Terrorism has become a real and growing concern for African countries. According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), the number of terrorist attacks increased considerably in Africa between 2000 and 2018, from 330 attacks in 2000 to 2365 in 2018, with a peak of 3086 attacks in 2014.
This period also coincided with a significant increase in military spending in Africa, from about USD 10.6 billion to USD 32.8 billion, peaking at USD 41.7 billion in 2014. However, results of this expenditure are mixed as terrorism and violent extremism appear to be spreading across Africa at an alarming rate, prominently in the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin, and Mozambique.i
In our view, the culprit in this situation is the lack of collective action against terrorism.
Fighting terrorism typically suffers a free-rider problem
Counter-terrorism efforts can be classified in two main categories: offensive and defensive. ii Offensive measures target the terrorists, their resources, or their supporters directly, including attacking terrorist groups or camps, freezing terrorist assets, or retaliating against a state-sponsor.
Defensive measures try to reduce the vulnerability of individuals and property to attacks, for instance, through technological barriers such as bomb-sniffing devices, metal detectors, or biometric identification, or the deployment and equipment of security personnel.
Offensive measures are seen by non-targeted countries as international public goods from which they can benefit without contributing to – a behavior called “free riding”; while defensive measures are largely seen as private goods as the benefits go primarily to the country implementing those measures .
As a result, non-targeted countries tend to place the burden of offensive counterterrorism measures solely on the target of terrorist attacks, seeking benefit from the reduction of terrorism without paying for it. This could be a justifiable strategy only when targeted countries are able to fight off terrorism by themselves, which is clearly not the case today.
Collective action failure overlooks spillover effects
Collective action failure, due to free-riding behavior, overlooks the spillover effects of terrorist attacks. Our research shows that the negative effects can materialize even without direct terrorist attacks in a country due to the presence of these spillover effects.iii Indeed, terrorist attacks lead to an increase in military spending in the attacked country but also in neighboring countries.
The reaction of the attacked country is consistent with reactive counterterrorism measures to deter future terrorist attacks, while the increase in bordering countries is consistent with preventive counterterrorism measures.
Increased military spending in neighboring countries lead to further increases in military spending in the home country. Such behavior amounts to a “yardstick” competition between countries.
Specifically, in the presence of terrorism, incumbent politicians seek to increase their chances of staying in power by looking at the level of military spending in neighboring countries and seeking to emulate it, to provide an acceptable security level in the home country.
The “yardstick” behavior may also be due to the anticipation that a tougher stance against terrorism in neighboring countries, through higher military spending, could push terrorism towards the home country, hence the need to increase military home spending.
The effects of increased military spending on growth are likely to be negative for developing countries by diverting resources from crucial productive investments and given the fact that imports of military equipment mainly benefit developed countries with a “military-industrial complex”.iv
As a result, both terrorism and government mimicking behavior, through their positive effects on military expenditure, can negatively impact a country’s growth even in the absence of direct attacks.
In addition to the channel discussed above, the negative consequences of terrorism can spillover to neighboring countries through trade disruptions, refugees, heightened risk perceptions by foreign investors or tourists, collateral damage from nearby battles, or subsequent extension of terrorist attacks to neighboring countries.
It is therefore in the interest of all African countries to join the fight against terrorism, as no country will be truly safe from the threat of terrorism until all countries are.
Greater collaboration is urgently needed to win the fight
Spillover effects point to the urgent need for collective action to address security challenges, particularly terrorism, in Africa; at the bilateral, regional, continental, and global levels.
Neighboring countries could consider actively supporting affected countries to fight terrorism before directly suffering its consequences. An illustration of this bilateral approach is the deployment of the Rwanda Defence Force in 2021 in the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique to fight terrorism.
Regional security mechanisms are much needed, such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S), the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) fighting Boko Haram-affiliated groups, the Accra Initiative, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Standby Force; which are all in West Africa.
Given the multiplicity and overlapping memberships of regional communities or mechanisms, rationalization and consolidation should be prioritized to eradicate resource wastage due to costly duplication, fragmentation, or incoordination of activities. Concerned countries should promote reliance on own resources to ensure sustainability of action and seek effective participation by neighboring countries not currently facing terrorist attacks.
At the continental level, accelerated revitalization and operationalization of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) is needed, including expedited and pragmatic implementation of the 0.2% levy on eligible imports to increase the African Union’s financial autonomy. This would help the AU build towards a successful pursuit of ‘African solutions to African problems’, in collaboration with regional bodies and the international community.
Collective action is also needed to support national efforts aimed at tackling terrorism-supporting activities such as organized crime networks, which can help finance terrorism by engaging in money-laundering, cybercrime, trafficking in people, drugs, weapons, or cultural objects. Curbing financial support can help weaken the ability of terrorists to operate and reduce the frequency and prevalence of terrorist attacks.
Finally, African countries must address the root causes of terrorism in the longer term by committing to socio-economic progress and shared prosperity for all citizens and embracing bold governance reforms, which aim to strengthen public financial management, promote transparency and accountability in public service delivery, and fight corruption.
Dr. Amadou Boly is Special Assistant to the Chief Economist and Vice-President of the African Development Bank, after working as a Principal then Chief Research Economist in the Research Department
Dr. Eric Nazindigouba Kere is a Senior Evaluation Officer at the African Development Bank
ii Sandler, T. (2005). Collective versus Unilateral Responses to Terrorism . Public Choice, 124(1/2), pp. 75–93.
iii Boly, A. and E. N. Kere (2023) “ Terrorism and Military Expenditure in Africa: An Analysis of Spillover Effects ”, Working Paper N° 368, African Development Bank, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
iv Collier, P. (2006). War and Military Expenditure in Developing Countries and Their Consequences for Development , Economics of Peace and Security Journal, 1(1), 9–13.