The last three months have been very good for violent extremist groups in the wider Eastern African and Great Lakes regions. And we should be afraid.
In mid-August Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, a militant group linked to the Islamic State, briefly seized the strategic Mozambique city of Mocimboa da Praia after days of fighting.
Reports said that government troops in the area, as is their wont, took off to the hills and forest when the IS allied group stormed the port. Many African armies are only brave when confronting unarmed protesting civilians. A barefooted but determined militant, that is another story.
Southern Africa had seemed immune to extremist groups such as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, until 2017 when they began their attacks in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, feeding off the anger of a neglected part of the country.
A few days ago, it was reported that US President Donald Trump had asked for a plan for the withdrawal of US troops from Somalia. Trump in 2016 ran on a platform that, among other things, promised to bring US soldiers home from myriad places abroad. Trailing badly in the polls behind Democratic rival Joe Biden, he might well want to use a highly visible troop withdrawal before the November 4 vote to improve his electoral fortunes.
The US is thought to have no more than 800 troops in Somalia, but where their presence has mattered is in aerial surveillance and air bombardment of Al Shabaab, which have been critical support to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). America’s departure would be a gift to Al Shabaab.
The Amisom mission becomes even more shaky, considering that it remains cash strapped, and its donors, their economies battered by Covid-19, are unlikely to pony up big budgets any day soon. Kenya has also lost its appetite for the Somalia adventure, and has one foot out of the Amisom door.
Then last week started with news that more than 1,300 prisoners escaped from a jail in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's Beni city after suspected Islamist rebels attacked the prison. Officials said it was the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group that moved shop to DRC after being kicked out of its bases there over 10 years ago.
Events could be on a path where from the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, from Somalia, a short hop through northern Ethiopia to fragile Sudan, and already extremist-wracked Chad, Niger or northern Nigeria, Mali or Burkina Faso, and a Guinea that is teetering on the edge in Alpha Condé’s power grab, these “Islamist” militants are able to carve a path to the Atlantic Ocean in West Africa.
And in southern Africa, only a debt-ravaged Zambia stands in their way to creating another corridor from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic in central Africa.
If the ineffectiveness of the states in the path of the militants, the economic enfeeblement heightened by the pandemic, and corruption, all continue, in another three to five years, the militants will be in a very happy place — and it will be hell for everyone else in between. Hate them, yes, but clearly, they are extremists with a plan.