Africans debate impact of Osama bin Laden killing

Kenya greeted Osama bin Laden's death as "justice." Other countries worry that America's battle against terrorism masks an attempt to expand military influence in Africa.

Sayyid Azim/AP
Kenyans watch US president Barrack Obama, on television in Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday, May 2, announcing the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

For many Africans, the war against terrorism began on African soil.

It started with the dual car bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998, three years before the 9/11 attack in the United States. Suicide bombers killed 213 people in Nairobi and 11 people in Dar-es-Salaam, almost simultaneously.

Small wonder, then, that Kenya's leaders were among those to congratulate the United States for its reported killing of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden on May 1 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

“Kenyans are happy and thank the US people, the Pakistani people, and everybody else who managed to kill Osama," Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told Reuters. President Mwai Kibaki called it “an act of justice” for the people of Kenya who lost loved ones in the 1998 attack.

IN PICTURES: Osama bin Laden death: reaction

But elsewhere on the African continent, the news of Mr. Bin Laden’s death was met with a mixture of skepticism, joy, and alarm. For some chatting over social media forums like Twitter, it was a sign that America was finally learning the art of slow, patient intelligence work. For others, and particularly those jaded by years of muscular us-versus-them propaganda, the US operation was a demonstration of its overreaching military power and contempt for rules of sovereignty.

Typical is this exchange that occurred on Twitter this morning: "well done to the US for sorting out bin Laden," tweeted South African radio talk show host Kieno Kammies, prompting the reply from Twitter user ORapscallion, "Ja but was it necessary to kill a few 100k innocents in the process?"

Little connection to Africa's militant threats

The death of one man will have little practical impact on a continent where small local groups are capable of doing damage far beyond their numbers.

“I don’t think the possibility of an attack has increased because of bin Laden’s death,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, the Horn of Africa director for International Crisis Group in Washington. Indeed, bin Laden’s death may actually deflate the interest of African extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab in aligning themselves with Al Qaeda.

But countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and even Burundi, all of whom have been involved in the fight against Al Shabaab and other Islamist militias in the wartorn country of Somalia, all face the threat of potential attacks, Mr. Hogendoorn adds.

“Kenya is a soft target, and terrorists select soft targets in any country. I think all Western-aligned countries are concerned about militant attacks from [small elements within] the Somali diaspora community.”

IN PICTURES: Osama bin Laden death: reaction

Wary of US unilateralism

Many in Africa remain wary of US counterterrorism efforts and skeptical of its motives on the continent. It was after the 9/11 attacks, after all, that US military cooperation on the African continent increased dramatically and that the US military created its much-heralded and misunderstood US Africa Command, known as Africom.

Many African governments rejected Africom initially, fearing that the US military planned to establish permanent US military bases in Africa. To date, the US military rents out a section of the French military’s Camp Lemonier base in Djibouti, and otherwise coordinates its operations from Africom’s base in Frankfurt, Germany. Africom says it never intended to build a base in Africa, although Liberia offered territory for it.

Some governments, such as South Africa's, view any US military presence in Africa with alarm, even if that presence is temporary and even if the US role is simply to run counterterrorism training with partner countries, as it does with Mali. The concern is that the base could be a precursor to unilateral American action in sovereign African countries.

“The Government of the Republic of South Africa has noted the news of the passing on of Mr. Osama bin Laden as announced during the early hours of today, Monday, 2 May 2011,” the South African government said in a statement quite distinct from the warm support of the Kenyan government.

“South Africa reconfirms the commitment to the system of global governance of multilateralism…. We call upon all countries across the world to cooperate in stemming the demon of terrorism, in all its manifestations, out of global politics.”

Local grievances will be the motivator

Indeed, if Al Qaeda-linked groups in Africa do increase their operations in the near term, it is likely to be because of local grievances, says Mohamed Jalloh, a Western Africa political analyst in Dakar, Senegal.

This is because groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) generally draw most of their support from local tribal groups, such as the Tuaregs of Mali and Niger, who have grievances with their national governments and have turned to Al Qaeda as a source of funds and ammunition, Mr. Jalloh says.

“Al Qaeda gives them a united identity, and they use this opportunity to attack foreigners in order to gain access to money,” says Jalloh. “But at the bottom line, it is a question of Tuareg identity that motivates them in Mali and Niger. They need resources to keep up that fight. With the death of bin Laden, the symbolic value of Al Qaeda will decline," he says.

But so far, reaction in the Sahel region, which stretches coast to coast across of the continent in a strip just south of the Sahara Desert, has been muted. Several countries are divided between northern Muslim communities and southern Christian ones, and leaders are likely hesitant to say anything that could inflame already existing Muslim-Christian tensions.

Sudan, which is preparing for the secession of its Christian-dominated southern region in July, has remained quiet about the death of bin Laden. Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian reelected in April, has also been mum. Hundreds of Muslim and Christian citizens died in ethno-religious clashes during the country's April elections.

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