Extremism is rising, Africa needs a counter strategy

Sunday March 5 2017

People react and walk among rubbles following an attack outside a hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia on January 25, 2017, in Mogadishu.  PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB | AFP

People walk among rubbles following an attack outside a hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia on January 25, 2017, in Mogadishu. PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB | AFP 

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It was the British historian Eric Hobsbawm who dubbed the 20th century “the age of extremes”. Certainly, the 21st century is unfolding as an age of extremism.

The icy winds of isolationism and nationalism – typified by Brexit, Trump and the surge of ultra-right populist movements now sweeping across the world – are inspiring policies that are fuelling extremism and undermining collective responses to transnational threats.

One likely victim of the age of extremism is the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional grouping formed three decades ago to combat natural disasters and conflicts and promote inclusive development in the volatile Horn of Africa region.

This week, I participated in a twin-forum in Djibouti (March 1-2) where the regional body unveiled its new counter-extremism strategy. It also inaugurated a newly formed Centre of Excellence, the first of its kind on the African continent, to help coordinate the execution of the strategy.

IGAD’s counter-extremism framework, a culmination of a comprehensive and inclusive consultative process implemented between May and October 2016, is expected to take a “whole of society” approach to security and galvanise governments, civil society, private sector and external partners to roll back the rising tide of extremism.

Because terrorist groups are operating unhindered across territorial borders in the era of globalisation, IGAD’s regional framework mainly targets al-Shabaab militant group in Somalia that typifies the regional and global networks of violent extremists.


From above, it is affiliated to the two main international terrorist networks – al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) – and coordinating its terror activities with such homegrown militant groups as Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

From below, it has formed its affiliates in IGAD member states and drawn in extremists from local insurgent movements such as Kenya’s Mombasa Republican Council (MRC).

Ideologically, IGAD’s strategy is an offshoot of the thinking that rejects the interpretation of the post-Cold War world as a theatre of war involving civilisation and cultures.

Its goal is not to supplant the counter-terrorism effort by governments, but to complement it. While counter-terrorism uses “hard power” or violent tactics in response to Salafi-jihadists, CVE strategies use “soft power” to target the ideology and grievances that extremists use to recruit and radicalise the youth to violence. 

But IGAD’s counter-extremism architecture is up against the headwinds of rising global extremism exemplified by Trump’s populist policies.

Trump’s policies seek to overhaul the “Countering Violent Extremism” programme that President Barack Obama’s administration has developed since August 2011 to neutralise extremism through community engagement and developing counter-narratives to extremist messages.

In its kernel, Obama’s CVE initiative is designed to counter all violent ideologies. 


While the programme had its sworn critics long before Trump came into the scene, under Trump, as Human Rights Watch has rightly observed in a recent report (February 23, 2017), it has moved from bad to worse.

True to Trump’s populist hew, Washington’s policies are taking the worst aspects of CVE and magnifying them for political ends.

Even as Muslims reel from the controversial executive order the President signed barring citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from travelling to America, Trump has narrowed down the focus of America’s counter-extremism policy solely on Islam in line with the “clash of civilisation” doctrine espoused by far-right intellectuals like the late Samuel Huntington.

Obama’s CVE will give way to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism”.  In Trump’s populist world, the rise of radicalism and violence in the 21st century is synonymous with Islam, and the moral divide between “Good Muslims” and “bad Muslims”– to use the title of Prof Mahmoud Mamdani’s book – hardly exists.

This risks exacerbating the well-known lack of a clear definition of the CVE and its objectives by refocusing CVE initiatives to ill-defined, vague and bigoted concepts such as “Islamic Extremism.” 

This is already fuelling angst and suspicion of Muslims and removing chances of meaningful engagement with Muslim stakeholders.

On the other extreme, Trump’s indifference to the risk posed by other forms of violent extremism is giving safe passage to non-Islamic violence.

Records indicate that white supremacists are responsible for deadly armed attacks, now on the rise in the US. But the exclusive focus on Islamist terrorism erases from the government’s counter-extremism programme neo-Nazis and white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and mass shootings across America.

There is an economic logic to this, though: Trump’s proposals seek to reduce federal focus on non-Islamic extremism and to cut off pending federal funding for Islamic groups. In the Horn of Africa, as elsewhere, Trump’s rhetoric is already stoking anti-American sentiment and extremism, emboldening terror organisations such as al-Shabaab.

On top of this, IGAD and its new CVE architecture has to brace for harder times where the superpower is less generous and more militaristic.

The US is by far the biggest donor to humanitarian crises in terms of financial contributions for humanitarian emergencies in 2016 – amounting to roughly $6.4 billion or 29pc of the $22.1 billion spent globally.

This is changing. Again, Trump is hell-bent on making good another of his campaign promises to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us”.

In his budget proposals this week, the US leader seeks to raise military spending by $54 billion by slashing roughly the same figure from non-defence programmes. 

Three countries – Kenya ($941million), South Sudan ($839m) and Ethiopia ($809m) – were among the top 10 recipients of American aid in 2015 and are likely to be affected by the proposed cuts.

Prof Kagwanja is the Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute and served as lead expert/consultant for IGAD and UNDP in designing the Regional CVE Strategy