How a lack of democracy fuels violent extremism in Africa



Violent extremism by non-state actors, whether by lone individuals or organised groups, or occurring as spontaneous communal violence, has increased to alarming new levels across the African continent. The recent explosion of incidents of non-state violence range from religious — whether involving Islamists or Christians — to communal and political militia violence.

Religious violence takes various forms: lone extremists meting out violence against others, organised religious groups using violence against others, or communal violence in which a community of one religious group attacks another community of a different religion.

Political militia violence ranges from politically organised groups to individual gangs using the cover of politics to unleash violence, as they seek to control resources or territories. Communal violence might be unorganised groups, political, ethnic or religious, unleashing violence against communities perceived to be different from them. Violent extremism can ultimately lead to genocide, civil war and the break-up of countries.

Since the end of colonialism after the Second World War, the focus has generally been on African states unleashing violence against citizens, which has set back development, started civil wars and caused the break-up of countries. However, these new sources of violence also threaten peace, development and nationhood in Africa. These new waves of violence happen in failed or authoritarian African states and those with limited democracy. But they also occur in states where democracy appears relatively consolidated: formal elections take place, there are institutional rules of the game, and where the state is reasonably capacitated.

Author, academic and former politician Michael Ignatieff argues that democracies, “thanks to rights they entrench, the due process rules they observe, the separation of powers they seek to enforce, and the requirement of democratic consent”, are “guided by a constitutional commitment to minimise the use of dubious means — violence, force, coercion, and deception — in the government of citizens”. Lack of, or poor-quality democracy, which causes widespread marginalisation, resentment and anger, is at the heart of almost all rising non-state violence of all forms in Africa. Violence, in its turn, undermines the quality of democracy, as it prevents citizens from participating equally in public decisions, freely associating with others or freely voicing their opinions. Because of the lack of, or poor-quality, democracy, conflicts in many African countries have not been channelled from violent confrontation to contestation within democratic institutions and rules.

A number of research surveys have shown that the presence of democracy decreases violence. For the purpose of this chapter, violence will include both incidents where it is used purposefully to secure objectives, and those where it is a response to an injustice or a defence mechanism.

A large proportion of the research on violence in Africa argues that it is mainly within the context of a weak state that has lost control over its territory, people and institutions. When the state lacks legitimacy it is likely that violence as a solution to solve problems will become acceptable. Many African states are generally weak, underdeveloped and lack capacity. In some countries, for example Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there has been a total breakdown of the state. Other examples have shown how deep poverty increases the likelihood of violence in a country. Some surveys have revealed that countries with low levels of GDP have higher levels of violence.

Research has also shown how the ethnicisation of politics naturally increases violence across societies, particularly in cases where one ethnic group is in power and where the ruling party and leader are drawn solely from that group, excluding other ethnic communities. Mass group grievances based on exclusion from receiving public goods, participation in politics and the economy, often lead to violence.

Political scientist Arend Lijphart argues that majority rule in deeply divided societies runs the risk of “majority dictatorship and civil strife”. “What such societies need is a democratic regime that emphasises consensus instead of opposition, that includes rather than excludes, and that tries to maximise the size of the ruling majority instead of being satisfied with a bare majority: consensus democracy.”

This  is a book extract from Extremisms in Africa Volume 2. Edited by Alain Tschudin, Craig Moffat, Stephen Buchanan-Clarke, Susan Russell & Lloyd Coutts. Published by Tracey McDonald Publishers. Available in all good bookstores. Recommended Retail Price: R285.


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