Biron: Radicals waging war in Africa

Bret Belden

Staff Opinion
By Raoul Biron

Although my average Saturday night in Bamako, Mali was a jumble of different clubs, casinos, and shawarma joints, a stop at La Terrasse was almost always squeezed in. You didn’t go to the crowded nightclub for its imitation American food, its indescribably awful mojitos or the older demographic salsa dancing through the bar. You went to the club because you knew the people there. Diplomats, security contractors, aid workers, journalists and wealthier Malians sat around the bar upstairs, danced with each other and got to know Bamako.

I left Mali in July. I felt safer in Bamako than in parts of New England. Around midnight on Saturday, March 7, militant extremists armed with AK-47’s walked into La Terrasse and opened fire, killing five people.

Most Sub-Saharan African countries have their violent regions. Whether it’s the Al-Qaeda offshoot Al-Shabaab targeting coastal Kenya, rebel forces in Northern Uganda and the jungles of the DRC, Boko Haram in Nigeria or the multiple sectarian extremist groups in Northern Mali, these conflict territories tend to be isolated and removed from their country’s capitals and the huge international presence within them.

Foreign communities and their hangouts are always visible, but rarely do they stick out the way they do in Africa. Foreigners in Africa tend to be white, live together in gated communities, go out together to upscale and approved spots around town (in most places there’s a list of nightclubs and restaurants to avoid) and generally do their best to replicate their different versions of ‘home’. Americans fill their houses with groceries shipped in from military bases in Germany, have barbecues, watch the latest imported television programs and go out with other foreigners.

In part out of necessity, many foreign residents insulate themselves from the everyday despair on the streets of central Africa’s cities. Doing your job in some of the most poverty stricken areas of the world is difficult, but truly relating to the constant hardship and abjection unique to the Sub-Saharan belt can make it impossible.

When you catch wind of tension and violence happening somewhere up North (as you do on a nearly constant basis in Mali, Uganda, and Kenya) it can be hard to register a personal impact. Conflicts, even in the country you’re living in, can feel as distant as when you’re stateside. The news always felt tragic, but never really threatening. African radicals know this and are actively targeting places that don’t just carry a cultural significance, but also symbolize a strong international connection.

Two months before I moved to Uganda in 2010, suicide bombers attacked screenings of the FIFA World Cup finals at a rugby pitch and an Ethiopian restaurant in Kampala. 74 people were killed. The casualties from the blasts included citizens from Uganda, Ireland, India, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the United States. For a few months after the attacks, bouncers at clubs and restaurants checked people with metal detectors. Then they stopped, and we moved on.

In 2013, just over a year after leaving the region, I watched Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, getting attacked by gunmen on CNN. The mall was popular with westerners and was celebrated by us for having the only KFC in East Africa. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks in Uganda and Kenya. Members of the same group recently stormed Garissa University College in Kenya, killing approximately 150 people.

Insurgent violence has become the revolutionary act of choice for Africa’s radical factions. As the number and consistency of attacks grows, the Western military presence in the region expands but international attention and news coverage starts to fade. Tensions can’t diffuse as colonial borders still force cultural communities apart and historical enemies together. Extremists began searching for new scapegoats and ways to inflict damage on a larger stage. Targeting the Western community in Africa fills both criteria.

Citizens from the former colonial powers that carved up the continent are now attracting retributive violence, even when working towards stability or for aid programs. A lack of attention on the violence in the region is provoking its radicals, who are now trying to do more damage, draw more attention and totally disconnect local communities from the outside world.

I never felt unsafe living in these regions, and I rarely thought about potential acts of terrorism. The fact that I was too busy feeling accepted and building a home to fear Mali and Uganda’s extremism is a testament to the tragedy and shock that it delivers.

Raoul Biron is a TNH staff writer.