Islamist Militant Groups Cast Deadly Shadow Over Africa in 2015

Boko Haram deadlier than ISIS, says Atlantic Council’s J. Peter Pham

As 2015 draws to a close, our experts take a look back at the year that was and look ahead to 2016.

This interview is part of a series.

J. Peter Pham
is the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Q: What was the biggest story in Africa in 2015?

Pham: It wasn’t one story so much as the accumulation of facts that made very clear to us by the end of the year that militant Islamism is as big of a threat in Africa as it is anywhere else in the world. In fact, many of the so-called successes against terrorist groups on the continent that some Western leaders were pointing to were at best temporary phenomena. In this struggle, we are in for the long haul in Africa just as we are elsewhere. There aren’t any shortcuts.

The most telling piece of data was released by the Institute for Economics and Peace in mid-November. It collated global data for 2014 and pointed out that Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant group, was actually deadlier in 2014 than Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. Boko Haram was responsible for 6,644 deaths compared to the Islamic State’s 6,073. Data that I have been tracking shows that the same trend is likely to be repeated in 2015.

So you have just that one group, Boko Haram, responsible for a quarter of all deaths worldwide due to terrorism in 2014, and for probably a slightly higher percentage in 2015. Moreover, Boko Haram is not the only militant Islamist group active on African soil. In Libya, we have three different so-called provinces of Daesh set up and, to quote a statistic given by Vice Adm. Michael T. Franken, the Deputy Commander for Military Operations at US Africa Command, in just the town of Sirte—Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown—the local offshoot of Daesh has grown from about 200 fighters at the beginning of 2015 to 2,000 fighters at the end of the year.

In fact, outside of Syria and Iraq, the largest concentration of Islamic State fighters is in Africa. Besides IS’ presence in Libya, one has to acknowledge that Boko Haram itself affiliated with the Islamic State in March and brands itself in its propaganda as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).

There are other Islamist militant groups that are active in Africa and continue to rear their ugly heads. Al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab is far from defeated despite talk in previous years of the alleged success of the “Somali model” for supposedly turning the tide against an Islamist insurgency through the use of African military forces. In April, we had the horrific attacks on the Garissa University College in Kenya in which more than 150 students and faculty were slaughtered. We have al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-affiliated groups in the Sahel that carried out a number of deadly attacks throughout the course of the year, including the November 20 attack on the Radisson Blu in Bamako, Mali, during which 170 hostages were taken, twenty of whom were killed before it was over. And we even have little-known groups like the Allied Democratic Front, a Ugandan Islamist group that is active in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that has just in the last several months carried out a number of massacres, including killings of UN peacekeepers and Congolese soldiers as well as civilians.

So the big story in Africa is that notwithstanding politicized proclamations of “success,” the security situation in a number of countries remains very precarious with the ongoing resilience of Islamist militant groups.

The other big story in Africa, which has been eclipsed by the terrorism threat, was the successful democratic transition in Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country and its largest economy.

Despite the challenges of the Boko Haram insurgency as well as a faltering economy because of a collapse in oil prices, which really dented government revenues that are more than 85 percent dependent on the energy sector, Nigeria had for the first time in its history a peaceful democratic transition from one elected government of one party to the opposition. It has had democratic transitions between elected Presidents of the same party, but never a peaceful handover from one party to its political opposition. So that was a big good news story of 2015.

Q: What one story will you be watching closely in 2016?

Pham: Going into 2016, the question is: is the positive outcome from the Nigerian election a one-off or is it a trend? 2016 is a year of major potential political change in Africa with a dozen countries scheduling elections. The biggest among them, and perhaps the most geopolitically important election, will be in the rather ironically named Democratic Republic of the Congo. I say “ironically named” because despite the name, in some six decades of independence the country has never had a complete set of national, provincial, and local elections.

In the DRC you have a President [Joseph Kabila] who is not only term limited, but has the unique case of a constitution that not only sets term limits, but also bans the amendment of the constitution to alter term limits. So you have a President who has been in power for a decade and a half who is absolutely limited by the constitution from extending his rule. Now the question is, will he leave and permit a democratic transition to take place or will he plunge the country into conflict by seeking to hold on? This is a country that is barely recovering from two catastrophic wars that dragged in its neighbors and by some estimates left as many as five million people dead.

What the international community does with the outcome in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will send a powerful signal to many other counties. It is not just a matter of holding elections. The elections have to be fair and credible. They can’t be pushed through quickly just to get them over with because all that does is sow the seeds of future conflict.

On the other hand, without some mechanism of accountability—and for that, we have elections—Africa’s people will never have the type of governance without which neither security nor development can be sustainable.

Follow the Africa Center on Twitter @ACAfricaCenter.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and J. Peter Pham

Image: Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Jonathan (left) congratulates President Muhammadu Buhari after the handover at Eagle Square in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 29. This peaceful transition of power was Africa’s “big good news story of 2015,” said J. Peter Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. (Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)