Horn of Africa: there are no quick fixes in ‘countering violent extremism’

An effective response to violence and harmful ideologies is important. But projects are failing to adequately engage with root causes.

Since 9/11, western countries have increasingly invested in programmes to prevent transnational violent extremism. These include serious militarised measures but also “softer” civic interventions under the banner of ‘countering violent extremism’ (CVE). An example is funding social development programmes, implemented by civil society, with the aim of engaging and deterring individuals and communities from “radicalisation”.
An effective response to militant Islamist violence, threats, and underlying ideologies, is extremely important. But in the Horn of Africa, CVE programmes have failed to adequately engage with root causes of religious extremism.

In some cases they have failed so miserably that we must ask: to what extent are they actually genuine efforts to address violence and militancy? Are they merely superficial gestures? And how did such a complex issue become the additional burden of NGOs already struggling with layers of political and legal restrictions and limited capacity?

Displaced women in Somaliland. Photo: Hala Alkarib.“The flame only burns those who touch it” is a Sudanese saying that resonates today. Religious militancy is not a new phenomenon in the Horn of Africa. People have lived through this fire for the past 30 years. In Somalia, thousands have been killed as a result of the brutal Al Shabaab insurgency which has lured Muslim youth towards militancy by exploiting community vulnerabilities including poverty.

In this region, religious militancy often disguises itself as an ideology for resistance against state corruption, ethnic and cultural biases. Meanwhile, counter-terror programmes often ally themselves with the same corrupt regimes. The west considers Sudan, for instance, a collaborative partner – though it is itself an incubator of religious militancy as a result of repressive policies and laws.

Indeed, CVE programming has fallen far short of the mark – conceptually and in implementation. Even the language used is deeply problematic. Measures to prevent violent extremism is vague and ambiguous.

CVE programmes are clearly supposed to be ‘soft power’ projects in parallel to military counter-terror interventions. But: what exactly do they mean by “violent extremism”? Is extremism acceptable if it is not violent? At what measureable point does an ideology become ‘extreme’? What countermeasures are acceptable?

And: Are these projects specifically focused on Islamic religious militancy, or violence based on other religions and ideologies as well?

“Religious militancy often disguises itself as an ideology for resistance against state corruption, ethnic and cultural biases”.

These programmes have also been overly simplistic, largely ignoring driving factors of militancy and violence including injustices inflicted upon the region’s population. The – largely flawed – operating assumption is that providing grants to NGOs to undertake development-style programming will lead to a shift in communities’ social identities, or erase those inequalities and injustices.

Last year, the International Organisation for Migration launched a call for proposals on CVE stating that it intended to provide “small and quick impact support that capitalises on community driven interventions aimed at mitigating risk factors that contribute towards violent extremism. These will be preceded by interactive and participatory community consultations.”

But how can we think that transforming and influencing social and cultural identity can be accomplished through “small and quick impact support”?

Since the First World War, British and French colonial governments, and later the US government, helped cement political Islam and its organisations as buffers against Soviet Union’s expansion and to counter socialism’s influences in their quest for absolute control over Middle Eastern oil and gas.

Today states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran stress that Islam has only specific veiled versions, of which they are the vanguards. Supposedly, Muslims all over the world must be either Shia like in Iran or Sunni Salafi like in Saudi Arabia.

“The Islamic faith also has a rich heritage of reform and transformative discourse”.

But, like other religions Islam is very diverse. Peoples’ experiences with it vary based on their specific historical and cultural contexts and perceptions. The Islamic faith also has a rich heritage of reform and transformative discourse, which can be used to facilitate persuasive transition in communities using their own religious guidance.

The Horn of Africa – which includes Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti – is close to the Arab Gulf region and thus it has been largely influenced by Salafi religious militancy ideology.

Here, the challenging religious context is further compounded by the complexity of social identity. Universal citizenship is not affirmed or applied by all states, to the disadvantage of minorities. Often, ethnic and religious affiliations also shape identity – as well as access to resources and services.

I recently heard the story of a donor-funded CVE project in the coastal areas of Kenya, which shows what’s at stake when NGOs, following donor agenda, forget that social and cultural change requires great effort, knowledge, and community ownership.

This project had proposed removing all references to jihad in the Qur’an in Islamic religion classes for “Madrassa” children – provoking anger and revolt from the local community over the presumption that it could intervene in matters of religious identity like this, amending and censoring materials.

“Pursuing social transformation requires focusing on, and investing in, civil movements from within”.

Years of experience challenging religious militancy and its impact on women has taught me that pursuing any form of social transformation requires focusing on, and investing in, civil movements from within. It is the role of people living in regions where militant Islam is rife to lead and decide on the best approach to countering it.

Trying to address injustices suffered under militant Islamists requires meticulous and tireless work – but it is one of the most effective approaches.

Women’s movements have also been negotiating and challenging discrimination within different sects of Islamic traditions, text and jurisprudence. Academic Amina Wadud has contributed to a feminist reading of Quranic text based on equality and justice which counter to traditional and militant readings. Addressing religious militancy’s impacts and drivers is also a core priority of the SIHA Horn of Africa women’s network.

This approach must be adopted by political parties too and be connected to wider struggles for democracy, freedom of belief, equality and justice. Unfortunately, most CVE programmes and other counter terrorism strategies can only be characterised as pursuing ‘quick-fixes’ and short-sighted and short-term gains.

Communities in the Horn of Africa must look inside rather than outside for solutions. Within civil society, we must tackle prohibitions and fear of debate and critical engagement with Islam. Internationally, we need a new agenda, centred on liberation, to support movements relevant to the communities most affected by violent extremism.
About the author

Hala Alkarib is the Director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), a Horn of Africa based women’s coalition. View this article on Open Democracy.

Gender Alert: Uganda, Tanzania shine at the Gender Justice Uncovered Awards

8 June 2017

Ugandan High Court decision won the People’s Choice Gavel at the 2017 Gender Justice Uncovered Awards hosted by Women’s Link Worldwide.  In 2012, a woman gave birth to two babies at Mulago Hospital, Uganda’s only referral hospital and was informed that one of the babies had died at birth. When asked to see the body, the hospital staff presented the couple with another baby that was not their child. The parents along with the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) sued the Attorney General and the Executive Director of the hospital for the unlawful disappearance of their baby.

In January 2017, Justice Lydia Mugambe ruled on this case receiving the most votes for the best decision for advancing the rights of women and girls. She ruled that “a public hospital’s negligence resulting in the disappearance of a couple’s baby resulted in psychological torture for the parents and violated their rights to health and access to information.” The couple was provided with an immediate remedy of 85 million Uganda shillings.

“The court decision stood out because it recognized the need to not only address the human rights of the couple who were parties to the case, but also the failure on the part of the State of Uganda to fulfill its obligation of the right to health,” said Lydia Muthiani, Women’s Link attorney.

The Bronze Gavel was awarded to the High Court of Tanzania for its ruling that the Law of Marriages Act violated equality provisions of the Constitution as the minimum age to marry for men was set at 18 but 15 for girls. The High Court added that the Act violated the Maputo Protocol to which Tanzania is a signatory.

However, Kenyan High Court’s decision that found a man not guilty for carrying on a sexual relationship with a 14 year old girl received the Golden Bludgeon Award (the worst judicial decision of the year).

While the Uganda and Tanzania decision set a precedent for the right to health and elimination of child marriage, the Kenya High Court’s decision puts girls at risk of sexual exploitation and denies special protection provided to children under the age of 18.

Rape in South Sudan: A horrific crime happening on a daily basis


On Sunday 28 May at approximately 2PM, Anthony, a 22-year old woman and resident of Wau County, was raped by two men dressed in Sudan’s People Liberation Army (SPLA) uniform. Ms. Anthony was on her way home to see her seven month old baby – left in the care of her grandmother when she was confronted by the two men. She was forced to sit down and asked where she had come from and whether she had seen a boy wearing a white shirt. She told the men that she had not seen any boy and requested that they release her. However, the men then held at gunpoint, and forced to sit on a motorcycle and taken to a bush where she was beaten and raped. Abandoned by the perpetrators, Ms. Anthony suffered bleeding from the injuries sustained. A few hours later, she was found by firewood collectors who brought her to her home. The incident has been reported to SIHA offices in Wau town for referral and Ms. Anthony is presently awaiting medical assistance from the International Medical Corps.

A similar incident was reported on 15th March 2017, by SIHA in a statement titled “Rape at Gunpoint: A Daily Insecurity for a Woman in South Sudan”. Hence, SIHA remains deeply concerned about the increase in rape incidents and emphasizes the need to renew the fight against sexual violence in conflict areas.

SIHA acknowledges the government’s efforts in fighting sexual violence in conflict areas and recognizes that thirteen South Sudanese soldiers have gone on trial for raping foreign aid workers. However SIHA believes that continued efforts have to be made. As such;

SIHA calls upon the government of South Sudan, regional and international actors to address challenges of impunity through political actions, to put an end to sexual violence crimes and to strengthen the overall protection of civilians in the ongoing crisis in South Sudan.

SIHA calls for endorsement and enforcement of the South Sudan National Gender Policy of 2013 which recognizes rape as a crime against humanity. It criminalizes rape and all other forms of gender based violence and ensure that impunity through customary law is addressed.

ACHPR 60th Ordinary Session: Human Rights Conditions of Female Detainees and Prisoners in Sudan


SIHA maintains its observer status at the ACHPR and took the opportunity to voice the concerns of women prisoners in Sudan and the public order regime which unjustly restricts women’s freedoms and rights in public settings. The discriminative laws and practices, leading to corporal punishments such as flogging and death by stoning, which are based on militant interpretations of Islamic guidance are the primary source of legislation in Sudan. SIHA condemns the conditions women prisoners have to endure in Sudan and the fact that they have been imprisoned under the Public Order Law, an outdated, gender biased legal system that is specifically denying women and girls in Sudan their fundamental rights and freedoms.

In addition, SIHA in conjunction with REDRESS, the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) and Amnesty International organized a panel discussion on “Conditions of Women Prisoners and Avenues to Accountability in Sudan.” On the panel were Commissioner Mute, the ACHPR Commissioner on the human rights situation in Sudan, Amnesty International’s Ahmed Elzobier, Redress’ Legal Advisor Judy Oder and SIHA’s Gender Analyst Kafia Omar. The event was moderated by International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Tcherina Jerolon.

Human Rights Conditions of Female Detainees and Prisoners in Sudan is now available in our Publications.

Ethnic targeting of civilians in Wau, South Sudan


Clashes between rebel groups and armed forces started on Sunday 9th April 2017 and gunfire erupting inside the town of Wau on 10 April 2017 killing at least 16 people and injuring 10. Witnesses described ethnic militias going door to door searching for people from specific groups. Reports suggest that the militias were aligned to the government’s side. Residents have reported that soldiers blocked off roads leading to the UNMISS protection site allowing only 84 people to seek refuge at the protection site. Another 3,000 mostly women and children have sought shelter in a Catholic church.

Since 2013, South Sudan is a state damaged by war with civilians bearing the brunt of the conflict. Civilians are deliberately targeted, raped, murdered and tortured with total impunity. War, poverty and famine have resulted in 2.3 million people displaced and fleeing for their lives. Specifically, underlying tensions in addition to the wider civil conflict have further polarized communities in Wau.

SIHA is deeply alarmed by the escalation of ethnic conflict and the continuous victimization and targeting of civilians in Wau, specifically women and children.

SIHA condemns all forms of discrimination on ethnic grounds and urges adherence to International Humanitarian Law, specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention which specifically protects people who are not taking part in the hostilities.

SIHA calls upon the African Union, IGAD and the UN to adhere to their recent collective commitments in their press statement of 29 January 2017 where they declared their cooperation in support of the South Sudan peace process.

Image Source: VOA

Rape at Gunpoint: A Daily Insecurity for a Woman in South Sudan

On 15th March 2017, Achol, a female resident of Wau state, was gang raped by two armed men. She was on her way home from a trip to the local market in Nyingoro village in Roc Roc dong County, to purchase food items for her children when Achol was confronted by two armed men. In what appeared to be an investigation about a nearby shooting, Achol was led away from the visibility of passersby to answer questions on where she was going and what she had witnessed. Held at gun point, she was raped by two men who then proceeded to steal all her belongings including a meager 100 SSP from her wallet. Immediately, Achol returned to the market where she sought help from the local police station. Shortly after reporting the case, one of the armed men, identified by Achol, was arrested and detained. In the midst of an ongoing investigation to find the second perpetrator, Achol has been referred to International Medical Corps established clinic for vital treatment and her case is documented for follow up.

Surrounded by widespread food insecurity and estimates of 4.8 million South Sudanese in dire need of food assistance, sexual violence remains a key concern and everyday threat to the women and girls of Wau. Forced to travel long and insecure distances in search of food for their children and households, these women are bearing the burden of an additional layer of risks and threats in the midst of a continuously evolving crisis.

These threats demand renewed fight against sexual violence in conflict and the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) calls upon the government of South Sudan and the local government of Wau to prioritize the ongoing risk and threats that affect the daily lives of its women and girls.

SIHA calls upon the government of South Sudan, regional and international actors to address challenges of impunity through political actions, to put an end to sexual violence crimes and to strengthen the overall protection of civilians in the on-going crisis in South Sudan.

SIHA calls for endorsement and enforcement of the South Sudan National Gender Policy of 2013 which recognizes rape as a crime against humanity. It criminalizes rape and all other forms of gender based violence and ensures that impunity through customary law is addressed.

SIHA urges international and local civil society organizations to form coalitions and collaborate with the South Sudanese government and with local actors in order to: improve societal awareness on sexual violence and to provide support and social and economic rehabilitation for survivors of sexual violence.

International Women’s Day – 8 March 2017

‘She is dead; her body came from Saudi’

International Women’s Day is calling on the masses to help forge a better working world- a more inclusive, gender equal world. However, that gender parity working world and that equal pay is a far cry from the reality of the working conditions that is facing trafficked women and girls across the world. The US Department of State estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, and that 80% of them are women and girls.

Increasingly, Ethiopian women are migrating abroad, and particularly to the Middle East and the Gulf countries to work. Women and girls in search of decent work, a better wage and some escaping the despair of child marriage migrate to the Gulf and other countries. However, what greets them is in stark contrast to the promises made by the recruiters. Alone in a strange land, they find themselves facing culture shock and loneliness, as well as long working hours with inadequate breaks. Too often, women are isolated and confined in private homes, refused pay and forced to work in slave-like conditions. Employers treat them in an inhumane manner, denying them food and sleep, refusing to pay their salaries and beating and belittling them.

‘I didn’t mind about the lack of sleep or even the beatings for that matter. But not getting my  salary, that was unbearable. Every month, I had to cry and beg my employers to pay me’

Many are locked in to the residences of their employers for extended periods of times. Some are victims of extreme violence. Rape by employers, relatives of employers or even law enforcement agents while in detention is also common. In the worst case scenario, women are killed.

‘He raped me in every possible way for six months. I used to pass out every time he forced himself in me. My womb almost out of its proper place’

This trauma causes ongoing complex and far-reaching consequences after victims return, including physical disability, reproductive health complications and psychosocial problems. Isolation and depression can cause them to harm themselves or others. They also face stigmatisation because of their physical and mental status, as well as economic difficulties.

Those who survive this treatment often return home traumatised, and at times physically impaired, only to find that there is little support for their reintegration. On their return, there are limited mental health resources in Ethiopia generally and cost and distance may limit access to those that exist for victims of trafficking. Instead, the responsibility falls to the NGOs to provide services and shelters for these women.  Unfortunately, lack of support minimises their capacity resulting in returnees being left to beg on the street, have unresolved mental health problems and in some cases suicide. “She finally committed suicide. We found her hanged with her own scarf in a bathroom”, stated the Director of a shelter

Recognising the need to focus on the impact of these horrific journeys of the victims and the consequences of the trauma in their lives after they return, SIHA in collaboration with its members in Ethiopia developed the research paper ‘Caught between poverty and trauma: Addressing the human rights of trafficked domestic workers from Ethiopia’. The paper will be launched online on 10 March and will be made available on SIHA Publications.

Eritrean refugees in Sudan – held ransom

By Martin Plaut

It could have been a tragedy: six Eritreans were arrested by the Sudanese police and threatened with deportation back to Eritrea (or what is termed ‘refoulment’ by the United Nations refugee agency.)

The six were in a dire condition, having only just managed to escape from people traffickers. The two women and four men had walked for three days when they were picked up by police on Saturday in an area about 25 kilometres from Khartoum.

At this point they were told they would be taken to court, which was likely to return them to Eritrea, from which they had just escaped. The group would have faced arrest, indefinite detention and possible torture if they were returned.

Thanks to the rapid intervention of lawyers the six were released after paying a fine of 1,200 Sudanese pounds. This is a great deal of money, nearly $US 200 at the official rate of exchange.

Human rights activists say the Sudanese police regard the Eritreans as a source of income. But for the impoverished Eritrean community the strain of collecting and paying these fines is unbearable.

However, other Eritrean prisoners have not been so fortunate. They were part of a larger larger group held in Khartoum’s Huda prison.

At least four Eritreans, who had been imprisoned for the past six months, were selected by the jailors and have now been deported to Eritrea. Their fate is unknown, but activists fear for their safety.

Uganda: No budget for sanitary pads for school going girls

Girl’s supported by SIHA in their education through SIHA’s scholarship initiative

New Vision Uganda, a local daily newspaper reported in 2013 that 30% of Ugandan girls drop out of school due to their menstrual cycle. Some Ugandan girls reported that they feel discomfort during their cycle; others claimed that they are teased and bullied due to incidents of soiled clothing. In World Bank’s report it was highlighted that due to their menstrual cycle girls miss 4-5 days of school every month which leads to missing 10-20% of school days.

Sanitary pads are the only saviors in this situation however they are costly and unaffordable by average Ugandan families.  Lack of pads leads to girl’s restoring to using absorbents such as grass and tissue. Path reported in 2016 that menstrual practices such as using alternative absorbents e.g. grass or tissue contributes significantly to infections. Further, if these infections are untreated there is a higher chance of contracting HIV and other STIs which can lead to secondary infertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

On the 14th of February 2017, Ministry of Education informed the Parliament’s Education Committee that the Ministry has no funding or budget for the providing sanitary pads for school going girls. This puts girls at a significant disadvantage; as they are likely to miss school days, be left behind in their education in comparison to their male counterpart and endanger their sexual reproductive health.

Faith and money from the Middle East fuelling tensions in the Horn of Africa

Relations between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula go back centuries, with trade playing a key component in binding their people together. Religion has also played a part. The expansion of Wahhabism – the interpretation of Islam propagated by Saudi Arabia – has been funded by the massive oil wealth of the kingdom.

Mosques, Koranic schools and Imams have been provided with support over many years. Gradually this authoritarian form of Islam began to take hold in the Horn. While some embraced it, others didn’t.

Somalia is an example. While most Somalis practised a moderate form of Suffi Islam, the Islamic fundamentalists of al-Shabaab didn’t. Soon after taking control of parts of central and southern Somalia in 2009 they began imposing a much more severe form of the faith. Mosques were destroyed and the shrines of revered Suffi leaders were desecrated.

The export of faith has been followed by arms. Today the Saudis and their allies in the United Arab Emirates are exerting increasing military influence in the region.

But Saudi Arabia and other Arabian gulf states aren’t the only Muslim countries that have sought influence in the region. Iran, for example, has also been an active player. In the case of Eritrea, a struggle for influence between Riyadh and Tehran has played out over the past few years. This has also been true in neighbouring Somaliland and the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland.

These are troubled times in the Horn of Africa. The instability that’s resulted from Islamic fundamentalism, of which al-Shabaab are the best known proponents, have left the region open to outside influences. The French have traditionally had a base in Djibouti, but they have now been joined by the Americans and the Chinese.

The growing Arab military, political and religious influence is only the latest example of an external force taking hold in the region.

New powerful forces in the region
The Eritreans had been close to Iran and supported their Houthi allies in the Yemeni conflict. This was of deep concern to the Saudis, who are locked in conflict with Tehran. This is a battle for influence that pits Iranian Shias against Saudi Sunnis. Eritrea is just one of the fields on which it’s being played out.

As a US cable leaked to Wikileaks put it in 2010,

‘The Saudi ambassador to Eritrea is concerned about Iranian influence, says Iran has supplied materiel to the Eritrean navy, and recently ran into an Iranian delegation visiting Asmara. He claims Yemeni Houthi rebels were present in Eritrea in 2009 (but is not sure if they still are), and reported that the Isaias regime this week arrested six Eritrean employees of the Saudi embassy’.

Since then Eritrea has switched sides. Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia in April 2015. Not long afterwards Eritrea signed a 30-year lease on the port of Assab with the Saudis and their allies in the Emirates. The port has become a base from which to prosecute the war in Yemen. The United Nations reported that 400 Eritrean troops were now in Yemen supporting the Saudi alliance.

The United Arab Emirates has constructed a major base in Assab – complete with tanks, helicopters and barracks. In November 2016 it was reported that a squadron of nine UAE Mirage fighter planes were deployed to Eritrea from where they could attack Houthi targets on the other side of the Red Sea. In return the Gulf states agreed to modernise Asmara International Airport, increase fuel supplies to Eritrea and provide President Isaias with further funding.

Since then the United Arab Emirates has announced its intention to increase its military presence in the Horn. In January it signed an agreement to manage the Somaliland port of Berbera for 30 years. It also sought permission to have a naval base, Somaliland foreign minister Sa’ad Ali Shire told reporters.

‘It’s true that the United Arab Emirates has submitted a formal request seeking permission to open a military base in Somaliland’

The UAE are also active in the neighbouring Puntland. They have been paying for and training anti-piracy forces for years, while also financing and training its intelligence services.

They are a powerful force in the region, projecting an Arab influence as far as Madagascar and the Seychelles. It’s not surprising that the United Arab Emirates was labelled “Little Sparta” by General James Mattis – now President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defence.

Ethiopian concerns

These are worrying times for the Ethiopian foreign ministry. Once the dominant force in the region, its influence over the Horn is now in question.

To its north the Eritreans remain implacable foes, as they have been since the border war of 1998-2000 that left these neighbours in a cold no-war, no-peace confrontation.

Addis Ababa is concerned that Eritrea’s hand has become stronger in recent years. Its mining sector is looking increasingly attractive with Canadian based firms now joined by Australian and Chinese companies.

Asmara’s role in the ongoing war in Yemen has allowed Eritrea to escape diplomatic isolation. The government in Asmara is now benefiting from funds and weapons, despite UN sanctions designed to prevent this from taking place.

To Ethiopia’s west lies Sudan, which is also now involved in the war in Yemen, providing troops to the Saudi and United Arab Emirates backed government. These ties are said to have been cemented after the Saudis pumped a billion dollars into the Sudanese central bank. In return the Sudanese turned their backs on their former Iranian allies.

To Ethiopia’s east the situation in Somalia is also of concern. No Ethiopian minister can forget the invasion of the Ogaden under President Siad Barre in 1977, when Somalia attempted to re-capture the lands lost to their neighbours during the expansionist policies of Emperor Menelik II in the nineteenth century. Siad Barre may be long gone but Ethiopian policy since the invasion has been to keep Somalia as weak and fragmented as possible.

Ethiopia has intervened repeatedly in Somalia to hold al-Shabaab at bay as well as to maintain the security of its eastern region. Addis Ababa’s policy of encouraging the inherent fragmentary tendencies of the Somalis has paid dividends: the country is now a federation of states and regions. Some of these only nominally recognise the authority of the government in Mogadishu. Somaliland, in the north is close to being recognised as an independent nation. Others, like Jubaland along the Kenyan border, are under Nairobi’s influence.

Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.