09 Apr 2014
To reduce religious extremism in the future, African demographics need international attention now, says Tom Thorp.
Religious extremist groups have become significant in conflicts across the African continent over the last decade. The international community's attention has been repeatedly drawn to a triangle of violence stretching from Mali and Nigeria in the west to Somalia in the east and down to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This involves groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and the Lord's Resistance Army. These groups straddle state borders and appeal to the grievances of large pools of poor, unemployed, often young and often illiterate recruits to fill their ranks with foot soldiers. Logic would have it that as African countries develop and their economies grow this pool of recruits should shrink, effectively countering extremism. But new research into fertility rates in Africa is throwing doubts on the economic prospects of the countries within this triangle of violence. The repercussions of this trend are not just bad news for individual governments, for as groups increasingly take advantage of porous state borders, each country's security must also depend on their neighbours' situation. African demographics need to be considered at a continental level.
A recent study by Jean-Pierre Guengant and John May, which was reported in the Economist, has cast doubts on a widely held belief that African fertility rates are falling in line with the trend in developing countries that stands at between 1.5 and 3 children per woman. Lower fertility rates drive development by increasing levels of education and earning power, producing a demographic dividend of higher growth and rising incomes. While the north and south of Africa are generally falling into line with these trends, eastern, central and western Africa are not. Indeed in countries that constitute 59% of Africa's population, including Nigeria and the Central African Republic (CAR), the fertility rate is above 4. In countries constituting around 20% of Africa's population, including Mali, Somalia and DRC, the fertility rate is above 6. As the Economist suggests, if this is correct it is a major concern for African governments: increased populations and urbanisation will intensify problems of healthcare, education and employment, destabilising economic growth. But this will also foster grievances upon which extremists can play.
A recent report by the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (HCFAC) on 'The UK's response to extremism and instability in North and West Africa', recognises the significance that these repercussions can have for the growth of extremism in these regions and across Africa. They suggest that, 'the key to addressing terrorism in the long term is to focus on the disaffected... [who] primarily comprise under-employed young men who are likely to have become attached to terrorist groups through a mixture of frustration, social pressure and poverty.' Tackling fertility rates to secure economic development can help to overcome these reasons. The HCFAC report goes some way to recommending this, but its individual state orientated proposal fails to take into account how continental trends can undermine such an approach.
Thirty-one out of the forty-nine least developed countries as designated by the UN are in mainland Africa, and all but one fall within the triangle of violence outlined above. Since the 1990s countries in this triangle have witnessed a series of devastating conflicts. Rival groups have played upon the often-illiterate poor, nurturing grievances and manipulating them in a direction that suits their purpose, with catastrophic consequences. Moreover, due to colonial boundaries that now form Africa's state borders not taking ethnic, tribal or territorial considerations into account, conflicts have tended to ignore them. Conflicts in Uganda, Rwanda, DRC, Sudan, Chad, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Niger, Mali and the Republic of Congo to name just a few have all drew significantly on tribal and ethnic ties to groups across borders.
Today conflicts in Nigeria, Mali, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic (CAR) continue these trends. Taking precedence over ethnic ties, religious groups that straddle state borders are the significant actors. Despite large military operations against them, these groups have proved hard to defeat because of their capacity to move across borders and replenish their numbers quickly by appealing to common grievances and ethnic or religious identities. Able to disappear into the bush and across borders to regroup they have defied conventional state structures. Boko Haram may operate in prosperous Nigeria, but while increased urbanisation highlights increasing economic differences in the northeast, and Niger, its significant retreat, continues to struggle economically, there is a ready pool of recruits from which it can draw. Similarly, the Lord's Resistance Army has been able to continue its struggle by drawing recruits from South Sudan, DRC and CAR. AQIM has done the same in Mali, Niger and Mauritania to continue its struggle in Algeria. These organisations have all carried out operations in these other countries as well, as has al-Shabaab in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.
The potential for religious extremism and trans-state conflict rises exponentially. Reducing fertility rates across the continent is important. Without the corresponding rise in economic opportunity and social benefits, countering religious extremist groups will be increasingly difficult. Therefore the international community needs to help African governments achieve this reduction. The HCFAC report is a good indication that this is starting to be realised, but policies cannot simply address individual states. The African Union needs to address this as a priority and the wider international community needs to give them its full support. The sooner they do, the better.
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