To Counter Violent Extremism, Focus on Fighting Poverty and Improving Governance

  • world economic forumCountries such as Somalia have shown that it is possible to contain violent extremist groups by taking measures that give hope to the poor and marginalized, particularly young people.
  • Poor political governance drives people to militancy. Strengthening institutions and giving citizens more opportunities to participate in their own governance will deter them from joining extremist groups.
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Cape Town, South Africa, 5 June 2015 – At the World Economic Forum on Africa, government and civil society leaders agreed that, to counter violent extremism, African countries must focus on helping the poor, particularly the young, and improving governance. “The fundamental issue is abject poverty in our societies,” said Abdirahman Yusuf Ali Aynte, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation of Somalia, in a session on how to persuade militant groups to lay down their weapons and rejoin society. “People who join them are not fighting for a cause but are escaping a hopeless life that threw them on the street and made waking up every day exceptionally hard.”

According to Ali Aynte, Somalia has managed to significantly reduce the activities of violent extremists by paying attention to the three root causes of membership in these groups: systemic marginalization, exclusion from communities and deep poverty. “We are trying to address those drivers today and create opportunities for young people,” he said. Government decentralization has provided people with more opportunities to participate in the political system, he explained. Volunteer work programmes to build roads, schools and other facilities have helped reintegrate radical youth into society. “The government is giving them hope. They are galvanized in a nationalistic environment and given hope that they are doing something for the greater good.”

But, warned Erastus J. O. Mwencha, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union in Addis Ababa, “it is not just the kids of the poor and the marginalized that are part of this terrorism. We need to go to the fundamentals and address them. One of the things to start improving is political governance.” Anton du Plessis, Managing Director of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa, agreed. “We have a long way to go with the ability of our governments to respond with the rule of law [instead of] silencing guns with bigger guns. There are a lot of poor people in the world not turning to extremism. There is one driver of violence in Africa. Bad leaders ensure bad governance. It is the fuel on top of abject poverty.”

In Nigeria, where the extremist group Boko Haram controls some parts of the country, “we have to look at what is going on with poor governance,” reckonedHafsat Abiola-Costello, Special Adviser and Member of the State Cabinet of the Ogun State Government in Nigeria. “Boko Haram’s people are responding to bad governance. They have the wrong answer. We have to keep pushing back on a government that is not functioning as it should,” she said.

Abiola-Costello expressed hope that the new Nigerian government that took office at the end of May would improve the situation in her country by strengthening institutions and the rule of law. “Once you create a space for people to express themselves, they feel they are participating and that there is a space in which they can operate,” she said. Explained Mwencha of the African Union: “In countries that relapse [into conflict], the governance architecture is what falls apart.” He added that the best way to counter conflict is “to bring in development – open markets, schools, roads. If we share development, that is the only way we can bring peace.”

Young people should be of particular concern in Africa, a continent with significantly youthful demographics, said Kennedy Odede, President, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in the US. “We have to accept that the population of youth is growing very fast – it can be a blessing or it can be a threat. Young people are losing their sense of belonging,” he said. Everyone has a role to play, he concluded. “Let’s not only rely on government to do things.”

More than 1,250 participants are taking part in the 25th World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, which closes today. The theme of the meeting is “Then and Now: Reimagining Africa’s Future”.

The Co-Chairs of the World Economic on Africa are: Antony Jenkins, Group Chief Executive, Barclays, United Kingdom; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Undersecretary-General and Executive Director, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN WOMEN), New York; Patrice Motsepe, Founder and Executive Chairman, African Rainbow Minerals, South Africa; Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer, Unilever, United Kingdom; and Sir Michael Rake, Chairman, BT Group, United Kingdom.