Violent extremism in Africa


This paper analyses data from three regional “hotspots” of violent extremism in sub-Saharan Africa: Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region; Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Mourabitoun (among others) in the Sahel; and Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa. It suggests that security-related issues are a priority for citizens of countries that have experienced high levels of extremist activity. However perceptions of problems varied widely by country.

Afrobarometer’s Round 6 surveys in 2014/15 asked security-related questions in several countries that have experienced growth in violent extremism in recent years.  Security-led approaches have largely failed to contain the geographic footprint of violent extremisms in sub-Saharan Africa, and this has prompted the emergence of more development-orientated approaches, such as CVE and PVE. Across 36 countries surveyed in 2014/15, about one in five citizens cited security-related issues as one of the three most important problems facing their country.  The proportion of citizens who cited security among the top three national problems was significantly lower in Cameroon, Niger and Uganda than elsewhere.

  • Public trust in security forces varies widely by country with trust generally lower in the police than in the army.
  • Public approval of government counter-extremist efforts ranged from about four in 10 in Nigeria and Kenya to three-quarters or more in Mali, Cameroon, Niger, and Uganda.
  • Support for strengthening military responses and capabilities were high countries in which the question was asked.
  • Four in 10 Kenyans, Nigerians and Malians cited security-related issues as one of the top three problems facing their countries – roughly double the average across 36 countries surveyed in 2014/15.
  • Security was a higher priority for additional government spending in Nigeria, Kenya and Cameroon.
  • Across 36 countries, only half of respondents said they trust the police “somewhat” or “a lot”, while 64% said they trust the army. Among the six countries under study, trust levels were highest in Niger and the lowest in Nigeria.
  • Nigerians were more likely to believe that there was local and international support for extremist groups like Boko Haram than their counterparts in Cameroon and Niger, and were also far more critical of government counter-extremist efforts. In Niger and Cameroon, bolstering the military response was significantly more popular than in Nigeria.
  • 75% of Malians said that negotiation between the government and armed groups was the best way of addressing the crisis in the North of the country.
  • Public approval of the government’s response to extremism was considerably lower among Kenyans (44%) than among Ugandans (83%).

This public opinion research offers insight into violent extremism’s impact on ordinary citizens that can help shape CVE and PVE approaches that place emphasis on the environment in which violent extremism thrives. This data highlights the greater need to address root causes of conflicts and build stronger relationships between governments and local communities.


Buchanan-Clarke, S. & Lekalake, R. (2016). Violent extremism in Africa: Public opinion from the Sahel, Lake Chad, and the Horn. Accra and Nairobi: Afrobarometer.