Consequences of EU Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa

The Long-term Consequences of the European Union’s Short Sighted Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa

By Harley Henigson

Photo: (No attribution required) Creative Commons 1.0

The European Union, in contrast with the United States has historically taken a more comprehensive and long-term approach to combatting terrorism. In the last 15 to 20 years, the US’ response to international terrorism, for example, has been a combination of military force, imploring states with high levels of terrorist activity to accept military aid, and anti-terrorism training. Recently however, with the uptick is terror attacks in Europe, and the continuing refugee crisis, the EU has taken a far more American like approach to combatting terrorism.

In Africa, that approach has manifested in the strengthening of ties between the EU and a number of authoritarian governments.  Although the EU has consistently supported the US’ “War on Terror”, even when it meant supporting governments with abysmal track records of human rights abuses,[1] only recently has it been proactive in seeking those friendships. A clear example of this can be seen in the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, also known as the Khartoum Process, which aligned the EU with the governments of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea in tackling issues of migration and terrorism. As Kloe O’Farrell of EurActiv notes, those three states have all committed serious atrocities, and are amongst the worst human rights violators in Africa.

By taking this hybrid approach to handling terrorism in Africa, and not committing to a clear strategy, the EU is undermining both the effectiveness of a militarized strategy, and its commitment to human rights and democratic governance. The EU’s 2016 Foreign and Security Policy report states that the EU must continue to strengthen its Union through a clear focus on security and counterterrorism. Yet, at the same time, the report notes the importance of supporting democratic governance, and encouraging member states to invest in “the resilience of states and societies in [Africa].” (Page 9) Though these two objectives are by no means mutually exclusive, supporting authoritarian states in an effort to stamp out terrorism severely undermines the EU’s authority on issues of democratic governance. This, in turn, makes it difficult for the EU to take the moral high-ground when admonishing or sanctioning African states for their failure to respect human rights and democracy.

Strange Bedfellows

In addition to the multinational Khartoum Process, the EU has begun strengthening its ties with Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, who is currently wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes. Reversing nearly three of EU foreign policy, according to a Foreign Policy article from July this year, Al-Bashir has been promised over $150 million in aid, money which was earmarked for poverty reduction and development. Al-Bashir’s willingness to help “combat migration at its source”, far from being seen as a positive development, should make EU policy makers nervous. His regime’s willingness to commit atrocities against its own people is well documented, who is going to prevent it from committing those same atrocities against illegal migrants and suspect terrorists?

The EU’s shift on Al-Bashir, while not particularly unusual, nonetheless provides a pointed example of the EU’s new willingness to take a more pragmatic approach to handling foreign policy issues in Africa.

The EU’s desire to curb the flow of people and drugs into Europe, takes priority over an aversion to giving aid to a leader who has a track record of supporting Islamic terrorism, both internationally and domestically. This willingness to compromise on its ideals may have already damaged the EU’s reputation as a key arbitrator of justice in the international arena. Additionally, the EU’s fluid relationship with authoritarian states in Africa will continue to have ramifications for how it deals with transnational terrorism on the continent.


How does this affect Africa?

France’s intervention in Mali in 2012, to halt the advance of Islamic militant forces that were converging on the capital, was the first step in Europe’s shift toward a more aggressive stance on issues such as terrorism. Although France’s operation was not initially supported by any of the other EU member states, the recent terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany have done much to weaken the European aversion to military intervention. This is especially true in Africa, where destabilized states have more porous borders, allowing drugs and people to more easily flow northward to the Mediterranean, and onto Europe.

This shift by the EU, from a reliance on its diplomatic and economic influence to a greater willingness to intervene militarily, should be met with no small amount of skepticism by the majority of African states, who may rightly view this as infringing on their state sovereignty. There is clearly a need for the EU to take a leadership role in combatting terrorism. However, doing so at the expense of its more enlightened development policy, and its staunch support for democratic states, is a serious mistake.

Is this really in Africa’s best interest?

There are serious problems with this new approach to addressing terrorism, and the interconnected issue of mass migration. By letting the EU dictate how terrorist groups in Africa are conceptualized, and how they are dealt with, African states miss the opportunity to address the root of the problem, instead of merely reacting to the symptoms.

The EU’s short-term, military approach is a reaction to the recent shift in public opinion. Though African states should recognize the importance that Europe plays on the continent, it would behoove them to question if this is truly in their best interest, and the interest of the continent as a whole.

Taking a longer-term approach is far more difficult. Only by addressing the economic and political marginalization of the communities that spawn these militant organizations, will these countries be able to create lasting and sustainable peace. In the case of Mali, for example, it was only after decades of being economically and politically marginalized by successive French supported governments in Bamako, and three serious secular rebellions, that the communities of Northern Mali turned toward Islamic militancy.

What does the future hold?

Africa needs a strong EU, which focuses on sustainable development, and promotes human rights and democratic governance. In addition, there is clearly a need on the continent for a rapid response force, and until one can be financed by African states, militarily the EU still has a part to play in Africa. This can clearly be seen in France’s role in Mali. Without France’s military intervention, the country would have fallen into the hands of Islamic militant groups.

However, the EU needs to take a long and introspective look, and ask whether its continued military presence, and support for authoritarian states, is really in the best interests of both Europe and Africa.

Though the EU may find it enticing to make short-term gains by aligning itself with deplorable regimes in the name of European security, doing so is just pushing the problem off onto future generations. Sooner or later, the grievances against the likes of Al-Bashir and the EPRDF in Ethiopia are going to accumulate, and the EU will again be faced with the question of whether to intervene. In the worse-case those grievances could trigger a Syria like conflict in Sudan or Ethiopia, bringing with it the related terrorism and refugee crises.

Perhaps with the brutal crackdowns of protests in EU-supported Ethiopia over the last year, Europe will have to face the consequences of its policy decisions sooner than expected.

[1] Such as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in Ethiopia, and Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement in Uganda, both of which have committed atrocities against their own populaces.