Many African leaders used their speeches at the U.N. General Assembly this week to express concerns about the growing threat of violent extremism in Africa.
Several leaders from the continent called upon the international community to help better equip regional anti-terror forces to combat terrorism, especially at a time when jihadists, defeated in Middle East as Islamic State loses strength and territory there, will return to their African home countries.
"We want an Africa in peace and security; an Africa that does not serve as a sanctuary for terrorist groups fought and defeated elsewhere," President Macky Sall of Senegal told world leaders at the 72nd annual U.N. assembly Wednesday.
But a study conducted by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) this month has found that measures deployed by African governments to combat terrorism actually impel more people to join violent groups.
"Journey to Extremism," a two-year study conducted by the UNDP, was based on interviews with more than 700 people, nearly 600 of whom were voluntary or forced recruits of extremist groups in Kenya, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon and Niger.
The study cited poor family circumstances, lack of education and poverty as factors behind people's embrace of violence and extremism.
State violence and abuse of power serve as a "final tipping point" for the people to join extremist groups.
"Militarized responses to violent extremism have only served to deepen long-standing mistrust and alienation," the U.N. report said, adding that many African countries have used counterterror agendas to limit the space for political opposition and suppress civil society and the media.
The study suggested that compared to a solely security-focused approach, good governance by African governments would ultimately be more effective at countering terrorism and extremism in the region.
Religion not a reason
The U.N. study found that religion played a less significant role in attracting people to extremist groups. On the contrary, it said, longer than average religious schooling appeared to be a source of resilience in the face of extremism.
"These findings challenge rising Islamophobic rhetoric that has intensified in response to violent extremism globally," the report said. "Fostering greater understanding of religion, through methods that enable students to question and engage critically with teachings, is a key resource for [preventing violent extremism]."
The 2016 Global Terrorism Index suggested that sub-Saharan Africa was the region most affected by extremist groups after the Middle East and North Africa. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO); Boko Haram in Nigeria; al-Shabab in East Africa; and the Lord's Resistance Army in Central Africa were the most active extremist groups in the continent.
Those groups are reportedly spreading their activities across state borders and luring more groups and people to pledge allegiance to their ideology and conduct violent attacks.
The U.N. organization estimates violent extremism has killed more than 33,000 people in Africa in the past six years and caused widespread displacement among civilians.
In northeast Nigeria alone, where Boko Haram has been active, it is estimated that more than 20,000 people have been killed and more than 2.6 million displaced since the terror group emerged in 2009.
Threat to development
The U.N. has warned the terror threat could reverse development gains made in sub-Saharan Africa and undermine prospects for development for decades to come. Insecurity caused by terror groups has already significantly impeded tourism and trade between countries such as Kenya and Nigeria.
The threat has encouraged those countries to increase their counterterrorism efforts at home and cooperate on a regional and global level to tackle the cross-border violence.
Earlier this year, leaders of the G5 Sahel bloc — Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — established a multinational military force of about 5,000 troops in coordination with France and the United Nations.
Despite the regional efforts and international support, however, extremist groups remain resilient in the region while more civilians become affected by continued conflict and violence.
Human rights organizations have often criticized the heavy-handed measures adopted by authorities to tackle terrorism.
Amnesty International has accused the Nigerian military of committing torture, harsh military detention and forcible eviction of people from their homes in its fight against Boko Haram.
Human Rights Watch has said the extrajudicial killing, disappearances, torture and beating of individuals suspected of links with al-Shabab has worsened in Kenya.