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Dealing Effectively with the Spread of Jihadists in West Africa

By Samuel W. Thompson

Over 15 years ago on July 26, 2004, Liberia’s Independence or “26th Day”, I gave the keynote address on behalf of the National Transitional Government of Liberia at a meeting of representatives of world powers, African governments, global defense and security institutions and multilateral organizations hosted by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in Sussex, United Kingdom on the topic: “African Solutions for African Problems?: National and International Responsibility for Conflict Resolution”.  The theme of the conference was “Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Africa: Beyond the Peace Agreements.” See https://www.theperspective.org/2004/july/africansolutions.html for the speech.

That meeting was almost three years after the September 11 Al Qaida attacks in the USA, when movements of economic migrants across the Mediterranean from Africa were still only a trickle. It was also long before  Boko Haram’s first major uprising in Bauchi State, Nigeria in July 2009; before three Muslim “women’s rights activists” published in 2014, an extensive exposé on a plan that originated in Saudi Arabia to Islamize West Africa; long before we started hearing of jihadist plans to create a West African Caliphate.

In my speech, I called for world leaders to think “outside of the box” and address grinding poverty, conflict, instability, waves of refugees and economic migrants, human and drug trafficking, plus growing criminal and terrorist networks in Africa.  I suggested viable global partnerships to help Africa break the vicious cycle of poverty and conflict, to become a larger market economy and a more stable environment for world trade and investment;  furthermore, that world peace and socio-economic progress depended on attacking poverty, ignorance and bad governance for many more Africans to prosper and thus, have a stake in the socio-political stability of their countries. If so, these countries would become less attractive havens for emerging criminal, terrorist, and other elements that threaten world peace.  Several guests highly commended me for being “on point.”

However, since that 26th Day, the trickle of African migrants has turned into massive waves of mainly disenfranchised and unempowered young people seeking greener pastures in Europe.  The African Development Bank has now designated Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal as Economic Migration hotspots in West Africa.  The Bank also lists Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Togo as “fragile” countries in transition. 

Over 15 years after the Chatham House conference, on December 30, 2019, the International Crisis Group sounded the alarm in a Mail & Guardian news article that West Africa could face a major crisis due to spreading terrorist activities in the northern Sahel regions bordering various countries on the Gulf of Guinea of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), coupled with political disturbances linked to potentially contentious elections this year in several of them. This concern was brought on by hundreds of Islamic jihadist militant attacks up to late 2019 in Burkina Faso, which could become a launching pad for the spread of terrorism into Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and eventually, other coastal Gulf States. It also reflects the impact of several jihadist attacks in Mali, with over 50 UN peacekeeping troops killed and 200 injured out of 12,000 deployed, plus several deadly battles with 4,500 French troops deployed there since 2013. Add to this, expanding Boko Haram activities in Nigeria, which has not been able to overpower them despite US$ 2 billion defense spending in 2018 alone, plus the latest jihadist attacks on a Niger military base a few days ago killing 89 friendly forces!

As I read an analysis on the most effective response to the threat of West African countries that have allowed political Islam to develop based on freedom of religion, now becoming part of an Islamic Caliphate with the strict imposition of Sharia law, I recall my 2004 suggestion to think outside the box. Sadly, the box has not changed, with huge, costly peacekeeping missions and new calls for multi-billion US$ regional defense budget funding from some very poor, fragile states, many of whom are economic migration hotspots.  This includes my country Liberia which, after almost 15 years and despite over US$ 7.5 billion of United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) peacekeeping expenditures, remains one of the poorest nations on the earth! 

The box reflects the classic “guns versus butter” debate imposed by the post-colonial construct of “resource colonies” (i.e., countries or regions within a country that become a predatory target for unethical industries or corporations to exploit, despoil and leave in ruin, with zero concern about their economic, natural or human health)[1], low tax revenue and low-employment extractive industries with zero value-added processing. The box entails the dumping by companies from wealthy nations into Africa of heavily subsidized agricultural commodities that could be produced locally to create jobs and prosperity. It fosters a weak balance of payments; International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity programs that unwittingly can induce economic recessions; debt vulnerability and donor dependency. The box also contains corrupt, authoritarian ruling elites spending the lion’s share of meager state resources while impoverished, disillusioned youth and communities fast become potential radicalized sympathizers for jihadist recruitment due to lack of hope for gainful employment, economic prosperity and peacefully raising families at home. All this leads to repeated civil and political conflicts that create opportunities for jihadist advances. These are responded to in turn, by massive, multibillion-dollar peacekeeping forces plus aggressive army deployments by former colonial power France who are encouraging the USA to remain actively engaged to contain the threat. 

Besides dealing with the immediate military threats, outside-the-box thought and action imply a partnership between international stakeholders and ECOWAS for a sustained and radical paradigm shift to significantly reduce poverty, bad governance, corruption, plus socio-economic and political exclusion of West Africa’s predominantly youthful and poor population.  Policy actions should include but not be limited to:

  1. Financing inclusive development and investment in agribusiness commodity value chains for food self-sufficiency, value-added processing, and higher trade-in ECOWAS, with attention to the Sahel
  2. Supporting a sustained path of strong domestic investment, capital accumulation and economic growth through the adoption of policies by the Central Bank and the Government of Liberia designed to stimulate credit creation by the banking sector in key sectors of the economy such as tourism, renewable energy, housing and road infrastructure to stimulate inclusive economic growth and a larger domestic tax base
  3. Supporting governments to demonstrate a tangible commitment to grass-root economic empowerment, broad-based development, the protection of human rights and the rule of law
  4. Supporting peaceful democratic change through popular choice on a level playing field, by providing resources for voter education, media access of all candidates and capacity building of political institutions
  5. Encouraging reintegration of the West African Diaspora into home countries to boost capacity building across the public and private sectors, and promote openness to reforms in those societies
  6. Revisiting very low royalty rates across the extractive sectors to significantly improve State revenues available for infrastructure development, health, education, and security spending
  7. Focusing on effectively curbing corruption by repatriating the stolen wealth of political elites to public coffers, prosecuting new cases, and more rigorously enforcing foreign corrupt practices laws in the USA and Europe.

Can you imagine for Liberia whose declaration of independence was signed 1847 in the Providence Baptist Church, who cast the tie-breaking vote at the United Nations in 1948 for Israel to become a sovereign State, and whose constitution promotes freedom of religion, to be overrun by jihadist forces and become part of a West African Caliphate under Sharia law?!  One can only guess what the security and economic implications would be for Europe and the USA if the entire Gulf of Guinea countries were to face that fate because we all did not cooperate urgently, holistically, and firmly to prevent it! 

About the Author

Mr. Samuel W. Thompson is a respected Liberian economist and banker with extensive years of professional executive, managerial, and leadership experience in the private and public sectors. He is the founder and head of the Agency for Economic Development and Empowerment in Liberia.


[1] Lawlor, David, “What It Means To Be A Resource Colony”, in Earthjustice, August 6, 2012

UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed by General Didier Dacko, G5 Sahel Joint Force Commander and other Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) officials, as he arrives at the G5 Sahel Joint Force Headquarters in Mopti, Mali. UN Photo/Marco Dormino
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