Africa’s Hidden Wars


Baba Galleh JallowBy Baba Galleh Jallow

The era of mass anti-colonial nationalism in Africa saw the advent of war against foreign domination in Africa. Mass nationalism took either a peaceful form, with the key strategies being protest and petition, or it took a violent form with African groups taking up arms against the colonizing power. Examples of peaceful nationalism took place in Gambia, Ghana, Guinea and the Ivory Coast among many others. Examples of violent nationalism were conducted by the Mau Mau in Kenya, the PAIGCC in Guinea Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, and ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe. The struggle for African independence in most of its manifestations picked up after the Second World War and continued in some countries until the 1980s and 1990s.Colonialism was generally perceived as a system that exploited Africa’s resources – both human and material – and that inflicted an unbearable level of oppression on the African people. Forced labor and harsh taxation regimes combined with reluctance to Africanize the colonial civil service were sources of much discontent among African nationalists. African participation in the Second World War mostly on the side of the Allied powers – including France and Britain – the passage of the Atlantic Charter in 1941, the formation of the United Nations in 1945 and the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 all fed into the growing stream of anti-colonial discontent and emboldened the movement for self-determination in Africa. The Atlantic Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasized people’s rights to self-determination and so provided ammunition for both the physical and metaphorical guns of anti-colonial nationalists. African nationalists cited the provisions of these documents and called for an immediate end to foreign domination. Excuses offered by colonizing powers such as that they did not have their African colonies in mind when they promulgated the Atlantic Charter did not fly with either African nationalists or other international parties advocating an end to colonial rule. So that beginning in 1957 with Ghana and through the early sixties, the majority of African countries gained independence. They now had their own African-led governments modeled on the western nation-state system.

Almost immediately after independence, African governments started transforming the skeletal security forces left behind by the colonial authorities into fully fledged national armies. In the case of The Gambia, President Jawara decided to establish the national army largely because he wanted to meet the requirements of the Senegambia Confederation and after he narrowly escaped being overthrown by Kukoi’s Supreme Council of the Revolution in 1981. Research shows that between 1958 and 2001, there were a total of 89 successful coups, over 100 failed coup attempts, and over 130 alleged coup plots in Africa. These figures have no doubt jumped up in the dozen years since 2001. Having seized power in the name of liberating their citizens from corrupt and/or repressive civilian regimes, these armies almost without exception immediately turned upon the very people they claimed to be protecting. Classic examples of these savior-turned-tormentor regimes include Jammeh’s Gambia, Doe’s Liberia, Eyadema’s Togo, Amin’s Uganda, Abacha’s Nigeria, and Acheampong’s and Rawlings’ Ghana.

While in some cases like Senegal, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Nigeria – among others – the military has contributed significantly to the preservation of national sovereignties against armed internal or external threats, the great majority of African armies have generally trained their weapons not against internal secessionists, external aggressors, or rival states, but against their own unarmed and law abiding civilian populations. The army’s role as the repressive arm of dictatorial governments on the continent is complimented by a gamut of police and civilian security agencies, presidential militia and death squads often beholden to none but the head of state. They have come to constitute key pillars of the shadow states that have been created by African dictators as a way of circumventing regular government institutions and flouting judicial processes and the rule of law. They have come to be invested in protecting not the security of the nation-state, but the security of the head of state as an individual who holds the nation ransom and considers himself above the constitution and the laws of the land. They have become armies of the head of state used to fight against perceived internal enemies and critics of the head of state, killing their compatriots in the name of a national security that has become totally conflated with the personal security of the head of state.

Across the African continent, states now wage secret wars against their own people. The populations of countries like The Gambia have been reduced to the status of prisoners of war (POWs) in their own country. They have no right to question the actions and policies of their government, no right to freely express their opinions, and no right to freely support political organizations of their choice or vote into office candidates of their choice; no right or power to change their government. While many countries have a semblance of multi-party democracy and hold regular elections, the reality is that most opposition parties operate under a constant state of siege and their supporters are perpetually marginalized in the arena of national politics. The ruling party and its supporters are portrayed as the army of good while opposition parties, critics and the private media are branded and treated like enemy forces out to destroy the country in national spaces that have been transformed into virtual battlefields. Security forces that were founded on the excuse of safeguarding the security of the country are now deployed to violate the security of citizens of that same country as if the country and its citizens are two different entities. Governments wage a hidden war against their own people for no other reason than that they disagree with the head of state or choose to exercise their constitutional freedoms, especially the freedoms of expression and association.

A classic example of Africa’s hidden wars has been raging on in The Gambia since 1994. There, a military-turned-civilian dictator who still says “I am a soldier” has perfected the art of war against his critics, journalists, human rights activists and opposition parties. Yahya Jammeh has reduced the Gambian constitution into a mere useless piece of paper and spits upon the very notion of the rule of law. For him, concepts like human rights and democracy represent nothing but cancerous vestiges of a malicious colonialism that should not be allowed to infect the nation-body. He makes no secret of the fact that elections will never remove him from power. And so whether elections are held or not, whether he loses elections or not, he seems certain that with the security forces firmly on his side ready to battle and kill those segments of Gambian society he considers enemy forces out to destabilize the country, he will remain in power. The activities of the National Intelligence Agency and his personal death squad – the so-called Jungullars or Black Black Boys – lend credence to the notion that he is indeed waging a war against the Gambian people. Those citizens who dare to openly criticize him or question his actions are either murdered in cold blood, as happened to Deyda Hydara, or they simply disappear into thin air, as happened recently to Imam Baba Leigh, and as has happened to innocent victims like Chief Ebrima Manneh and many others. Peacefully demonstrating school children are gunned down in cold blood; outspoken media houses are forcibly shut down or subjected to nocturnal arson attacks – as happened to Citizen FM and The Independent newspaper. The rest of the population is perpetually terrorized by constant threats and warnings, tales of horrendous killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, unexplained dismissals, and the ubiquitous informers that now infest every nook and cranny of Gambian society. And so the country is infused with dread of their own government; people are afraid to mention the name of their own head of state lest they are picked up and tortured or killed.

But gone are the days when Africans could not hit back at warlike states like the Jammeh dictatorship. The advent of the internet and social media means that those unjustly attacked and victimized by African dictators can now fight back with their voices and their pens. Critics and opponents of African dictators who have been forced into exile resort to the use of online blogs and websites to launch their counter attacks against African dictators. Social media outlets like Facebook and Tweeter spread messages of protest and help galvanize the struggle against political impunity and the political war mongering of African dictators. Having unleashed warfare on their own people, they have now become sitting ducks for the cyber missiles relentlessly launched against their persons and policies. Dictators are not only assaulted on the policy front through editorials and commentaries, and exposed through news stories about their activities – real or imagined – they are also ridiculed and mocked in ways that cannot fail to deliver stunning and stupefying blows against their psyches. And while these dictators try anything from uttering verbal threats, hacking emails, and blocking websites, to erasing offensive video footage, they are ultimately on the losing end of Africa’s hidden wars.


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