Extremism crisis in Africa blamed on poverty, fired by ideology

Monday February 13 2023
Cameroonian border town of Fotokol

Two men sitting near vehicles that were destroyed by Nigeria-based Boko Haram insurgents in the Cameroonian border town of Fotokol. PHOTO | REINNIER KAZE | AFP


Africa’s rising violent extremism is mostly being fuelled by poverty and marginalisation, sowing deadly seeds to be watered by religious influence.

A new report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) suggested that violent extremism is mostly attractive to poor uneducated youth and from communities ‘isolated’ from the rest of the world through underdeveloped infrastructure.

The report titled, "The Journey to Extremism in Africa", says that in 2021, almost half of all deaths from violent extremism occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. It reflects the life journeys of 2,196 interviewees, including over 1,000 former members of the violent extremism groups, both individuals who joined voluntarily and those who were forcibly recruited.

No jobs

And perpetrators had been attracted to the crimes because they had no jobs or felt marginalised by the authorities.

“Distrust of the government and dissatisfaction with state provision of services underscore the appeal of violent extremist groups that present themselves as proto-states and alternative service providers,” says the report.


And economic incentives are a major driver to recruitment, especially for men. On average, male voluntary recruits stated that they earned significantly less prior to joining a violent extremism group, compared to those recruited by force, and were held primarily in vulnerable employment.

Among the key findings are that; isolation, remoteness and lack of exposure to others are significant factors in shaping early conditions that may render individuals susceptible to violent extremism later in life.

Common thread

Most individuals who later joined violent extremist groups grew up in some of the most remote and peripheral areas, suffering from inter-generational socio-economic marginalisation and underdevelopment.

“They were also statistically significantly more likely to have had less exposure to individuals from other inter-ethnic and religious groups…  53 percent of reference group respondents claimed to have had friends from other religions growing up,” the study says.

Joining a violent extremist group reflects the influence of social networks and pressures. Some 40 percent of voluntary recruits joined a violent extremism group within one month of their first encounter with the group and 67 percent joined within one year.

Recruitment process

The data confirm the significance of factors related to the socialised nature of the recruitment process, notably the influence of peer networks and family. A majority (45 percent) of voluntary recruits joined a violent extremist group with friends, while 15 percent joined with family and 16 percent joined alone.

Secondly, the perceptions of childhood unhappiness, as well as a perceived lack of parental involvement and interest in a child’s upbringing, increase the likelihood of joining a violent extremist group

Achim Steiner, the UNDP Administrator, says that his organisation wants to understand the nature of violent extremism in Africa to better inform both policy and programming and to prevent the spread.

“It is possible to address the drivers that lead to violent extremism. The report reveals that reactive approaches continue to be on the rise, crowding out underfunded, but much needed, efforts on prevention and peacebuilding,” said Mr Steiner.

Eight countries

The report focused on eight countries across sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. Despite the clear lessons on the limitations and risks of state-alone security-driven responses to violent extremism, militarised approaches have continued to predominate in sub-Saharan Africa over the past five years.

Most people in violent extremism reported unfulfilled childhood need for belonging and connectedness, which underscores the importance of the family and environment in which the child is raised as a critical influence.

Religion a key driver

Some 17 percent of respondents identified religion as a key driver. Men were more inclined to perceive it as an influential factor, compared with women, who rated it as a less salient factor.

A lower proportion of voluntary recruits perceived religious diversity to ‘be a good thing’ (54 percent), compared to 82 percent of the reference group, suggesting the success of extremist narratives in hardening social and religious attitudes.

Education proved to be a prominent source of resilience: all else being equal, an additional year of schooling reduces the likelihood of voluntary recruitment by 13 percent. Additional years of education are thus associated with a lower likelihood of violent extremism.

New agenda for peace

UNDP provides one key major solution to recruitment: Government incentives and amnesty could play a major role in disengagement.

Most respondents who disengaged voluntarily from a violent extremist group stated that government incentives and amnesty programmes influenced their decision to leave.

Similarly, awareness of such amnesty and reintegration programmes supporting disengagement also emerged as crucial in the disengagement process.

The United Nations Secretary-General is developing a New Agenda for Peace. It calls for enhanced investment in prevention and the need for a better understanding of the underlying drivers and systems sustaining conflict. Violent extremism is not confined to a specific country or region, but rather a shared burden and one that humanity as a whole must respond to.