Boko Haram Ramps up Violence in the Sahel: Chad braced for more misery

News that some 92 Chadian soldiers have been killed by Boko Haram in the east of the landlocked Central African country has gone under the radar. Not necessarily because of the global media’s preoccupation with Covid-19, but because this part of the world is generally seen as unimportant.

Chad’s army has fought a thankless campaign against Boko Haram

It follows in the wake of a Boko Haram attack on a Nigerian military convoy earlier in the week that left some 50 soldiers dead. So, despite intensive efforts, periods of success, and bold government pronouncements in the past couple of years, Boko Haram remains alive and dangerous.

Like many countries in the Sahel region, the Chadian population is fairly equally split between Muslims and Christians, with a few percentage points more of the former. Islam reached the land centuries before Christianity, moving from the Middle East after the time of the Prophet Muhammad into North Africa and then down on the caravan trails into the Sahara where it was adopted by some of the numerous ethnic tribes inhabiting the region.

From the 8th century until the French invasion, much of present-day Chad was ruled by the Kanem and Bornu Empires. Their fearless warriors converted to Islam around the 11th century

The French conquered Chad in the early 20th century and Christianity gradually spread during the colonial period, although it was not accompanied by any real modernisation. Muslims now predominate in the north and east of the country, with Christians more prevalent in the south and pockets of the west, where the recent Boko Haram massacre occurred.

Boko Haram is not particularly picky about its targets. Not just Christians but large sections of the Muslim population are counted as enemies, their fundamentalist Salafi faith running counter not just to Shia Muslims but many more ‘moderate’ Sunnis. With the polarising divide between Christians and Muslims, not to mention splits within these respective religions, in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mali, the jihadists”holy war’ will not cease.

Boko Haram thrives along the border zone of the Christian and Muslim-majority countries of Africa

It was religious tensions that sparked the Chadian Civil War in 1965, just five years after the country had secured independence from France. Francois Tombalbaye, a southern Protestant, was severely mistrusted by the Muslims residing in the north of the country, who saw his policies as religiously-motivated.

Chadian troops with anti-tank weapons during the first civil war

It took until 1975 before Tombalbaye was eventually deposed and since then the country has effectively only had two rulers: Hissène Habré (1982-1990) and Idriss Déby (1990-present). Neither ruler has been particularly concerned with Chadian impoverishment or human rights, and their dictatorships have failed to stifle religious conflict, with Chad returning to civil war in 2005.

Déby has, however, been keen to eradicate Boko Haram from Chad’s borders, concerned of the impetus the terrorist group could receive from disenchanted Chadian Muslims.

There is no doubt that international concern over Covid-19 will be exploited by groups such as Boko Haram, who will seek to take advantage of the disruption – and general inattention towards the region – to further their warped goals. Meanwhile, any momentum gained by Boko Haram, or religious strife that their attacks promote, will cause the type of widespread panic and displacement that will ensure that Covid-19 spreads through the region quickly on its arrival.

We are awaiting the full affects of the pandemic to grip Africa and, when it comes, the destitute populace of Chad seemingly stands little chance.

From the ACS in Liberia to Trump in the White House: America’s Engagement with Africa and why it Must Persist

In 1821, the American Colonization Society (ACS) founded a settlement at Cape Mesurado on the West African coast, with the express intention of populating it with free-born black slaves from the USA.

Established in 1816 by a group of politicians and other notable citizens, the ACS was unique in American history in that it drew support from both pro-slavery and abolitionist proponents. Several of the organisation’s founders were Quakers vehemently opposed to slavery, who believed that their black brethren would stand a better chance of prospering within a ‘free’ African society. For many slave owners, meanwhile, an African exodus of many potentially troublesome and agitating blacks could reduce the risk of slave rebellion.

Henry Clay: ACS founder and 1824 Presidential candidate, who held conflicting views on slaves. He would also state: ‘The God of Nature, by the differences of color and physical constitution, has decreed against it’.

Not only was the make-up of the ACS unique, but so was its core aim; directly engaging with Africa. Whilst American plantation owners had indirectly benefited from the Atlantic slave trade for over a century, neither they nor their political representatives – often one and the same – had taken any interest in the African continent itself. 1821 therefore stands as a seminal moment in US-African relations.

In 1822, a Methodist minister named Jehudi Ashmun became the first governor of the new colony which would soon be renamed Liberia. By the middle of the 19th century, more than 13,000 black Americans had emigrated to West Africa with the assistance of the ACS, determined to embrace this new land of liberty and freedom.

1839 map of Liberia…with some familiar names

Liberia’s first non-white governor Joseph Jenkins Roberts – born in Norfolk, Virginia – declared independence in 1847, creating Africa’s first republic. Ironically, given the origin of the majority of its settlers, Liberia drafted a constitution in line with that of the USA.

Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Therefore a project both noble and opportunistic in nature signalled the start of American engagement with Africa. Indeed, the so-called Americo-Liberians would remain in control of the ACS-inspired state until a 1980 military coup led by indigenous Army sergeant Samuel Doe ushered in two decades of bloody repression and civil war, culminating in the barbaric leadership of Charles Taylor.

As with the more gluttonous European colonies in Africa, the influx of outsiders unbalanced a delicate tribal framework that would lead to trouble. At least in the case of Liberia, succour was provided to thousands of black families that would otherwise have been subjected to decades of discrimination and persecution in the land of their birth.

Nevertheless, the adverse affects of early American policy in Africa can be further demonstrated by the recognition granted by the Chestur A Arthur administration to Belgian King Leopold’s ‘philanthropic’ Congo Free State. As history shows, this became one of the most brutal and exploitative states in history, a fact ultimately revealed by another American, George Washington Williams.

The victims of King Leopold’s Congo Free State

The 20th century saw engagement intensify as the geopolitical map of the world became increasingly condensed by the onset of modernity. Cold War intrigues would undermine the American image in Africa, the CIA-directed murder of democratically-elected Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba one of the nadirs of post-WWII US politics. 

In recent decades, however, the US role in Africa has become increasingly constructive and supportive. Development aid has helped drag millions from poverty, created job opportunities aplenty and led to a wholesale improvement of regional infrastructure. Meanwhile, American military expertise and technology have been used to combat extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram which, though they remain undefeated, have been constrained in recent years. American training provided to African Union missions and joint exercises with national militaries have further developed the security apparatus of many states.

A U.S. soldier trains a Chadian soldier in a mock ambush during Flintlock 2015, an American-led military exercise, in Mao

This positive trend may soon end. Though the Obama administration failed to live up to weighty expectations  – prompted in large party by the President’s Kenyan heritage – American financial and technical commitments to African remained undiluted.

Now, President Trump desires to slash the aid budget to Africa. Not only will this jeopardise the lives of the millions already battling impoverishment but it will undermine the President’s core foreign policy goal of combating global terrorism. It is a well proven discourse that poverty, and a lack of opportunity to escape it, drives young men (and some women) into the arms of terrorist groups. Reducing military support for the continent will only further degrade the capability to fight the urelenting extremist groups that wreak chaos and misery.

Al-Shabaab continues to make Somalia a war zone

And what of unpredictable crises such as the Ebola outbreak or the droughts that spread devastating famine? Will these now be considered irrelevant to the American national interest?

As America threatens to withdraw, China is eagerly bolstering its African footprint, securing wide-ranging economic, energy and military deals with desperately poor countries in need of investment and, crucially, strategic partners in their bid to improve the lives of their citizens.

Almost 200 years after the establishment of Liberia, American engagement with Africa is at a critical juncture. Unencumbered by the contentious colonial histories of the European powers, Africa is a continent America should look to exert its influence over for mutual benefits.

Withdrawing development aid and military assistance is not going to achieve this and it is hoped that US legislators will not allow it to happen.

The Trump administration, however, seems to have made clear the importance Africa commands in its horribly narrow worldview. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s refusal to honour a meeting with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission smacks of the arrogance and short-sightedness of the most repressive colonial regimes of a century ago.

Sadly, it looks like Africa must continue to suffer.