Isel van Zyl, the Africa Programme Lead for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) Strong Cities Network. ISD is based in London, but van Zyl is based in Pretoria.
Since the establishment of the UN’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (PVE) during the 70th UN General Assembly in September 2015, many relevant programs have been launched worldwide in an attempt to curb the growing threat of violent extremism. Many preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) programs are being implemented by practitioners working for local civil society organizations (CSOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international NGOs. In Africa — despite the high number of PVE projects being implemented — insecurity, violence and hostilities continue to threaten socio-economic development and community cohesion.
According to the Global Terrorism Index for 2022, violent attacks in the Sahel have increased by 1000% in the last 14 years, with underlying drivers such as lack of access to basic services, rapid population growth and weak governance. Despite the decrease in violent attacks by Al-Shabaab in East Africa, the group continues to take advantage of the weak or non-existent governance in rural areas across the region. Furthermore, 48% (or 3,461) of global deaths carried out by terrorist or violent extremist groups took place in sub-Saharan Africa.
Fragile States and Limited Governance
Also mentioned by Index, the majority of terrorist-related incidents mainly take place within 50 kilometers of a conflict zone. Between 1989 and 2014, up to 88% of terrorist and violent extremist activity and attacks occurred in countries experiencing ongoing conflict. Many countries in Africa have experienced, or still experience, continuous violence, i.e. in the form of civil wars, political violence, dictatorships, insurgencies and terrorism. In 2020, a total of 20 out of 46 sub-Saharan states were involved in some form of armed conflict.
Existing and perpetual fragile environments allow for the unperturbed movement and activity of violent groups, as well as the facilitation of exploitation from violent extremist groups. Weak governance also allows for violent extremist groups to take over small towns and ungoverned localities and military bases in some cases. Violent extremist groups are often replacing the ‘state’ in some areas, providing basic services to communities in an attempt to garner support from local communities, like Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Lack of Post-conflict Stabilization Intervention
Additionally, there seems to be a lack of formal and sustainable post-conflict stabilization programs to rebuild and empower fragile countries that have experienced conflict and violence. This includes the rebuilding of infrastructure, political and social institutions, rehabilitating and reintegrating former combatants and promoting conditions that would improve the population’s resilience to violence and insecurity. Moreover, longstanding traumas and psychological effects that perpetual violence and insecurity have had on social and community cohesion and the overall well-being of a population are rarely addressed. The lack of post-conflict stabilization efforts that include and/or prioritize mental health approaches such as psychosocial support and trauma counselling would also hinder the rehabilitation and reintegration efforts of former combatants. Any defection program would face serious challenges if there were not a clear focus on mental health approaches that target both former combatants and the communities that are supposed to take these returnees back.
Lack of Political Will and Capacity
Central government authorities’ will and/or capacity to address issues of insecurity and violence is often lacking, which creates a vacuum for the international community and local NGOs to implement PVE-related programs.
The ‘lacking’ also refers to the reluctance to develop a National P/CVE Action Plan, unwillingness to commit or allocate funding towards the prevention of violent extremism, and avoidance of recognizing the drivers of insecurity and conflict. Mostly, African, foreign governments and multilateral organizations like the UN and the AU, have addressed the threat of violent extremism with a ‘reactive’ and more securitized approach. Even though military engagements like Operations Serval and Barkhane in Mali, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Operation Usalama in Kenya, and SADC (Southern African Development Community) troops in Mozambique have made significant progress in deterring activity by violent extremist groups, these operations fail to address fundamental drivers of violent extremism such as poverty, lack of basic services, high unemployment rates, and socio-economic and political marginalization. The majority of the responsibility falls onto local actors such as local CSOs and NGOs to implement PVE-related activities to address drivers of violent extremism.
Regarding reactive and security-heavy approaches that national and foreign governments have adopted in curbing the threat of violent extremism, there have been incidents of human rights abuses by militaries and security agencies — an issue that is considered the main push factor for individuals to join violent extremism in Africa. Thus, there has been a call for greater emphasis on development approaches to curb drivers and push factors of violent extremism.
PVE: A Useful or Harmful Framework?
Recent debates have surfaced on the relevance and practicality of PVE as a framework for addressing drivers of violent extremism. Practitioners are considering the often negative impact that P/CVE programs have, especially when these programs target marginalized and vulnerable communities. The term could cause further stigmatization and vulnerability of these communities, especially when it targets specific ethnic and religious groups. Communities and beneficiaries that are considered most in need of PVE activities could become targets of either government security operations or could become targets of retaliatory attacks by violent extremist groups.
Not to mention, the implementation of PVE activities could also exacerbate community hostilities, especially when P/CVE programs financially and logistically support certain communities and exclude the ‘not so’ vulnerable communities. Otherwise, PVE programs are often criticized for being biased, allowing governments to abuse the PVE framework to oppress political opponents or individuals that speak out against the leadership of a country. Lastly, the popularity of PVE programs is making it take priority over traditional development and peacebuilding programs. More importantly, traditional development and peacebuilding programs could potentially be subsumed by PVE interventions, and may only be applied to communities and beneficiaries that are vulnerable to violent extremist recruitment, and not be applied to the whole population.
The success of PVE interventions is crucial to the stability, socio-economic growth and overall well-being of communities in Africa. Despite the success that certain counterterrorism and P/CVE programs have had up to date, violent extremists continue to recruit, radicalize and carry out attacks that threaten the stability and welfare of communities across the continent.
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