Preventing violent extremism isn’t a job for civil society alone

Terrorism is driven by deep structural problems, and tackling these is the primary responsibility of governments.

Civil society organisations working to prevent violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin are numerous, and receive continued financial support from donors. In addition to their efforts are those of governments that tend to be security focused. Despite both types of initiatives though, violent extremist groups continue to recruit, radicalise and attack.

Since the factional split between Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in 2016, attacks on military bases and government targets have increased. Both groups’ area of activity and recruitment are concentrated in the Lake Chad Basin region where vulnerability is high given the deep levels of socio-political marginalisation and poverty.

Civil society organisations have taken on an important role in preventing violent extremism, but can they address the structural drivers of terrorism without the help of the countries they work in? Can root causes, which make individuals vulnerable to being recruited and radicalised by extremist groups, be tackled by civil society?

Can civil society organisations address structural drivers of terrorism without the help of governments?

The United Nations Development Programme’s 2017 report cites human rights abuses, social, political and economic marginalisation, unemployment, and religious ideology as among the top reasons for people joining groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP.

A recent Institute for Security Studies report analysed over 133 civil society projects aimed at preventing and countering terrorism in the Lake Chad Basin. The report cites another 148 projects in East Africa. In both regions, initiatives cover vocational training and skills development, education, promoting tolerance and peace between communities, raising awareness, and providing individuals with psycho-social support.

But these efforts don’t address the deep-seated problems of poverty and unemployment, marginalisation and human rights abuses in the four Lake Chad Basin countries of Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.

Terror groups offer employment and livelihood opportunities to impoverished communities

The Boko Haram crisis in the Lake Chad Basin has to date led to around 2.3 million people fleeing to camps for internally displaced people. Despite the availability of these humanitarian facilities, there are still about 11 million people without food and in dire need of aid. Lake Chad is receding, affecting the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers, and adding to the high rate of unemployment. Civil society organisations cannot be expected to fully address this problem.

Although the vocational and skills training provided by civil society bodies are important, without government intervention to stimulate the job market and economy, finding jobs will remain difficult. This in itself is a driver of violent extremism. Terror groups capitalise on this by offering employment and livelihood opportunities to impoverished communities.

Another catalyst for violent extremism is states’ failure to address injustices such as human rights abuses in their countries. Civil society organisations are trying to raise awareness of how some government actions can hurt efforts to prevent terrorism, and how their misconduct contributes to the drivers of violent extremism. For their part, governments tend to prioritise security focused, reactive counter-terrorism measures over preventive ones, and seldom fund local initiatives to prevent extremism.

Civil society organisations in the Lake Chad Basin are also empowering local communities to hold security forces and municipalities accountable for their actions. But without top-down reform from governments, groups like Boko Haram will continue to be able to justify their propaganda and recruit new followers.

Civil society organisations can access local communities, especially those who have lost faith in the state

Despite their limited capacity and authority to address deep structural drivers, civil society organisations have a key role in preventing violent extremism. They are ideally positioned to access local communities, especially those who have lost faith in the state. They can help build trust between communities and government through reconciliation dialogues, supporting former combatants who return to their homes, and raising awareness on how government can prevent extremism.

To fully confront the drivers of violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin, governments need information about how to support local prevention initiatives. Civil society organisations are already doing this in their awareness-raising campaigns.

States should aim to address and resolve local grievances, increase communities’ trust in government, and encourage social cohesion. Building trust also requires invigorating the job market and economy, and being more transparent about government efforts to prevent extremism, especially rehabilitation and reintegration processes. It is also crucial that states address poverty and marginalisation in rural areas.

Isel van Zyl, Junior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria

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Picture: Muse Mohammed/IOM

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