The quiet West Africa country of Burkina Faso is in national mourning following the recent terrorist attacks in the capital, Ouagadougou. So far, the government has reported 30 deaths, most of them Westerners. This is a devastating and disruptive attack that struck a thudding blow at the heart of this struggling nation recovering from three decades of misrule, bloodshed and corruption under the oppressive regime of Blaise Compaore.
Many Africans rejoiced at the New Year over the smooth transition to democratic rule in Burkina following the swearing in of President Roch Marc Christian Kabore. This recent attack was targeted to create confusion and uncertainty, weakening an already fragile country. It was also meant to instill fear and suspicion, while harming the country’s economy, heavily dependent on foreign investment and international aid.
The so-called war on terror is a continuation of Western imperialism in Africa. Particularly in Francophone Africa, the presence of French forces in most French-speaking countries is particularly troubling and generates suspicion. The West has a history of beginning a war or intervening in a crisis in Africa and abandoning the country in chaos and confusion: Play back America’s unfortunate intervention in Somalia or the role of the U.K. and the U.S. in Sudan, and France’s intervention in Northern Mali in 2012 or the regrettable Western invasion of Libya, which was not supported by any single African country.
The chaos and human carnage left behind in Libya by the West opened the doors of hell in the region as Ghaddafi fighters with heavy weaponry easily morphed into many West African countries through porous borders. The Libyan experience is modern Africa’s evidence that France, the United States and her Western allies should no longer intervene in Africa either to remove dictators, to quell an insurgency or to support anti-government militia against African leaders whose romance with the West was no longer perceived as beneficial to Western interest.
Today, Algeria and Tunisia have become training grounds to jihadists, but people fail to remember that French policy in the Maghreb watered the ground for this insurgency. The worst violence ever committed in Africa since the end of the Second World War was spearheaded by France in her ratissages (violent raids) in Algeria, which cost more than 1.5 million African lives.
We cannot understand and evaluate the rise of Islamism after the Arab Spring, and the rise of radical and violent Islamism in West Africa led by Al-Mourabitoun, Shekau and other jihadist groups, without a sense of history on how all these were partly started and partly legitimated by Western presence and manipulation of the ethnic, religious and political differences in West Africa.
France’s support for military dictators and sit-tight leaders in Africa is shameful, troubling and ongoing. The same is true of the United States, whose sad legacy of working with African dictators and working against transformative leaders in Africa is well-documented.
In Burkina Faso, for instance, in the 27 years when he was president (and dictator), Compaore was feted constantly at the official residence of the French President, Elysee Palace, by successive French presidents. He was also a friend of the United States, who saw him as a major ally in the fight against terrorism. Compaore was often called upon to negotiate with militias in the region. Moreover, the carnage that took place in Ouagadougou could not have happened under his watch, many say, because Compaore knew how to work with West African rebels and militias who found sanctuary there.
For many Western governments, Africa is simply a means and not an end, therefore, dictators are supported, and revolutionary leaders are toppled based on how they promote Western interests.
The good of the ordinary Africans and the long-term survival of Africa are secondary to Western presence in Africa. It is within this context that one must evaluate the fight against terrorism in Africa and the multipronged approach toward finding a lasting solution to a safer and peaceful continent.
The greatest threat to peace in sub-Saharan Africa is not Islamic fundamentalism, religious war or the rise of ethnic militia — it’s poverty. When people are stripped of their freedom to enjoy the basic necessities of life; when they are denied the capacity to apply themselves to their environment because of poverty, diseases and absence of the basic necessities of life, when they are exposed to the harsh climate of ignorance, illiteracy, and lack of means, they will live for nothing and die for nothing.
France especially must remove military forces from African soil. Westerners must stop sending soldiers and arms to Africa. Africa needs education, trade liberalization, debt cancellation and strong civic society to help create sound political culture, stable constitutional democracy and transformative servant leadership in religious and political settings.
Ilo, a Public Voices Fellow, is a research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University.