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Gov’t Actions, Not Religion, ‘Tipping Point’ for African Youths Joining Violent Extremism

Credit: UNDP

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 25 2017 (IPS) - Government action, rather than religious ideology, is a stronger predictor for radicalization in Africa, according to a two-year landmark study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

A comprehensive report on the study, recently launched at the UN, highlights crucial aspects in the journey towards extremism in Africa.

Far less is known about the causes and consequences surrounding violent extremism in Africa, when compared to other regions – a fact that necessitated the study.

Drawing from interviews with 718 people aged between 17 and 26, 495 of whom were voluntary recruits in some of Africa’s most infamous extremist groups such as Al Shabaab and Boko Haram, the study revealed that 71 percent of the recruits attributed their final decisions to join the extremist groups to some form of government action.

Examples of these ‘tipping point’ government actions include the killing or arbitrary detention of a family member or friend, according to the study.

Asked about African government actions as drivers to extremism, Cheryl Frank, the head of the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) Transnational Threats and International Crime Programme, told IPS that, “factors such as weak access to political and economic participation and corruption drive individuals to join extremist groups.”

Significantly, a majority of the interviewed recruits believe that their governments only cater to the interests of a few, and over 75 percent generally distrust the politicians and public security systems in their countries.

Other key findings from the study, which focuses on the incentives for recruitment into extremist groups, indicate that deprivation and marginalization, bolstered by weak governance and corruption, are the main factors pushing many African youths into violent extremism.

“A majority of the recruits are from borderlands and peripheral areas that are largely isolated…more than half the population living below the poverty line including many chronically under-employed youth,” said UNDP’s Africa Director, Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, at the launch of the report at the UN.

Facing a shortage of economic prospects and lack of civic engagement in these areas, several of the marginalized youth, who are also prone to less parental involvement, are constantly lured into violent extremism.

Employment is ‘the most acute need’ at the time of joining an extremist group, according to the study’s researchers.

Despite a hardened discontent for their governments, hope or excitement was recorded as the most common emotion among recruits when they joined extremist groups, based on the study.

Anger or vengeance came in third or fourth place.

Asked about this significant finding, Mohamed Yahya, UNDP’s Africa Regional Programme Coordinator, told IPS that “recruits see the extremist groups as a ladder towards transformation…by joining these groups, they are eager to improve their impoverished and frustrating situations and only later do they realize the reality and turn to anger.”

UNDP urges for a stronger development focus to security challenges in Africa. “Delivering services, strengthening institutions, creating pathways to economic empowerment – these are development issues,” said Dieye.

Although more than half of the recruits cited religion as the reason for joining an extremist group, 57 percent of the same recruits also admitted to having little to no understanding of the group’s religious doctrine.

Additionally, the study indicates that six years of religious schooling lowered the likelihood of a person joining an extremist group by about 32 percent. This suggests that an actual understanding of one’s religion can be a pull factor from, rather than a push factor towards, extremism.

“Religious education, in conjunction with secular education, tends to provide resilience towards joining these groups,” said Yahya.

Another driver of extremism in Africa, aside from government disaffection, marginalization, deprivation, unemployment and religion, is the lack of identification with one’s country- a common trait among the interviewed recruits.

The journey to extremism is significantly marked by a fractured relationship between the state and its citizens, according to the study.

Notably, recruitment processes in Africa mainly occur on a local and word-of-mouth level rather than via the internet, as is common in other regions. However, this may be subject to change as connectivity expands.

“This study sounds the alarm that as a region, Africa’s vulnerability to violent extremism is deepening,” said Dieye.

There is a need for intervention at a local level, the report indicates. This involves supporting community-led initiatives and amplifying the voices of trusted local actors, with the singular goal of social cohesion.

“What we know for sure is that in the African context, the counter-extremist messenger is as important as the counter-extremist message…the trusted local voice is also essential to reducing the sense of marginalization that can increase vulnerability to recruitment,” said Dieye.

Further, concerning a commitment to human rights law, the report appeals to African governments to reevaluate excessive militarized responses to extremism.

“Government responses that do not adhere to the rule of law or due process may accelerate violent extremism,” said Yahya. Such responses risk joining the ‘tipping point’ government actions that push youths towards these groups.

Asked about alternative government strategies to curb extremism, Frank told IPS that “governments should focus on criminal justice approaches…the suspects should be pursued, investigated, prosecuted and punished appropriately rather than being killed or captured, often in secret operations.”

“This brings the rule of law to the core of actions,” said Frank.

Demonstrating justice in relation to extremist groups helps prevent its members from portraying themselves as soldiers and martyrs, a potentially admirable quality to recruits, rather than criminals.

An estimated 33,300 people in Africa have lost their lives to violent extremist attacks between 2011 and early 2016, according to UNDP.

Sustained action to prevent and respond to violent extremism is urgently needed.

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