AU at 20: AU faces an uphill battle to end violent extremism

At the end of October 2022, the Somali capital Mogadishu suffered another suicide attack, which claimed the lives of 121 people and injured more than 300. This event significantly increased the casualty toll from attacks by the Islamist al-Shabaab terrorist group. According to United Nations sources, 613 civilians were killed and 948 injured in 2022 in violent extremism in Somalia. This year has seen the most such deaths since 2017, an increase of more than 30% from 2021.

Somalia’s experience with al-Shabaab is not an isolated case but part of a noted surge in the activities of extremist groups on the continent. This is characterised by escalations in the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin, northern Mozambique and parts of North Africa.

The rise has occurred despite efforts of states, and regional and international organisations to contain and degrade terrorist groups over the two decades of African Union (AU) existence. As the organisation enters its third decade, Africa’s continued struggle with this phenomenon raises crucial questions about the appropriateness of responses vis-à-vis the nature of the threat.

Extremism spirals despite efforts

Even as relatively new fronts such as Mozambique experience the scourge, the threat and its consequences are not new to the continent. Concerns in the late-1990s prompted the Organisation of African Unity’s adoption of the 1999 Algiers Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism.

In the convention, African and other leaders took note of the ‘scope and seriousness of the phenomenon’ and the ‘dangers it poses to the stability and security of states’. They expressed the continent’s determination to eliminate it ‘in all its forms and manifestations’.

The continued spread of violent extremism points to gaps in the efforts to stem the threat

Notwithstanding this commitment and a massive rollout of material, financial and human resources, Africa has witnessed a deepening and expanding terrorist presence with enormous consequences, as seen in the Mogadishu attack. Boko Haram, since its rise in the 2000s, has spread its operations, splintered its form and numbers, morphed its tactics and adapted to responses. This is a classic demonstration of how the group and its ilk have evolved.

Past efforts to curb violence

Apart from the Algiers Convention, actioned even before the global response against terrorism after 9/11, the AU and its member states adopted decisions, frameworks and mechanisms to address the threat. Key among these was the 2002 Plan of Action on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, initiated to further implementation of the convention through greater cross-border collaboration on policing and surveillance.

It was complemented by the 2011 African Model Anti-terrorism Law, which identifies offences perpetrated by terrorist groups and outlines how AU member states can address them. Offences include money-laundering and financing of terrorist groups, hostage-taking and terrorist bombings. Combatting terrorism is also key to the AU Roadmap to Silence the Guns by 2030, which expresses Africa’s commitment to addressing insecurity issues to prevent them from afflicting future generations.

In implementing these frameworks, the AU has staged various peace support operations (PSOs). The Peace and Security Council (PSC) deployed operations such as the AU Mission to Somalia (now the AU Transition Mission in Somalia) and Regional Cooperation Initiative against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

While new threats continue to emerge, existing approaches do not deal with the root causes

Guided by subsidiarity, the council has also coordinated deployment with regional economic communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms in various initiatives. These include the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram, the G5 Sahel Joint Force in the Sahel and the recent Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique.

Inadequate response

These efforts have had a notable impact on liberating territories held by violent extremist groups, degrading groups to make way for state structures and containing the worsening of the situation. However, the continued spread and increasing intensity of the threat point to obvious gaps in the efforts to try to stem violent extremism on the continent.

First is the endurance of the phenomenon traceable to a complex cocktail whose main ingredient, namely deep-seated governance challenges, remain untreated. Other factors are the reinforcing influence of groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the threat’s dynamism and the evolution of existing groups despite efforts to degrade them. According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, the ‘steady growth in capacity among groups’, resulting partly in their ‘willingness to take on state security forces’, explains the escalation of their activities.

Second is the nature of the response amid the many governance weaknesses birthing these groups. It is clear that a sustainable prevention framework needs strong governance and a non-military component. Currently, as much as efforts are made in that direction, regional and continental reactions remain response-driven and heavily militaristic.

The AU must prioritise non-military responses to contain the emergence of new threats

The ‘drivers versus response’ interaction is such that while new threats continue to emerge, existing approaches do not deal with the root causes. Given the challenges confronting response efforts, particularly the lack of political will to act boldly, weak institutional structures and limited resources, there is a clear imbalance between threat and reaction. The net effect is that threats outweigh responses, which explains the notable rise in insecurity.

Reframing frameworks

The most recent AU decisions on curbing terrorism were made during the 16th extraordinary summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea on 28 May 2022. Key outcomes included making the African Standby Force (ASF) fully functional and establishing within it a counter-terrorism unit.

Member states also called for the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the AU and RECs and regional mechanisms on the ASF to improve and coordinate PSOs. Another major decision involved setting up an AU ministerial committee on counter-terrorism to coordinate, monitor and evaluate the implementation of decisions.

The summit also called broadly for member states to expedite the signing, ratification and implementation of instruments to combat terrorism. It reiterated the AU’s commitment to ending the extremist scourge through a comprehensive and consolidated continental strategic plan of action.

While these efforts are laudable, they are inadequate. If change is to result in reduced insecurity on the continent, the AU must prioritise national, regional and continental non-military response frameworks to contain the emergence of new threats. This requires good governance front and centre and dealing with poverty and marginalisation.

This, then, can be complemented with robust action to degrade existing threats. Achieving this, however, needs sustained political will to enact decisions boldly, implement existing frameworks and pursue long-term solutions. Also key are enhancing the working relationship between the AU and RECs, improving resource distribution and rolling out context-appropriate responses.

Image: WikiMedia Commons/Stuart Price

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