On the 21st of March, Mali witnessed two devastating terrorist attacks, resulting in the death of over 16 members of the Malian Armed forces. This was just the latest in a string of attacks this month. In early March, it was reported that 27 soldiers were killed in an attack against an Army post in Mondoro. On the 4th of April, in Nigeria, another terrorist group bombed a train carrying over 900 passengers, killing scores and kidnapping many others.

As the attention of the world remains focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it bears remembering that many African countries are fighting a war, one that isn’t attractive to western media audiences. For instance, this week, another suicide attack in Somalia killed 48 people with over 100 wounded, while reports indicate a worsening of the conflict against Al Shabab (not to be confused with the Somalian terror group, Al Shabaab) in Mozambique despite the presence of Rwandan and Southern African Development Community (SADC) forces. African countries continue to respond to these attacks with force plunging already volatile situations to worsening depths. Yet, despite a history of mixed results at best, African countries continue to adopt military approaches to countering violent extremism (CVE).

The limited successes of military approaches to CVE have led experts to encourage the incorporation of non-military mechanisms, such as addressing the structural causes of violent extremism including intolerance, government failure, and marginalization. For example, in Nigeria, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a joint effort between the military and local communities, has been effective in addressing the recruitment of children by extremist groups. There are similar examples in Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan. However, some countries have struggled with a shift of strategic focus from  regime protection to the protection of citizens.

To quote the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, “Missiles may kill terrorists. But I am convinced that good governance is what will kill terrorism.” And herein lies one of the reasons why some African governments struggle with non-military CVE: the inability to address the myriad structural issues that fuel extremism. In Nigeria and Kenya, mass unemployment, economic inequality, and poverty among the youth population add to the increasing vulnerability of radicalization to violent extremism. In Somalia, a state that is oft described as a failed state, poverty coupled with state collapse has provided a breeding ground for Al-Shabaab. The same can be said for Mali, Niger, Benin and other countries in the Sahel where violent extremism continues to flourish. Addressing drivers of extremism such as injustice and poor governance continues to be a perennial struggle for some African countries.

Some African governments understand securitization from the perspective of the protection of the state rather than people and they find it difficult to break from this mold. Many African countries continue to define national security within the context of threats to the state rather than the protection of individuals and this underlies their CVE strategy. The problem with this strategy is that it leads to increasing fractionalization of communities and groups because of persistent violations of human rights by security agencies deployed to hotspots, including indiscriminate arrests, extrajudicial killings, torture, and forced disappearances. Many African militaries have poor human rights records and find it difficult to operate within the confines of international human rights guidelines. Unfortunately, these approaches merely reinforce divisive messages preached by extremist groups who exploit the grievances faced by victims of the state to their advantage. In Nigeria, Mali, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, reports of heavy-handed approaches by security agencies in countering violent extremism have emerged and been criticized. In some instances, such as in Mozambique and Nigeria, this forceful approach by the military has strengthened the relationship of communities with extremist groups or even exacerbated the radicalization of extremist groups.

Non-military CVE involves empowering and reinforcing community-led efforts to build resilience against violent extremism. Empowering community-led efforts includes acknowledging the inherent agency of communities, understanding their perspectives, and recognizing that communities are much more than avenues for vote-buying. It involves de-centering the political elite and the state while identifying joint efforts with local communities to counter extremism in all its forms. This approach is antithetic to the current political culture which sees people merely as avenues for the average politician’s ascent to power. Recognizing the agency of local communities, especially poor communities, would require a massive change of mindset among political elites..

While the argument could be made that military approaches to CVE has been effective in containing terror groups to the periphery rather than seeing them control large swathes of land, the waves of violent extremism continue to spread. As has been seen from the foreign policy embarrassment faced by the U.S. in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, military measures to CVE are at best temporary. At worst, they lead to a myriad of problems that intensify radicalization and vulnerability while doing very little to reduce violent extremism. African governments must learn from this, jettison their penchant to counter force with force, and do the actual work of making their countries an unsafe space for violent extremism. If the tides of violent extremism and its attendant consequences are to be stemmed, African countries need to make wholesale commitments to non-military CVE rather than isolated strategies.

Nkasi Wodu, a senior New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute, is a lawyer, peacebuilding practitioner, and scholar of Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.


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