Winning hearts and minds in ungoverned spaces


Addressing grievances and frustrations becomes an entry point to winning hearts and minds and can prove a powerful asset in the fight to prevent violent extremism. Photo: UNDP

The tragic spate of attacks in Western Europe, the Sahel, and most recently in Mogadishu, Somalia, have all targeted at the very heart of capital cities and densely populated urban centers. In sub-Saharan Africa, this stands in stark contrast to the alleged attackers’ remote powerbase –the peripheral areas which often straddle several countries and are commonly referred to as ungoverned spaces.

Ungoverned spaces are defined as zones that lay beyond the reaches of the central government. The prevailing view holds that the more remote they are, the more vulnerable they become to the lure of violent radicalization and extremism.

So far, military action has been the default response in bringing these areas in line, as shown in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and even the Sahel. In light of recent events, one can question the wisdom and effectiveness of this approach.

Far from solving the problem, it seems that securitized response exacerbates it. This is underscored in UNDP’s recent study, “Journey to Extremism in Africa:  Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment” , which indicates that 71% of the recruits of violent extremism groups interviewed joined  in retaliation against a form of government action.

Until very recently, benign neglect was the standard treatment for these ungoverned spaces, seen as  of little strategic importance. But now that they are an integral part of the picture, it has become clear that any search for a solution requires a good grasp of the power dynamics at work in those far flung places.

Groups like Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, who have become adept at engaging with local populations, have used weakened community institutions to exploit local frustrations. In Somalia, Al-Shabab leveraged the power of the traditional clan system to insert itself into communities, further tapping into religious institutions to turn them into vehicles for radical preaching and recruitment. Boko Haram, for its part, used the prevailing sense of marginalization in Northern Nigeria   to expand its powerbase.

Building on a growing body of expert knowledge about these ungoverned areas, planned interventions should start at grassroots level to boost individual and institutional resilience locally. According to our study, 78% of those interviewed acknowledged poor or zero trust in police, politicians and military. However, community and religious leaders were held in relatively high regard, as custodians of informal community level institutions.

Policymakers should therefore also focus on strengthening local communities, by formalizing and enhancing the authority of local institutions and making them more inclusive.

In turn, local communities’ proven ability to survive and offer counter-narrative response of hope in these remote places constitute encouraging signs of resilience. They prove that, though severely undermined, basic social fabric still wields significant power.

To quote Foucault, “power is everywhere and in everything”- In the fight against violent extremism understanding the mechanism of “local politics” is the first step towards securing local support and devising better preventative mechanisms. Addressing grievances and frustrations becomes an entry point to winning hearts and minds and can prove a powerful asset in the fight to prevent violent extremism.

In the long run, prevention can only be “won” in ungoverned spaces if and when communities are to become resilient at an individual and institutional level. Restoring peace begins with this.

Blog post Africa Prevention of violent extremism Local governance and local development Somalia

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