Two forms of violent extremism pushing democracies to war

Sunday January 14 2018

Mombasa youths participate in a peace walk protesting against radicalization

Mombasa youths participate in a peace walk protesting against radicalisation and extremism on September 30, 2015. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Last year tested Africa’s emerging democracies to the limits, but revealed their resilience. But democracy is everywhere haemorrhaging from two forms of violent extremism — one linked to international terrorism and the other to rising opposition authoritarianism — now turning Africa’s rapidly growing young generation into cannon-fodder in post-election disputes.

Democracies seldom go to war — or so it is said. While this may be largely true, democracies are everywhere at war with violent extremism on a global scale.

Democracy is facing an existential crisis from two forms of violent extremism.

One form of this extremism is faith-based, and largely linked to the global spread of radical political Islam internationally and proliferating “homegrown” terrorist groups. The other is secular extremism linked to the rise of opposition authoritarianism as the newest threat to emerging democracies in Africa.

Both forms of extremism are exploiting the growing youth population as foot-soldiers in their quest for power.

Scholars have identified two main threats to liberal democracy in the last decade. 


One traces the crisis of liberal democracy to the rise of the so-called “illiberal powers” —China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela now challenging the international liberal order (Larry Diamond and others, Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge of Democracy, 2016).

The other traces the crisis of liberal democracy to the rise of the Trump and rightwing populism (Larry Sabato and co-authors, Trumped: The 2016 Election That Broke all the Rules, 2017).

Be that as it may, neither the rise of China nor the triumph of Trump and the populists is a serious threat to democratic stability.  The real existential threat is violent extremism. 

In 2016, 11,072 attacks by violent extremists were recorded worldwide, 6,771 in 2012 and 13,463 attacks in 2014.

These attacks are traced to Islamic extremist organisations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. In Africa, faith-based violent extremism has taken a new dimension with the rise of homegrown terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia.


In their book, Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War (2005), Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder argue that democratisation, when mishandled, leads not to peace but to war.

While faith-based violent extremism of religious nature is wreaking havoc on mature democracies, secular violent extremism linked to the rise of opposition authoritarianism is pushing emerging democracies in Africa to war.

Kenya provides a text book case of the hidden cost of power-sharing as a favourite peacebuilding tool of democracy promoters, which has tended to reproduce insurgent violence as election losers reject results and mobilise violent resistance to elected governments to force dialogue, leading to sharing of power.

Africans who boycott elections often fade away. As a result, many thought that Raila Odinga had committed Kenya’s first political hara-kiri when he decided to stay away from the October 26 presidential re-run.

But the strategy of secular extremism organised around the National Resistance Movement (NRA) — itself inspired by the anti-Trump resistance movement in America — is breathing new life to his political career.


Despite having lost the August 8 election and boycotting the court-ordered repeat poll in October, Mr Odinga and his running-mate, Mr Kalonzo Musyoka, have announced they will be sworn in on January 30, 2018 as the “people’s president” and “deputy”.

A conscious violation of Article 141 of the Constitution of Kenya under which President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto were sworn in for their second term at Kasarani Stadium on November 28, the proposed swearing-in is an extra-legal ploy to get the winners to share power, but a lightning rod if this does not happen.

Secular extremists in civil society and opposition are beating the war drums. They have gone global with what they publicise as “Africa’s generational war” (Foreign Policy, January 5, 2018).

“A massive generational struggle is now under way between entrenched elites and impatient youthful populations across the continent”, writes John Githongo in a generational version of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisation” thesis.

But the youth is a Janus-faced category. On the one hand, the youth is the vanguard of democracy — signified by the “Githeriman” — in its resilience, unparalleled patience and resolve to bring about democratic change.


Never before in Africa’s independent history has the youth come out in so large numbers to vote and shape the destinies of their countries from Kenya to Liberia, Rwanda to Zambia.

African youth voters, the world’s youngest and fastest growing population on the planet, are electing into office a younger generation of leaders represented by Liberia’s George Weah (51), Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta (56) and Senegal’s Macky Sall (56).

Even in South Africa, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has replaced octogenarian Jacob Zuma (75) with the younger leader, Cyril Ramaphosa (65). In Zimbabwe, Emerson Mnangagwa (75) has replaced Robert Mugabe (93).

Africa’s new generation of youthful leaders now at the helm of power are projecting the power and the vision of an Africa rising and building strategic ties with powerful countries such as America, China and Russia.


However, Africa’s failure to invest heavily in youth empowerment carries the risk of turning the youth bulge into a deadly curse.

A massively unemployed, impoverished and marginalised youth lumpen is, undoubtedly, an easy target of both religious radicalisers and secular extremists seeking to capture power by revolutionary means.

Africa’s Western partners seem to be unwittingly aiding extra-legal heists by election losers to take over power. They have aggressively pushed for “dialogue” between winners of democratic elections and losers rather than asserting the ethos of competitive elections.

But they are also a target of campaign by secular extremists to cut the flow of aid to counter the spread of Islamic extremism.

In the Horn of Africa, where the United States has provided military support to Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda to fight Al-Shabaab and other jihadists across Africa, it is accused of “aiding and abetting the trend towards authoritarianism.

 Prof Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute. He’s author of Kenya’s Uncertain Democracy and Kenya’s Fallen Angels (2017)