Australia needs to raise its game in Africa

Africa needs a comprehensive approach to tackling terrorism, and Australia should be helping

Anthony Bergin

International relations, National security | Australia, The World

9 July 2018

If security leads to prosperity then the Australian Government can help the African continent as well as itself through investment in the region’s security, Anthony Bergin writes.

African heads of state met last week at the 31st African Union summit in Mauritania. They discussed Islamist extremism and agreed to coordinate efforts to defeat jihadist groups.

Just in the last few weeks al-Qaeda’s Mali branch conducted three attacks in Mali and there was a deadly terrorist attack in Nigeria. While not a panacea, a Sahel five-nation regional force was formed last July as a partnership among five states that have been hard hit by al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked terrorist attacks.

Australia has mainly engaged in Africa through its extractive sector. More than 35 per cent of Australian mining projects are located in countries in West Africa and the Sahel, as well as Kenya and Tanzania, where terrorism is of concern.

Australia has 190 ASX-listed companies running 590 mining and exploration projects across 38 countries on the continent. The country has an interest in ensuring that its mining companies working across the continent are able to operate without risk of attack.

Africa now needs a comprehensive approach to deal with terrorism and Australia should be helping. But Australia’s defence and law enforcement presence in Africa is strained. It’s not helped by the fact that our diplomatic footprint in Africa is the smallest of any OECD country: we’ve got missions in just nine African nations.

Last year Australia did, however, open a new embassy in Rabat, Morocco, and that post should help provide an awareness of security developments across the Maghreb and may assist with tracking terrorism threats more closely.

Australia has one Defence attaché stationed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and one federal police liaison officer stationed in Pretoria, South Africa. We’re only engaged in one African peacekeeping mission, Operation ASLAN in South Sudan, with around 20 ADF personnel. Australia is now ranked 83rd out of 125 military and police contributors to UN peacekeeping.

We should identify ways where we can support efforts to develop the peacekeeping capabilities of other countries involved in African peacekeeping.

To have an appropriate level of awareness of the evolving security dynamic across Africa we need more than one Defence attaché to cover 54 countries and the continent’s complex security challenges.

Australia should appoint a Defence attaché to operate in the Sahel. Its mission in Nigeria, headquartered in Abuja, is an obvious location to provide a better understanding of the nature of localised security threats and challenges emanating from terrorist groups.

More on this: Engaging with Africa in a 'post-aid' era

Abuja is the headquarters of the Economic Community of West African States – a regional group with a mandate to promote economic integration between 15 member countries. It would be valuable for Australia to engage with this group directly, helping to identify niche areas where the country can make a valuable contribution to security at a regional level.

Defence should also create a permanent liaison position at the US Africa Command in Germany. This would assist with Australian security capacity-building efforts on the continent. It would build on the contact the country has had already: its Special Forces have twice participated in Operation Flintlock, organised by the US Special Operations Command Africa.

Australia should strengthen police capacity on the continent to support our interests in strengthening the rule of law. Enhanced police engagement could include seconding an officer to the Eastern African Police Chiefs Cooperation Organization, as well as providing training on forensics and intelligence gathering.

A federal police presence in Nairobi would give Australia a better understanding of the nature of the security challenges and terrorist threat from the Horn region.

Activities to prevent violent extremism can now officially be counted as part of Australia’s aid budget. We should be leveraging security assistance as part of our overall development assistance investments in Africa. The evolving Australia-France strategic relationship could provide useful partnering opportunities for counter-terrorism cooperation in Africa.

Our extractive sector in Africa also has a vital role to play in countering extremism: as set out in a pioneering study last year by Lisa Sharland, Tim Grice, and Sara Zeiger, Australia’s miners in Africa create jobs that can help address one of the underlying causes of radicalisation. Additionally, they’ve often got unrivalled access to local communities, where grassroots efforts to prevent violent extremism must really start.

More on this: A continent of hope

In a submission last October to a Senate committee inquiry into Australia’s trade and investment relations with Africa, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade pointed out that Africa presents a “significant opportunity, with growth sectors related to Australian capabilities, similar to Southeast Asia thirty years ago.”

The Senate Committee’s Africa report was tabled last month and made a number of recommendations on how Australia should lift non-extractive trade and investment in Africa. It recommended that the Australian Government consider supporting initiatives that strengthen the regulatory and governance landscape in Africa.

But if Australia is to do these good things we need to step up our modest security investments on the continent. This could be done under the MOU Australia concluded with the African Union Commission in September 2010. One of the six cooperative areas that the MOU prioritises in partnering with Australia is ‘peace and security’.

The more we partner with African states, the more viable our future economic engagement with these nations will be. Security leads to prosperity.

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