In todays world, economic power is what counts. No wonder that Africa is a forgotten continent. Its hopes and dreams are of little interest to outsiders. The worlds media appropriates the spectacle of Africas misery, hardship and apocalyptic HIV/Aids statistics, but offers little in return.
Colonialism and its successor, reckless globalisation, have created a system in which Africans consume what they do not produce and produce goods they do not consume. The unease and anger that results from this unequal commercial relationship is often exploited by local dictators themselves supported by a complex web of mafia clans, multinationals and other esoteric groups who blame Europe while reaping advantages for themselves.
Yet if, yesterday, Africans were resigned to being marginal and lacking information about how the world operates, today things are very different. Radio now brings information to the remotest of hamlets; even the old and illiterate are able to receive news and form opinions on current affairs.
The need to have news of ones family a very African trait has been transferred to the entire human community.
But the result is often to intensify division rather than unity. Parts of the continent are becoming a fertile breeding-ground for extremist doctrines.
Word on the street
Democracy is a luxury for Africa, said French president to Jacques Chirac in Abidjan in the mid-1990s. It still sounds like a statement of monstrous arrogance. The sad fact, however, is that there is little functioning democracy in Africa in the sense of representative and responsive government. Such democracy as we do have is largely in the oldest form: on the street, in cafés and odd corners, where people overcome boredom with chit-chat, gossip and rumour.
What is the word on the street about the war on terror? In short, behind it is seen a yearning for Iraqi oil. It is not forgotten here that in justifying the invasion of Iraq, the American government accused Iraq of seeking uranium from Niger. In that country, one of the poorest on earth, Islamist movements are said to be encouraging irredentist groups in the vastness of the Sahara.
Meanwhile, the Americans are exploring Mars and planning to send human beings there. Can they be serious? Have all earthly problems been solved so that they can now turn their attention to the red planet? Theres an African saying that you should put your personal affairs in good order before you travel in order to avoid betrayal on your return. Africans ask themselves: if there were Martians and they invaded Earth whose side would they be on? Many say they would join the Martians against Americans and Europeans.
Nigeria: the battlefield of evangelism
Many young people in Africa who comprise over 60% of the population in some countries say their future is being sacrificed. Where do they turn?
In northern Nigeria, clashes between Muslims and Christians have become increasingly frequent since the 1980s. A recent confrontation, involving a group of young men who declared themselves followers of al-Qaida, took place in late December 2003 in the state of Yobe which adopted Sharia law four years ago. The fighting forced more than 10,000 people to leave their homes, according to the Nigerian Emergency Aid Agency.
The original riot was caused by a group of religious students called al-Sunna wal-Jamma (Followers of the Prophet) who demand the establishment of an Islamic state. Their leader is called Mullah Omar. They then fled from Nigerian army units, only to regroup in neighbouring Niger. These confrontations arouse a profound unease in several of Nigerias neighbours, like Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
Indeed, across the region, there are more and more missionaries from monotheist religions Pakistanis and bearded Middle Eastern men with a fiery version of Islam, evangelical Christians permanently on crusade. These fishers of men are astute at exploiting misery and deft at enticing the young and unemployed of both sexes into becoming recruits, and occasionally fanatical exponents, of their doctrines.
Permeable borders and terrorist networks
Nation-state borders in Africa, only a little over a century old, were made to suit the imperial ambitions of those who drew them. The lines across the continent established at the Congress of Berlin (1884) took little account of the peoples whom they contained and divided.
A classmate of mine from twenty years ago is a good example of this. His mother was from Equatorial Guinea, his father was Cameroonian and his sister was married in Gabon. They all belonged to the Fang people, who live in southern Cameroon, northern Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. This friend used to tell us how he managed to get an identity card under a different name in each of the three countries.
Similar cases are widespread in much of Africa and in current conditions of political tension, they may provide opportunities for training sites for people in whom religious certainty and hunger mix into a dangerous cocktail.
The great majority of African citizens exist in poverty and are locked under corrupt leaders who maintain control through tribalism, fraud and violence. In this perspective, Africa can be seen as a giant experiment in the genesis of terrorism. The seeds are being sown.
It is time to learn that the real war must be waged against the conditions that make people turn to terrorism in essence, conditions of injustice. An African proverb says the security of each individual is found in the solidarity of all. Intellectuals in the west need to understand this.
This article was translated from French by Poppy Trowbridge