Why many Africans wouldn’t make good suicide bombers

Today, the list of African suicide bombers would fill a small book.

Thursday March 17 2016

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So, there I was in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where a lot of clever Africans are in attendance.

There were a couple of Kenyans who think seriously about the world in the house, too.

The big issue was security and peace-building on the continent, but quite a bit of time was taken up by discussions on terrorism and violent extremism that produced a lot of gems.

One speaker noted that there were several new and disturbing things about militant group Boko Haram’s terror tactics in Nigeria.

One of them was the use of women - mostly girls - as suicide bombers.

It is a development other commentators have spoken and written about recently. Usually you do no expect that there would really be something more to say about that. Turns out there was.


A Kenyan speaker noted that Boko Haram’s use of women showed a shrewd understanding of how gender prejudice plays out in Africa.

Women in many African societies are considered mothers of the nation, “innocent”, weak, and harmless, and the male security establishment cannot get their heads around the fact that they could be suicide bombers.

It would require many of them to unlearn all the skewed things they have learnt about women.

In West Africa they finally smelt the coffee after many attacks by female suicide bombers.

Therefore, she said, the issue of female suicide bombers at another level spoke to the wider problem of patriarchy in Africa.

The striking thing about that is that probably no organisation in Africa treats women worse than Boko Haram. That is evil cynicism at its best.

They are not alone. Another speaker noted that though Islamic State in Syria and Iraq also treat women as badly, and would kill them if they had an abortion or birth control pills, nevertheless they are feeding their sex slaves contraceptives because pregnancy would get in the way.

Modern-day jihadists are not just frightening and horrible people, they are a mega bunch of contradictions.

But we were not done yet with the subject of suicide bombers. A speaker said that it is not just Nigerian female suicide bombers who are a new disturbing trend. Even male Nigerian suicide bombers are a recent phenomenon.

He quipped that Nigerians are not known for self-sacrifice. Nigerians might die in a cause, but not for a cause, he said.

He had a point, though, on Africans and suicide bombing. After the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, world airports went into overdrive on security.

At that time I was editor at the Monitor in Uganda. One of our colleagues was flying through Amsterdam and the passenger in front of him, who was an African, was hassled by airport security.

He was a very stubborn chap, so when it was his turn and they were asking him to remove his cap, jacket, and other things, he spoke up.

“You are wasting your time frisking Africans,” he said. “An African cannot be a suicide bomber. Eh, tell me, have you ever heard of an African suicide bomber?”

The security officers were thrown off guard and quickly waved him through.


At that time you would be hard put to name an African suicide bomber. Today, the list of African suicide bombers, from Somalia, Nigeria, to Egypt, would fill a small book.

I asked him later in the safety of Kampala, whether he was really serious. Yes, he said.

The reason there were no, or few, African suicide bombers (at that point), was also the reason African presidents did not really have to worry about being assassinated despite the big security show around them.

Africans, he said, are generally very pragmatic and instrumentalist about these things. They tended to mostly do things that, if they delivered, they would be able to reap the benefits on earth.

Being a suicide bomber, he said, was “unAfrican” because being successful meant dying, and someone else would enjoy the fruits of your achievement.

Assassinating a president presented the same problem. Only those who are sure they themselves would be the next president have the most incentive to pull the trigger.

But the chances of that are slim, so presidential assassinations, outside the context of a coup, are extremely rare in Africa.

I guess 15 years is a millennium in politics. Truly dramatic change can happen.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]