Preventing and Responding to Radicalisation in Africa – A Development Approach

Violent extremism represents a growing threat to Africa’s hard-won development gains and poses a significant challenge to the achievement of the Global Goals.

Event details

Date:7 March 2016
Time:12.00 - 13.30
Venue:Celsiussalen, Ingenjörshuset, Malmskillnadsgatan 46, Stockholm


Recognising that violent extremism poses severe challenges to the achievement of the Global Goals in many African countries, the first seminar in the series “Implementing Agenda 2030” explored development approaches to radicalisation.

As a starting point for the discussion, UNDP’s new regional initiative on preventing and responding to radicalisation in Africa was introduced by Ozonnia Ojielo, UNDP Regional Cluster Director, Governance and Peacebuilding in Africa and Mohamed Yahya, Regional Programme Coordinator UNDP Regional Service Centre in Addis Ababa. The presentation was followed by comments from Ambassador Staffan TillanderCoordinator for Anti-terrorism at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Dr Judy McCallum, Executive Director of Life and Peace Institute, and Dr Dan Smith, Director of SIPRI.

To put the UNDP initiative into context, Mohamed Yahya summarized the devastating social and economic impact violent extremism has had across Africa. Since 2011 an estimated 4000 terrorist attacks have caused 24,000 deaths. The Boko Haram insurgency alone has internally displaced 1.2 million people in Nigeria, and forced more than 200,000 to flee to Chad, Niger and Cameroon; while over 700,000 Somalis are now refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya because of Al-Shabaab. This situation has far-reaching implications on these countries’ economies and people’s livelihoods as cross-border trade, tourism and direct foreign investment decline.

Realising that security responses to the phenomenon have clearly not been sufficient, UNDP embarked on a comprehensive consultation process to define a development approach that addresses structural, causative and perpetuating factors. Mohamed Yahya outlined the theoretical framework of the initiative which identifies three components to target: ideology, individuals and institutions. He further gave examples of the broad range of programmes needed, including rule of law and security initiatives, disengagement and re-integration processes, socio-economic factors, media and technology for counter-narratives, community resilience strategies, and gender-specific engagements. Furthermore, Yahya emphasized that nation state responses must be complemented by regional initiatives as violent extremism is not confined within national borders.

The broad and comprehensive approach taken by UNDP, addressing root causes and emphasizing prevention, was commended by the panellists in the discussion that followed. Staffan Tillander connected the initiative to the UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, as a similarly broad framework to understand the responses needed. He underlined the need for coordination between global, regional and national strategies and for assisting nation states at an early stage.

While security responses mainly deal with the problem as it occurs, a long-term focus on socio-economic development also has its limitations, panellists stressed. Poverty alone is not enough to motivate individuals to join violent movements. Citing research on Tunisia, Dan Smith suggested that the feeling of disrespect among youth is a key danger in the context of violent extremism. Judy McCallum pointed to the need for social identity and meaning in life as motivation, rather than just material rewards. Reasons for individuals being recruited to violent movements may also differ from the reasons why they stay, several speakers mentioned, why exit routes should also be considered.

The question of terminology was addressed from different angles. Dan Smith rejected the word de-radicalisation, as it is not necessarily wrong to suggest that radical change is needed in contexts of growing inequalities, increasing pressure from natural resources and lack of economic opportunity. From the perspective of a peacebuilding organisation, Judy McCallum pointed out that using language of countering violent extremism in programme work might attract interest among donors, but it often scares off communities and particular youth. Precisely for the reasons mentioned, Ozonnia Ojielo clarified, UNDP has chosen the language very carefully and frames the initiative as addressing “extreme violence on the basis of ideology”.

In conclusion, Mohamed Yahya and Ozonnia Ojielo stressed that the issue of ideology must not be underestimated. The ideological influence in processes of violent radicalisation is extremely powerful and can be understood as the accelerator and mobilizing factor. Although sensitive, there is a need to engage with faith institutions and the governance of religious institutions.