The Sahel – the region just south of the Sahara – is home to the world’s fastest growing extremist group, Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin or JNIM, and the most deadly group, Islamic State in West Africa, according to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index.
The various militant groups in the Sahel have different tactical preferences and operate in specific contexts. What they share is a general ideological commitment to unsettle and obliterate existing state structures, not necessarily to take over the state.
Security continues to deteriorate across the Sahel. Groups are expanding their reach and carrying out deadlier attacks, taking hostages, ambushing highways and attacking villages.
This is despite many counterterrorism interventions over the last decade, including various French-led programmes, the G5 Sahel Joint Force, the Multinational Joint Task Force and the United Nations Multidimensional Stabilisation Mission in Mali.
The withdrawal of France and its EU partners from Mali signals a counter-terrorism fatigue. Military takeovers in the sub-region also suggest the situation may continue to get worse.
As extremist groups form alliances, co-opt pre-existing conflicts and head south from the Sahel, West African countries like Ghana, Benin, Togo and Côte d'Ivoire are increasingly on edge. Indeed, most of these countries have already experienced terror attacks. Among these coastal countries, one of the preferred preventive measures has been the strengthening of security along borders with their Sahel neighbours.
The logic appears to be that Islamist extremist groups can be kept out. But the approach presupposes that extremist groups could not form from within the countries’ own borders.
Based on an understanding of the elements that make up political extremism, I have argued that the most sustainable way to prevent political extremism in West Africa is to categorise countries into those currently experiencing it (at varying degrees of intensity), and those that may do so in future.
Governance differs across countries in West Africa, and no two countries are the same in terms of their social and political structures and vulnerabilities. But there are many reasons to be concerned about extremism emanating from within West African countries, beyond the fear of a spillover from other countries.
What makes a violent extremist group
Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 48% of global terrorism deaths and 41% of Islamic State-related attacks globally. According to the Global Terrorism Index, the region has “replaced the Middle East as the epicentre of the global terrorist threat”. The time is ripe for urgent and sustainable measures to address enablers of extremism. To address extremism now and prevent it in future requires scenario planning based on an understanding of what triggers it.
I analysed four key enablers of political extremism, using the works of other scholars. These enablers are:
socio-economic and political grievances
a supportive network
a legitimising ideology
a conducive local and global political environment.
Grievances include poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and lack of adequate healthcare. These cause people to wish for a change in politics, even if they are unable to make that change. These socio-economic grievances become political if they persist and coincide with ethnic, religious and regional identity groups that feel they suffer more of these issues than other groups – what is known as horizontal inequality. For instance, eight of the 20 lowest performing countries on the 2022 Human Development Index are in West Africa. There are endemic inequalities among regions and communities in these countries which can cause conflicts.
Some aggrieved individuals may form networks or join pre-existing ones. A supportive network creates a specialised community of people willing to do more than just remain silent victims of their adversity and inequality. Beyond religious motivation, groups such as Boko Haram emerged from a long history of neglect by the state.
A legitimising ideology offers the hope of a different future. This is anchored on psycho-cultural and historical memories around religious, ethnic and regional identities. Ideology binds the different elements of extremism. West Africa is most amenable to the global jihadist ideology because of the concentration of Muslim communities in the region.
Without a conducive local and global political environment, these enablers would be less likely to trigger extremist rebellion. Locally, repressive political actions can tip the balance. After suffering in silence, groups from aggrieved communities finally decide to take up arms. Regional factors such as the nature of borders, and the political and sociocultural makeup of neighbouring communities, provide human and geographical conditions that allow extremist groups to expand into different countries and regions.
When foreign militant groups have the same worldview as local ones, global solidarity around a shared cause provides further motivation to local groups.
Extremism in degrees
The potential for political extremism in West African countries depends on the degree to which the enablers of extremism are present. It also depends on whether the enablers persist long enough to motivate and justify violent extremism and provide the opportunity and capacity for extremist rebellion to take place.
I argue that, in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria where there are ongoing extremist conflicts, the determinants of extremism are not simply present but have persisted. In countries that do not currently have extremist conflict, not all the above enablers are present. Or, if they are, they have not been persistent enough to trigger open extremist violence.
In other words, as is clear from an analysis of countries where there is conflict of this kind, political extremism has a check-list. The more boxes are checked, the closer political extremism gets.
So West African countries should be categorised into those currently experiencing political extremism and those that may do so in the future, depending on how many boxes are checked, or could be.
What lies ahead
An understanding of the conditions that create political extremism is crucial to unmaking them. In countries that don’t have open extremist groups, it would be wise to watch for such conditions before they threaten to unsettle peace.
Future scenario planning is imperative, based on present conditions. The best guarantee of stability is to be proactive and act to prevent extremism, rather than counter it.