By Azad Essa
4 July 2018
Over the past five years, violent extremism
has been on the rise in the Sahel, the region traversing central and West
Africa. The developments have spawned the deployment of UN peacekeepers, an
American-led shadow war and the formation of the G5 Sahel Force made up of five
African countries - Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
For many following the trajectory of
violence and extremism, the conditions in the Sahel are ripe for groups like
the Islamic State or al-Qaeda to move into the region; the new frontier in the
so-called war against terror is Africa.
Since 2016, there have been attacks in
Burkina Faso, Mali and the Ivory Coast and are considered harbingers in a new
wave of militarisation on the continent.
But while there has been a rise in armed
groups, especially since the coup in Mali in 2012, there has been little talk
about the reasons young people in the Sahel are joining the armed groups.
As per the script since 9/11, the rise of
violent extremism in the Sahel has been linked to the rise of “Islamic
fundamentalism”, or groups that have pledged support to a “global jihad”.
While many of the groups are made up of
Muslims the reasons have little to do with Islam or calls for “global jihad” or
anything religious, for that matter.
This is not my opinion; this is the finding
of UK charity International Alert in a report titled “If victims become
perpetrators”, released a few days ago.
The British charity said that after
conducting extensive interviews with the Fulani - nomadic cattle herding
communities - in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, they found that young people
were more likely to join an armed group as a result of government corruption,
unemployment or facing abuse from authorities - interminably local issues
rather than global dynamics.
In essence, the armed groups have been
using criticism of state inefficiency to invite people to embrace their
political or social model, that is their armed group purportedly offering
alternatives to the failures of the state.
“Real or perceived abuse by government
authorities - often with impunity - has led to frustrations that violent
extremists take advantage of, said Marco Simonetti, the International Alert’s
West Africa manager.
“In reality, the appeal of global jihad
carries much less weight than the unlawful detention of a loved one, the
struggle for access to grazing areas or the quest for recognition within the
village,” he said.
It also found, and unsurprisingly so, a
lack of trust between communities and government forces. Instead of defending
people, the national armies are seen as protectors of state power, of the very
corrupt, alienating and absent state.
But most importantly, International Alert
said its findings presented a “stark warning against a ‘total security’
approach to tackling violent extremism in the region”.
It also inferred that it was ludicrous to
expect communities to resist joining groups when they were inadvertently
drowning in the indignity of severe poverty, unemployment and absent social
Simonetti said the military responses to
date “have failed to reduce violence and have instead undermined community
Of course, these findings are neither new
And there is cause for concern in
depoliticising the actions of the young men or women who join for ideological
reasons, including fighting for a homeland, or resisting the colonial practices
of puppet regimes in the region.
But the findings of this report are clear.
The expansion of military operations in the
Sahel will not solve the myriad problems facing these countries. It won’t
address drug trafficking, it won’t end migration to Europe (which is all the EU
and particularly France care about), nor will it end the insurgencies.
Not only will it alienate communities who
are ignored, it will spawn further resentment and lock the region into an
endless cycle of violence.
Confronting the rise in armed groups needs
international actors and governments to push governments in the Sahel to
deliver services and to be more accountable to their citizens - and not the
promise of more aid for troops or arms.
The African nations need to accept that if
we are going to allow external actors to determine the causes, we also allow
them to dictate the solutions.
Of course, the report was mostly ignored by
the international press. It was reported in dribs and drabs and understandably
It is a lot easier to assemble an army to
fight “mad Moslems”; it is much harder to tackle the disease of state neglect,
corruption and arson of state resources.
Speculating why young people join violent
and extremist groups has become part of the Islamophobia industry over the past
two decades. Most explanations have singled out the teaching of Islam, trees
and virgins in the sky as key motivating factors.
As this report indicates, however, the
story is always a lot more complex.
And as always, how you understand a problem
depends almost exclusively on how you choose to view it.
Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author
of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)