Poverty rather than ideology is driving recruitment for violent extremist organisations, according to a new UN report.
Increasingly, citizens cite economic rather than religious reasons for joining local factions, as Africa still comes to terms with the combined fall out from the pandemic, climate crisis impact and inflation fuelled by the ongoing security concerns.
Terror groups such as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram continue to adversely impact lives, security and peace across the continent, threatening to reverse the hard-won developmental gains for generations to come.
‘Distrust of the government and dissatisfaction with state provision of services underscore the appeal of violent extremist groups that present themselves as proto-states and alternative service providers,' the UN report claims.
However, national initiatives and collaboration with regional and international partners have developed insightful new strategies to help counter terrorism.
African nations are also taking the lead in regional and international collaboration to tighten up security measures. From Ghana and Nigeria in the West, across to Somalia in the East, fresh initiatives, informed by local intel and international support, are starting to pay dividends.
In response to jihadist violence in the Bawku region, Ghana’s armed forces have recently announced the establishment of a War College, focussing on training a new generation of military strategists and leaders. Nigerians meanwhile, have reacted to the continued disruptive presence of Boko Haram and ISWAP with the formation of The Truth Alliance, a coalition of civil society organisations, set up to combat extremist propaganda, both on and offline.
Executive Director of Neem Foundation, Dr Fatima Akilu explains:
‘This project actually aims to diminish target audience support for local violent extremist groups by discrediting their activities and exploiting the divisions within them.’
‘Additionally, it aims to improve target audiences’ ability to think critically, and gain resilience to violent extremists, propaganda and misinformation,’ she said.
After decades of insurgent attacks, al-Shabaab continues to disrupt the lives of rural Somalis.
Clans and villages have always tried to resist the terror group’s demands, which can include taxes called ‘zakat,’ plus livestock, weapons and boys they can turn into fighters. Now, with government backing, local communities are rising up and taking matters into their own hands.
Named after the bright wrap-around sarongs, The Ma’awisley militia is made up of local communities resisting al-Shabaab. Formed in 2018, they fought back against al-Shabaab groups with varying degrees of success. Their legacy has been to inspire other locals in central Somalia to stand up to terror. In June, residents of the village of Bahdo, who have been resisting al-Shabaab taxes, fought off a major attack from the group. The leader of Galmudug state, Ahmed Abdi Kariye, said up to 70 al-Shabab fighters were killed.
The Somali government and ATMIS (African Union Transition Mission in Somalia) have also called attention to the collaboration between the local population and the Somali Security Forces that helped liberate locations including El Dher, Harar Dhere and Gal’ad in Galmudug State.
Head of ATMIS Mohamed El-Amine Souef continues: ‘Somalis feel their number one enemy is al-Shabaab. That is why the Somali National Army is getting a lot of support from people on the ground and federal member states.’
ATMIS and the Somali Army will continue collaborating in joint military operations against al-Shabaab, and coordinating with clan militia to sustainably hold recovered territories and establish local administrations. The government’s recent efforts to stabilise the country and support the Somali security forces has included requesting a US Africa Command airstrike.
The Accra Initiative was born out of seven West African countries' desire to pool resources and share strategies to find proactive ways to deal with the spillover of terrorism and violent extremism from the Sahel region.
The spread of extremism led to the first counter-terrorism conference in Accra in November 2022, attended by representatives from Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Togo.
Information and intelligence sharing has been the primary focus of the group, alongside an agreement to create a dedicated military force to fight jihadists who have destabilised the region.
Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are also joint hosts of this year’s Flintlock multinational military exercise, designed to strengthen their ability to counter violent extremism in the region.
The annual exercise allows African forces to train with the U.S.’ advanced special operations forces, and improve their own capabilities, and improve working relationships with other African military forces within the region.
With over 1,300 military personnel from 30 African and allied countries taking part, the programme also hopes to develop a global special operations forces network among African and international partners.
During the two week programme, participants will also be encouraged to learn best practices and adapt to evolving threats associated with new strategies and technologies.
Maritime security is also improving through aligned tactics and international support.
A steady decline in incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea since 2020, has been attributed to the concerted, coordinated efforts of national authorities in Nigeria and Togo, alongside the support of regional and international partners.
The exercise, hosted in Lagos, Nigeria, will feature both in-port and at-sea training scenarios including maritime operations, centre familiarisation and exchanges on medical care, search and rescue operations, and boarding techniques.
Thirty three nations also took part in Western and Central Africa’s largest multinational maritime exercise, known as Obangame Express (OE23), in January of this year.
Further east, regional co-operation between Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, has formulated a strategic mission to maintain peace and enhance stability within Somalia as part of ATMIS. Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti have also provided additional support and joined the al-Shabaab offensive.
Kenya was also the host for the 2023 Justice Accord, a multinational exercise attended by units from more than 20 countries, to increase partner readiness for peacekeeping missions, crisis response, and humanitarian assistance.
While counteracting the root causes of disenfranchisement that have allowed terrorism to thrive must continue to be addressed, ensuring Africa’s economies are fit for the future is also vital. More robust financial systems, job generation and increased income ideas were key themes at the recent African Union 2023 Summit.
Another potent project is the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA). According to the UN, this flagship project has the potential to boost Intra-African trade by 33% and cut the continent’s trade deficit by half. If fully implemented, ACFTA could raise income by 9% by 2035 and lift 50 million people out of extreme poverty.
The free trade area promises broader and deeper economic integration between nations, and would attract investment – in turn providing better jobs, increased job opportunities, and reducing poverty.
Boosting economic security and long term growth across the continent could provide greater opportunities to earn a living, and a powerful alternative to joining armed groups.
Despite the persistent rise in insurgency across the continent, African nations continue to find innovative ways to address the threat of insecurity from VEOs.
Alongside new data led security initiatives and dis-information campaigns, more effective and diverse partnerships are proving their worth at local, national and international levels.
With continued bipartisan security cooperation between countries, their international partners, and greater focus on local empowerment and support, terrorist factions can be resiliently challenged and even neutralised.