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The Problem with the Study of Extremism/Radicalization in Africa – Professor Hussein Solomon

February 4, 2018


The Problem with the Study of Extremism/Radicalization in Africa

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 6 (2018), Number 3 (February 2018)

Following the 9/11 terrorist atrocity, then President George W. Bush launched his infamous Global War on Terror (GWOT). GWOT gave greater powers to security officials, the curbing of civil liberties, the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques and the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention facility. GWOT also witnessed the militarization of US counter-terrorism policy which witnessed military intervention in several countries. Unhappiness with the policy soon bubbled to the surface from security officials and academics – pointing out that the policy was simply not working. Despite increased powers and resources to security officials, terrorism was on the increase. Others also pointed out that military force was the wrong tool, that it seemed that the US was using weapons of war as if it was going to war with another state as opposed to an ideology. Critics also pointed to the fact that GWOT was waging war on a symptom and not on its causes – the ideology allowing for the radicalization of Muslims. Recognizing the ideological imperative behind the terrorist act, the Obama Administration moved away from the GWOT and spoke of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

In recent years, discourses on extremism and radicalization have dominated the counter-terrorism field, especially in the African context. To be clear this is a welcome departure from GWOT. It is self-evident that we need to understand processes of radicalization if we intend to root out terrorism. At the same time, the study of extremism and radicalization on the African continent has suffered from being too myopic – attempting to understand the phenomenon at individual level without any reference to the broader structural and historical factors at play in the African context. The renowned expert on terrorism and political violence Alex Schmidt once commented: “A number of analyses have observed that the study of radicalization on the micro-level has, to some extent, become a substitute for a fuller exploration of the causes of violent extremism and terrorism. So long as the circumstances that produce Islamist radicals’ declared grievances are not taken into account, it is inevitable that the Islamist radical will often appear as a `rebel without a cause’. It appears that by excluding potentially politically awkward factors like `counter-productive counter-terrorism’ from research – especially government-funded research – too much weight has been put on the `radicalization’ of individuals and the micro-level as an explanatory variable.”

Any attempt to understand the rise of extremism in North-West Africa without reference to historical precedents will be shallow indeed as the indomitable Marc-Antoine Persouse de Montclos makes clear in his historical survey of jihad in Africa. Consider for instance the jihad embarked upon in the Senegal River Valley in 1673 as well as the jihadi roots of the various Fulani uprisings starting in Futa Jallon in 1725 and ending in Macina in 1818. The formation of the Toucouleur Empire of El Hadj Umar Tall from 1856 to 1861 also had its basis in jihad. The most impressive of these jihads was undoubtedly that of Fulani scholar, Uthman dan Fodio which began in 1804 and established a caliphate which endured until the arrival of the British in 1903.These historical precedents are important as groups like Boko Haram imitate the jihad of Uthman dan Fodio and others.

No amount of work on CVE and deradicalization on Niger’s Tuaregs will work unless greater attention is paid to the illegitimate nature of the state, Western powers are seeking to prop up. During 2007-2009 in Niger, former president Tandja conducted a policy of genocide against ethnic Tuaregs. According to Jeremy Keenan this negatively affected two million ethnic Tuaregs in varying ways and degrees. Niger’s current president, Mahammadou Issoufou, is no democrat. He was re-elected president in February 2016 after his main opponent was imprisoned and then forced to flee the country for exile. Other opposition leaders boycotted the polls. Ali Idrissa, a Nigerien journalist, notes that the president and his regime enjoy no legitimacy and that the people feel alienated from the political class. As a result, the government routinely uses repressive means to stay in power. Issoufou and his government sees cooperation with Western powers in the fight against terrorism as a means to extend their reign. Whilst providing the US with bases from which to launch drones against terrorists, Issoufou’s regime receives financial assistance from Washington as well as training and arming of his already repressive security apparatus. This financial assistance hardly gets to the ordinary citizen. As Ali Idrissa bluntly states, “We have a super-rich political class and a mass of people who have been abandoned”. At the same time, political resentment breeds insurgency. Given the fact that 94 percent of Nigeriens are Muslims, this insurgency takes on an Islamic flavour. The government then labels this `terrorist’ and gets Western countries to help suppress an often-legitimate opposition. The discourse of terrorism together with a repressive state security apparatus, armed and trained by Western governments, then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as moderate Sufi Islam is then replaced by a more radical Salafi Islam.

Context matters and scholars of radicalization have to discuss these structural factors and not just focus on radicalization at an individual level.

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