Good Governance and Human Rights Can Help Defeat Terrorism in Africa

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A man walks past burnt out houses following an attacked by Boko Haram in Dalori village near Maiduguri, Nigeria.
A man walks past burnt out houses following an attacked by Boko Haram in Dalori village near Maiduguri, Nigeria.

Good Governance and Human Rights Can Help Defeat Terrorism in Africa

Terrorism has claimed thousands of lives throughout Africa.  The number of violent events linked to terrorist groups in Africa is estimated at more than 1,500 attacks each year in 2015, 2016, and 2017.  Groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, ISIS, and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continue to terrorize civilian populations, undermine effective governance, and threaten American interests.

The rise of terrorism in Africa’s Sahel has had significant negative consequences for civilian populations there, as it has in other parts of the continent.  This semi-arid scrub land south of the Sahara Desert is home to foreign terrorist organizations that exploit community marginalization, lack of government presence, and lack of accountability for security force human rights violations and abuses to recruit vulnerable followers.

I recently traveled to the Sahel where I saw firsthand how terrorism is threatening to destabilize entire societies.  The barbarity of these terrorists is apparent in their treatment of civilians. For instance, since January 2018, more than 40 civilians, including men, women, and children, have been killed by improvised explosive devices in central Mali.  

Terrorism inflicts immeasurable suffering on extremely vulnerable and marginalized communities.  These attacks are just the latest in a string of human rights abuses committed by foreign terrorist organizations in Mali that also includes attacks on UN peacekeepers, kidnapping and killing of civilians, and restrictions on traditional practices.  

During my trip, civil society, government representatives, and international donors all made one fact abundantly clear: military responses alone cannot and will not defeat terrorism.  We must continue to work with our government partners, civil society, and local communities to implement a holistic approach that addresses the conditions terrorists exploit for recruitment, including poor governance, lack of accountability for human rights abuses, and marginalization.

Human rights abuses by security forces are a primary driver of radicalization to violence in Africa.  The United Nations Development Program found that 71% of terrorists surveyed cited the killing or arrest of a family member or friend by the government as their “tipping point” that caused them to join a terrorist organization.  We also know that democracies that are responsive to their citizens, respect civil liberties, protect human rights, promote the rule of law, and protect minorities are far less likely to experience terrorism.

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) supports the fight against terrorism by helping our partners address these challenges and opportunities.  Using both diplomacy and programs, DRL helps governments and civil society to identify and mitigate the governance-related drivers of terrorism and to hold those responsible accountable.  DRL works with partner governments to improve state capacity, accountability, and legitimacy. We work with local communities to improve their resilience and prevent terrorist recruitment.  On the municipal level, the State Department supports the Strong Cities Network, a global group of 120 members across six continents that share best practices and lessons learned on countering terrorist recruitment and radicalization to violence.  Dakar, Mombasa, Yaoundé, Zanzibar, and several other subnational governments in Africa are members of the Network.

In supporting fundamental American values such as good governance and respect for human rights, DRL simultaneously promotes core American interests, such as the defeat of global terrorism.  The United States will continue to work with our partners to develop and implement holistic approaches that address the conditions terrorists exploit to recruit followers. Good governance and respect for human rights will always be essential weapons in this fight against terrorism.

About the Author: Daniel J. Murphy serves as a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor's Office of African Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on