Fighting violent extremism in the Sahel and West Africa: A real challenge for religious leaders

A range of factors — such as the region's history, geography, politics, and economy— has been identified as playing a role in the emergence of violent extremism in the Sahel and West Africa. Violent extremism refers to any uncompromising doctrine whose followers reject all moderation or any alternative contrary to their philosophy. For the record, this extremism can take several forms, including political, economic, social, or religious.

After the wave of independence movements in 1960, several African nations found themselves having to govern their own affairs before a democratic system could be established. However, they had not foreseen that various forms of extremism, resulting from various factors such as the diversity of religions and ethnicities in the region, would pose a challenge to peaceful coexistence. In fact, Africa is home to over 2,000 ethnic groups.

Violent extremism is not just religious in nature

Violent extremism is often characterised “by a linguistic deviation,” explains the Secretary General of the Consultation Framework of Religious Confessions in Benin, Michel Alopko, in an interview with Global Voices (GV) about the responsibility of religious leaders in the fight against violent extremism.

Various groups — whether they are religious, political, environmental, ethno-nationalist — can all leadto violent extremism. According to Professor Jocelyn Bélanger, an expert on radicalisation processes, “The main factor that incites a person to associate with a radical group is social pain.”

Therefore, in the process of violent radicalisation, the ideology arises only after the stage of commitment. According to Bélanger, “Traditional religious education is even a counter-indicator” in the process of radicalisation.

In the Sahel, many factors may contribute to the emergence and spread of violent extremism: for instance the marginalisation of certain ethnic groups in relation to others, inequality, discrimination, the misinterpretation of religious precepts, particularly in Islam and Christianity, the mismanagement of public resources, corruption, the denial of civil rights and liberties, limited employment prospects, and insufficient means of livelihood.

The current Secretary General of the United Nations argues through a tweet that  several factors may contribute to the expansion of terrorism:

“Terrorism gains a foothold by exploiting the vulnerabilities and instabilities present within political, economic, and security systems.”

@antonioguterres focuses on the fight against terrorism and the prevention of violent extremism.

—Nations Unies (ONU) (@ONU_fr) 29 March 2023

In this other tweet, the activist Jeunesse Wakanda shares their opinion on the correlation between religion and violent extremism:

The feelings expressed in these images, from August 2018, are as valid today as they were then. Violent extremism is a notion that has been imposed on us because religion in Africa is peaceful.

– Jeunesse Wakanda #Afrique #Soutien (@JeunesseWakanda) 15 juin 2020

According to the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, violent extremism is not limited to any specific religion.

Violent extremism is not limited to any specific religion, according to Ban Ki-moon

—Nations Unies (ONU) (@ONU_fr) 10 April 2016

Using religion to fight violent extremism

Religion plays a significant role in many African societies. In the Sahel and West Africa, which had a population estimated to be over 920 million in mid-2014, Islam surpasses Christianity as the main religion. In her speech at the UN Security Council’s Arria-formula meeting in April 2018, Anne Gueguen, former Deputy Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, emphasised that, given the direct link between believers and religious leaders, the latter play a crucial role in preventing violent extremism, protecting civilians, and promoting reconciliation.

The UN Glossary defines the “Arria formula” as a provision that allows members of the Security Council to hold informal meetings outside of the chamber, where they can hear from individuals whose expertise may shed light on the matters that the Council is dealing with.

Moussa Mara, former Prime Minister of Mali and president of the Yelem party, commenting on the role of Islam in Africa in the media outlet Jeune Afrique, states that “in general, religion has a certain role and influence within human groups.” Moreover, given the increasing theorising that religion, especially Islam, is a contributing factor, to terrorist warfare, the responsibility of religious leaders in the fight against violent extremism cannot be ignored.

First, religious leaders are often close to all civil society actors. Second, “Religious leaders play an important role in the management of society,” explains Bakary Sambe, regional director of the Malian think-tank Timbuktu Institute. Therefore, although the state bears the primary responsibility for protecting populations, it seems equally crucial to regard religious leaders as “strong partners in the prevention and incitement of criminal atrocities,” as stated in the United Nations’ Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors.

As expressed by the Regional Cell for the Prevention of Radicalisation and the Fight against Violent Extremism on their Twitter account, CellRad:

#CellRadSmartIdea: In the fight against violent extremism, religion should be seen as a solution, not the problem.

@G5_Sahel _SE @MISAHELOFFICIEL @Thinkpeacesahel #Sahel #PVE #radicalisation #paix

—CellRad (@CellRadG5Sahel) 31 December 2021

Therefore, to prevent and fight violent extremism, religious leaders need to promote peace and dialogue within their respective religious communities. Essentially, their mission is to educate and “instil values of tolerance and non-violence, of acceptance and of mutual respect, and act to reduce tensions between communities,” as stated in the United Nations’ Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors.

To encourage religious leaders in their role as actors working towards peace and social cohesion, Michel Alokpo, Secretary General of the Coordination Framework of Religious Confessions in Benin, declared in an interview with Bénin Intelligent:

If a church has its own radio and television, we should use them to convey messages of peace. We can also work towards creating a consortium between different religious orders. And the state must be able to assist us in promoting peace.

This message is also reflected in the conclusions drawn by the 2023 Grand Rendez-Vous for the Prevention of Violent Extremism in West and Central Africa, as the following tweet shows:

[Conclusions – 2023 Grand Rendez-Vous for the Prevention of Violent Extremism in West and Central Africa: Realities and Perspectives] – #Dakar #Sénégal

Some important key points to remember from the conclusion statement:

Page 2 (Point 6)

“The …

—Birane Hane (@BiraneHane) March 28, 2023

As this article from the Reflets newspaper notes, the situation remains a concern:

In their conclusions, a consensus was reached: violent extremism and its various manifestations are spreading and are negatively impacting states in West Africa, the Sahel, and Central Africa. Since the launch of the United Nations’ Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) by Secretary General Antonio Guterres in 2015, and despite military and security efforts, these violent acts have not diminished.


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