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ECOWAS Role In Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism

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West Africa is made up of 16 African states located within the western most part of Africa. Its population put together is estimated at about 362 million people as of 2018 and 75 percent of this population live on less than $2 per day. All these are old news because the region was a hot spot for civil wars especially in the 1980s to the 1990s and since the millennium, many of its states have been grappling with crisis of leadership. Its regional body dubbed the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has remained steadfast in trying to institutionalize democratic ideals in the region. No doubt, ECOWAS contributions to regional peace in West Africa cannot be overemphasized.

However, the region is increasingly playing host to a lot of violent extremist groups and their violent activities. Surprisingly, the growing trend of violent extremism in the region seem to be either unnoticed or not given the desired attention. The case of Nigeria is well recognized globally because of the mindless activities of Boko Haram and for a long time, Boko Haram was seen as a Nigerian problem.

The group which started violent activities since 2009 have so far killed more than 20,000 people in the last decade and more than 2 million displaced spreading into neighboring countries like Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Within the West African region, Mali is a hot spot that is well known with intensified activities of violent extremists in several of its regions including the Ménaka region.

In Cote d’Ivoire, the killings  at a beach resort in Grand-Bassam in 2016 remains fresh in our memories. Burkina Faso is also battling with increased attacks by violent extremists in the Northern Province which led to the declaration of state of emergency in the area. Groups like AQIM and AAD are said to be spreading across the region and they are getting bolder. There are reports that members of these groups have been arrested in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal.

It is expected in the future that this trend is going to spread faster because of ECOWAS free movement of citizens of ECOWAS to travel around the region without visas, and border areas. Incidentally, most of the borders are poorly controlled so tracking of suspicious people will not be feasible. This is not to say that the West African states have not been taking measures to prevent or counter violent extremists.

Indeed, in their respective states, there have been several legislations and programmes designed to prevent and counter violent extremism. Unfortunately, a review of most of the respective states’ efforts in preventing or countering violent extremism have been centred on military offensive. But recent research have shown that the presence of soldiers in the bid to counter violent extremism leads to a scattering of the groups into different parts of the region thereby empowering them even further. Even the millions of dollars in international funding support from the United States and European Union have been focused on supporting military engagements and workshops/conferences whose impact hardly trickle to address the root cause of violent extremism. This makes one to begin to interrogate the essence of these international supports and the real intentions behind them.

I think the West African countries under the auspices of ECOWAS seem to be underestimating the threat of violent extremism. Issues such as state torture and extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights abuses in the course of the respective governments combating this threat remains the main factors pushing people towards accepting violent extremism.

The West African countries respond to the threat of violent extremism individually, applying hard power approach. Unfortunately, the borderless system of sovereign states orchestrated by emerging technologies have rendered state actors almost useless in their respective bid to combat violent extremism. The only option left for the West African states is to aggressively adopt a regional integrated action plan to effectively prevent/counter violent extremism.

– Mamud, an expert on security issues wrote from Abuja

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