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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / International Relations and Security

Connected Security: The missing link in the evolving regional approach to countering violent extremism in West Africa

This piece, written by Okey Uzoechina, discusses the emerging regional approach of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in regard to support to its member states in countering terrorism and violent extremism. It appeared in the 2018 APJ print edition. 


This paper discusses the emerging regional approach of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in regard to support to its member states in countering terrorism and violent extremism. Its central idea is that “connected security” must be realized to counter and overtake the growing threat posed by violent extremism. Insecurity is dynamic in form and methods, adaptive and self-sustaining, and continues to deepen and find new territory if not properly checked. To reverse insecurity, addressing the common sources and neutralizing enabling conditions in a connected manner will lead to more sustainable outcomes than merely focusing on symptoms.


Violence and armed conflict are not new to the West African region. From the pre-colonization and colonial eras to the post-independence and post-Cold War periods, the causes, nature, methods, scale and effects of violent conflict have been diverse. The region has witnessed a long history of native resistance, nationalist struggle, ethno-religious conflicts, coups d’état, proxy wars and politically-motivated violence. Notably, since the formation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975, there has been a marked difference in the way that violent conflict is perceived, and a progressive adaptation in the way it is addressed. In the first two decades of its existence, the orientation of ECOWAS’ common defence instruments was limited to defining symmetrical relations among states as distinct from addressing internal conflict within states. However, with the escalation of internal conflict in several member states at the end of the Cold War, the organization realized the need to develop and enforce common security norms. Hence, the pivotal Protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security (the Mechanism) which was adopted by ECOWAS Heads of State and Government in 1999 put conflict prevention, early warning, preventive diplomacy, mediation and facilitation, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance on the front burner.

The story is quite different today. Four decades after its formation, new and emerging security threats, particularly terrorism and violent extremism, maritime piracy, and other transnational organized crime are now altering the security landscape in the ECOWAS region. The emerging security environment requires new approaches, partnerships, effective tools and robust actions by stakeholders at all levels to effectively respond to and reverse the threats. As early as 2001, the ECOWAS Heads of State and Government at its 25th Ordinary Session called on member states to ratify and locally adapt all United Nations and African Union instruments in the fight against terrorism. This call also included the need to apply the ECOWAS Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and the Convention on Extradition. Further responding to the growing threat, the Heads of State and Government adopted a Political Declaration and Common Position Against Terrorism in 2013, to which is annexed the ECOWAS Counter-terrorism Strategy and its Implementation Plan. These constitute a robust and proactive framework to assist member states in their efforts to prevent and combat terrorism.

This paper discusses the regional approach of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in regard to support for its member states in countering terrorism and violent extremism. It examines the policy toolkit at the dispensation of ECOWAS while analyzing issues from a human security perspective and security governance lens. The paper advocates a deepening of efforts aimed at countering violent extremism (CVE) which go beyond the current counter-terrorism struggle. Drawing on regional experience, the paper suggests opportunities for improving CVE and offers lessons for Nigeria. These lessons proceed from observations of the interplay between the country’s national context and regional dynamics.

The following deductions are highlighted: (1) terrorism is only one symptom of a societal dysfunction; the symptoms may manifest in varied forms; (2) localized counter-terrorism efforts alone cannot reverse-engineer the current state of dysfunction in society; (3) CVE efforts need to go beyond de-radicalization and tap deep into addressing the root causes of violent extremism; (4) comprehensive security governance and a Whole-of-Society approach should be the starting point in CVE, not the end point; and (5) the idea of “connected security” must be realized in practice to counter and overtake the growing threat posed by violent extremism.

The connection needs to happen at different levels: (1) across relevant departments of the ECOWAS Commission through an Interdepartmental Working Group; (2) among security agencies in a member state through an Interagency Working Group; (3) among armed forces and security services across several member states; (4) between states in the ECOWAS region and states of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) region; and (5) through leveraging global partnerships for impact at the national level.

The paper is divided into seven main parts. Following this introduction, the framework for understanding the terms ‘terrorism’, ‘terrorist acts’ and ‘violent extremism’ are discussed in the first section. The second section sheds light on ideas related to human security and security governance. In the third and fourth sections, attention is drawn to ECOWAS’ response to violent extremism, as well as the organization’s humanitarian action in Nigeria’s troubled north-east zone. Threats posed by violent extremism go beyond the north-east and accordingly, the fifth section elaborates this issue. While the sixth section focuses on opportunities to improve CVE and what is instructive for Nigeria, the seventh section offers suggestions regarding the next critical steps for ECOWAS in the region.

 Terrorism, terrorist acts and violent extremism

In spite of the depth of research over the decades, only a few definitions of terrorism have attracted much appeal even though they are still not universally accepted. One comprehensive definition which draws upon the unifying components of over a hundred other definitions is the one proposed by Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman. These scholars explain that:

‘Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-)clandestine individuals, groups, or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal, or political reasons, whereby—in contrast to assassination—the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators.’[1]

This definition may of course omit certain aspects related to the evolving nature of terrorism in recent times, it nevertheless comes close to capturing much of its character in countries such as Nigeria. Bearing in mind this general understanding of what terrorism symbolises, a terrorist act (actus reus) can further be understood as a means that certainly involves action. In another sense, terrorism can also be recognized as a state which is effected by terrorist acts on the thoughts, minds, conduct or action of people, communities and the government. Such states include fear, shock, trepidation and capitulation. Therefore, a state of terrorism may be evoked by threats, if the person or group making the threat is reasonably believed or perceived to have the capacity to carry out the threat. Terrorist acts involve extreme violence or violent criminality of atrocious levels, including indiscriminate shootings, gruesome mass murders, assassinations and targeted killings, bombings, abductions, hijacking, destruction of public facilities, social services and infrastructure, and attacks and destruction of communities.[2]

Section 1 (2) of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act of 2011, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (as amended) defines an ‘act of terrorism’ so broadly that it may be interpreted to include gas flaring or pipeline vandalism, if other elements of the crime are established. The Act also criminalizes and prescribes punishment for related offences including hostage taking, kidnapping, failure to disclose relevant information, among other things. Effectively, the Act prohibits most forms of anti-state violence committed with malice aforethought, and acts of violence intended to seriously intimidate a population. Notably, while the Act criminalizes acts of terrorism and the financing of terrorist groups and activities, it does not criminalize the state of terrorism. This is a fine line with significant legal, policy and operational implications. It suggests that measures to address criminalized acts of terrorism are essentially different from measures to address the state of terrorism which touches on the hearts and minds of the people. While counter-terrorism falls under the former category, countering violent extremism (CVE) falls under the latter.

Terrorism and violent extremism are not new to Nigeria. The Maitatsine riots in parts of northern Nigeria between 1980 and 1985 which claimed over 4,000 lives were inspired by individuals who used religion as a tool in the most fundamental and dangerous way possible. Policemen were targets of the anti-state violence. Although violent activities of the group were domestic, its membership traversed national borders and included Nigerians, Nigeriens, Chadians and Cameroonians. In fact, the leader Mohammed Marwa was reported to have originally come from northern Cameroon and migrated to Kano in Nigeria around 1945. Similar to Boko Haram decades later, Maitatsine preached against Western-inspired culture including the use of radios, watches, bicycles, cars and the possession of more money than was necessary. It also took the resolute involvement of the Nigerian Army to end the rebellion in parts of northern Nigeria.

Looking beyond the north-east, the plurality of radicalization and violent extremism in Nigeria should inform a broadening of the lens of security governance to ensure adequate responses that can address the disparate but connected threads of radicalization, militancy, insurgency, violent extremism and terrorism in all parts of the country and across the national borders. Addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction with the state which may manifest in anti-state violence should, for instance, include efforts at improving local governance, engaging and regulating informal and non-state security providers, curbing corruption and illegitimate enrichment of public servants, and bringing the government closer to the people in concrete terms. Disconnection between the far-flung central government and local communities creates the space and enabling conditions for disaffection, radicalization and violent extremism.

Human security, root causes and security governance

The term ‘human security’ was introduced into the ECOWAS peace and security lexicon in a pivotal way by the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework (ECPF) of 2008. The overall aim of the ECPF is to strengthen the human security architecture in West Africa. Article 6 of the ECPF defines human security as referring to ‘the creation of conditions to eliminate pervasive threats to people’s and individual rights, livelihoods, safety and life; the protection of human and democratic rights and the promotion of human development to ensure freedom from fear and freedom from want.’ The first component of the definition acknowledges the pre-existence of multiple and persistent pressure points that pose a threat to rights, livelihoods, safety and life, and starts out to create conditions that will eliminate those threats. The second component advances the achievement of positive acts that will consolidate conditions which eliminate the threats, and the development of the human condition to the extent where such threats become a thing of the past (freedom from fear and freedom from want). While the first component may be seen to be backward looking and corrective, the second component is more forward looking and protective. Taken together, the two offer a robust response to human insecurity.

Uncannily, the aforementioned definition of human insecurity is more or less repeated in Article 72 of the same ECPF which enumerates the objectives of security governance. According to Article 72, ‘the objectives of Security Governance shall be: [i] to eliminate threats to individual and group rights, safety, life, livelihoods, and property, and the protection of the institutions and values of democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law under a human security umbrella….’ Although the ECPF succeeds in putting human security on the front burner, it makes no mention of violent extremism, and makes only passing mention of terrorism (Article 40) and prohibition of terrorist activities (Article 74(d)), in reference to African Union and United Nations instruments and as an interest for future development respectively. The simple reason is that terrorism and violent extremism had not gained currency in the region when the ECPF was adopted in 2008. It took the escalation of violence by Boko Haram in 2009 and the intensification of its attacks up to 2012 affecting parts of north-east Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon before a strategic regional response could be developed. Therefore, the ECOWAS Political Declaration and Common Position Against Terrorism of 2013 and its annex, the ECOWAS Counter-terrorism Strategy were by then a sensible and necessary add-on to the comprehensive regional peace and security architecture. However, the ECOWAS Counter-terrorism (CT) Strategy does not do enough to address violent extremism and its root causes.

First, the CT Strategy mentions extremism and radicalization in the context of religion (or more appropriately, exploitation of religion), thereby relegating other sources of violent extremism such as political exclusion and economic deprivation to a blind spot. Secondly, CT is too limiting a frame with which to address all forms of violent extremism and their root causes. Although the ECOWAS CT Strategy (Section III, Pillar 1 (e)) touches on preventing extremism and radicalization as one of its priority areas of intervention, violent extremism should be conceived and tackled beyond the War on Terror. Undoubtedly, there is a strong correlation between the rise in terrorism and increasing violent extremism. This however raises a potential risk in attaching—and therefore limiting—efforts in addressing violent extremism to efforts targeted at countering the ‘clear and present danger’ of terrorism. The root causes of violent extremism predate the rise in terrorist acts which became obvious in the region from 2009. While violent extremism is an instrument currently instigated by terrorist groups to achieve their mission, as long as the root causes and underlying conditions that enable it remain unaddressed, it may become a tool in the hands of other lethal groups or morphing interests in the future. It is therefore necessary to humanize the approach to countering violent extremism (CVE), and to address the root causes of violent extremism from the wider lens of security governance.

Let us consider ‘root causes’ more closely. Section III of the ECPF which touches on the root causes of violent conflict, links human insecurity to a continuum: the negative transformation of structural factors through the exacerbation of conflict accelerators, and the degeneration of conflict into open violence which is often sparked by triggers. In other words, addressing the root causes of violent conflict—in this case violent extremism—needs to go beyond the surface to uncover the conditions that breed violent extremism. Article 10 of the ECPF further identifies root causes such as poverty, exclusion, gender inequalities, political and economic inequalities as ‘the primary source of latent, indirect violence.’ Thus seen, genuine grievances and a sense of denial resulting from poverty, exclusion and political inequalities, deprivation, lack of economic opportunities, among other factors, may remain in parts of north-east Nigeria long after the War on Terror is won, and therefore cannot be sufficiently addressed under the rubric of countering terrorism. By extension, failing to address poverty, exclusion and political or economic inequalities in other parts of Nigeria may create conditions that breed violent extremism in various forms.

On the contrary, if we assume that violent extremism constitutes a threat to individual and group rights, safety, life, livelihoods, and property, and that the threat constituted by violent extremism undermines the institutions and values of democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law, then the human security umbrella offered by security governance becomes a robust frame for addressing the threat. This point is buttressed by the comprehensive approach of the recently adopted ECOWAS Policy Framework for Security Sector Reform and Governance of 2016. Security governance as a strategic approach is overarching and cross-cutting. It effectively links security efforts including: counter-terrorism, maritime security, control of small arms and light weapons (SALW), border security, cross-border initiatives, humanitarian assistance, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), early warning, peace education (the culture of peace), peace support, women and youth empowerment, and democratic governance. Promoting security governance is crucial to creating conditions that will eliminate the threat posed by violent extremism, and it will have a knock-on impact on all segments of the security sector.

By being the first regional instrument to enunciate future action to address terrorist activities, the Security Governance component of the ECPF forms the basis of the CT Strategy and ECOWAS’ strategic efforts at countering terrorism and violent extremism. Article 74(d) of the ECPF prescribes that ECOWAS shall develop, adopt and enforce prohibition legislation on mercenary and terrorist activities, and other cross-border criminal activities. Although the Political Declaration and Common Position Against Terrorism and the annexed CT Strategy fall short of a binding legislation or convention, they are nonetheless a giant step in ECOWAS’ ongoing efforts at developing a Model Law on CT and harmonizing CT laws and strategies of its member states. However, Security Governance does not stop at being a forerunner to the CT Strategy. The other two objectives enumerated in Article 72 of the ECPF address the reform of the security sector and seek improvement of security provisioning, management and oversight. Article 72 further underscores that the objectives of Security Governance shall be:

[ii] to orient the focus and capacities of individuals, groups and institutions engaged in the security system to make them responsive and responsible to democratic control and adhere to basic human rights and the rule of law;

[iii] to ensure the emergence and consolidation of accountable, transparent and participatory security systems in member states.

Therefore, improving security governance will not only promote human security and strengthen efforts at countering terrorism, violent extremism, maritime piracy, money laundering and other transnational organized crime, but will ultimately make security a public good and a vital element of sustainable development.

ECOWAS’ response to violent extremism: “connected security”

ECOWAS’ response to conflict and insecurity in all its forms—and recently to terrorism and violent extremism—has been progressive, multi-dimensional (whole-of-society), often reactive but increasingly proactive. In comparison, “Insecurity is dynamic in form and methods, adaptive and self-sustaining, and continues to deepen and find new territory if not properly checked”.[3] According to this view, traditional, new and emerging threats to security in the ECOWAS region including drug trafficking and other illicit trafficking, irregular migration, natural resource smuggling, SALW proliferation, maritime piracy, terrorism, violent extremism, money laundering and cybercrime all feed into one another. The rationale is quite simple: insecurity in any context arises mostly from common sources (structural factors) and thrives where it finds enabling conditions (accelerators), though it manifests in various forms which may interact with one another. To reverse and overturn insecurity, addressing the common sources and neutralizing the enabling conditions will lead to more sustainable outcomes than merely focusing on the symptoms.

With unprecedented advancements in information and communication technology and fluid mobility of human, material and financial resources, organized criminal networks are also increasingly interacting in ways that outpace the response capacity of state security agencies. In addition, weak links in the security chain such as porous borders, demotivated security officials, poor training and outdated equipment for crime prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution, widespread disenchantment with state security actors, weak governance structures and weak regulatory regimes are exploited by traffickers, pirates and terrorists alike. By addressing actual and potential weak links and neutralizing enabling conditions in the security environment in an integrated manner, “connected security” therefore forms a web of insurance which will make people feel safer and create a conducive environment for human development.

Clear policies and instruments, organs and related programs in multiple sectors aggregate to such a web of insurance: a comprehensive toolbox for response available to ECOWAS, which addresses the root causes and enabling conditions of violent extremism. The policy documents and instruments should be understood not merely as lifeless black letters on plain white paper, but as widely consulted and deeply negotiated confidence building processes involving regional experts, civil society actors, member states representatives, interest groups and partners, whose outcome is a common standard or expectation mutually agreed by the parties. The bottom-up process of development, improvement and adoption of the policies and instruments which often take years, help to ensure ownership and facilitate implementation.

Landmarks in ECOWAS’ progressive development include the following:[4]

  • Deliberate expansion of focus and mandate from inter-state to intra-state conflicts as evidenced in the ECOWAS Revised Treaty of 1993.
  • Strengthening of legal measures in combating crime including the Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters of 1992 and the Convention on Extradition of 1994.
  • Prioritisation of conflict prevention and elaboration of mechanisms for conflict resolution by the Protocol Relating to a Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Resolution, Management, Peacekeeping and Security of 1999.
  • Commitments to promoting democracy and political governance as encapsulated in the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance of 2001.
  • Commitments to preventing, suppressing and eradicating corruption in the exercise of public and private functions expressed in the Protocol on the Fight Against Corruption of 2001.
  • Regulation of economic activities and their relation to free movement of persons and trade across borders by ECOWAS Regulations on Transhumance of 1998 and 2003.
  • Control of small arms and light weapons, their ammunition and other related materials as enabled by the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons of 2006.
  • Prioritisation of human security, operationalization of conflict prevention and promotion of security governance by the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework of 2008.
  • Humanitarian response and strengthening of resilience in line with the ECOWAS Humanitarian Policy and its Plan of Action 2012-2017.
  • Deliberate strategy on strengthening counter-terrorism and CVE as evidenced in the Political Declaration and Common Position Against Terrorism and ECOWAS Counter-terrorism Strategy of 2013.
  • Renewal of the ECOWAS Regional Action Plan to Address Illicit Drug Trafficking, Organised Crime and Drug Abuse in West Africa 2016-2020, which touches on CT and CVE.
  • Efforts at addressing food security, development and stability in the Sahel area as elaborated in the ECOWAS Sahel Strategy 2016-2020.
  • Comprehensive approach to improving security governance enabled by the Supplementary Act on the ECOWAS Policy Framework for Security Sector Reform and Governance of 2016.

The ECOWAS CT Strategy advances three main pillars for action: Prevent, Pursue and Repair. One of the priority areas of intervention under the Prevent pillar deals squarely with CVE. The section is reproduced verbatim hereunder.

(e) Prevent extremism and radicalisation:  

  • Develop measures to identify and counter the propaganda methods used by extremist sects to lure and recruit youths and other vulnerable groups into violent and radical ideologies;
  • Work with religious and community leaders, scholars and relevant civil society groups to develop de-radicalisation and reintegration programmes and to promote mainstream religious teachings, interfaith and inter-ethnic dialogues, and reconciliation. Such programmes should seek to address the conditions conducive to youth radicalisation, including unemployment, lack of participation and representation in political and economic processes, injustices, lack of education, social delinquencies, frustration and deprivation;
  • Faith-based institutions, including churches and mosques, should be encouraged to participate in government programmes and to take initiatives to prevent radical ideas and extremist elements that seem to have empathy with terrorism;
  • Develop and, where necessary, enhance counter-terrorism curricula for schools and universities to promote awareness of terrorism and counter-terrorism measures;
  • Develop and, where necessary, strengthen national laws to criminalise recruitment, propaganda, incitement, support for or the attempt or conspiracy to participate in violent radical ideologies, including hate crimes and the use of religion to commit violent acts leading to death, injury or damage to property;
  • Eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination; and
  • Prevent occupation, colonialism and other forms of domination.

Coming on the heels of the ECOWAS CT Strategy was a systematic study, the ECOWAS Conflict Risk Assessment 2013-2014. The assessment examined country risk factors and emerging threats such as terrorism, violent extremism and their complex interactions, which are now becoming realities. By combining qualitative analysis of the human security issues in the member states with quantitative elements and predictive analysis, it identified root causes of conflict, political, economic and social conflict risk factors, vulnerabilities, conflict triggers, mitigating factors, response options and recommendations for each of the 15 member states. The robust study supports evidence-based decision making on CVE and other conflict risks in the States. ECOWAS is also gearing up to support its member states in implementing community-based early warning and response initiatives to counter violent extremism, radicalisation, insurgency and terrorism (VERIT) initially in Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal.

Until recently, training curricula for the armed forces and security services in many ECOWAS member states have focused on public order, state security, regular warfare and peacekeeping and have not sufficiently addressed counter-terrorism, CVE and counter-insurgency. This gap has been noted as one of the reasons why Nigerian troops have greatly succeeded in peacekeeping in many regions of the world but have encountered challenges in counter-terrorism efforts at home. It has also informed the prioritization of training in counter-terrorism and CVE by ECOWAS to plug the gap. The Regional Security Division of the ECOWAS Commission, with the technical assistance of the Institute for Security Studies, has developed the ECOWAS Counter-terrorism Training Manual and has used the tool to train over 300 law enforcement agents in various ECOWAS member states since 2013. Some modules of the CT Training Manual go beyond theory, legal aspects and operational responses to terrorism to address issues relevant to CVE efforts including: intelligence and counterintelligence, early warning mechanism and coordination, border control, victim support and the role of the media.

In view of increasing understanding and focus of political decision makers on CVE, ECOWAS Council of Ministers also approved a sensitization against radicalization and violent extremism in Mali, Niger and Northern Nigeria for 2017. Together with other relevant directorates, partners and member states, greater efforts would be directed at preventative aspects of CVE at national and regional levels, and improving human security and economic opportunities around border communities.

Notably, both the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice and the Community Parliament have made extra-judicial and non-binding pronouncements regarding their commitment to contribute to the fight against terrorism and related crimes.[5] Furthermore, various statutory organs and specialised institutions of ECOWAS have a mandate to address terrorism, the financing of terrorism and violent extremism. These organs and institutions include the Intergovernmental Action Group Against Money Laundering in West Africa (GIABA), the West African Police Chiefs Committee (WAPCCO), the Chiefs of Intelligence Services of ECOWAS, the Committee of Chiefs of Security Services (CCSS) and Committee of the Chiefs of Defence Services (CCDS). They work to improve regional security cooperation and crime prevention, and to combat cross-border crime through information sharing, joint operations, harmonisation of legislation and procedures among other tasks. They also report periodically to national and regional political authorities including Ministers in Charge of Security, Mediation and Security Council and Heads of State and Government on crime trends, emerging threats, planned action and programmes.

Nigeria: beyond the north-east

While a global outcry has trailed the abduction of schoolgirls from Chibok community in Borno State in 2014—heralded by the #BringBackOurGirls campaign—significant local, national and international resources have been channeledto pursuing terrorists and neutralizing the threat of Boko Haram. There have also been renewed efforts aimed at addressing the plight of affected and displaced communities, even though comparably little attention and resources have been directed to addressing the root causes of violent extremism. Boko Haram’s “scorched earth” tactics and its focus on attacking soft targets (unarmed civilians in schools, places of worship, villages, markets and motor parks) contributed to demonizing the group and making it a constant headline in national and international media, as well as in public discourse. It would be recalled that Boko Haram’s notoriety was already a significant security threat back in June 2013 when the then Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan authorized the gazetting of an order which officially brought the activities of the group within the purview of Nigeria’s Terrorism (Prevention) Act.[6]

The geostrategic location of the group around the Lake Chad Basin and its incursions into Cameroon, Chad and Niger, coupled with its hit-and-run tactics, continue to pose operational challenges to ill-prepared forces from the affected States. However, centralizing analysis on Nigeria, the focus on Boko Haram and the north-east does not remove the fact that other forms of violent extremism exist and continue to emerge in other parts of the country. Neither does it dilute the primary responsibility of the State to protect and safeguard the lives, livelihoods and property of its citizens in all parts of the country.

It is commendable that Nigeria has developed a CVE programme to complement the revised National Counter-Terrorism Strategy (NACTEST) of 2016. This seeming marriage of CT and CVE efforts raises the need for both conceptual clarity and contextual practicality to address the complex nature of the challenge and to determine appropriate points of intervention in order to achieve desired results. A series of key questions need to be addressed. For instance: at what point and under what conditions does radicalization begin to manifest in violent extremism? Do radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism overlap? What are their points of convergence and divergence? Do they arise from the same sources or motivations? Are there sufficient national laws or provisions in the Criminal Code addressing the threats? Does disproportional use of force by the armed forces and security agencies engender radicalization and violent extremism and how may this be addressed? Are responses adaptive enough to checkmate the ever-changing and adaptable nature of terrorism and violent extremism? Will a victory against Boko Haram signal the end of the complementary CVE efforts and lead to fatigue in efforts to address the root causes of violent extremism?

It is instructive that Boko Haram remains the only organization which has been proscribed in line with Section 2 of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011. Nonetheless, of the six geo-political zones in the country, none can be said to have been totally free of some manifestation of radicalization and violent extremism in the past two decades. The major manifestations have included the following.

  • North-east: Boko Haram radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism.
  • North-west: Southern Kaduna crisis involving nomadic herdsmen and settled communities, violence between the Shi’ite movement and state security forces, and Islamist religious radicalization.
  • North-central: Recurring ethno-religious crises around Jos-Plateau, rampant clashes between nomadic herdsmen and settled farming communities.
  • South-east: Radicalization by the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, the Indigenous People of Biafra, rampant kidnapping and communal conflict.
  • South-west: Militancy linked to the Oodua People’s Congress and other groups, long-drawn communal conflicts and politically-motivated violence.
  • South-south: Militant insurgency and violent extremism by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the Niger Delta Avengers among other groups, abduction of oil workers for ransom, oil pipelines vandalism and politically-motivated violence.

Each of the geo-political conflict complexes highlighted above is distinct and dynamic in its scale, complexity, intensity, trajectory and effect, and the origins of some have been traced back to fault lines created by the pre-colonial Scramble for Africa which scattered “culture areas” across artificially-created borders, while lumping together different ethnic nationalities into artificially-created containers.[7] This practice was continued by the colonial amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914 alongside a reserved Colony. Different forms of colonial administration adopted in the different regions capitalized on cultural, economic and social divisions and other factors that reflect the complexity of the newly-created Nigeria. The problem with the historical narrative is that no regard was paid to what appears to be the natural dividing lines among the peoples and ethnic nationalities and, with independence, no serious attempt was made to use those lines as the bases for negotiating a federation that would respect the diversities while building on common interests and a common destiny in an organic way. This structural factor has become a perennial source of conflict.

Furthermore, emerging trends seem to suggest that some of the geo-political conflict complexes are now interacting in ways that were not anticipated by the national responses that have been crafted so far. For instance, some elements of Boko Haram terrorism in the north-east have been linked to the escalating nomadic herdsmen-settler conflicts from the north-west zone through the north-central, south-east, south-west and the south-south.[8] The Global Terrorism Index 2015 identified “Fulani militants” (nomadic herdsmen) as one of the five most deadly terrorist groups in 2014 and a serious threat to stability in Nigeria. Boko Haram and the so-called “Fulani militants” are also reportedly linked particularly in regard to smuggling and organized crime. Death toll by the “Fulani militants” in Nigeria was put at 1,229 in 2014.[9] Desperate measures to curb the attacks such as the re-introduction of the National Grazing Reserve (Establishment) Bill in 2016 and the related move by the Federal Government to import protein-enriched grass from Brazil have stirred further controversy. With the spike in their attacks in 2016 and the decimation of Boko Haram, this emerging form of mobile violent extremism risks becoming a major threat to security and stability in Nigeria.

Opportunities to improve CVE: lessons for Nigeria  

In the face of multiple pressure points that cumulatively threaten human security, as well as the social fabric and liberty in the country, Nigeria’s CVE programme needs to look beyond addressing radicalization and violent extremism in the north-east. Preoccupation with religiously-motivated violent extremism alone, rather than robustly addressing its structural undercurrents and root causes, distorts the security realities and may further exacerbate the security situation in Nigeria. Looking towards the future, the key lesson is that addressing the root causes of violent extremism through comprehensive security governance and a Whole-of-Society approach should be the starting point of efforts in CVE, not the end point.

An Experts Meeting which preceded the Regional Security Summit in Abuja, Nigeria in May 2016 proposed cogent recommendations for improving CT and CVE efforts.[10] In addition to those, the following opportunities to improve CVE derive from ECOWAS’ comprehensive approach to security governance. Given that the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) plays a coordinating role for security services, ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and other stakeholders in CT and CVE efforts, the following are primarily addressed to the ONSA but also to other agencies.

Strategic opportunities

  1. Adopt a comprehensive approach to CT and CVE. CT strategies and CVE programs should not be designed or implemented in isolation or as ad hoc response to localized terrorism. Ideally, CT and CVE should be situated within an adaptive national security strategy, while the national security strategy is linked to national development objectives that address the root causes of violent extremism. There is of course a lot of room for improvement in Nigeria’s budding CVE programme.
  2. Match strategies and normative prescriptions (NACTEST, the CVE programme among others), technical skills and operational techniques with an understanding of contemporary political, social, cultural, economic and religious conditions that may enable or stifle violent extremism in various parts of the country. What works in the north-east may not work so well in the Middle Belt region or in the south-east, and may even be counter-productive.
  3. Adopt issue-based strategic decision making and continuous strategy development. Often, strategy planning and review (NACTEST, CVE programme) follow a two to five-year cycle and are disconnected from strategic decision making which needs to happen frequently in response to emerging threats and fluid conditions. However, the evolving nature of the threat posed by terrorism and violent extremism, as well as their changing dynamics require that strategy development be adaptive and continuous to enable proactive and real-time strategic decisions.

Governance opportunities

  1. Strengthen collaboration with legitimate informal and non-state security providers (the Civilian Joint Task Force, vigilante groups, neighborhood watch outfits) to extend security and vigilance to areas that are hard to reach for state security services. Improve complementarity, regulation, training and reorientation, and integration of these groups into community policing measures beyond the war against Boko Haram.
  2. Widen and deepen ongoing support to grassroots governance structures, community-based early warning and response initiatives and traditional dispute resolution mechanisms in all parts of Nigeria. Religious and community leaders are effective conduits for defusing extremist propaganda. In addition, counter-radicalization, de-radicalization, strategic communication, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, building community resilience, education and a culture of peace, mutual coexistence and tolerance should all be encouraged.
  3. Using a pyramid synthesis from localized to regional and national levels, promote broad-based national dialogue to engender homegrown demand for better governance and to enable a reconfiguration of political, security and social relations for a more egalitarian society. Dialogue should go beyond conferences in Nigeria’s federal capital territory (Abuja) and must include groups and communities directly affected by violent extremism.

Operational opportunities

  1. In cooperation with neighboring States, strengthen border security initiatives to plug supply and transit routes for terrorist and violent extremist groups, and improve human security and economic opportunities around border communities to expand sources of livelihood. This will also improve vigilance and remove a significant motivation for unemployed youth to join terrorist and violent extremist groups.
  2. Address violent extremism related to transhumance, particularly the activities of nomadic herdsmen, to complement measures such as the establishment of grazing reserves to reduce itinerant activities. It is also necessary to leverage on external expertise and tap into local knowledge to undertake DDR and prioritize reorientation of nomadic herdsmen and cattle-breeding communities using a three-pronged approach of information, sensitization and education.
  3. Humanize the war against terrorism. Summary executions, detention of suspects without trial and excessive or disproportionate use of force may result in breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law. This will further undermine public trust in the state security forces and breed further radicalization and anti-state violence. 

Next steps for ECOWAS

There are additional opportunities for ECOWAS to improve its support to its member states in CVE. Although ECOWAS’ support is conditioned by the twin principles of subsidiarity and complementarity which reserve to its member states the primary responsibility for peace and security, ECOWAS provides an added layer of support and offers comparative advantages in mobilizing the 15 member states to address challenges in ways which no State acting alone can. The following steps will improve regional support to CVE.

National level

  1. Encourage member states to ratify relevant Conventions and Protocols that are yet to enter into force, particularly the 1999 Mechanism and the 2001 Protocol Against Corruption. In reflection of ECOWAS’ evolving supranational status, the new legal regime of Supplementary Acts removes the need for ratification and makes the Acts binding on member states and the institutions of the Community upon signature.
  2. Support national capacity building for CVE. It should be noted that civil society actors, the media, police, customs, immigration, prisons service, intelligence and other law enforcement agencies in member states are currently ill-prepared to address new and emerging forms of violent extremism. This creates a huge gap in translating strategies and policies to action and impact. Therefore, to buttress this point, ECOWAS’ support to CVE must be implemented in partnership with national/local actors.
  3. Promote inclusive national development to create the enabling environment that can translate regional strategies into impact in member states. The ECOWAS Vision 2020 addresses five themes that chart its path to the original objectives of regional development and economic integration, and indeed a Community Development Programme was set up to implement this vision. The regional vision and action needs to be matched by bottom-up actions and support in line with national needs and priorities.

Regional level

  1. Promote coherence, joint planning and joint implementation of multi-sector programs and initiatives to improve security governance and CVE. Regional CVE efforts demands the coordination of multiple Directorates and Divisions at the Commission, including Regional Security, Early Warning, SALW Control, Humanitarian Affairs, Political Affairs, Legal Affairs, External Relations, Migration and Free Movement, Gender, Youth and Drug Control, Infrastructure and Agriculture. Cooperation often falls short of coherence and coordination.
  2. Strengthen regional and cross-regional cooperation and information sharing for CT and CVE beyond the fight against Boko Haram. Although operations of the Multinational Joint Task Force and cooperation with the Economic Community of Central African States (involving Cameroon and Chad) have been crucial in the success in CT, it took a long time to build trust and to attain operational efficiency. Improving information sharing, cross-learning and joint operations through institutions such as Lake Chad Basin Commission, Regional Intelligence Fusion Unit, WAPCCO, CCSS and GIABA will strengthen CVE efforts.[11]

International level

  1. Strengthen partnerships to deliver technical and financial assistance for CVE, and enhance alignment with continental (African Union) and global (United Nations) efforts to combat terrorism and violent extremism. Both the ECPF and the CT Strategy reflect cooperation measures with international organizations and resource mobilization with partners under their enabling mechanisms. These provisions should be revived and channeled to the most critical areas of need at the national level.
  2. Become a model to other Regional Economic Communities and Regional Mechanisms of the African Union in connecting local needs and national ownership of CVE efforts to international support for addressing the root causes of violent extremism. To achieve this, rather than addressing violent extremism as an afterthought, it is necessary to develop a clear strategy for supporting national CVE efforts. While CVE efforts are often framed as terrorism prevention, ironically international consensus building and commitments to CT date back to 1994 but similar efforts in CVE are about two decades late.


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 is described as a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. Beyond the banner and the primary goal of eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, Paragraph 55 of the UNGA Resolution[12] captures a way of doing things that is relevant to both human development and human security efforts. This is essentially the idea of “connected development”: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets are integrated and indivisible (horizontal connection); and they endorse leveraging global partnerships in solving national and local problems (vertical connection). Relating the SDGs to the challenge of peace and security generally and violent extremism specifically, connected development finds expression in Goals 16 and 17.[13]

Following similar lines of reasoning for human security—and a plethora of literature and policy directions—this paper uses the idea of “connected security” in advocating for comprehensive security governance and leveraging global partnerships in solving emerging and evolving security challenges such as violent extremism. Connected security is encapsulated in Aspiration 4 of the African Union’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, and Theme II of the ECOWAS Vision 2020: Towards a Democratic and Prosperous Community. Connected security is not just an idea that should exist only in academic texts, or an aspiration that should exist only in policy documents. It must be realized in practice. This will certainly not come easy because it challenges traditional structures and ways of doing things. Due to the fact that insecurity is increasingly connected and complex, a similar approach of comprehensive security governance is needed at the national level beyond localized efforts.


[1] Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman, Political terrorism: a new guide to actors, authors, concepts, data bases, theories, and literature (Amsterdam: Transaction Books, 1988), 28.

[2] Center for Democracy and Development, An assessment of the ECOWAS counter-terrorism strategy and implementation plan (Abuja: CDD, 2016), 11.

[3] Okey Uzoechina, “Security sector reform and governance processes in West Africa: from concepts to reality.” DCAF Policy Paper No. 35 (Geneva: Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2014), 1.

[4] Some of the instruments are yet to enter into force. For instance, the Protocol on the Fight Against Corruption. Some entered into force provisionally upon signature, pending ratification. An example is the 1999 Mechanism.

[5] Leadership, “ECOWAS Parliament pledges to support fight against terrorism in Nigeria.” May 19, 2014; This Day, “ECOWAS court to assist member states in fight against terrorism, money laundering.” October 1, 2016.

[6] Akinola Olojo, “Nigeria’s troubled north: interrogating the drivers of public support for Boko Haram”. ICCT Research Paper (The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2013), 5.

[7]Ieuan Griffiths, “The scramble for Africa: inherited political boundaries.” The Geographical Journal 152, no, 2 (1986), 205.

[8] Mike Opeyemi Omilusi, “Roving terrorists or innocuous cattle grazers? Between herdsmen’s economic survival and community annihilation in Nigeria.” Cultural Relations Quarterly Review 3, no. 3 (2016): 49.

[9] Institute for Economics and Peace. Global Terrorism Index 2015. (Sydney: IEP, 2015), 22.

[10] Consolidated Report of the 2nd Regional Security Summit Meeting of Experts Between the 12th to the 13th of May 2016.

[11] WAPCCO: West African Police Chiefs Committee. CCSS: Committee of Chiefs of Security Services. GIABA: Intergovernmental Action Group Against Money Laundering in West Africa.

[12] United Nations General Assembly. Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. General Assembly. A/RES/70/1 (2015), 13.

[13] Goal 16 is dedicated to the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, the provision of access to justice for all, and building effective, accountable institutions at all levels. Goal 17 is dedicated to the promotion of partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society. These inclusive partnerships built upon principles and values, a shared vision, and shared goals are needed at the global, regional, national and local level.