When neither opponent can achieve the upper hand in a game of chess, it’s only a matter of time before a stalemate is declared. In a protracted battle in which no-one enjoys the upper hand, the question is not if but when there will be an impasse.
Chess is, of course, a world away from the painful deadlock between states and terror groups characterised by the loss of lives and social upheaval – but it’s a useful analogy.
In the real world countries in the Horn of Africa, the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel have formed coalitions against groups like al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province and the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin. Military campaigns against some of these groups have dragged on for more than a decade, sustained by shrinking budgets largely bankrolled from outside the continent.
The African Union Mission in Somalia, the Multinational Joint Task Force and the G5 Sahel have managed very complex counter-terrorism operations with a measure of success.
However, as time passes, battles build into a war of attrition with little prospect of a total military victory. This is because opposing sides show no sign of capitulation. This situation raises two questions. The first is whether the predominant approach by affected countries, anchored by the use of force, is capable of delivering a lasting solution? The answer is no. Militarised responses have helped but are unsustainable in the long term. This is because of the multi-dimensional nature of violent extremism or terrorism.
Another issue is that African countries and external actors have shifting financial priorities and capacities. At its peak, the African Union Mission in Somalia in the Horn of Africa deployed over 22,000 uniformed personnel at a cost of roughly $1 billion a year. The Lake Chad Basin operation has been similarly expensive.
This leads to the second question: is it possible to begin to systematically explore an alternative strategy? As a researcher focused on transnational threats and international crime, this question is what led to my policy brief published by the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
The Global Terrorism Index lists al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and its breakaway faction, Islamic State West Africa Province, among the deadliest terror groups globally. All three demand a strict form of Islamic government or caliphate to replace existing state authorities they perceive as secular.
There have been calls to initiate some form of dialogue with some of these groups. But their rigid ideological stance and factional dynamics complicate efforts. It is difficult to identify specific individuals or factions to dialogue with.
Attempts at dialogue have also been short-lived due to other factors. Governments lacked political will and discretion. There was also a lack of consensus regarding objectives, process and expected outcomes.
This is particularly the case with the Lake Chad Basin. Nigeria witnessed mediatory talks with family members of the slain Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2011. Later in 2012, Boko Haram itself voluntarily chose the president of the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria as a mediator with the government. In 2011, one of the key individuals on Boko Haram’s side was unexpectedly assassinated. In 2012 the mediator on behalf of Boko Haram withdrew from talks while blaming the government for leaks to the media.
What’s at stake when considering dialogue
The complex and sensitive option of dialogue should not be viewed as a one-off event. It should also not be understood as a one-size-fits-all strategy for ending terror in Africa. Rather, dialogue should be more deeply explored as a complementary approach that goes beyond the short-sighted use of military might. There is the unfolding case of dialogue between the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is still being tested but remains a process which offers hope. (theconversation.com)