Challenges of Terrorism and Violent Extremism in Africa
In Paul Smith’s book “The Terrorism Ahead”, he theorizes that “terrorism is a constant feature of human civilization — it is neither new nor is it likely to ever end”. Terrorism has been used as a weapon since the 1700’s but the rise in globalisation and mass media mean that more people see and feel the effects of acts global terror in any region.
According to the UNDP In the past five years alone, 33,000 people have died in terrorism-related violence in Africa. Violent extremism and groups espousing it are threatening to reverse Africa’s development gains not only in the near term, but for the foreseeable future.
The response has been primarily focused on using military interventions to suppress dissent and insurgency. These often do not address the underlying factors and more often do more harm than good. Trust and respect for the military and, by extension the government, is undermined when the citizenry feels it is just as abused as the terrorists.
In fact, Amnesty international (2015) has accused the Nigerian government on several occasions of mass killings, torture and human rights abuses. They report that since the insurgency began, “military forces have extra judicially executed more than 1,200 people; arbitrarily arrested at least 20,000 people, mostly young men and boys; and have committed countless acts of torture”(p. 4). ECOWAS troops have been accused of similar violations of human rights in their peace-keeping missions.
Even the US and Britain have questioned the success of their military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan with many commentators saying it created more problems than it solved and is indirectly connected to the rise of ISIS.
A holistic examination of the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism has to be explored in order to find lasting solutions. These include demographic factors such as urbanization, poverty, unemployment and migration, the information revolution, transnational crime, the festering of failed states, climate change that contributes to national calamities, increased social and political instability, and the rise of religious and ethnic identities.
PJ Smith, referenced above, also advocates for cooperation between states and non-state actors as likely to yield more positive results in addition to counter-terrorism strategies. “Greater reliance on ‘soft power’ … rather than hard (military) power will likely generate a more long term, sustainable environment that is inhospitable to terrorism”.
The June 2016 Afrobarometer paper summarises the problem of public trust in combating insurgency as follows:
Public trust in security forces has a profound effect on the success of security-led initiatives to combat violent extremism. It determines whether local communities, who are an important source of information and often best situated to understand the distinct dynamics of conflict in their region, are willing to work with or against security forces (Hultman, 2007). A lack of trust in the army or police, particularly in their ability to identify armed extremists among the general population, could incite civilian support for these violent organisations. Furthermore, disarmament, deradicalization, and reintegration programs generally target people who were drawn into violent extremist groups through either coercion or financial incentives, rather than ideology.
In examining the systemic flaws in counter-terrorism policy formation and implementation in recent times, Africans are in large measure cognizant of the destabilizing effects of terrorism. Across 36 African countries surveyed in 2014/2015 (Bentley et al., 2015), security came in seventh place, following unemployment, health, education, infrastructure/transport, water supply, and poverty. When asked which six key sectors should be prioritized if their governments could increase their expenditures, only 17% of citizens across 36 countries cited security as their first or second priority for future investment. This is significantly lower than the responses for education (55%), health care (51%), agriculture (30%), and infrastructure (27%). When asked the most important National problem, unemployment was the principal concern despite differences in economic and security challenges across the continent (Afrobarometer 2016).
Focusing on the three regional “hotspots” for violent extremism – the Lake Chad region, Sahel, and Horn of Africa, the extremist groups’ regionalization of their activities and strengthening of ties to international jihadist networks pose a significant challenge to national security forces. It is thus necessary to strengthen the capacity of the military with adequate weaponry, properly trained personnel, greater regional cooperation, and support from international development partners.
The alarming prevalence of weak institutions, corruption, ethno-religious divides, poverty, social marginalization, and political disenfranchisement in a continent filled with disillusioned and unemployed youth creates a deadly cocktail that is susceptible to violent ideologies. Disillusionment with the status quo rather than religious extremism is increasingly being linked to terrorist recruitment and exploitation.
There has never been a greater need on the continent to address the root causes of conflicts and build stronger relationships between governments and local communities.
*Photo credit: Associated Press.