Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 27 January 2020

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger can learn from China’s counter-terrorism efforts

By Ronald Kato

The Sahel region has seen an upsurge in violence in recent years. The violence has mostly come from militant groups and sometimes ethnic animosity.

In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, attacks have significantly grown in frequency and casualty figures. Both military and civilian installations have come under fire.

The Sahel is a vast, mostly arid region just below the Sahara desert. The region’s governments say they are battling a jihadi insurgency. Some groups are affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

As expected, the response has been mainly military in nature- a regional force known as the G5 Sahel made up of troops from Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have been conducting counter-insurgency operations backed by the French military.

Experts have called for the demilitarization of the Sahel.

Yet countries seem only prepared to double down on the violence. A January 14th meeting in Pau between French president Emmanuel Macron and the Sahel leaders vowed to strengthen the military alliance. The government in Ouagadougou is arming vigilantes to defend villages.

The factors responsible for the rise in extremism in the Sahel are multi-dimensional and complex. The residual effects of the war in Libya, disenchantment with government, communal grievances and fights for resources are just some of the causes.

Unresolved communal grievances, a lack of government investment and the absence of a proper system of devolution of power has driven many young men into hands of extremist groups.

Without a careful rethink of approaches, violence will only breed more violence.

China has been in the news lately for allegedly interning over a million Muslims in its northwestern Xinjiang province. Beijing has dismissed the figure and says the so-called camps are actually re-education schools meant to de-radicalize people exposed to extremism by a separatist-cum-terrorist movement known as East Turkestan Islamic Movement. It is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States.

The movement was responsible for deadly attacks on civilians in recent years. Some of its fighters are reportedly in Syria fighting for al Qaeda linked groups.

The group exploited poverty and unemployment to radicalize young people. Beijing quickly responded with social programs to create jobs.

Former extremists graduate from the centres with employable skills. On top of providing vocational training to former and prospective extremists, China has ramped up investment in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, Inner Mongolia and surrounding provinces. These regions host critical infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

These have meant jobs for young people and got them to re-imagine life away from extremism.

Granted. China’s model can be criticized for its moral and ethical questions, but it has been effective in keeping the country safe. Authorities in Xinjiang say there has been no terrorist incident in the region in three years.

While other countries can afford to fly troops and jets to bomb faraway lands, China couldn’t. The extremists were its own people.

Governments in the Sahel face a similar dilemma. You can only kill so many. Investment in the security sector should be backed by even more investment in social programs.

Put simply, terrorism is a global phenomenon but all extremism is local. While lessons can be learned from cases far and near, an approach which carefully diagnoses causes and designs a localized response based on prevailing complexities, realities and peculiarities are desirable.

The Sahelian countries are too poor to afford a long war. Even if they could, a war on their own soil would be hugely destabilizing and would further weaken already weak governments.

The time to de-escalate is now.

Targeted rehabilitation of former extremists and people at risk of being radicalized backed by robust social services, access to justice, more power to local governments and leaders will help to calm tensions and probably start important talk about dialogue. Most importantly, they would deprive armed groups of fresh recruits.

These countries should demonstrate to their enemies and most importantly to their citizens that they are in charge. The feeling that the Sahel is under attack by foreigners seeking to occupy it has only bred more violence, suspicion and mistrust.

While bombings and other large scale violence have become largely acceptable as legitimate and proportionate responses to terrorism, it is a whole new ballgame when you are hitting your own, on soil that you share.

China’s experience can be replicated in Africa with adjustments to best suit local realities and peculiarities. Nigeria and Somalia are already doing some sort of rehabilitation for former militant fighters.

Mozambique too, in southern Africa is battling increasingly bold Islamist fighters in its north. So far, the response has been to dispense as much violence as possible. It has not worked and probably will not.

China’s Xinjiang approach has been criticized by mostly the West but it should be credited for being proactive and innovative. There can be things to add to it such as safeguards to avoid the model being used against activists and the opposition but there are critical lessons to learn from it.

The writer is a senior journalist at Africa News and a fellow of the China-Africa Press Center. Ronald is interested in how China and Sino-African relations are covered in the news media.