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.

Photo Credit: World Bank


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 14:  BBC included this article in their March 14, 2016 Africa Highlights. Citi FM and Pulse Ghana republished this article on their websites.

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 17: Ghana’s largest daily newspaper, The Daily Graphic, republished this article in their Opinion Column. Photo of print version HERE.

MARCH 21: 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.


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  2. This is a great post, Jemi. Some very important questions for our leaders and our communities. I really want to know when ECOWAS will take this seriously and put measures in place. Terrible news this morning.

    • Thanks Adwoa. Yes, now would be an excellent time for a status update from major security agencies, ECOWAS etc. I haven’t seen any official statement from them yet.

  3. Emmanuel K Bensah Jr Reply

    Nice one Jemila. Insightful post. When I was interviewed by Starr FM & GH One after Burkina attacks, asked similar questions. Why was the media, after Mali in November 2015, NOT asking these questions. That’s the REAL travesty of the dearth of sub-regional discussions in Ghana.

    I can wax lyrical till cows come home about AU & ECOWAS’ strategy on Terrorism. I was asking this in 2011 & 2012 when Abuja suffered its first terrorist attacks in my writings for B&FT. You can easily google.

    To some of your points…lemme just say this is not just a conversation about Ecowas & AU. The UN has fully waded in into the discussion now with its Integrated Strategy for the Sahel, which at XYZ Africa News, we are serializing for listeners. This is no longer an Ecowas & AU matter. Been monitoring new institutions like the G5 Sahel group; & they have much to add to the debate.

    The UN Security Council ended its week-long visit to West Africa last week. The future of the Sahel was heavy in the discussions.

    You make very viable and salient points. Ones that have also been asked with deep concern by KAIPTC and other experts. What is missing is a serious discussion in the Ghanaian media. Frankly, not everyone is interested. Until they become so, we will be pulling out more hair out of frustration…because I can assure you — confirmed by friends & some family within these institutions — Ecowas & AU will not come running to the media to inform them about sub-regional strategies on security. It really will not happen. Not now.

    • Thanks for your very comprehensive comment Emmanuel and for highlighting some of the efforts in place. I agree with you that this is not just a global issue, all the more reason why the regional element must be emphasized, especially as the attacks are increasingly centered in West Africa. The UN is doing its part, as I’m sure ECOWAS is. But as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, if it’s not translating to the ground, there’s a big vacuum which will ultimately expose our vulnerabilities. Ghana’s media definitely needs to be more proactive on that front, and part of that is training on how to report on terrorism. We have to make this an issue of interest and relevance to everyone and highlight how we are ALL vulnerable. Thanks for the work you’re doing in helping keep many of our regional issues front and center.

  4. Swaye Kidd Reply

    When the Libyan situation got out of hand and Boko Haram commenced their cross-border attacks, I recall security analyst, Dr. Kwesi Aning warn that these terror attacks could become devastating for West African states and that ECOWAS and AU should find a strategy to combat it.
    Here we are today, counting dead bodies, mourning and commensurating with victims.
    And the strategy you hinted at, used by these terrorists is the same.
    I wonder how serious our leaders & citizens are to fighting these criminals.

  5. Jemila, great write-up with lots of food for thought. Sharing… and hope it is widely read and it results in some useful action.

  6. You’ve said it all really. But I think the lack of concentration on any pressing topic means we could be waiting a long time for the reaction and strategy you’ve called for.

    I’m inclined to disagree (to a degree) that being attacked has nothing to do with internal relations. Yes these organisations are just trying to instill fear and they don’t care where but it’s become increasingly apparent that they are recruiting from and then redeploying to countries. I don’t know if they’ve confirmed the nationalities of this week’s gunmen but there was chatter around the idea that they are Ivorians who have been recruited because obviously they’ll have a superior understanding of the terrain. I bring this up because as they say “prevention is better than cure” surely our internal interfaith relations are crucial to that. In addition, that Muslims will bodyblock to protect their Christians neighbours as some have done in other place relies on relations between religions.

    • Thanks for your comment Charlene. Yes, I agree that there is some level of an internal relgiious and interfaith element, but I think it’s secondary to other things – like what’s going on in the sub-region, or the economy for instance.

      I had asked the presidential candidate what measures he would put in place to curtail the threat of terrorism and he basically responded saying each country has its issues, so its about strengthening our borders (which is needed yes). He also said he didn’t think there was a threat since Ghana has peaceful relations. So that’s what I was referring to, the link to the youtube video should give more context.

      I’m big on interfaith relations and don’t think we do enough to foster interfaith understanding in Ghana honestly and that is a big threat and possible area terrorists can take advantage of, as you mention.

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  8. We have to look at the history of the security strategies in Africa, specifically with the African Union. Most countries see conflicts as foreign concepts. even within Congo, the power has managed to compartmentalize and convince itself that what was (and is still!) happening in Kivu is not that important. Africa does not have a common security and foreign policy strategy. it has always been one country or 2 sending their troops and the rest of the continent sitting idly by, counting on the UN to send in European troops. What we have to understand is that with the new dynamic of extremist attacks, we can no longer ask countries that are dealing with their own security issues to come to the rescue. we literally have to come together. And I am not talking about that Kumbaya BS. instead of meeting in summits to discuss common economy that nobody sees coming, we have to harmonize borders security policies, policies on arm trades, judiciary system to prevent radicalization and prosecution of human traffickers. monitoring of people who come and go has to be coherent from one state to the other. If we don’t grow up and take responsibility, the consequences of terror attacks will kill the continent or force us to get our shit together.

    • Thanks for explaining this so eloquently Absatou. We have no choice but to come together.

  9. This is a great write up of what has become a new “normal” in West Africa. We really need to sit up and come up with a plan that prevents these attacks, but also addresses some of the underlying issues that breed terrorism. You mention that there are marginalized groups in Ghana that can easily be swayed into accepting terrorism. What are we doing to support these groups and bring them into the fold? Everyone says Ghana has developed so much over the last decade, and anyone that visits Accra can easily see the development. But how much of this development has made its way up north? How many people in Ghana can really say that they are living improved lives. Such disparities in livelihoods breed resentment, and resentment by a large group of people (especially in border regions) can leave a big hole in any security plan BNI can come up with.

  10. Very insightful piece Jemila. I’m sharing. I hope many more do too. We really have to break out of that reverie we seem to be under as a nation, that “it can’t possibly happen to us.” I especially like that this isn’t focused on Ghana only. West Africa and Africa as a whole really need to strategize on our security. It is evident there is no longer any safe place to hide and like you rightly said, many of our people will have nowhere to go if something were to happen. Many thanks for sharing!

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  12. Dovi Abbey Reply

    Hello Jemila,

    Congratulations on this article and your efforts to wake us up on the issue of terrorism! You touched upon several key points that most of us are blissfully unaware of.

    1. The dearth of words in local languages for modern-world phenomena. This often illustrates the lack of understanding or the ignorance of events shaping the world around us.

    2. The absence of a multi-state strategy in addressing the security threat posed by these armed groups throughout the Continent, starting with West Africa.

    This last point is indicative of a more basic fact: in many areas of our lives, we have not defined a global strategy based on our own interests and priorities and built the institutions to promote our agenda in a coordinated fashion, with the resources that we have. This is true in economics, health, security, finance,…ECOWAS and other regional bodies represent an attempt to move towards more integration but progress has been hampered by major flaws and unresolved challenges in the design and operations of these institutions.

    Programs pushed onto the Continent by supra-national organizations often have the effect of making us more dependent, not more independent. If we have to rely on others to diagnose what’s ailing us, wouldn’t it be natural to expect remedies to come from them? What if their remedies were worse than the disease? How would we know? If we knew, what could we do about it?

    I am glad that you are raising these issues across our artificial borders. It is encouraging and I hope that many others will join you.

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