Paris attacks: Africa should be afraid of Isis, but for a very different reason

Thursday November 19 2015

Firefighters evacuate an injured person near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, on November 14, 2015 after a terrorist attack. There are bigger reasons why Africans should worry about these Isis-fuelled attacks that stretch through North Africa into the Middle East. PHOTO | DOMINIQUE FAGET |

Firefighters evacuate an injured person near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, on November 14, 2015 after a terrorist attack. There are bigger reasons why Africans should worry about these Isis-fuelled attacks that stretch through North Africa into the Middle East. PHOTO | DOMINIQUE FAGET |  AFP

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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aThe Friday night terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and were claimed by Isis, horrified the world.

In his message to the French, President Uhuru Kenyatta called for steadfast action against terrorists and referenced the various attacks the country has suffered at their hands.

And like very many other people, said the terrorists threaten our way of life and values.

All these things are true, but there are bigger reasons Africans should worry about these Isis-fuelled attacks that stretch through North Africa into the Middle East.

Events in the Middle East tend to be catastrophic for us.

CAPE OF GOOD HOPE

Now read this only if you are interested in the next 85 years in Africa.

The Paris events take us back to December 2013, after the venerated South African statesman Nelson Mandela died.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni wrote a short article to honour Mandela that was published, in among other publications, The EastAfrican.

It was quite out of left field. He argued that the story of Mandela began in 1453 AD, when the Ottoman Turks captured Istanbul from the Byzantine Empire.

That blocked the overland route from Europe to Asia that was critical for the spice and silk trade.

The Europeans sought an alternative sea route to the East, around Africa.

Thus by 1498, 45 years after the fall of Constantinople, the Portuguese sailor, Vasco Da Gama, had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, today Cape Town.

COLONIAL DOMINATION

Before long, the Europeans turned the refuelling and replenishment stations for their ships on the way to the Far East into launch pads for colonial domination of the hinterlands, and the rest is history.

It is striking how today we are nearly exactly where we were 500 years ago.

Today, Asia is big again, with China, the world’s second largest economy and most populous nation, and a resurgent India, the world’s second most populous nation.

Asia is the most prized emerging market.

If Isis and other extremist groups were to topple the regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, they would be able to choke off two key trade routes for Europe to Asia, Africa, and the Americas — the Mediterranean and the Red seas.

DESTROYING THE WORLD ORDER

The Middle East combined is not much bigger than DR Congo and Algeria. It is mostly desert with relatively few people.

Power in the Middle East means something only if it gives control beyond the region, as the Saudis did with oil.

How would triumphant forces like Isis, committed to destroying the world order as it is today, behave?

First, while it is conceivable that a few more Arab countries in the Middle East might collapse in the years ahead and that the world powers might well live with that, especially if their oil is no longer important, Israel would be imperilled too.

PROTECTING ISRAEL

There would be no rear bases for the Americans and the Europeans to mount a defence of Israel. The only possibility would be in the Horn of Africa.

These new Isis-birthed forces will want to prevent that.

And the most disruptive way to do that is to contest for control of not just North Africa or the Horn, but the whole continent. And ironically, southern Africa above all.

That would give the belligerents the ultimate prize — control of the sea routes between the Americas and Asia.

He who does that would determine whether the Americas and Asia prosper.

So, while Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa, in the years to come the thing will be to plant bases on the continent.

ZEALOUS INVADERS

In his article, Museveni said that when the colonialists arrived, African “states” and chiefs were weak, corrupt, and disorganised and so folded easily under the weight of determined invaders who had superior technology.

Interestingly, that too has not changed much. African states are still weak, their political classes even more corrupt than those of centuries ago, and the people more disillusioned than their forefathers.

Centuries ago, Africans left involuntarily as slaves in chains to markets in the Americas and Europe.

Today they pay smugglers thousands of dollars to deliver them to European shores in rickety boats, many of which sink and they drown, or they walk and hitchhike from West Africa or the Horn through desert and figuratively swim across to Europe.

It is doubtful that many of our countries can repel zealous invaders.

We should fear Isis, the Boko Harams, and Al-Shabaabs of this world.

However, the real nightmare is what will follow after them.

That it might be only 50 years down the road, if they win, should be no comfort.

The writer is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa.