Why do youth in the Sahel join armed groups? It’s complicated.

The G5 Sahel Force is made up of five African countries - Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. File picture: Baba Ahmed/AP

The G5 Sahel Force is made up of five African countries - Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. File picture: Baba Ahmed/AP

Published Jul 4, 2018


Over the past five years, violent extremism has been on the rise in the Sahel, the region traversing central and West Africa. The developments have spawned the deployment of UN peacekeepers, an American-led shadow war and the formation of the G5 Sahel Force made up of five African countries - Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso

and Mauritania.

For many following the trajectory of violence and extremism, the conditions in the Sahel are ripe for groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda to move into the region; the new frontier in the so-called war against terror is Africa.

Since 2016, there have been attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and the Ivory Coast and are considered harbingers in a new wave of militarisation on the continent.

But while there has been a rise in armed groups, especially since the coup in Mali in 2012, there has been little talk about the reasons young people in the Sahel are joining the armed groups.

As per the script since 9/11, the rise of violent extremism in the Sahel has been linked to the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism”, or groups that have pledged support to a “global jihad”.

While many of the groups are made up of Muslims the reasons have little to do with Islam or calls for “global jihad” or anything religious, for that matter.

This is not my opinion; this is the finding of UK charity International Alert in a report titled “If victims become perpetrators”, released a few days ago.

The British charity said that after conducting extensive interviews with the Fulani - nomadic cattle herding communities - in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, they found that young people were more likely to join an armed group as a result of government corruption, unemployment or facing abuse from authorities - interminably local issues rather than global


In essence, the armed groups have been using criticism of state inefficiency to invite people to embrace their political or social model, that is their armed group purportedly offering alternatives to the failures of the state.

“Real or perceived abuse by government authorities - often with impunity - has led to frustrations that violent extremists

take advantage of, said Marco Simonetti, the International Alert’s West Africa


“In reality, the appeal of global jihad carries much less weight than the unlawful detention of a loved one, the struggle for access to grazing areas or the quest for recognition within the village,” he said.

It also found, and unsurprisingly so, a lack of trust between communities and government forces. Instead of defending people, the national armies are seen as protectors of state power, of the very corrupt, alienating and absent state.

But most importantly, International Alert said its findings presented a

“stark warning against a ‘total security’ approach to tackling violent extremism in the region”.

It also inferred that it was ludicrous to expect communities to resist joining groups when they were inadvertently drowning in the indignity of severe poverty, unemployment and absent social services.

Simonetti said the military responses to date “have failed to reduce violence and have instead undermined community resilience”.

Azad Essa

Of course, these findings are neither new nor unique.

And there is cause for concern in depoliticising the actions of the young men or women who join for ideological reasons, including fighting for a homeland, or resisting the colonial practices of puppet regimes in the region.

But the findings of this report are clear.

The expansion of military operations in the Sahel will not solve the myriad problems facing these countries. It won’t address drug trafficking, it won’t end migration to Europe (which is all the EU and particularly France care about), nor will it end the insurgencies.

Not only will it alienate communities who are ignored, it will spawn further resentment and lock the region into an endless cycle of violence.

Confronting the rise in armed groups needs international actors and governments to push governments in the Sahel to deliver services and to be more accountable to their citizens - and not the promise of more aid for troops or arms.

The African nations need to accept that if we are going to allow external actors to determine the causes, we also allow them to dictate the solutions.

Of course, the report was mostly ignored by the international press. It was reported in dribs and drabs and understandably so.

It is a lot easier to assemble an army to fight “mad Moslems”; it is much harder to tackle the disease of state neglect, corruption and arson of state resources.

Speculating why young people join violent and extremist groups has become part of the Islamophobia industry over the past two decades. Most explanations have singled out the teaching of Islam, trees and virgins in the sky as key motivating factors.

As this report indicates, however, the story is always a lot more complex.

And as always, how you understand a problem depends almost exclusively on how you choose to view it.

* Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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