A recent Inverroy blog highlighted two of the side-effects of COVID in Africa – the calamitous reduction in commodity prices on which a number of the 54 countries rely, and the similarly serious reductions in foreign investment to the continent.
This article explores the theme further with a short consideration of another COVID-19 side-effect; the liberation and empowerment of armed terrorist groups. This issue is sufficiently serious that both the US Department of Defence Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell, and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres have highlighted it this year.
Regrettably the evidence appears to bear out their predictions, particularly in the Liptako-Gourma Triangle (an area encompassing Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso).
What is happening?
Terrorist-related deaths in the Sahel have been steadily increasing (770 recorded in 2016, and 4000 in 2019).
On the 19th March 2020 Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists killed 29 Mali soldiers.
On the 24th March Boko Harem killed 92 Chad soldiers around Lake Chad. 
Also on the 24th March the Islamic State in Central Africa took over the port town of Mocimboa da Praia in Mozambique, attacking from land and sea and over-running both the town and the military base.
On the same day 47 Nigerian soldiers were killed in an ambush by the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA).
Approximately 10,000 Al Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabaab fighters are enjoying historically high freedoms of movement and action in East Africa, and the unrest is spreading north into the Sahel and the northern coastal states, especially Libya where IS remains noticeably active. There, the long-running civil war has attracted an influx of foreign fighters and mercenaries, including an estimated 7,000 Syrians, mainly fighting alongside Turkish groups on the side of the Government of National Accord (GNA). 
Why is it happening now?
Armed insurgent groups, jihadist or otherwise are by nature opportunistic, and instinctively attuned to exploit chaos and confusion. Al-Shabaab emerged in East Africa after years of war in Somalia, and Ansarul Dine, a group wreaking havoc in the Sahel under the banner of Jama’a Nasr al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (Group to Aid Islam and Muslims), exploited the 2012 Tuareg uprising to establish its version of an Islamic state in northern Mali.
COVID-19 has offered all armed groups a large opportunity. With national security forces all over the continent heavily (and rightly) committed to supporting public health by running screening and testing centres and enforcing regulations, there is now a greater freedom for armed groups to operate than there has ever been hitherto. The so-called G5 group of security forces (troops from Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania) have suspended operations because the border between Mali and Mauritania has closed, the French-driven Takuba Force (combined Special Operating Forces) has been put on hold, and both the UK and the US report the need to “draw in” in order to protect themselves and the population from COVID. And even the 15,000 strong UN peacekeeping force has a very limited ability to operate.
What is likely to happen next?
If jihadist armed groups stick to their past patterns of behaviour, we are likely to see;
COVID messaging. If the pandemic settles in Muslim areas, the armed groups will blame the “enemies of Islam” (the West, Zionists and Jews). If it settles in non-Muslim areas, they will propound “divine punishment for infidels”.
An increase in both the number and sophistication of attacks against security forces.
Increased threats to government workers, development workers and aid agency personnel.
Coordination between the armed groups to increase the effect of their activities.
Attempts to deliver alternative governance (delivery of medicine, water, food and law/order) build credibility, recruit and radicalise.
What can be done about it?
Like all resilience activities (emergency response, crisis management and disaster recovery), a key aspect is to see a crisis coming, and take steps to avoid and/or mitigate its effects before it arrives. In this case, we can see this terrorist activity happening now, and we are reasonably sure of the path it will take in the near future based on empirical evidence.
The following steps should therefore be considered:
Increased coordination between sovereign states. In this light it is very encouraging to see the UN Office of Counter Terrorism (UNOCT) setting up its first African programme office this month in Rabat, Morocco.
Follow the example of the very impressive continent-wide response to the COVID pandemic itself by sharing knowledge, resources, supply-chains and money. Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the African Centre for Disease Control in Addis Ababa has led the COVID response, including the gathering of multi-national experts, the pool system for distributing diagnostic tests from Senegal, the medical supply platform for governments to buy PPE, the Africa COVID-19 Fund, and the crucial initiatives to increase testing.
Partially as a result of Dr Nkengasong’s work, bold aggressive and multi-national action has slowed the spread of coronavirus. The 54 countries in the continent have thus far recorded only 1.5m cases and 37,000 deaths, which is 3% of global cases. Although these figures should be interpreted within the context of low-testing rates (South Africa, Morocco and Ethiopia between them have conducted over 50% of African tests), a youthful and therefore more resistant population (African median age is 19 compared to 44 in Europe) and dispersed populations in rural areas, it is nonetheless a highly impressive response. The template is highly applicable to counter-terrorism, which, like the pandemic, will respect no national borders.
Business Security Conclusion
COVID 19 was a new crisis which has struck Africa rapidly and almost without warning. Their response has been excellent and it shows in the results. There is plenty of warning about the follow-on crisis of increased terrorism and we can see it coming. A similarly agile, intelligent and coordinated multi-national response has the potential to yield similar excellent results.
As our Sector Lead for Africa, Toby has written a number of blogs focusing on Africa. He has explored issues ranging from water shortages to Higher Education, and the Changing Resilience Picture in Africa. Click on the text to read each one.
Inverroy have also worked in Morocco and the Case Study from TAQA Morocco can be read here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
TOBY INGRAM, OBE
Sector Lead for Africa, Higher Education, and Academia & Heritage.