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Unemployment & Social Unrest Drive Rise of Extremism in Africa, UNDP Says

© AFP 2023 / -Police officers and people stand at the bomb explosion site in Mogadishu, Somalia, on November 25, 2021.
Police officers and people stand at the bomb explosion site in Mogadishu, Somalia, on November 25, 2021. - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.02.2023
Terrorism and insurgent violence, ranging from the Sahel region in the west to Somalia in the east and Mozambique in the south, have recently become a major security threat to all states across sub-Saharan Africa, undermining development and progress. Therefore, there is a need to gain insight into the main drivers of extremism in the region.
One of the underlying reasons for the surge of extremism in sub-Saharan Africa is social instability and economic constraints, in particular the lack of jobs, a new report published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has revealed.
According to the study, called "Journey to Extremism in Africa," the region is the "global epicentre" of terrorist activity. Even though worldwide deaths from extremism have declined over the past several years, attacks in sub-Saharan Africa have more than doubled since 2016. In 2021, the region accounted for 48% of all terrorism-related deaths, with more than one-third in four countries: Somalia, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali.
The study focused on eight countries across sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan. It presented data from interviews with 2,196 people, including over 1,000 former members of terrorist groups, those who joined voluntarily and those who were forcibly recruited. Apart from that, the sample included 552 female interviewees.

Economic Incentives as Drivers of Recruitment

According to the report, the potential employment provided by a terrorist organization is one of the major drivers of recruitment that reflects "generalized grievances of socioeconomic injustice and marginalization." Approximately 25% of recruits cited employment opportunities as their main reason for joining, specifically among the sample’s male respondents.
About 40% stated that they were in urgent need of livelihoods at the time of recruitment, while around three-fourths of the respondents expressed frustration with the government in terms of providing employment opportunities. On average, male voluntary recruits said that they earned significantly less prior to joining a violent extremist group.
In recent years, many militant groups have made efforts to gain community support and recruits by providing basic needs such as food distribution and healthcare, paying salaries to militants, and offering protection.
At the same time, female respondents most frequently referred to the influence of family, including their husbands, as the primary driver for the decision to join a group.
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Dissatisfaction With State Services

According to the UNDP, limited confidence in government and its institutions, in particular deep-seated perceptions of impunity and distrust in security bodies, continue "to fuel grievances leading to violent extremism." Dissatisfaction with security actors such as the police, military, and the justice system in general was particularly evident in the data sample. For example, over 60% of voluntary recruits reported having little or no trust in the police.
Therefore, distrust of the government and dissatisfaction with state provision of services explain the appeal of extremist groups, which in turn present themselves as proto-states and alternative service providers. The data showed that these groups have more trust in terms of mediating local conflicts, ensuring everyday security, and providing justice.

"This provides some insights into the process whereby violent extremist groups exploit existing governance deficits and draw on the progressive delegitimization of the formal state to mobilize support and tap into localized grievances and narratives of victimization and injustice," the report stated.

This comes against the backdrop of widespread state instability, reflected by "seven military coups or coup attempts in the Sahel over the past three years."
Moreover, the study put forward the notion of a "tipping point" or transformative trigger that pushed individuals to join a terrorist group, with about 50% of respondents experiencing such an event. It was underlined that certain government actions, accompanied by human rights abuses, accelerate recruitment for violent extremism. Most of those who stated they had experienced a trigger event cited state action, including the killing and arrest of family or friends as the specific event that prompted them to join an extremist organization, according to the report.

Religion as Dual Element in Journey to Extremism

As the majority of the extremist groups presented in the study are Islamist, including Boko Haram* in Nigeria and al-Shabaab* in Somalia, religion is viewed as a secondary factor that provides a "platform and also a narrative."
Rather than emerging as a "first response" in explaining recruitment, religion is revealed as a powerful touchstone for mobilizing context-based grievances and identity
Contrary to the first study, which was conducted in 2017 and where 40% of respondents identified religion as a key driver, in the recent study only 17% of interviewees pointed to the religious ideas of a terrorist group as the primary reason for voluntary recruitment. Men were more inclined to perceive it as an influential factor, compared to female respondents, who rated it as a less essential one.

According to the report, the likelihood of recruitment increases when religion operates as a powerful tool to express individual and group identity, offering "a way to channel existing grievances."

It also revealed that religious education and religious literacy constitute key protective factors against violent extremism. Four of five recruits admitted that they had no or limited knowledge of religious texts, making them more vulnerable to the influence of imported views and exposure to extremist ideas.

“When we look at religion, [it] has a conflicting dual element in the journey to extremism because on one hand it’s used as a vector for the mobilisation of grievances. And on the other, it also represents an important source of resilience. The role individual religious leaders can [be] very important. We need quality religious education,” said Nirina Kiplagat, the report’s lead author.

The report called for greater emphasis on the prevention of violent extremism, providing factors that make people less likely to be drawn into terrorism, including quality education, exposure to different cultures, and parental attention.
According to the report, isolation, remoteness, and lack of exposure to other communities are significant factors that form early conditions making people susceptible to violent extremism later in life. Most individuals who have joined extremist groups grew up in remote and peripheral areas that suffered from socio-economic marginalization and underdevelopment. They were also less likely to communicate with individuals from other interethnic and religious groups.
The study revealed that perceptions of childhood unhappiness, as well as a perceived lack of parental involvement and interest in a child’s upbringing, increase the likelihood of choosing such a path. One’s journey to violent extremism can be found to originate, partly, in their "unfulfilled need for belonging and connectedness" that highlights the significance of the family and environment in which the child is brought up as an important "source of resilience."

Responses to Extremism in Africa

According to the UNDP, over the past 20 years, responses to violent extremism on the continent have been shaped by the discourse of the global "War on Terror." There are various regional counter-terrorism military coalitions in Sub-Saharan Africa that are supported with international funding.
However, the study revealed that these coalitions have mixed success in combating militant groups and fail to address the root causes of violent extremism on the continent. For instance, the UN counter-terrorism budget is heavily skewed towards addressing terrorism rather than the conditions that give rise to it. About 70% of the resources in the budget are allocated to preventing and combating terrorism, compared to 24% to addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.
Therefore, the authors of the study called for enhanced investment in prevention and the need for a better understanding of the underlying drivers of extremism. It was noted that investment should be reoriented towards complementary prevention and peacebuilding efforts, which have proved to bring a positive return of 16-to-1. Every $1 invested in prevention and peacebuilding activities could save $16 on the costs of conflict and violence in long term, the researchers noted.
"Violent extremism is not confined to a specific country or region, but rather a shared burden and one that humanity as a whole must respond to. The human stories spotlighted in this report provide an evidence base that makes clear the need for renewed international focus, integrative solutions and long-term investments to address the underlying drivers of violent extremism," said Achim Steiner, UNDP administrator.
* terrorist organizations banned in Russia and many other states
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