Current national and multinational efforts against violent extremism in Africa focus mainly on military campaigns that target the violence rather than its root causes. Although it is crucial to use force to suppress extremists’ violence, it is also essential to nip the problem in the bud before it escalates. This can only be done by addressing the underlying conditions that push young people to extremist groups.
On 27–28 November, the African Centre for International, Diplomatic, Economic, and Strategic Studies, in partnership with the Swiss foreign ministry and the UN, hosted a high-level regional seminar entitled “The Prevention of Violent Extremism in Central Africa and in the Lake Chad Basin” in Yaoundé, Cameroon. The meeting brought together some 60 representatives of governments, international organisations, civil society, the media, and security services, as well as political actors, researchers, and experts from across the continent.
In my presentation at the conference, I spoke about the need for a comprehensive national and regional strategy to prevent violent extremism from spilling over further in Central Africa, in the Lake Chad Basin, and on the continent at large.
I began by pointing out that violent extremism is a reality in Africa.
Thousands of lives have been lost to the insurgency of Boko Haram, a group fighting to instal its strict version of sharia law in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. The ISIS affiliate’s militancy, which has been raging for almost a decade, has displaced millions of people, and its impact has cost billions of dollars. The ethnoreligious crisis in the Central African Republic between the mainly Muslim Seleka and the largely Christian Antibalaka that started in 2013 continues unabated. Extremist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso are still unleashing their campaigns of terror and carnage, while separatists and jihadis remain active in Niger. There are reports of terrorism-related deaths on a daily basis.
This is a bleak picture for a region battling poverty and disease. But it could get even worse. Extremist groups in Africa and elsewhere exploit disgruntled youths. Unless policymakers make concerted efforts, the number of young people who are without basic education, food, clothing, and shelter – and therefore vulnerable to violent groups – could more than double in a matter of decades.
The UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs estimates that the populations of 26 African countries will at least double in just over thirty years, while those of Angola, Burundi, Niger, Somalia, Tanzania, and Zambia will increase fivefold by 2100. Africa as a whole will add about 1.3 billion people to its population by the year 2050.
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change estimates that there will be a shortfall of 50 million jobs on the continent by 2040, and the number of those in extreme poverty will rise to 450 million.
The implications of these staggering numbers are manifold. One such implication is that by 2040, tens of millions of young people may be susceptible to radicalisation by violent groups. There is also an increased risk of organised crimes such as drug and human trafficking and kidnapping, as well as irregular immigration. These dangers drive home the need for an articulate action plan to immunise young Africans against abuse.
Sadly, African governments are doing little in this direction. There is no deliberate strategy to handle the population explosion that is already sweeping the continent, and no targeted policy aimed at investing in African youths to make them resilient citizens.
The meeting in Cameroon noted that no country in Central Africa or the Lake Chad Basin has a comprehensive policy for preventing violent extremism. It further highlighted that although the African Union has a convention and a plan of action on preventing and combating terrorism, these documents deal mainly with security measures and have yet to be localised and translated into practice by member states.
Leaders of African countries need to put their heads together to articulate and implement policies aimed at preventing violent extremism. Intergovernmental cooperation is crucial in this regard. Violence is contagious and can quickly spread from one country to neighbouring states suffering similar socioeconomic problems.
African countries have recorded some successes in counterterrorism efforts when they come together. For instance, Nigeria battled Boko Haram alone for about half a decade with little or no success. However, when the country joined forces with neighbouring states, the group was weakened within months. This shows that countries are more likely to succeed when they work together.
Violent groups have led the way in collaboration and partnership. They have recognised and exploited the power of working together. Boko Haram is affiliated to ISIS and is reported to be cooperating with al-Shabaab, which itself is an al-Qaeda affiliate. Jihadi groups in Niger are aligned to al-Qaeda, while separate Malian Islamist movements recently merged to form a single group. The same goes for other militias on the continent.
So to succeed in preventing these groups from continuing their operation, spilling over into neighbouring territories, and recruiting more foot soldiers, African countries must work as a team. They should articulate a regional policy on preventing violent extremism by addressing the root causes of violence and engaging local actors to help foster resilience among future generations of Africans.