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Roundtable: Countering militancy in the Sahel

One size doesn’t fit all. What works? What doesn’t?

Soldiers stand guard at a G5 Sahel task force command post. Thomas Samson/AFP

The YouTube images are ubiquitous: angry young men brandishing guns, promising violence in the name of religion. What is so often unseen, obscured in the rush to condemn, is an understanding of what drives these (mainly) men to join militant movements – and of what may convince them to disengage from conflicts that have claimed tens of thousands of lives and left close to 11 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

Over the past year, IRIN explored those issues as part of our reporting on the humanitarian impact of the interrelated jihadist conflicts in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Mali – and the possible paths to peace.

Earlier this month we brought together three people who have had front-row seats on the rise of violent extremism in the region to discuss our recent reporting and next steps in slowing the rise of militancy and restoring stability to the region.

Read more: Countering militancy in the Sahel

To counter violent extremism, understanding its causes is key. “Structural factors” – poverty and government neglect – are often cited as laying the ground for jihadism to flourish.

Read more: Why some Malians join armed groups

What is often omitted, though, is the power an ideology has when a cause is framed as “sacred”. In northeastern Nigeria, the Salafist-jihad movement Boko Haram, draws on culture and history to portray its resistance to a “corrupt” government as a religious duty for all Muslims, in a region that has been a centre of Islamic learning for centuries.

Boko Haram’s propaganda promotes an Islamic piety that is readily understood in the rural villages. As a result, they “are winning hearts and minds”, noted Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development. The challenge for the government is to prove the benefits of democracy and constitutional rule.

Read more:  Taking the fight against Boko Haram to the airwaves

The panelists identified an overly militaristic response as likely to further fuel violent extremism. “The whole issue with a lot of these kinds of terrorism strategies is that they are treating the symptoms as opposed to the causes of radicalisation and extremism,” Ryan Cummings, a South Africa-based risk analyst who is co-authoring a book on so-called Islamic State, pointed out.

A security-driven approach tends to overlook the complexities of the conflict, removes other options from the table, and serves to internationalise the fight, the panelists said.

In Mali, for example, there are troops from France, Germany, Italy, and the United States, as well as a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, a five-nation regional intervention known as G-5, and an EU military training mission.

Read more: A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel

And yet Mali is as deadly now as in 2012, when the spillover from the Libyan crisis bolstered a Tuareg rebellion, which in turn facilitated the growth of jihadist movements.

Read more:  New violence eclipses Mali’s plans for peace

How to move forward? There are growing calls to bring the insurgent groups to the negotiating table as part of a political process. But such initiatives are fraught with complications over finding the right channels to reach the jihadist leadership, and developing trust and the domestic conditions to enable talks.

Read more:  Negotiations with jihadists? A radical idea gains currency in Mali

Mali, Niger, and Nigeria have all launched amnesty programmes to peel away militants looking to surrender. But it is unclear whether these initiatives are not just another form of counter-insurgency rather than part of a genuine attempt at political settlement, the panelists suggested. Moreover, such programmes provide impunity for fighters who have carried out acts of violence, while their victims are ignored – receiving neither justice nor financial support to rebuild their lives.

Read more:  Peace in northeastern Nigeria requires justice for military crimes not just Boko Haram atrocities

And the panelists emphasised that local communities must be included in any peace and reintegration processes. More on that – and those cupcakes – below.

Highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, follow.

The panelists

  • Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, a policy and advocacy think tank covering West Africa.
  • Ryan Cummings, a director at the South African risk mitigation firm Signal Risk, and co-author of a book on the so-called Islamic State.
  • Chika Oduah, a multimedia journalist who has spent the last several years covering the conflict in northeastern Nigeria.  

Moderator: Obi Anyadike, IRIN editor-at-large and a research fellow on violent extremism with Open Society Foundations.

On the root causes

Ryan Cummings: “The important aspect of it is – whether the violence is driven by ideology or a sense of marginalisation – there is a disconnect in the social contract between the communities affected [by radicalisation] and the state, and even within the communities themselves.”

Idayat Hassan: “I think the al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram is the future of the insurgency. In this sect you have very young people who are well trained and have a [firm] set of beliefs … They do not target people [preferring to focus on the military] and when they enter communities they are well received. Their emphasis is on winning hearts and minds, on making themselves a bulwark against the ‘wicked’ Nigerian government.”

Read more:  The danger of a better-behaved Boko Haram

On the mistake of militarisation

Cummings: “You have communities that are being victimised by extremist groups but are also perceived as being sympathetic towards them, and so are also victimised by these counter-terrorism initiatives – carried out by foreign forces for the most part. [Military strategies need to be balanced] by a softer approach, with a focus on greater democratisation, building state capacity and focusing on development.”

Hassan: “I think the biggest challenge we have is the militaristic approach, and this simplistic belief that most of these groups are not ideologically oriented; that they are mere criminal groups, or that most of the challenges are as a result of the underdevelopment in the Sahel [and are not political].”

On the humanitarian toll

Chika Oduah: “I think in Nigeria, this is probably the hugest humanitarian crisis seen since the 1967 civil war. What we're seeing is really of epic proportions, and it's way too much for the local government to handle; it's too much for the federal government to handle. And I think also perhaps the international community's becoming overwhelmed, because there are other crises competing for resources.”

Read more:  In Nigeria, healing the scars of war might curtail its spread

On paths to peace

Cummings: “It’s a very difficult process, because ultimately there are certain conditions that need to be met for these groups to enter into dialogue. And within these groups themselves, you might find factions that are conducive to dialogue whereas others are completely resistant to it. [But] the minute that you do open a dialogue channel you are ultimately listening, as opposed to increasing the potential for radicalisation.”

“To achieve a binding peace and that degree of social cohesion which is conducive to a binding peace… you do need to have a process that focuses on addressing the ideology behind the radicalised mindset, to create a position for those voices to be heard. But you must also moderate them to the extent where leveraging violence is no longer considered an option.”

Hassan: “When you are focusing on a military approach, you are not dealing with the vital issue of accountability. You are not making governance work for the poor by delivering public goods and services. You are not building trust. It then becomes impossible to defeat the insurgency.  

Read more:  How jobs can help Niger win the war against Boko Haram

On reintegrating ex-jihadists

Hassan: “There are no explicit frameworks in terms of carrying out these deradicalisation, rehabilitation, and reintegration programmes. And this raises challenges both in terms of international law [the terms under which the fighters are detained prior to release] and in moving forward to their reintegration.”

“In the community, people do not have food, people do not have clothing, people do not have shelter. Yet the government is attempting to bring back ex-militants who have committed war crimes but have been treated better than the communities to which they are returning – they’ve even had vocational training.”

“People in the community want to understand how a 16-week programme will actually deradicalise insurgents – some of them known to the community because they've actually bombed their house, killed their families, or maimed them.”

Read more:  Boko Haram: Nigeria winning the battle but losing the war?

On “conflict-preneurs”

Oduah: “Unfortunately, there are many people in northeastern Nigeria who have profited from the Boko Haram insurgency – from the people at the top all the way down to the woman on the street who's selling groundnuts. They're benefiting from ‘foreigners’, like myself, who are coming to do reporting, they're benefiting from the aid workers who are there. There are accusations that soldiers are also benefiting. There are stories of them controlling some of the trade routes, especially the [lucrative] fish market in the Lake Chad region.”

Hassan: “The humanitarians are also accused of benefiting. The locals say, 'Look, you guys should go, because, one way or the other, you are the ones that are profiting from this conflict – so you can have opportunities, so that you can do your research, so that you can bring food.’  So just for instance… you're talking in terms of vocational training for people, but in one IDP programme they are training them on how to bake cupcakes – cupcakes! For what? Here, people do not [have money to] eat. They definitely do not have money to buy cupcakes.”

Read more:  Fighting violent extremism – humanitarians beware

On gender

Hassan: “I think it's very important to point out that women are not powerless, particularly in their involvement with Boko Haram. There's been so much focus on showcasing women as victims rather than actors in this whole insurgency. But there is another side. I have personally met women who were involved in the insurgency [who are now IDPs], and they want to go back to the bush and believe fervently in the doctrine.

“So they are not helpless. They are not necessarily victims. Some are happy participants, and some of these women are even the ones who are building the next generation of Boko Haram.”

Read more:  Coerced or committed? Boko Haram’s female suicide bombers

On vigilante groups

Oduah: “Vigilantes are filling the gap left by the security forces [but they have committed excesses]. I know of some vigilantes who have engaged in criminal activity alongside Boko Haram, and they're not being stopped. Many of the vigilante [leaders] are making a lot of money, and they're building huge houses across northeastern Nigeria, and they're looking for political positions as well.

“It's something that we see often in Nigeria, where people who are supposed to protect the community become the terrorists. Right now there are no talks to find a way to engage these young people who have risked their lives. Many of them are literally sitting on the sidewalk smoking, getting high. So as long as they're out of school and unengaged, they're [a danger].”

Read more:  Nigeria wakes up to its growing vigilante problem


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