In this article we hear from guest writer Fiona Napier, who examines similarities between the crises of Coronavirus and violent extremism to reveal useful lessons for practitioners and policymakers. Fiona is well versed in the issues of violent extremism (VE) in Africa, serving as Director of Knowledge & Learning for one of Wasafiri’s most important regional PVE programmes in East Africa.
Crises have much to teach us about how the world works and how to change it. The particular challenges of Coronavirus and violent extremism for example, are revealing systemic weaknesses in the cohesion of communities, and troubling shortcomings in the way societies are governed. They are signalling entrenched dysfunctions at global, as well as national levels. For instance, one of the things this virus has made plain is that there is a fundamental disequilibrium in societies, that many are living out of kilter with the natural world. Equally, one of the things we are learning about the nature of violent extremism is that when social and economic systems are out of balance, do not deliver for young people or exclude hidden voices, grievances take root and ferment a climate of division and instability.
We are also learning that lockdowns or curfews may not be an effective approach to tackling either the virus or violent extremism – even in the short term. Indeed, we may find them to have longer-term impacts on the health and economic security of populations, and play right into the hands of violent extremists. We know that VE organisations are skilled communicators, adept in manipulating our age-old fear of disease by blaming the contagion on a range of convenient culprits – from infidels, governments or middle class groups.
In this environment of enforced restrictions, we may also see extremist groups seeking to usurp the role of government or civil society – for example, by providing aid to communities unable to trade with their neighbours (readers may recall Al Shabaab‘s popular distribution of food to parts of Somalia in 2017). Policymakers need to be aware that government actions such lockdowns which can be seen to punish or isolate particular communities could play firmly into the narratives of malign interests.
We also should expect that both the virus and VE will likely persist or even flourish in ungovernable, peripheral or marginalised areas. Remote border communities or informal urban settlements, for example, serve as spaces where the extraction and trafficking of illegal goods present a gold mine of unfettered opportunity for violent extremist and criminal groups. We know that tackling such problems in the hardest places is hard. Yet in times as febrile as these, efforts to improve engagement, equity, understanding and opportunity in such areas will reap long-term dividends. To do so however, will need local authorities and their agencies to reach beyond institutional walls and historical barriers to partner with communities to improve the safety of their residents, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable
The shock of the virus has created both a need and an opportunity for radical change in our societies. We should seize the moment to tackle the underlying issues which give rise to the scourge of violent extremism, though it means finding the tricky balance between treating the symptoms whilst also carrying out the harder work of prevention. Despite the difficulties, we should be encouraged by the hard-earned lessons emerging from the pandemic; tackling socio-economic inequality, through nationally-led efforts to support productive, dignified livelihoods, particularly for young people, would probably be the best vaccine against violent extremism.