In Celebrating Democracy let us not forget September 11

As the world marks the celebration of this year’s International Day of Democracy, many would also have to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. We must no doubt reflect again on the successes and limitations of counter-terrorism efforts/strategies over the course of the past two decades. Especially in regard to Africa, such reflections are long overdue.

While significant investments have been made at the national level to enhance military, intelligence, and other security capabilities, terrorist threats continue to increase. As an alternative to this approach, we need a more decentralized approach, one that invests in local leaders and governments regardless of whether they live in urban centers, remote border villages, or rural towns. The ability of local authorities to address local grievances, which are often the root causes of violence, shouldn’t be underestimated.

In 2021, it was reported that nearly half of global deaths were associated with violent extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa. The number of terrorist organizations are expanding in the Sahel region of Africa. These groups are taking advantage of local disputes and other internal weaknesses to gain power. Several countries, including Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and Niger, are reporting more deaths. Nigeria, Somalia, and the Coastal West African region are increasingly under threat from terrorist groups, quite contrary to the earlier held belief that that part of the region was relatively “safe”. In recent months, a number of groups operating from Burkina Faso have targeted the countries of Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and Benin.

It is clear from these trends that we are dealing with a response that has been overly centralized and that has placed an excessive emphasis on security forces, particularly the military, police, and militias.

French President, Emmanuel Macron recently asked his defense chiefs and advisers to review France’s military posture in all of its operations in Africa as a result of the lack of progress in eradicating the threat posed by violent Islamist radicals after decades of efforts. Similarly, despite its support for such programs, the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism has highlighted how this security-heavy approach has in most cases inflamed local grievances that militant groups exploit to incite violence.

To counter the rise of extremism, the United States, the United Nations, and other international and African partners must address these “counter-productive” approaches. An increasing number of African countries are realizing the importance of a whole of society approach to addressing the complicated and volatile extremist threat landscape and the significant role of civil society actors as part of that approach. As part of their commitment to preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), international donors have increased their support to grassroots civil society organizations that work to strengthen community resilience to extremism.

Despite acknowledging shortcomings in the existing approach, international partners like the United States insist that security, intelligence, and judicial institutions should be strengthened in order to identify, disrupt, degrade, and share information regarding terrorists and their support networks. As a result, the new US-Sub-Saharan Africa Strategy reflects this, despite democratic backsliding and rising levels of authoritarianism and corruption across parts of the continent, as well as some national governments misusing counter-terrorism tools against political opponents and human rights defenders.

The local government, which is closest to people most vulnerable to and most likely to suffer the economic and social consequences of violent extremism, has much at stake but has been largely overlooked in efforts at P/CVE, with the exception of isolated, often pilot, programs.

Additionally, militant groups have had greater success recruiting in remote border towns and villages far from the capital and from decision-makers in the security services. In order to spread their propaganda, the militants take advantage of pastoral communities, disputes between farmers and herders over land and water, and a lack of trust in or relationships with the central government.

Developing Africa’s Local Authorities as Prevention Agents

In order to reduce terrorist threats across the continent, more effectively and sustainably, local authorities, large and small, need to be better equipped and involved in preventing violent extremism from taking root in the communities they serve.  In my opinion, there are at least five reasons for this.

Generally, extremist groups exploit local grievances including youths’ socio-economic concerns, such as poverty and unemployment rates, to recruit, by offering financial incentives. In just the same way, local injustices are exploited to leverage recruitment and support in new communities, exploiting tensions and inter-and intra-communal needs. The local governments are better placed to effectively identify and understand the hyperlocal contexts in which extremists operate.

In addition, local governments that are in touch with their communities are able to detect and warn about emerging violence in a way that distant central governments are unable to do. The analyses they provide can be used to inform national counter-terrorism or P/CVE strategies and plans, to ensure the plans reflect local realities from country to country.

Third, local governments encourage “local identity” that encompasses all ethnic groups within a particular locality by creating a sense of belonging that fosters trust in local government systems and assists in building resilience and community cohesion. It is particularly crucial in places where inter-ethnic and inter-communal tensions and lack of trust in government institutions are major factors in extremist violence.

A fourth advantage of involving local authorities is their access to local services such as housing, education, vocational training, social welfare, sports, and culture. By providing local services, local authorities ensure that violent extremism is not seen just as a national security issue, but as a societal issue that affects community cohesion and social well-being. A local government can leverage such resources to create tailored programs that can offer positive alternatives to alienated youth and other groups who might otherwise be attracted to extremism and violent acts while avoiding the stigma that is often associated with similar programs delivered by national organizations.

Last but not least, there is an increasing link between extremism and other forms of community violence and social disorder throughout Africa. Violence in communities, between farmer-herders, in gangs, and violence against women fall into this category. These conflicts create an environment that is unstable and insecure, which is perfect for armed gangs and extremist groups to thrive in. Increasingly, organized crime is being used as a conduit for extremist movements to enter the country. Violence extremism can be most effectively dealt with by addressing broader threats to community well-being than by focusing solely on national security.

Photo: Charles Nambasi/Pixabay