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US creates African enemies where none were before

By David Gutelius / July 11, 2003



PALO ALTO, CALIF.

President Bush repeatedly highlighted the importance of democracy, peace, and security during his African tour this week. But, administration mismanagement of the war on terror has deeply undermined stability across Africa in the past year.

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In its African incarnation, that war has managed to produce almost exactly the opposite of what was intended. The administration has allowed African partner regimes to crack down on a wide range of Muslim groups over the past 18 months, creating enemies where they previously didn't exist. The majority of Muslim leaders in Africa abhor violence as a response to government repression and coercion. They have little or nothing in common with Al Qaeda. Yet US foreign policy in Africa has inspired radicalism, discredited moderate African Muslims, and fomented political instability in key nations.

Since 2001, the administration has told African governments that they must curb Islamic terrorist groups, and that future political and economic relations weigh in the balance. The US has encouraged several governments in North, West, and East Africa to place suspected radical Muslim leaders under close watch.

Although the administration hasn't revealed details of US aid to these governments, the effects are becoming apparent. Several African governments have used the war on terror as an excuse to coerce legitimate opposition groups. Many Muslim leaders have been arrested on dubious evidence. Others have suffered threats and police beatings.

The result? The US and its partners have captured some dangerous individuals and probably thwarted terrorist acts in Africa. But this success has been costly. Several recent studies suggest that Muslims from Morocco to Kenya are increasingly convinced that they will never be allowed to participate fully in national governments, let alone practice their faith freely.

Further, a generation of younger, well-educated Muslim leaders, frustrated by political corruption, social decline, and the growing power of Westerners in Africa, are either taking over established Muslim organizations or starting their own. Many keep in close touch with the larger world through satellite TV and the Internet. And, contrary to popular Western assumptions, they generally have little respect for Saudi-style Wahhabi- inspired ideas about Islam.

Yet many of these leaders are outraged at growing repression - and increasingly link that repression to the US and their national governments. The rhetoric of reform - even among moderate Muslims - has grown more strident and less tolerant. If change won't come peacefully, a mounting number of these new leaders are willing to bring change by force.

These trends have long histories that differ with each nation. But the deeper social and political changes beneath appear to have developed rapidly over the past 18 months and share growing similarities across nations.

At several stops along his African tour, Mr. Bush touted $100 million in new funding to fight terrorism in Africa. Yet the administration appears oblivious of the effect of US policy on African Muslims. This is perhaps because few US government analysts speak local languages or have direct field experience in Africa. But if the US doesn't closely monitor how governments use this new funding, it's likely to increase political instability in a dozen African nations.

What happens next is uncertain, but the Department of State will play a key role. If the administration gives it the support, the State Department can oversee appropriate use of aid to fight terrorism in Africa and actively work to build trust among African Muslim communities. This will not only help promote democracy and goodwill, but also more effectively target genuine threats.

On the other hand, if this new infusion of money into the war on terror in Africa is handled in the same way it has been, recent violence in Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Kenya, and Uganda will be just the opening shots of a longer, bloodier series of wars - struggles in which several important African nations may fracture along religious lines. Bush's African tour will seem, at best, irrelevant. And $100 million will seem like a bargain.

David Gutelius is a visiting scholar at the Center for African Studies at Stanford University and a faculty affiliate at the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa at Northwestern University.

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