To save lives companies and governments must change the way that they operate in Africa

Unless companies and governments change the way that they operate in Africa, more kidnappings, killings, and evacuations, similar to what’s happened recently in Algeria and Libya, are likely to happen again. It’s this realization that led to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s request that her staff review security for U.S. diplomats, businesses, and citizens in the Maghreb and North Africa. It’s not a secret in Washington about what is needed – that is better training – the real question is whether it will be delivered.

Terrorism is not new in Africa, but it is on the rise. I personally oversaw the investigation of simultaneous bombings in Uganda during the 2010 World Cup Soccer match that killed 74 people including an American aid worker. Behind the attack was Al Shabaab.

On the other side of the continent, Boko Haram has been killing scores of Nigerians, mostly Christians, on a regular basis. More than 1400 people since 2010 alone, including 23 people during their attack on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja.


The situation in the Sahel region worsened following the seizure of the northern part of Mali by extremists in mid-2012 and the looting of Muammar Qaddafi’s extensive arsenal in Libya following his toppling last year. It meant that terrorists in the region were stronger than ever. As well as an influx of weapons, they had a whole area (the size of France) to train and operate. To top if all off, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the man behind the attack on the Algerian natural gas facility, even announced his plans to target foreign companies.

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One response to the deteriorating situation is evacuation. Recently, governments have been advising their citizens to leave Libya and Algeria. But what about those government workers that need to remain? And what should companies do? They can’t just abandon billions of dollars in assets and investments.

Just as success in real estate is determined by “location, location, location,” success in the world of intelligence and security is determined by “training, training, training.” And this is true both for governments and private companies. Indeed the most security-prepared companies not only train their security staff on how to prepare for crises, they also prepare their personnel and executives who travel to high-risk countries. Knowing how to anticipate and respond to a hostage situation, for example, is often the difference between life and death.

The mistake that many companies (and even governments) make is an over-reliance on the host government for protection. If the U.S. consulate in Libya isn’t safe from a deadly attack by terrorists – where both the local government had an incentive to protect, and there were armed U.S. personnel present – is anywhere really safe? Despite best efforts and intentions of governments to protect foreign guests, it is the responsibility of companies to ensure their own protection.

Training, however, is one of the first line items to get cut as governments and companies look at ways to save money. Too many times while in government I saw officials look at training as a nuisance. It takes people off line so they can’t perform their normal duties; and it doesn’t produce revenues for companies. Security training is seen as tantamount to an extended fire drill—and who likes to empty their building for no apparent “good” reason?

In reality security training is analogous to insurance. You never know when you’re going to need it, but just because you haven’t needed it until now doesn’t mean you should cancel your policy. Training, like insurance, protects you against future risk.

It’s training that helps to fend off the biggest enemy of security: complacency. I’ve dealt with cases of diplomats and businessmen being killed or kidnapped on their way to or from their homes because they followed the same route at the same time every day—despite constant warnings not to do this. How many people have picked up a satellite telephone in an emergency and did not know how to operate it?

Multinational organizations can, and should, think like governments when managing security risks. Best-practice tactics from federal agencies promote constant monitoring of changing trends in the region, and regularly updating individuals’ skills to respond to changing threats. But as even the government has an unhealthy track record of cutting back on training, who is setting the example for companies to make the changes needed?