Violent extremism remains an existential threat to emerging democracies in Africa. Two events have turned the spotlight on the need to adopt new strategies to combat violent extremism.
First is the al-Shabaab terrorist attack on a Mandera-bound bus in Wajir that killed at least eight people on December 6, 2019.
The recent attack comes barely a year since the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab attacked DusitD2 Complex in Nairobi, killing more than 20 people in January 2019. These terrorist attacks reveal that violent extremism is alive and well, and on the rise in the Horn of Africa. Globally, al-Qaeda, Isis, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and other terrorist groups carried out a total of 11,072 attacks in 2016, resulting in 25,621 deaths and 33,814 injuries. During the period, Somalia and Nigeria alone experienced 359 and 466 attacks respectively.
Second, this week, the IGAD Centre of Excellence in Preventing and Countering Violence Extremism (ICEPCVE) held its First Annual Horn and East Africa regional research conference on preventing and countering violent extremism in Nairobi on December 4-6, 2019. The forum, which was attended by researchers from regional universities and think-tanks, highlighted research as key to defeating violent extremism.
Research remains critical in response to the new bout of violent extremism now sweeping across the region. The African Regional Conference held in Nairobi in July 2015 called on governments to prioritise research to drive evidence-based fight against violent extremism.
But strong institutions, networks and strategies at the national and regional levels are needed to drive research. Ideologically and structurally, Pan-Africanism has always spearheaded responses to threats to Africa. Since 2016, IGAD has taken the mantle of pan-Africanism and established a regional architecture and strategy to combat the threat of violent extremism.
On April 25, 2018, the centre became the first regional organisation in the entire international system to develop a comprehensive regional strategy to prevent and counter violent extremism. It also launched its Centre of Excellence in Preventing and countering Violence Extremism (ICEPCVE) to implement the strategy and to champion its research on combating extremism in the Horn of Africa. The centre has morphed into the “soft power” equivalent of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Significantly, the centre is emerging as a regional thought leader on violent extremism. However, it has to adopt strategies to support regional researchers, think-tanks and academic institutions to develop expertise, knowledge and coordination capacities to wrest control of knowledge production on violent extremism from external players. Laudably, the centre has formed a new research network of think-tanks from the region to be hosted by the Nairobi-based Horn Institute.
The centre organised its first annual research conference at a time when terrorist groups are becoming complex, bolder and more daring, complicating the implementation of its strategy. Visibly, four categories of violent extremists are on the prowl in the Horn. These include international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda; affiliates of major international terrorist groups like the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been operating in Somalia; indigenous or “homegrown” terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab (Somalia) or Boko Haram (Nigeria); and non-Islamic indigenous terrorist groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (Uganda).
All these extremist groups share one thing in common. They reject the principles and values that underpin a peaceful civilised society, thus threatening our world order. Extreme violence is the strategy of choice for militants to change and to enforce specific ideologies and vision of society. In the Horn, al-Shabaab has sought to establish a caliphate as part of a “global caliphate”. In recent years, the al-Qaeda affiliate and ISIS have expanded their footprints into Northern Mozambique and deep into the Democratic Republic of Congo, trying to reconstruct and hew a caliphate from the pre-European Swahili Civilisation and the trade routes linking it to the interior of Africa.
In their use of violence in empire-building efforts, the extremists continue to exploit real or perceived grievances in society arising from widening inequality, poverty and marginalisation, rejecting dialogue and peaceful approaches. Recent studies on the al-Shabaab footprints in Kenya reveal that the militia is making serious inroads into previously non-Muslim communities in Mount Kenya region, the Rift Valley and Western Kenya.
They are recruiting and radicalising newly converted Muslims youth, using up-country Muslim communities and taking over moderate mosques. They relied on this new strategy to launch the Dusit attack. Meanwhile, they are tapping into established trade in Khat and illicit activities such as poaching to fund their operations.
The Horn is experiencing the spill-over effects of geopolitical rivalries in the Middle-East. Because of its proximity to fast-changing theatres of conflict in the Middle-East, the region has become exposed to waves of terrorism. Also complicating the situation are rivalries between al-Qaeda and Isis globally, mirrored by supremacy struggles between militias linked to both al-Shabaab and ISIS.
Researchers have to unearth the underlying causes of violent extremism. Softening the ground for violent extremism is a medley of civil wars, insurgencies, separatism, political violence and criminality and climate change-related problems of droughts, floods, famines and food insecurity that bedevil the region.
This demands that the Centre hones its capabilities to coordinate research across the region. Knowledge, they say, is power. The IGAD Centre on Violent Extremism has to carry the torch of research in the Horn region.
Prof Peter Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute.