By JEMILA ABDULAI
Let’s talk about the terrorist attack in Côte d’Ivoire for a second. Specifically, what Ghana and other African countries should learn or do. For those who don’t know, an estimated 16 people died yesterday while at Grand Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire.
It’s a popular resort and beach town a few hours from the Ivorian capital Abidjan which I visited numerous times while living in Côte d’Ivoire. In Ghana, Grand Bassam could easily be Ada or Labadi beach. In Senegal, it could be Gorée Island or any of Dakar’s many popular beaches. But none of this is new. Same script, different cast. The terrorists (Al-Qaeda group in this case) have stayed consistent with their current strategy.
What’s the strategy? To attack expatriate (expat) or tourist sites – hotels, resorts, malls, places of entertainment. They did so in Burkina Faso and Mali, previously in Tunisia and Kenya, and now Côte d’Ivoire. The strategy might be slightly different in each country (location for instance), but the motive is largely the same: to draw or gain attention and press, primarily for political grievances. Why expat or tourist sites? Terrorists seek out international press – not local. Hitting such sites means more countries are involved. For example, Côte d’Ivoire attack victims apparently include nationals of: Germany, France, Cameroon, Mali, and Burkina Faso. One attack, 6 countries already affected (not counting the injured). Before that, 18 nationalities were made up the dead in the Burkina Faso attack in January 2016.
Essentially, terrorists are becoming increasingly strategic with their attacks. One attack affects thousands directly, especially when more countries are involved. Local and international media carry those stories. So their objective of press coverage, spreading fear and panic is easily achieved with this strategy.
Another element is that the terrorists seem to ride off of existing press coverage. Burkina Faso recently had a civilian uprising prior to attack. Mali has been in the news since Gaddafi demise, with a lot of coverage regarding its United Nations heritage sites, and Côte d’Ivoire has been getting lots of positive press especially since its October 2015 presidential election. The country recently overtook Nigeria as the preferred investment destination in the sub-region.
So – if the trends are clear and the motives generally consistent, the next question is what are African governments doing to prevent, combat or prepare for attacks? The terrorists are being strategic – and to a degree coordinated – how are we doing the same?
When the last Paris attack happened, the United Kingdom police started disseminating a video and information on what to do during a terror attack. The video (embedded below) wasn’t geared at security professionals and outfits, but rather at civilians. West Africa has had 3 terrorist attacks recently (not counting Nigeria). I don’t know about you, but in Ghana, beyond news headlines and short lived security discussions, I’ve seen no concrete information after or on the attacks, much more what to do in the event of one.
What are we doing? How do we evacuate hotels or places of work if an attack happens. Have we mapped exit routes out of capitals and other major cities? Is there a national or regional early warning system or strategy for terrorism prone sites like hotels and resorts? Have we undertaken training for first responders like police and ambulances? Really, where and what is our plan? I’ve been asking this since the 2013 Al-Shabab attack on Kenya’s Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Where is Africa’s regional strategy on security and terrorism? If it exists, how are regional bodies like the ECOWAS and the African Union making sure citizens in their member countries are aware of measures being taken?
Belgium and France coordinated closely after the last attack and other European Union nations were on high alert and restricted travel. Do we have similar in the sub-region? The United States probably has the most comprehensive security intelligence in West Africa – any intelligence sharing deals with African governments?
At the end of the day, information, vigilance and preparedness are what will save lives. Burkina Faso & Côte d’Ivoire are Ghana’s neighbors – in case you haven’t noticed, it’s inching closer. Too close. Senegal is another country which should be on high alert.
Ghana has many expat spots, tourist sites, and a very diverse international community. It also has marginalized communities terrorists can prey on or recruit. These are the facts – regardless of our “peace” which we herald so much, life is not rosy for everyone. We are as vulnerable as any country that has already been attacked.
What can be done? I won’t even go far: What is the word for “terrorist” in Twi? Ewe? Dagbani? Fante? Ga? Does the average Ghanaian know that “Al-Kayida” is not just a popular dance but actually represents something terrifying and dangerous? Will they break out in dance when someone shouts “Al-Qaeda” or will they make a break for it and run?
Have Ghanaians followed the other terrorist attacks in the region closely? Have we been informed or educated enough to understand key elements? Like the fact that shouting or praying “in Jesus name” might not be the best bet when confronted as the terrorists have taken to targeting Christians in many attacks? Will people, children especially, know to run away from the sound of gunfire – or will they think it’s leftover knockouts from Christmas?
The point of my article is this:
– The danger is not as far away as we may think
– We are nowhere as prepared as we should be
– Getting attacked has little to do with internal peace or relations between religious groups as a 2012 Ghanaian presidential candidate once alluded
That said, there are things we can begin doing. Like sensitizing people, coming up with local language to describe terror events, warn people, and so on. We can also take regional events like the Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso attacks seriously – not simply launch “pray for X country” campaigns. We also need to separate protocol from convenience. Why are there so many motorcades – civilian and military – in Accra these days? When a real emergency happens, how will we know the difference? Terror spreads fast when there is lack of information and order.
Each attack that happens elsewhere shouldn’t just be an occasion to “thank God, it’s not us”. It should also be a “what would we do if”. Simulation and strategizing around different scenarios is key.
Ghana, and other African countries, are in an election year – the lens of the international press will turn to us, and as mentioned, we already have a large expat community. How prepared is Ghana? How prepared is West Africa, and by extension, Africa? What will we do – not just for expats – but also for those of us who won’t be evacuated at all cost? Are we actually preparing for these eventualities or are we just sitting ducks? What will it take for African leaders and civilians to act? Kindly share your thoughts. The conversation and action are long overdue.
Thanks to everyone who has shared, commented on or reached out regarding this article and the video below. It’s a start and we look forward to more concrete action. Let’s keep the conversation going.
MARCH 16: The Government of Ghana released a statement on increasing national and regional counter-terrorism measures. You can read or download the statement HERE.
MARCH 21: ModernGhana.com republished this article as a ‘special report’. Read it HERE.
MARCH 24: Global Voices – largest citizen journalism website – republished this article in their opinion and perspectives section “The Bridge”. Read it HERE.
MARCH 29: Citi FM – one of Ghana’s largest radio stations – read excerpts of this article, followed by a conversation on terrorism and security in Ghana and the West African subregion. Find tweet announcement HERE. A summary of the Twitter discussion will be made available soon.
APRIL 2: A Swahili version of this article was published by Global Voices. Read it HERE.
APRIL 5: Jemila, article author & Circumspecte editor, joined the Accra We Dey podcast to discuss terrorism, security and other issues highlighted in this article. Listen to the podcast HERE.
APRIL 13: Citi FM highlights reports from Ghana’s National Security Council on confirmed plans to attack Ghana following the Grand Bassam Attack. The intelligence was supposedly retrieved by Ivorian security officials who are interrogating a suspected Malian terrorist. Read the article HERE.