Once again we are seeing Western powers taking the lead in trying to solve an African security problem. And Africa once again taking a back seat, says Peter Fabricius.
This time the “problem” – the atrocity actually – is the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Nigerian Islamist terror group Boko Haram in the northern village of Chibok last month.
While Nigeria itself, the West African regional organisation Ecowas and the AU apparently just fiddled, Western governments took the lead, culminating in French President Francois Hollande organising a conference in Paris to try to mobilise an international response.
Déjà vu, one might say, recalling the slow African response to the Mali and Central African Republic crises, leaving France to take the lead there too.
Of course, not just Nigeria and the rest of Africa, but the whole world took too long to wake up to this crisis, as most of the girls had been abducted on April 14, well over a month before the Paris conference took place.
The atrocity just didn’t seize the imagination of the outside world, probably, as some commentators have depressingly but probably accurately suggested, because it just seemed to them normal for Africa.
In South Africa the issue also really only caught fire about a month after the abductions, with political parties calling on the AU to take action and demonstrations outside the Nigerian High Commission as there have been in other countries.
Yet, slow as the world was to react, it was still faster than Nigeria itself and the rest of Africa.
The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), for example, had specifically urged the AU last week to convene a meeting of African leaders to co-ordinate a response.
At Hollande’s Paris conference, West African leaders vowed to take concerted action to fight Boko Haram. “Boko Haram is no longer a local terrorist group, it is operating clearly as an al-Qaeda operation. It is an al-Qaeda of West Africa,” said Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
“We are here to declare war on Boko Haram,” said Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, with the leaders of Niger, Chad and Benin concurring.
Biya cast the Boko Haram problem wider, as an international issue, recalling the organisation’s kidnapping last month of two Italian priests and a Canadian nun.
The US and UK were also present and will contribute to the West African fight, probably through intelligence gathering.
That the region and the world have finally woken up is better than if they had not woken up at all, presumably.
But the way it is being done will create problems of its own, as Anton du Plessis, managing director of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, pointed out to the Mail and Guardian last week.
“I don’t think it is good for Africa. It is not good for Nigeria. Putting the US, UK and France at the head of a new campaign to stamp out Boko Haram is going to fit the narrative that they have been trying to create of fighting some kind of global jihad. This is an African problem.”
He said this “war on terror” narrative had already done too much damage in Africa.
Certainly, the lead which Western powers have now taken has triggered a rash of conspiracy commentary across Africa, with many bloggers and others seeing Paris, Washington and London taking advantage of the crisis to muscle their way, neo-colonially, back into Africa.
But one does not have to accept this conspiracy theory holus-bolus in order to be concerned about the way the issue has developed. Whether the West is really taking advantage of the crisis to advance its own agenda, or just trying to help, it would have been better if Africa had moved faster and taken the lead.
Because conceding the initiative to Paris, Washington and London will at least create the very strong impression that this is another Western war against terror – or, to some, a “crusade” against Islam.
And that will of course play into Boko Haram’s hands, not least in helping it to recruit more footsoldiers to its miserable cause.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.