A South African scholar believes that inter and intra-religious tensions help extremist groups to exploit the situation and attract the youth to advance their narrow-minded goals.
"Violent extremist groups tend to exploit inter and intra-religious tensions to achieve parochial objectives," Akinola Olojo tells the Tehran Times.
"It is absolutely essential that cooperation across the religious spectrum is a component of preventing and countering violent extremism in African countries and indeed globally," says Olojo, a senior researcher in transnational threats and international crime at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: What are the main reasons for the rise of violent extremism in Africa? Is Africa a safe haven for terrorists affiliated with ISIS?
A: A combination of reasons helps us to make sense of the spread of violent extremism on the continent. These reasons can also be understood as risk factors that have existed for a long time in a number of African countries. These risk factors create conditions that violent extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and their affiliates are able to exploit.
Apart from ISIS, there are also groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. Decades of ineffective state institutions, longstanding neglect of communities living on the margins of society, failure to constructively engage local community actors or groups, including the youth, have collectively contributed to a situation where the aforementioned violent extremist groups exploit leadership gaps along with the power of ideology that equally exploits religion to appeal to vulnerable populations.
One must also understand that governments' weak understanding of the workings of these different groups and their strategies, as well as ill-informed state responses, also complicates the situation. Furthermore, in cases where good countering violent extremism (CVE) policies exist, the political will to implement these policies and the sense of urgency required are weak.
Q: Do you with this view that certain regimes in other regions, for example in West Asia, have exported their problems to Africa, especially in Libya? Is violent extremism a kind of imported phenomenon to Africa?
A: I would say that violent extremism is a transnational challenge, and this applies globally. In the context of Africa, the threat it poses and its multiple dimensions certainly transcend the borders of states. In the Lake Chad Basin region, countries such as Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria are faced with a regional challenge caused by Boko Haram. In the Sahel, countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are faced with the regional challenge cause by the Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM).
Similarly, in the East and the Horn of Africa, countries such as Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda face the regional challenge caused by al-Shabaab. The multi-dimensional character of violent extremism is expressed through combatants that cross borders, through the movement of weapons, and through the flow of ideological narratives. To some extent, the flow of weapons from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi also influenced the trends of violence in certain parts of the Sahel.
Q: Which countries and regions in Africa are at stake due to the rise of ISIS in the continent?
A: In recent years, countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique have also come under the radar of what is referred to as the Islamic State Central Africa Province. The threat posed by ISIS should not be taken for granted because it concerns quite a number of regions, as earlier pointed out. In the Lake Chad Basin, Boko Haram called the Islamic State West Africa Province, and Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria are faced with challenges. There is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which threatens parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. There is also the Islamic State in Somalia which causes problems for places such as Puntland.
Q: What is the main social base of terrorist groups like Boko Haram in Africa? Why do some youth join Boko Haram and other groups?
A: Attraction to or membership of Boko Haram must be understood in terms of phases/periods. During the early stages of Boko Haram's rise, different population groups joined for various reasons. Some individuals were attracted by ideological reasons and the need to have a sense of identity. Others joined as a result of socio-economic or political grievances. Some also joined for reasons linked to vengeance, for instance, due to the killing of a family member or friend by security agencies. In other words, there is also a human rights dimension associated with the rationale behind some individuals joining these groups. Each individual's pathway towards joining Boko Haram is unique. However, in more recent years and especially in light of the group's atrocities against both Muslims and Christians, Boko Haram lost a lot of appeals. Therefore, what is being witnessed in recent years is instances where the group engages in a series of abductions of individuals. Many individuals are forcefully recruited and manipulated to perpetrate attacks.
Q: What are the challenges and opportunities of African states when it comes to fighting violent extremism?
A: There are a number of challenges and there is one related to the struggle to strike a balance between military versus holistic approaches when addressing violent extremism. Another challenge relates to the inadequate inclusion of local or affected communities when formulating and implementing policies. There are also other challenges linked to gaps in state inter-agency analyses and operational coordination. The challenge posed by the porosity of borders also exists.
In terms of opportunities, it is vital to mention that African countries are learning vital lessons from mistakes made in the past despite the challenges. There are quite a number of local, national, regional and continental frameworks already in place. There is the Regional Strategy for the Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin. There is the G5 Sahel and a counter-terrorism Action Plan inspired by the Economic Community of West African States. There is also the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). All these multilateral frameworks are in progress and they represent opportunities for affected states to implement comprehensive strategies and revise existing ones such that they are people-focused.
Q: How do you see the importance of dialogue between religions in undermining the position of violent extremists in Africa?
A: The idea of inter-religious dialogue is very crucial. Dialogue provides a platform for key conversations between religious leaders as well as other community members of different religious faiths. These conversational frameworks enable different groups to seek clarity, demystify stereotypes, foster collaboration towards a common societal good, and share lessons. Violent extremist groups tend to exploit inter and intra-religious tensions to achieve parochial objectives. Therefore, it is essential that cooperation across the religious spectrum is a component of preventing and countering violent extremism in African countries and globally.