Preventing violent extremism in Africa

The world changed on 9/11. 9/11 triggered an era of the “War Against Terror” and unearthed new non-state actors that could bring nations to their knees. Violent extremism is a major challenge to global peace and security. In Africa approximately 33,300 fatalities were caused by extremism between 2011 and 2016, with related displacement and economic devastation contributing to among the worst humanitarian catastrophes ever seen on the continent post colonisation. Violent extremism poses a unique threat to the continent. It threatens to undo the gradually developing continent. It is not only a threat to the region but it is also a global threat. In the age of globalisation, the ramifications of a blow in one region will be felt in another region. Violent extremism and acts of terrorism cannot be excused or justified. However understanding why and how people turn to radicalization and violent extremism is a vital strategy in countering terrorism.


Universally accepted definitions of violent extremism are ambiguous. The 2015 United Nations Plan for of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism states: The present Plan of Action […] considers and addresses violent extremism as, and when, conducive to terrorism. Violent extremism is a diverse phenomenon, without clear definition. It is neither new nor exclusive to any region, nationality or system of belief. Nevertheless, in recent years, terrorist groups such as ISIL, Al-Qaida and Boko Haram have shaped our image of violent extremism and the debate on how to address this threat. These groups’ message of intolerance – religious, cultural, social – has had drastic consequences for many regions of the world

Hotspots for violent extremism

The Horn of Africa has gained notoriety for violent extremism. There is a surge of violent armed opposition in Djibouti and a strong repression and incarceration of political dissidents in Ethiopia. The region also experiences violent clashes and rebel factions in Darfur and South Sudan.

Fatalities from terrorist attacks in Africa (Source: UNDP)

Groups like groups like al-Shabaab, the Lord’s Resistance Army or the Sudan Liberation Movement – Abdel Wahid al-Nur (SLM-AW) are dominant actors and continue to exploit grievances in the region.

In 2014, Boko Haram surpassed IS as the world’s most deadly violent extremist organisation.  Boko Haram is responsible for over 10 000 deaths and for more than 1.5 million internally displaced persons across the nation.


What causes a person to join a terrorist organisation?

Exploring the ‘tipping point’ (specific point or factor that cause individuals to voluntarily join violent extremist groups) is imperative to preventing violent extremism and fostering peace and security in the region. The populations that experience such ‘root causes’ are large – and yet, typically, only a very small fraction of individuals will turn to violence.

Location and community

Violent extremisms often grows in marginalised and overlooked communities. Individuals and communities become excluded from generations of neglect and marginalisation across political, social and economic spheres. Every person has an innate desire to belong and be part of a group. Terrorist organisations take advantage of this. They exploit and play on the grievances of individuals and communities living in neglected areas.  A degree of mobility and exposure to other ethnicities and religions also plays a part in the likelihood of an individual joining an extremist group. Lack of diversity makes individuals more likely to feel that their ethnic group is under threat and therefore must act to defend or protect their position.

Family structure and childhood happiness

Family is a crucial part of a person’s socialisation process. Families influence and mold an individual’s identity. An individual’s relationship with family can be a catalyst to search for an identity in another ‘family structure’ or collective identity found in terrorist groups. There is a correlation between the level of childhood happiness and desire to join a radical group: people with unhappy childhood are more likely to search for a ‘family’ structure in adulthood.


Education influences radicalisation in two aspects. First voluntary extremists often hold lower levels of secular education. Second education can be used to radicalise or counter violent extremism. Here quality education can help build individuals’ resilience to recruitment through provision of life alternatives.

Economic factors

Multidimensional poverty is a critical component whether a person is swayed towards violent extremism. Unemployment and underemployment is a plague on the continent. 7.2% of Sub Sahara Africans are unemployed. Youth unemployment stands at 10.7 %. Work gives a sense of purpose, productivity and belonging a community. Where an individual cannot find work, he or she yearns to “do something”. Here radical groups offer work and gives susceptible persons a sense of purpose.


Governance and democracy

Studies have shown that a country’s governance affects the tipping point. Persons susceptible to violent extremism often hold grudges or resentment towards government leaders and institutions. Lack of legitimacy, lack of democracy, corruption and lack of trust plants seeds of anger in individuals who may act on their grudges in violent ways towards the government (and ultimately citizens).


Violent extremism threatens development, peace and security in Africa. The focus of military action as the only counter terrorism strategy neglects the underlying causes and drivers of violent extremism: what makes a person turn to violent extremism and how can we stop it? Childhood happiness, family structures, exclusion, poverty and lack of state legitimacy play a role in making individuals susceptible to violent extremism and radicalisation. Even with these factors manifest, some turn towards violent extremism and others don’t. Violent extremism and acts of terrorism cannot be excused or justified. However understanding why and how people turn to radicalisation and violent extremism is a vital strategy in countering terrorism. There must be increased focus to address the underlying multidimensional layers of drivers for recruitment to prevent extremism in Africa.

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