To win the war against extremists, let’s fight from many fronts

Wednesday January 15 2020

Smoke billows at the Manda-Magogoni naval base in Lamu County, at Kenya's coast, on January 5, 2020 after an al-Shabaab attack. PHOTO | POOL


As I wrote this, reports were coming through of a dawn attack at the Manda military base, in Lamu, Kenya, by al-Shabaab militants. The attack clearly sets extremism as a pressing agenda carried over from 2019 into the New Year.

Here are some few useful lessons for Africa on countering violent extremism.

Alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as elders’ councils have lost most of their clout and ability to prevent or interrupt extremist violence, partly due to young people questioning elders’ authority and external actors who provide a continuous supply of sophisticated and deadly weapons to the militias.

Elders are, however, usually successful in de-escalating conflict when warring parties arrive at a mutually hurting stalemate.

Women, previously excluded from elders’ councils dealing with peace, are now sometimes included, bringing in new perspectives and ensuring sustainability of ways agreed on to end violence.

Extremists thrive on divisions particularly in countries where the political class spends huge amounts of resources and time on power struggles. They also flourish where politics of patronage usually leads to corruption, nepotism, ethnicism and personality, rather than issue-based politics resulting in bad governance. Underlying sectarian tensions, bad economic conditions, youth unemployment, incendiary rhetoric and hate speech also feed extremism.


The belief in narrow-minded extremist ideologies over pluralistic ideas stems from among other reasons, the failure to address acceptance of stereotypes and assumptions about people’s differences in, for instance, ethnicity and religion. Focus on intelligence sharing between national governments and state agencies is crucial, particularly as Africa’s borders are so porous. Many panya routes for a determined extremist militia exist, making the work of border control extremely difficult.

Extremism attacks are sometimes the cause of, or ride on other kinds of violence such as banditry, electoral violence or perceptions, real or imagined, of inequitable distribution of national resources. They also thrive in situations of scarcity of resources such as food and water. The recent heavy rains, indicating disrupted weather patterns, herald a dry season when food prices will go up, rivers will dry and pasture will be scarce.

It is advisable to improve skills of law enforcement officers to counter violent extremism as opposed to arming vigilante groups who, in time, often prove difficult to disarm and have been known in some cases to actually mobilise into a militia.

Foreign sponsors are in many cases usually at play in many of the violent extremist conflicts particularly when resources of benefit such as oil or minerals exist. Many of the sponsors are linked to the arms industry which profits immensely in meeting the demands of extremist militias for weapons.

The illicit arms trade and the accompanying proliferation of small arms and light weapons also sustains violent extremism. It is therefore naive to expect those profiting from the violence to have value for peace or preventing violence.

Responses to extremism, relying only on force, may make matters worse. Winning over the people living in the affected areas continues to remain a crucial strategy.

Individual and communal efforts to counter extremism through relationship building are laudable.

However, institutions, guidelines and policies would support their efforts by addressing structural drivers of violence and insecurity. Countries should prioritise anticipating where the militias might strike and invest in conflict prevention.

Governments and citizens working in tandem to counter violent extremism would offer clear peace dividends, such as uninterrupted schooling and markets and hospitals staying open.

It would also mean the easing of financial expenses usually required to counter extremists and provide security. This could in turn create the space to, for instance, cultivate Africa’s vast expanse of uncultivated arable land to feed its rapidly growing population.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail:[email protected]