The late Professor Wangari Maathai once said that the wonderful thing about Africans, and their biggest strength, is that they never give up; they have had countless historical and practical reasons for succumbing to despair, but they never do. So as the terrorist group Boko Haram slaughters, kidnaps and enslaves people in my native Cameroon and, more devastatingly, Nigeria, I refuse to give up hope.
Many observers have commented on the worldwide publicity and outpouring of support that followed the recent terrorist attacks on Paris, as opposed to the muted response to Boko Haram’s massacre of the inhabitants of Baga, a town in north-east Nigeria. But this victimhood competition misses the point. Barely a few minutes after the killing of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices, President Hollande vowed to hunt down the attackers in front of the world’s media and swiftly went to commiserate with the surviving Charlie Hebdo staff, thus prompting the international community to do the same.
In contrast, rather than prioritising hunting down the terrorists over everything else, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan and his government have focused on campaigning for the 14 February elections, as well as insisting that Boko Haram has merely killed 150 in Baga, and not 2,000 as Amnesty International claims.
How many Nigerian lives must be lost before they too behave like President Hollande? We absolutely have to stop expecting others to care more about Africans than Africans themselves.
Although the stance of the Cameroonian government against Boko Haram has been far more robust and determined, this is not why I am hopeful. For Cameroonian populations will never be safe as long as this group operates in Nigeria. What gives me hope is that, at long last, neighbouring countries seem to be waking up to the fact that Boko Haram represents an existential threat not only to Nigeria but to them as well. For instance, after years of turning a blind eye, President Idriss Déby of Chad has just sent troops to fight the terrorists both in Cameroon and Nigeria.
Nevertheless, the Chadian intervention is far from being the panacea to Boko Haram. In a way, President Déby could be seen as an arsonist turned firefighter because of the imminent threat to his vital interests. He has been accused in the past of supporting brutal Muslim militias in neighbouring states, thus contributing to the regional insecurity that has strengthened Boko Haram and other terrorist groups. But even if Déby is now genuinely eager to collaborate with Cameroon and Nigeria, Boko Haram will not be defeated unless there is a concerted African and international effort to make that happen.
The African Union (AU) must, once and for all, resolve to preserve itself from the fate of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, which was widely derided as a toothless bulldog due to its incapacity to protect African populations from wars and other challenges facing them. It must take the lead and spearhead an international campaign aimed at securing more troops, money, military equipment and other resources needed to bolster the armies of the countries fighting Boko Haram.
This may sound like wishful thinking. But as a board member of the African Democratic Institute (ADI), I have witnessed first-hand how effective Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the AU Chairperson, can be in terms of mobilising relevant stakeholders to achieve a given objective. At a meeting co-organised by the AU and ADI in Addis Ababa on 8 November 2014, she managed to convince business people to donate over $30 million to the AU Private Sector Ebola Fund within a few hours. Peace and security are as crucial to the welfare of African people as health.
Far from being the endgame, defeating Boko Haram will just be a first step towards providing African citizens with a propitious environment for safety, law and order, as well as prosperity. Once this group is neutralised, Nigerian and other African rulers, the African Diaspora, and the international community must devise and implement a long-term strategy that will shield African populations from opportunistic fundamentalists.
The leaders of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and other African countries threatened by Islamic insurgents must realise that good governance is the most effective weapon they urgently need to acquire to overcome this threat. For too long, they have siphoned off, mismanaged and squandered their nations’ resources while relying on foreign donors to provide basic services to their people. This has to stop.
Under the guise of fostering education in Africa, citizens from Gulf countries have sponsored religious schools promoting a fundamentalist, Salafi interpretation of Islam that is utterly alien to African populations and unconducive to social cohesion in the fragile, multi-ethnic postcolonial African states.
Boko Haram knows that there is no widespread acceptance of fundamentalist Islam amongst Nigerian and other local populations. This is why it is resorting to the scorched earth policy and indiscriminate mass slaughters, instead of trying to run a state as the Islamic State is doing in Iraq and Syria. Any African government that will use its resources to feed and protect its people, eradicate youth unemployment, and run schools promoting national cohesion, justice, rule of law and the enlightened interpretation of Islam that has been practised in Africa for centuries, will easily overcome Islamic insurgents.
But the corruption, bad governance and nepotism that have prevented Nigeria, the richest African country in terms of GDP, from confronting Boko Haram effectively, are too entrenched amongst African rulers. We cannot expect them to suddenly see the light and start prioritising the welfare of their people to their own selfish ambitions.
This is where the African Diaspora comes in. African Diaspora members have more freedom than local African populations, and far less vested interests in the preservation of the status quo than the corrupt African elites and their foreign partners. They are, thus, more likely to be the catalysts for the generation and implementation of progressive policies. This is, for instance, why the impetus for the decolonisation of Africa in the 20th century started in the Diaspora.
Equally, current members of the African Diaspora must realise that they too have a duty and a unique opportunity to shape and build postcolonial Africa. It is not enough for them to write about or comment on the atrocities committed by Boko Haram on African populations. This is fiddling while Africa is burning.
They must say to themselves, “Je suis Africa”, and then, start using their financial, human and any other resources they have, including links with the internal community, African Union, influential Africans etc. to nudge, encourage or, when necessary, compel African leaders to implement policies that will bring long-term peace, security and prosperity to their populations.