The East African (Nairobi)

17 September 2001

Africa: Anthrax, Smallpox, Vx: the Inferno Next Time

editorial

Recriminations have started in America following the worst terrorist attack in the history of any nation. The only consolation is that this could have been a thousand times worse not only for America but for the whole world.

As the true extent of the tragedy sinks in - perhaps 20,000, perhaps 30,000 dead (half the number of young Americans who perished in Vietnam) - the world's most powerful nation could turn inwards again and become introverted vis-a-vis Africa, the most neglected continent.

George Joffey, a British political commentator at Cambridge University, has pointed out on the BBC that if America slides into deep recession as a result of what has happened, there will be severe implications for prices of African commodities, such as coffee and cocoa.

Let us not forget that the World Bank/IMF depend substantially on American funds and, as the Central Bank of Ghana has noted, a downtown in the American economy will further constrain availability of funds for Africa.

An America in recession will further be burdened by massive health care and death claims arising from the tragedy. Insurance industry spokesmen are already speaking of expecting claims of up to $30 billion.

There is, in addition, the real possibility that the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, an American trade initiative for Africa that is only now coming onstream, will be stillborn. Millions of dollars are already being invested in textile industries as well as in cotton growing. Many Africans may well find that the Americans will simply "switch off" from this trade initiative for a continent that they have consistently ignored anyway.

Many NGOs as well as United Nations agencies working in Africa could find their resources badly hit by the ripple effect from the New York blasts.

While millions of Africans, like other nations, share America's grief, the more radical have celebrated these attacks on America in Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia.

Patrick Smith of Africa Confidential says they blame the Americans for their partiality to Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. The latter are deemed the underdogs in the bitter conflict in the Middle East.

While the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York were horrific, the inferno next time could easily come from "suitcase" nuclear bombs, anthrax, smallpox, or the nerve gas VX.

Such was the element of surprise that the attackers could just as easily have rammed two similarly-hijacked aeroplanes into the White House.

A report by Agence France Press datelined Oklahoma City, June 23, said that Americans rehearsed a response in the event of a smallpox attack on the United States. The operation, code-named "Dark Winter," concluded that a biological terrorist attack on American soil "would very quickly bring the country to a standstill and the brink of disintegration as different cities and states took measures to stop travel across federal borders or fought over limited vaccine supplies."

More disturbing about the recent tragedy in America is a report posted by NewsMax that there could well have been a bio-terrorism component in the attack. If so, this would become obvious as germs reach their incubation threshold. Painfully, it seems this tragedy is not yet behind us.

Many Africans are disturbed that the most powerful nation in the world proved so vulnerable. Suddenly, it has becomes clear that bioterrorism - the use of disease-causing germs in an attack - can very quickly engulf their complacent continent.

We now know, precisely like the average American citizen, that you really cannot count on the authorities in America to forestall events. Rarely have the FBI and CIA seemed so helpless.

This is probably why Kenya's Foreign Minister, Chris Obure, while condoling the Americans, urged them not to take precipitate action against suspected perpetrators of the terrorist outrages. A similar plea came from the Kenyan Anglican Archbishop, David Gitari.

Any precipitate action by the Americans against miscalculated targets would mean the culprits going free with the potential to cause worse havoc in future.

Consider, for example, the claim made by Lowell Ponte, an American radio talk show host and former intelligence agent, about the nerve gas VX - that, for $5, one can manufacture enough to kill 100,000 people much more rapidly than any bomb attack.

It has been suggested that one possible target would be Pakistan, a country with nuclear bomb capability. Surely, it is well known that it was the CIA that co-opted Pakistan in the Afghan campaign against the Soviet Union in the 1980s during the Afghan war.

The CIA and the entire intelligence network of the US have an annual budget of $27 billion (that of the military is $300 billion). Questions are going to be asked how such well-funded organisations could have failed so miserably.

The liberal press in America says, "Let's move on, let bygones be bygones," but American journalist Christoper Ruddy says all that is "baloney; we must know why they failed so terribly."

Sam Wainaina is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi

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