Monday, January 18, 2010

Generation Abdulmutallab

The foiled attempt by young Nigerian extremist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day has baffled many Africans and sent them scrambling for an explanation.

This is not the stereotypical poor and desperate young man usually associated with violence on the continent. For one, Abdulmutallab is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and former government minister. His father even tipped off the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to his son's growing radicalism.

Second, neither Islam nor Christianity is indigenous to Africa, and the idea of dying on behalf of a foreign religion is absurd to most Africans. Third, the United States was never a colonial power in Africa and, therefore, it seems an odd target. In fact, it's a popular destination for many young Nigerians looking to emigrate.

And yet, Africa only has to look within to find the causes for radicalization. About 60 percent of Africa's nearly 1 billion people are less than 30 years old. In the past few decades, these young people have become increasingly disaffected, lost, and restless, and who can blame them? Poorly educated and jobless, they have few role models with moral stature. The value system has collapsed.

Hard work and entrepreneurship no longer assure success and wealth. Political connections matter. The richest men in Africa are often heads of state and ministers. Of the 209 African heads of state since 1960, fewer than 15 can be classified as good, clean leaders. The rest -- an assortment of military brutes, briefcase bandits, and crackpot democrats -- are decidedly uninspiring.

How can Africa claim to be fighting terrorism when the chairman of the African Union itself is Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, an admitted sponsor of terrorism?

At the United Nations' May 2002 Children's Summit in New York, youngsters from Africa stunned the audience by ripping into their leaders. "You get loans that will be paid in 20 to 30 years ... and we have nothing to pay them with because when you get the money, you embezzle it, you eat it," said 12-year-old Joseph Tamale from Uganda. Adam Maiga from Mali weighed in: "We must put an end to this demagoguery. You have parliaments, but they are used as democratic decoration."

Disenchanted by their own societies, African youth have become increasingly susceptible to radical ideas and religious extremists -- not just the Islamist fanatics in northern Nigeria and Somalia, but also the Christian variety (the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda) and the traditionalist (the Mungiki sect in Kenya).

Some seek escape in rickety boats to Europe. Others turn to crime (drug trafficking, Internet scams), prostitution, and extremist groups that seek violent change. It is sclerotic leadership and catastrophic government failure -- not poverty -- that breed this hopelessness and despair in Africa's young people, luring them to extremism.

In many African countries, government has ceased to exist or function. In its place is a vampire state -- a government hijacked by unrepentant bandits who use the machinery of the state to enrich themselves, crush their enemies, and perpetuate themselves in office. In Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, governments that scarcely provide basic social services are even at war with their own people. And their people have responded with violence.

Just last week, a separatist group, Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), opened fire on a bus carrying the Togolese soccer team to the Africa Cup, killing the driver and two team officials. FLEC seeks independence from Angola, whose government is one of the worst of these dysfunctional bodies. What motivated these young men was likely not that different from what compelled Abdulmutallab to board that plane.

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