The Sahel – the region just south of the Sahara – is home to the fastest growing extremist group in the world, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin or JNIMand the deadliest group, Islamic State in West Africaaccording to Global Terrorism Index 2022.
Different militant groups in the Sahel have different tactical preferences and operate in specific contexts. What they share is a general ideological commitment to destabilizing and destroying existing state structures, not necessarily to taking control of the state.
Security continues to deteriorate across the Sahel. Groups are extending their reach and carrying out deadlier attacks, taking hostages, ambushing highways and attacking villages.
This is despite numerous counterterrorism interventions over the past decade, including various French-led programsthe G5 Sahel Joint Forcethe Combined Joint Task Force and the United Nations Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in Mali.
The withdrawal of France and its EU partners from Mali signals fatigue in the fight against terrorism. Military takeovers in the subregion also suggest that the situation may continue to deteriorate.
Read more: Three likely changes to Mali after France pulls out – and two options for the junta
As extremist groups form alliances, co-opt pre-existing conflicts and move south from the Sahel, West African countries such as Ghana, Benin, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire are increasingly more nervous. Indeed, most of these countries have already experienced terrorist attacks. Among these coastal countries, one of the favored preventive measures has been the reinforcement of security along the borders with their Sahelian neighbours.
Read more: The jihadists of the Sahel do not all govern in the same way: the context matters
The logic seems to be that Islamist extremist groups can be kept away. But the approach presupposes that extremist groups could not form within country 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 categorize countries into those currently experiencing it (in varying degrees of intensity) and those that may do so in the future.
Governance differs from country to country in West Africa, and no country is the same in terms of social and political structures and vulnerabilities. But there are many reasons to worry about extremism emanating from within West African countries, beyond the fear of 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 possesses “replaced the Middle East as the epicenter of the global terrorist threat”. Now is the time for urgent and lasting action to counter the catalysts of extremism. Countering extremism now and preventing it in the future requires scenario planning based on an understanding of what triggers it.
I have analyzed four key catalysts of political extremism, using the work of other scholars. These enablers are:
Grievances include poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and lack of adequate health care. These lead people to wish for a policy change, 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 who feel they suffer more from these issues than other groups – this is known as horizontal inequality. For example, eight of the 20 worst performing countries on the Human Development Index 2022 are in West Africa. There are endemic inequalities between regions and communities in these countries which can cause conflicts.
Some aggrieved persons may form networks or join pre-existing networks. A support network creates a specialized 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 have a long history of state negligence.
A legitimizing ideology offers hope for a different future. This is rooted in psycho-cultural and historical memories around religious, ethnic and regional identities. Ideology links the different elements of extremism. West Africa is the most sympathetic to global jihadist ideology due to the concentration of Muslim communities in the region.
Without a conducive local and global political environment, these catalysts would be less likely to ignite 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 socio-cultural makeup of neighboring communities create human and geographic conditions that allow extremist groups to expand into different countries and regions.
When foreign militant groups have the same worldview as local groups, global solidarity around a common cause provides additional motivation for local groups.
Read more: Why terrorism continues in Nigeria and how to reverse it
Extremism in degrees
The potential for political extremism in West African countries depends on the degree of presence of the catalysts of extremism. It also depends on the persistence of catalysts long enough to motivate and justify violent extremism and provide the opportunity and capacity for extremist rebellion.
I argue that in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and in Nigeria, where extremist conflicts are ongoing, the drivers of extremism are not just present but have persisted. In countries not currently experiencing extremist conflict, not all of the above catalysts are present. Or, if they are, they haven’t been persistent enough to ignite overt extremist violence.
In other words, as is clear from an analysis of countries where there are such conflicts, political extremism has a checklist. The more boxes you tick, the closer political extremism gets.
Thus, West African countries should be categorized into those currently experiencing political extremism and those potentially experiencing political extremism in the future, based on the number of boxes that are ticked or likely to be ticked.
Read more: Jihadism and coups in the Sahel region of West Africa: a complex relationship
What awaits us
An understanding of the conditions that create political extremism is crucial to undoing them. In countries that do not have open extremist groups, it would be wise to monitor such conditions before they threaten to disrupt the peace.
Planning for future scenarios is imperative, based on current conditions. The best guarantee of stability is to be proactive and act to prevent extremism, rather than to counter it.