Military and police abuses are a key cause of Africa’s surge of violent extremism, UN study finds


By our staff reporter
Human-rights abuses by military and police forces are one of the key factors that push Africans into violent extremist groups, a United Nations study has concluded after more than 1,000 interviews with former jihadist fighters.
The study by the UN Development Program found that Africa is becoming the “new global epicentre” for violent extremism. While deaths from terrorism have declined globally in the past five years, they have more than doubled in that same period in Africa, where almost half of the world’s terrorism-related deaths are now occurring, the report said.
A separate report this week by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies confirmed the trend. It found that the number of deaths linked to militant Islamist groups in Africa had surged by 48 per cent last year, while the number of violent events by such groups had increased by 22 per cent, reaching a new record.
Yet governments are too often responding to extremist groups with militarized action, which can be self-defeating, the UNDP report said. State security crackdowns, accompanied by a sharp escalation in human-rights abuses, are often the biggest reason why people join violent extremist groups in Africa, it found.
Instead, the study recommended governments should invest in education, social welfare and economic development programs that can prevent the drift into jihadism.
“Security-driven counterterrorism responses are often costly and minimally effective, yet investments in preventive approaches to violent extremism are woefully inadequate,” UNDP administrator Achim Steiner said in a statement accompanying the report.
The study is based on interviews with nearly 2,200 people, including more than 1,000 former members of violent extremist groups, in eight African countries: Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
In total, more than 51,000 Africans have died as a result of extremist violence in the past decade, and the economic cost of terrorism on the continent has been close to US$100-billion annually, the study found.
Another factor was a lack of education. Nearly 60 per cent of the recruits had low levels of education, the study found. Each additional year of schooling tended to reduce the likelihood of voluntary recruitment to jihadist groups by 13 per cent, it found.
In addition to these broad factors, nearly half of those interviewed said there was a specific trigger event that pushed them into the decision to join an extremist group. Of those, 71 per cent said the “tipping point” was a human-rights abuse, often by a state security force.
It quoted a 35-year-old Nigerian woman named Fatima, for example, who said a military jet had attacked her village and killed many people. “I decided to join and followed husband in order to avenge the killing,” she told the researchers.
Such trigger events, linked to anger and fear, were “a significant accelerator of recruitment” for many people, the study said. Those who did not experience a specific trigger or “tipping point” were much less likely to join a jihadist group.
“It illustrates the importance of addressing grievances, revealed as state action and human-rights abuses in this data sample, as a critical bulwark to counter and address vulnerabilities that may lead to violent extremism,” the study said.