Politics West Africa

State action, not religion, drives extremism in West Africa

State action, not religion, drives extremism in West Africa
  • PublishedApril 13, 2023

Not a day passes without the news agencies informing us of yet more bloodshed and destruction caused by the extremist organisations now active in wide swathes of West Africa. No country in the sub-region seems safe from the terrifying presence of these armed groups – which seem to be increasing in number and strength by the day.

Even in Nigeria which has the most sophisticated security assembly in West Africa, the constant threat of groups like Boko Haram and more recently Al-Qaeda is never far from public consciousness and a potent election issue.

The reach of terrorist organisation like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in their various local manifestations has been spreading from the Sahel to West Africa to Central Africa to East Africa and as far south as Mozambique.

The UN says “Sub-Saharan Africa has become the new global epicentre of violent extremism with 48% of global terrorism deaths in 2021. This threatens to reverse hard-won development gains for generations to come.”

However, while attacks by these groups are immediately and vociferously condemned by all and sundry, and thousands of words are written on the destructive impact of their activities, very little has been known about their motivation. Despite the presence of armed forces from a multiplicity of countries, including Europe and the US, very little first-hand reporting is available from the ground level.

New African’s veteran war correspondent, Al J. Venter has been one of the few to report from the front line and to try and work out the motivations and operational models of the extremist groups.

His most recent report for New African took readers well behind the scenes into the complexities of the conflict, the identities of the groups, the influence of foreign armies and pointed out the main drivers of the violent extremism.

From 2011 to 2016, 33,300 people lost their lives to extremist violence and millions more have been displaced and in need of critical humanitarian support. Greater militarisation has not only failed to decrease the violence, it seems to have had the opposite effect.

Nathaniel Powell, writing for War on the Rocks, says: “Indeed violence levels in the three countries (Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali) have risen each year since 2017, reaching over 2,500 incidents in 2021 and nearly 6,000 deaths.”

Apart from isolated on-the-ground coverage like that in New African, the whole phenomenon of violent extremism in Africa remains in an informational black hole as the only solution proffered has been to increase the military presence and meet ‘violence with more violence’. This approach has clearly failed and continuing to repeat it will yield only more failure.

Indeed, the UN says “the evidence base concerning the causes, consequences and trajectories informing violent extremism – and what works in preventing it – remains weak globally. This is particularly true in Africa when compared to other regions.”

But now there is hope that the intelligence impasse can be broken and strategists can work from solid information and knowledge rather than follow knee-jerk solutions of more militarisation.

Exploding the religion myth

A new UNDP report, Journey to Extremism in Africa, is a major work that looks deep into the root causes of extremism. It sets out to create “precisely such an evidence base concerning the drivers and incentives for recruitment in Africa.”

The report is part of a wider mandate, the UNDP’s ‘Africa’s Preventing and Responding to Violent Extremism in Africa’ programme, which since 2015 has worked with governments to help deliver “development-focused and effective responses to the expanding crises associated with violent extremism across the continent.”

But to be able to solve a problem, first you must be able to understand it in the round. The UNDP went to great lengths to make sure the study covered all aspects of the drivers to extremism and that it has captured as accurately as possible the thoughts and feelings of those involved in it.

Unless one understands the motivations of those who join these extremist organisations, finding counter-measures will be impossible.

It carried out over 2,000 interviews in eight countries – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan – with former recruits of various violent extremist groups and also with those of their contemporaries who resisted the lure of joining such groups.

The findings have been startling in some cases. During a press conference launching the report, Achim Steiner, the UNDP administrator underlined the urgent need to tackle the root causes of violent extremism.

He also said that contrary to what is most emphasised by the media around the world, the main motivation for joining these groups is not religion but economic hardship. He said that 40% of voluntary recruits joined groups because they were urgently in need of a livelihood and 25% did so because they saw job opportunities with the groups, who often pay salaries to recruits.

The current focus on religion as the main driver of recruitment is widely misplaced, he said. When it comes to religion, he asked: “Is it a push or is it a pull factor? Is it religion that is attracting people and radicalising them – or is it a push factor that has a great deal to do with the economic reality in the countries where lack of job opportunities, creating desperation, is pushing people to take up opportunities with whoever offers it to them?”

He added: “The explanation that it is religion that is the single most important factor does not stand up to the scrutiny of facts and empirical evidence.”

Although the report finds that 51% of respondents selected religion as a reason for joining, as many as 57% of the respondents also admitted to having limited or no understanding of religious texts.

On the contrary, higher than average years of religious schooling (and therefore a greater understanding of religious strictures) seems to have been a source of resilience to joining. In fact only 17% cited religious ideology as the primary reason for joining up.

“These findings,” the report says, “challenge rising Islamophobic rhetoric that has intensified in response to violent extremism globally, and demonstrate that fostering greater understanding of religion, through methods that enable students to question and engage critically with teachings, is a key resource for Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE).”

The report however warns that targeting religion as a source of terrorism can be counterproductive. “Further, feeling that ‘religion is under threat’ was found to be a common perspective among many respondents. This sounds a warning that recruitment by violent extremist groups in Africa, using religion as a touchstone for other context-based grievances, can readily expand.”

Most powerful factor

The most powerful factor pushing people into extremist groups, the research found was “disaffection with government”. This is something that governments will do well to pay attention to. The current trend of blaming religion for extremism has left the actions of many governments off the hook.

Unhappiness with government includes the belief that it only looks after the interests of a few, leading to low levels of trust in government authorities, often characterised by corruption and demand for bribes.

“Grievances against security actors, as well as politicians,” the report says, “are particularly marked, with an average of 78% rating low levels of trust in the police, politicians and military.”

Ominously, “those most susceptible to recruitment express a significantly lower degree of confidence in the potential for democratic institutions to deliver progress or meaningful change.”

On the other hand, positive experience of effective service provision by government is “a source of resilience: respondents who believed that governments’ provision of education was either ‘excellent’ or ‘improving’ were less likely to be a member of a violent extremist group.” Governments will do well to heed the message of this response.

The research set out to discover exactly what had pushed some people to go beyond ‘the tipping point’ and join groups when others in similar situation did not do so.

“A striking 71% pointed to ‘government action’, including ‘killing of a family member or friend’ or ‘arrest of a family member or friend’, as the incident that prompted them to join,” the report says.

State security-actor conduct, according to the report “is revealed as a prominent accelerator of recruitment, rather than the reverse.”

Grievances against government and state security actors are “especially pronounced among those most vulnerable to recruitment, who also express deep-seated scepticism about the possibility of positive change,” according to the research.

The report further reveals that 48% of respondents joined in less than a month from first contact with the organisation in question, and 80% in less than a year. “This speed of recruitment shows the depth of the vulnerability faced.”

In addition, “emotions of ‘hope/excitement’ and ‘being part of something bigger’ were high among those who joined”. This indicates the ‘pull’ factor or wish for radical change and rebellion against the status quo that such organisations promise.

This aspect should provide plenty of food for thought for national as well as foreign strategists who are serious about reducing, if not eliminating the menace of violent extremism.

Interestingly, these findings correspond with observations from the ground by journalists and other observers. Overreach by security forces, both foreign and local resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians has been a major drawing card for recruits.

“The UN has claimed that the army summarily executes civilians as they continue the battle against various groups liked to terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State,” wrote Al J. Venter in his New African article.

In addition, the sense of impunity, open corruption and the relative opulence enjoyed by senior security officers does not go unnoticed by the hard-pressed population – as well as the rank and file soldiers – in whose name these efforts are funded.

Venter writes: “Apart from senior officers being paid the salaries of ‘ghost’ battalions and a good deal of evidence of diversion of salaries, there is also a thriving business in what are termed ‘illegals’. That includes absurd items such as ‘bullet-proof’ socks (at $150 a pair), as well as ‘shot resistant’ goggles and body armour which, closely examined, is found to be made of cardboard and which impoverished troops are required to buy from their officers.”

The way forward

Another pull factor for recruits (and one that is rarely mentioned) is that many of these groups take over the functions of government where state services are absent or non-functioning. They provide jobs, often paying above average wages, they create a sense of belonging and teamwork, they treat the recruits with respect and compassion and they impose a regime of discipline – often reinforced through religious ritual – and inculcate a sense of righteousness.

“We need to respect the fact that they are not just recruiting, they are also providing certain services and that has become part of the offering that has attracted so many people to join them,” said the UNDP’s Achim Steiner.

Many respondents said that they had joined the groups because they provided security in a very insecure world. Journalists report that former members see security forces as waging an unjust war on them on behalf of local and foreign powers and that these groups provide protection as well as the chance to fight back, or take revenge for the deaths of their families or friends.

The report sums up this factor neatly: “Where there is injustice, deprivation and desperation, violent extremist ideologies present themselves as a challenge to the status quo and a form of escape.”

What is the way forward? How can authorities and social workers use the findings of this report to start rolling back the tide of extremist violence and curb the rise of voluntary recruits to these organisations?

The research found that youths from relatively happy domestic situations and those who had received education (including proper religious instruction) were unlikely to join. For instance, an extra year in school reduces the odds of joining by 30%.

The authors of the report suggest that states must provide education for all in at-risk areas together with social protection interventions to ensure children’s sustained attendance at school and enable the development of critical thinking, social cohesion, peace education and civic engagement values from childhood.

There should be support and amplification of the voices of traditional religious leaders who challenge misinterpretations of Islam and preach religious tolerance and inter-faith cohesiveness – as well as work to capitalise on the important role that religious teaching can play as a source of resilience, that supports increased religious literacy among at-risk groups.

Above all, local and foreign actors in vulnerable areas must invest in economic regeneration, “upgrading infrastructure, access to markets and financial services, removing obstacles to entrepreneurship, and prioritising job-creation opportunities”.

They should providing immediate as well as long-term livelihood programmes and entrepreneurship training and schemes for at-risk youth, integrating citizenship values, life skills and social cohesion curricula into programme design.

It is also important to work with demobilised former recruits to “develop and communicate narratives designed to disincentivise at-risk groups regarding the economic opportunities of recruitment”.

Perhaps the most crucial factor in this battle against eremitism is the full and total application of human rights, visible and transparent justice, equal opportunities, an end to impunity by any figure of authority and a clear campaign to root out and punish the corrupt. These are among several recommendations made by UNDP aimed at eliminating the drivers towards extremist violence. It is a tall order and African countries in the vulnerable areas will require considerable financial, organisational and educational support.

Nirina Kiplagat, the report’s lead author, pointed out that currently, “70% of ODA funding goes to counter-terrorism action. Peace building is underfunded at around 2%”. Perhaps the figures should be swapped round.

While the leaders of these extremist movements, whose real identities, nationalities and agenda are often secret, will continue their terrorist campaigns, the UNDP approach to tackling the root causes driving Africans to join these groups promises tangible success.

With a determined effort by all actors, state and non-state, it is possible to lift the curse of this extremist violence that is hanging like a rock over the heads of millions of people in West and Central Africa and which is destroying not only individual lives, but wrecking the development of states and driving them into deep poverty.

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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