegated to a passive role even as the war is also being fought on African soil.  With the cold war now fully thawed we are told that Africa no longer has anything to offer the West.  The West consequently, with conscience lulled, claims its interest in Africa is purely humanitarian.  But Nigeria is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world and the United States gets 16% of its oil from Sub-Saharan Africa[ix].   And in about five years, according to Gene Van Dyke, President and chief executive officer of VANCO Energy Corporation, West Africa will be producing more barrels of oil per day than the world's largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia.[x]  Then the gold, diamonds and western industries protected by the hands of the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) and the World Bank, all of them tainted with African blood are not to be taken into account – only empathy, that human emotion that is un-quantifiable and elusive in terms of accountability and responsibility. 

It was this disregard for history that allowed the American Embassy spokesman, shortly after the bombings, to say:

Let me make it as plain as I can.  We did and do appreciate the good will of the African good Samaritans. Kenyans are gentle people and some of them undoubtedly must have been shocked by the brusque way they were treated. We also understand their anger. But the criticisms in the newspapers are directed against the wrong people. Like them, we're victims. And the perpetrators are monsters who were willing to kill more than 20 Kenyans for every dead American[xi]. [Bold mine]

Kenyans are a gentle people: could one have patronized a grieving people better than this?  A gentle people – substitute people with native and we will be reading an exploratory journal from the 19th Century.  But even that aside, it is the claim that we were all victims that leaps right out of history.  In the immediate sense, yes, we were all victims and there were bodies (one stack higher than the other and in separate mortuaries) to show for it.  But it is the blatant brushing aside of history that is most shocking.  No apology for having put the Kenyan people in harms way from either the United States or Kenyan government (for surely it is the collaboration between the two that brought the terrorists to Nairobi). 

But here is the irony that went unnoticed by the terrorists and the US Government: President Moi has himself worked against the interests of the Kenyan people.  He has been one in a string of dictators propped up by the United States Government.  And we can move all over the map of Africa and at each stop, we will find dirty fingerprints all pointing to the American government.  And once we leave Africa, we find the same fingerprints all over Latin America as well as Asia. To say ‘we are all victims’ is mismatch for a relationship that continues to be to the detriment of the African people – certainly the dead were victims, but of terrorists and, more to the point, of a US sponsored dictatorship.    

November 25th 2002 attacks in Kenya

As if to prove that the war of terrorism is not working, suicide bombers have struck once again in Kenya.  In Mombassa, an Israeli owned resort that caters mostly to Israeli tourists was reduced to rubble leaving, at the time of writing this, 16 dead: 10 Kenyans, 3 Israelis and 3 of the perpetrators[vii][xii]. At the same time that the resort attack occurred, another group fired stinger missiles at a civilian jet plane carrying 245 passengers and narrowly missed.  But this is but a footnote: the new text of terror has yet to be written.  And it will be written not by powerful nations but by the weak, the marginalized who have been left with only the one desperate voice of terror. And there is no reason to believe that it will not voiced over and over again for nothing has been done to deal with the causes of desperation.

None of our leaders seem to make any sense out of the situation. here we have it again, machismo talk of leaving no stone unturned, of tracking the terrorists to the last one, of once again recommitting the world to the war against terrorism[viii][xiii].  Corruption[ix][xiv], porous borders, and the friendly nature of Kenyans have become the culprits.  No one wants to concede what comes across so plainly and painfully, a war of nations against individuals who are mobile, desperate and willing to lose their lives cannot be won.  There is no protecting yourself against terrorism so long as there are hotels, airports, hospitals, schools, malls, bus and train stations: it is physically impossible to protect all the civilians all the time.  The only recourse is to change the environment that causes terrorism.  And this by itself this is but a hollow call for our leaders are the ones that perpetrate the oppression that breeds resistance. In other words, our leaders staying on this course that generates oppression is really gross negligence.

Africa and the War on Terrorism

The American agenda is not hidden.  It has in fact never been hidden.  September 11 only bought imperialism a new cloak of legitimacy.  The manifest destiny declared boldly and at play since the early 1800’s and updated into our times as the New World Order, or even better as A World Safe for Democracy, has remained barely clothed.  Bush’s call (though crude in that it did not respect the growth of sophisticated and deracinated terms) for a crusade against evil was only stating, in the best way he knew how, that he is committed to the US domination of the world as were those before him. He was stating that he is a keeper of tradition.  The attempts by African leaders to talk Bush out of attacking Iraq indicate that they don’t understand that it is not Bush that has to be reigned in, but the whole of American foreign policy.  Consequently the ownership of the world and the devastation of lives that come with it are the questions that need to be addressed.  Our African leaders are unwilling and unable to demand a more balanced relationship with the West. Their livelihood depends on the West.  They are, as it were, carrying umbrellas in a tornado, trying to the dam the floods of war with a raised fist. 

Therefore, when Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (the same Mozambique that has seen much war and terror at the hands of Western backed rebels) stands up and declares his sympathy for the world trade victims and cautions the US to work through the frameworks of the United Nations, we can only conclude he suffers from amnesia.  Not that sympathy is not due to the American dead or indeed that those responsible should not be brought to justice.  Sympathy should also be extended both in word and deed to the victims of American terrorism as well.  All forms of terrorism should be opposed.  The African leader who removes from history the September 11th attacks and more importantly the United States response is missing the point that the World Trade Center attacks couldn’t have happened at a better time for Bush. His blessings were solidified this very November with a Republican Senate and Congress majority. He has a blank check on when and against whom to make war and he has the rest of world following along.  The war on terrorism is not a separate or new war but a continuation of American foreign policy.  And now, the November attacks in Kenya can only buy the war on terrorism a new lease.

We have been living in a world that silences, overtly or covertly voices of sanity, activist voices.  But what is different with the war on terrorism is that whereas before, activists were silenced as activists, in today’s world they will be silenced as terrorists or as sympathizers of terrorism.  Already the American liberal voice-- due to self-imposed censorship, being blacked out by the media, or by the weapon of nationalism --has cowered behind President Bush.   But we simply have to tell the truth as we see it, we simply have to refuse to shortchange history for it is always unforgiving in that marginalized continue to suffer from generation to generation.  To say I am against American terrorism or state terror is not to say that I am with the suicide bombers – it simply means I am opposed to all forms of terrorism.  And it is this space, a space to be sane, to voice and organize against all forms of oppression that we have to fight for.   

Towards a solution

This should be stated boldly: African governments, with few exceptions, are useless.  Having perfected the art of betraying and oppressing their people since independence, it is pointless to expect them to take an informed and people oriented stand.  A long-term solution then is replacing them with governments that are dedicated to balancing the imbalances that breed terrorism.  We should not sacrifice the march towards a true and egalitarian society at the altar of America’s war on terrorism.  The war against terrorism needs to be turned on its head.  What we need is a determined stand against state terrorism and other forms of terror.  If our house is burning, it is only because they lit the fire that they now fan by appealing to our nationalism.  I am of the opinion that any solution that includes Africa should include the following as a matter of principle:

In the short term there should be a:

- Demand that African governments cease to give unequivocal support to Israel.

- Demand that the Palestinian right to a Sovereign state be respected. 

- Demand that their governments call for a withdrawal of all foreign military presence on African soil including army bases in order to protect our sovereignty.

- Demand that our governments not allow any other country to use our land or airspace to make war on another African country.

- Demand that African governments stay true to the principles of non-alignment and therefore restore balance between the relationships of Africa and the West, economic, political and cultural

- Demand that the war of terrorism not be used as an excuse to jail, exile or assassinate voices calling for genuine change.

- Demand that international problems be addressed through the United Nations.  In this regard because the United Nations is dominated by Western Countries, there should be inclusion of ‘third world’ countries in the United Nations Security Council.

- Declare their solidarity with marginalized people in Asia, Latin America, Middle East and the United States.

- and there should be opposition to all forms of terrorism no matter the perpetrator.

Long term goals: 

- Ending neocolonialism.  In the end, only a truly independent, democratic and equitable Africa can guarantee against future violations of human rights.  In connection to this, African people should begin heading towards a united Africa.

- African political activists and movements should be at the head of the calls for a unified Africa.  Earlier attempts at a Unified Africa failed precisely because we left the process to politicians and governments that never had the interests of the African at people at heart.  We should not forget that both Idi Amin and Arap Moi have been heads of the Organization for African Unity (O.AU).   In this regard we have to revisit, update and commit ourselves to Pan-Africanism.  This should be a Pan-Africanism that seeks a truly democratic, unified and egalitarian Africa.


[i]. But the reaction by the two Africanist historians shouldn’t be surprising for the new wisdom is that with the end of the cold war, Africa no longer held any interest to the United States save for a humanitarian one.


[ii] . http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/news/3919263.htm



[iii] .  http://www.kenyasomalis.org/news_NFD.htm


[iv] .  http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/01/weekinreview/01GORD.html?pagewanted=1


[v] .  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/2251020.stm

[vi] .  The United States has made serious mistakes in the conduct of its foreign affairs, which have had unfortunate repercussions long after the decisions were taken. Unqualified support of the Shah of Iran led directly to the Islamic revolution of 1979. Then the United States chose to arm and finance the [Islamic] mujahedin in Afghanistan instead of supporting and encouraging the moderate wing of the government of Afghanistan. That is what led to the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the most catastrophic action of the United States was to sabotage the decision that was painstakingly stitched together by the United Nations regarding the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace. Because what [America] is saying is that if you are afraid of a veto in the Security Council, you can go outside and take action and violate the sovereignty of other countries. That is the message they are sending to the world. That must be condemned in the strongest terms. And you will notice that France, Germany Russia, China are against this decision. It is clearly a decision that is motivated by George W. Bush's desire to please the arms and oil industries in the United States of America. If you look at those factors, you'll see that an individual like myself, a man who has lost power and influence, can never be a suitable mediator (Newsweek interview, September 16th, 2002).


[xii]  http://www.eastandard.net/headlines/news011.htm


[xiii] .  http://www.nationaudio.com/News/DailyNation/29112002/News/News46.html


[xiv] .  http://www.nationaudio.com/News/DailyNation/Today/News/News0212200263a.html

Dec. 9, 2002


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