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The Role of Youth in Preventing and Countering Extremism in West Africa

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— 2 minutes reading time

On 15 – 17 November 2022, the Strong Cities Network took part in the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s (GCTF) regional workshop on the role of youth in preventing and countering violent extremism in West Africa, in Cotonou, Benin. Convened by co-chairs of the GCTF Working Group for Capacity-Building in the West Africa Region – Algeria and Germany – the event offered participants the opportunity to discuss evolving trends and dynamics of youth radicalisation, mechanisms for recruitment to and mobilisation of extremist groups, as well as relevant and actionable recommendations to counter extremism and hate-motivated violence.

Participants included national government officials from the region, youth, civil society representatives, researchers and donor representatives. They stressed the growing terrorist threat in the region, particularly in the Sahel and its borderlands, where militants are exploiting governance vacuums. Both research and first-hand experience shared during the two days indicated that young people, including adolescents and children, are disproportionately affected both as victims and perpetrators of extremist violence and recruitment efforts. Participants emphasised poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunities and public services as key “push factors” toward extremism, while underscoring that the internet and rapidly evolving mobile technology are being used by terrorist and violent extremist groups to co-opt the support of young men and women.

On the first day, practitioners across the region shared approaches to counter youth radicalisation to extremism. Participants shared a novel approach to counter prison radicalisation in the region, where a combination of better risk assessment tools, isolating high risk inmates and providing adequate psychosocial support for vulnerable individuals was being used to reduce recidivism, maintain public security and achieve better rehabilitation and reintegration of youth upon their release.

Participants also discussed approaches to strengthen trust between youth and their representative governments. The discussion reinforced many of the findings from the SCN’s recently concluding mapping of P/CVE needs and priorities of cities in Africa. For example, local governments need to be better supported logistically and financially to be able to deliver public services and address local grievances to build community resilience, and cities are well placed to offer a platform for trust-building and collaboration between youth and security services while de-securitising issue areas that lead to extremism.

On the second day, youth groups throughout the region were invited to showcase youth-led programmes and other initiatives which are contributing to national violence prevention efforts. Strong Cities’ Management Unit contributed by sharing the approach and impact of Young Cities – the Network’s youth pillar – and encouraged the GCTF and other partners to follow a similar approach by including mayors and other city officials to include youth in a meaningful way in their prevention efforts.

Strong Cities is committed to elevating the voices of cities and youth across West Africa and the Sahel to ensure both groups are given the necessary resources and skills to effectively lead and contribute to extremism and hate prevention efforts, and that the two groups are included in national, regional and global policy and programme conversations on these issues. Strong Cities aims to further this ambition by establishing and operationalising a West Africa Regional Hub that will be able to consistently engage with cities (and the young people within them) across the region to address their needs and capacity gaps while facilitating the exchange and elevation of good practices.