Geneva — A new report by the U.N. Development Program, UNDP, warns violent extremism is growing in sub-Saharan Africa and threatening to reverse hard-won development gains for generations to come.
Sub-Saharan Africa has emerged as the new global epicenter of violent extremism, with nearly half of global terrorism-related deaths in 2021. More than one-third of these deaths have occurred in just four African countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Somalia.
Achim Steiner, UNDP administrator, said his agency’s report sheds new light on what drives people to join fast-growing extremist groups. He stresses the importance of understanding why “violent extremist groups are able to both succeed in penetrating nation states, communities, and essentially spread their networks of influence.”
Nearly 2,200 men and women in eight countries — Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan — were interviewed for the study. More than 1,000 are former members of these groups, both voluntary and forced recruits.
At the core of this report, said Steiner, is the effort to identify what factors are most influential in persuading people to join extremist groups.
“Is it religion that is attracting people and radicalizing them or is it a push factor that has a great deal to do with the economic reality.”
The lead author of the report and regional peacebuilding adviser, Nirina Kiplagat, cites work, not religion, as the main driving force. She said one-quarter of voluntary recruits cited job opportunities and the urgent need of livelihoods as their primary reason for joining extremist groups.
“It is only 17% that cited religious ideologies for the primary reason motivating them to join and this is compared to 40% in 2017,” she said.
This is a reference to UNDP’s 2017 groundbreaking study, the first that attempted to understand the journeys to violent extremism. Kiplagat adds women’s reasons for joining extremist groups differ from those of men.
“Women were less likely to join for ideological reasons and tended to join with family and in particular their spouses, their husbands. And what we find in contrast, is that male recruits tend to join with friends,” she said.
In another interesting finding, the report notes that an extra year in school decreases the odds of voluntary recruitment by 30%. Between 2017 and 2021, UNDP reports extremist groups were responsible for 4,155 attacks in Africa and 18,417 fatalities.
Achim Steiner said he agrees the numbers are alarming, but that he believes too much emphasis is being placed on security-driven militarized responses to counter violent extremism. He said militarized approaches often exacerbate the problem, yet they continue to predominate in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Nearly half of the respondents cited a specific trigger event that pushed them to join violent extremist groups,” he said. “And a striking 71% of those quoted human rights abuse often conducted by the state security forces as a tipping point.”
Steiner said violent extremism is not just a localized phenomenon. He said it also has a geopolitical dimension.
“Whether it is the Wagner group, whether it is the spread of Boko Haram or ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] or al-Qaida, we have seen that… once these groups gain a foothold,” this inevitably sometimes becomes part of a geopolitical drama or competition.
This, he said “is very much the tragedy for many African countries because they become part of a larger battleground.”
Wagner is a Kremlin-linked mercenary military group. Nigeria-based Boko Haram is a militant terrorist group that has killed thousands of people in its bid to force the government to adopt strict Islamic law.
The report explores pathways out of violent extremism. Most interviewed said they left the groups they had joined because their financial expectations were unmet, and they no longer agreed with the actions or ideology of the group’s leadership.
The report recommends greater investment in basic services including child welfare education, quality livelihoods, and investing in young men and women to counter and prevent violent extremism. Lead author Kiplagat said, “Research shows those who decide to disengage from violent extremism are less likely to re-join and recruit others.
“This is why it is so important to invest in incentives that enable disengagement,” she said.