Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Culture, Democracy, and the Fight against Violent Extremism

Strengthening democratic institutions and amplifying traditional African values to promote social cohesion and consensus goes hand in hand with the fight against violent extremism.

Pupils wait for the opening of their primary school on the first day of the new school year, in Ouagadougou. (Photo: Olympia de Maismont / AFP)

A deepening security threat posed by militant Islamist groups has made the western Sahel the most vulnerable region to violent extremism in Africa and, by some estimates, the world. This insecurity has been used to justify military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger—though fatalities linked to violent extremism have, in fact, escalated under each of these juntas—with no end in sight.

To gain perspective on alternatives for addressing the security threat, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies spoke with Professor Abdoul Karim Sango, the former Minister of Culture of Burkina Faso. Professor Sango observes that the spread of violent extremism in the Sahel is fundamentally a cultural crisis that will require cultural solutions. These are closely aligned with strengthening national identity and democratic practices of collective governance and accountability—cultural values that are deeply rooted in African traditions.

Let’s begin with the role of culture. What role do you see culture playing in the fight against violent extremism?

Culture plays a fundamental role, I would say, in the fight against violent extremism. It is telling, for example, that violent extremists attack schools—schools that are responsible transmitting knowledge and learning. It’s knowledge and learning that ultimately build our personalities through the values that schools convey to us. We can see, for example, that violent extremist movements detest and oppose universal human rights. And it is at schools where we learn the values of human rights which, today, have become an element of culture, an element of human civilization. So, from this point of view, in a world where what’s at stake is the destruction of culture, it is therefore also necessary to engage with culture to see how we can counter violent extremism. That is my thesis!

Culture plays a fundamental role in the fight against violent extremism.

Culture includes values and history, which are two essential elements for confronting violent extremism. Culture plays an important role in the context of a country like Burkina Faso because culture shapes the identity of peoples—and a nation. Let me give you an example: in Burkina Faso, a study by the Ministry of Culture in 2018 showed that shared cultural values of the Burkinabè people include tolerance, fraternity, hospitality, honesty, respect for elders, and a respect for the right to life. These are cultural values held by all ethnic groups in Burkina Faso. So, when you’re in a country where violent extremism is starting to take hold and the values of that society are exactly the opposite of what’s happening with violent extremism, it reveals that there’s a crisis in cultural values. This, then, is the fundamental problem to address—it is a cultural crisis that needs to be fixed. The more we deepen our understanding of our cultural values, the more social cohesion is reinforced between communities. We can then better realize that what unites communities is far more important than what divides them.

That’s why I believe that culture must play an important role in countering violent extremism and rebuilding social cohesion. Today, in these difficult times that the Sahelian countries are facing, violent extremism has caused disorder in society, making people distrust one another—even though they have long lived together in harmony. So, we need to remind people that violent extremism spreads values that come from elsewhere, from outside our culture. This ideology of death is an ideology that is contrary to our own identity.

How can culture be mobilized to build social cohesion and a stronger national identity?

Obviously through education. Education is the most effective and reliable means of transmitting values. It’s through education that we can teach and share the values that build true citizenship. Many generations of Africans have learned values such as tolerance, hospitality, and solidarity in their villages, from storytelling or simply from their parents’ experiences. In America, for example, I’ve observed that your children are taught to love their homeland and be proud of it everywhere. At school, you transmit the values of your society to your children. That’s what schools should be doing in countries like Burkina Faso. In the process, we’re building the identity of the people.

Schoolchildren play at the Village-Opera school, designed by Burkinabè Pritzker Prize winning Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, in Laongo, Burkina Faso. (Photo by Olympia de Maismont / AFP)

It’s in the name of hospitality, in the name of solidarity, that in certain provinces of Burkina Faso you find people who did not originate from that area, but who have become well integrated. I like to cite the example of Bobo Dioulasso. If you go to Bobo Dioulasso in the west of Burkina Faso, for example, you’ll find a large Fulani community that is so well integrated that, in the minds of the people from Bobo, they are no longer outsiders but practically a part of the Bobo people themselves. Even a joking kinship has been established between the Bobo and the Fulani such that in principle, no conflict should be allowed to arise between them without a fraternal settlement. This is how cultural values can reinforce social cohesion between populations.

Awareness raising and advocacy are also ways of building a national identity that serves social cohesion. While education may reach the young, different approaches are needed to educate an adult, whose values are already established. We can raise their awareness through cinema, theatre, music, and the arts in general. The arts help explain how phenomena are understood within society and the difficulties these societal challenges can pose. They often remind us of our history, and so films help to build what we call a historical consciousness, without which it’s difficult for people to feel a sense of belonging, to get along, and to live together. A beautiful reminder of a difficult past can help a diverse society to escape its prison by re-envisioning a possible future together.

What are some practical steps that can be taken to use culture to counter violent extremism?

To win the fight against violent extremism, we must deconstruct the discourse that is spread in society by those who support violent extremism. So, from this point of view, there is an imperative for practical action from government and civil society. They should draw inspiration from countries that already are successfully doing it. When I was Minister of Culture, I organized a colloquium of the Ministers of Culture of the G5 Sahel around the theme, “The Contribution of Culture to the Fight against Violent Extremism.” My counterpart from Mauritania explained how culture had helped them deconstruct the discourse carried by violent extremists. To do that, they went to the ulama to help explain that the tenets expressed by violent extremists were in contradiction with their religious teachings. So, I think that in practical ways the government must have a relationship with associations that intervene in the religious sphere.

We need a different discourse demonstrating that the path of violent extremists is a dead end for the young people who take it.

A second aspect is that today’s violent extremists, when you look at their modus operandi and the way they organize themselves, make extensive use of social networks to spread messages of hatred and intolerance to legitimize their crimes. So, what states need to do is work with their partners who have experience in this area. I see that the Côte d’Ivoire is working with partners to better track down disinformation. States should similarly be tracking down speech that supports violent extremism. Countering these narratives with well-constructed arguments that help to convince young minds that the path of violent extremism is not the safest path for them may eliminate these prospects.

If we want to counter jihadist movements, we need a different discourse demonstrating that the path of violent extremists is a dead end for the young people who take it. I think it’s even necessary for the United Nations to address this today by calling on the designers of Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms to set up mechanisms for better regulation. We need to actively track down messages that glorify violent extremism and take them down because we can’t talk about freedom of expression when this “freedom” is encouraging bloodshed.

Another aspect is the traditional media. We need to multiply communication campaigns on the deconstruction of the violent extremist discourse on television and the radio. We need to finance more projects, perhaps even with a global fund, to enable young people to offer a constructive alternative. Well-trained and well-informed, these youth will be the infantry of the digital war to spread a message of peace and tolerance across all media spaces. Youth reaching other youth, that’s a pedagogical model to achieve our goals. That’s how we’re going to create an environment of peace, an environment of tolerance. Countries who support the defense of freedom and democracy have a shared interest in helping the citizens of the Sahel foster such an environment. The difficulties of this moment should not make us forget the great values that we share together, that we have shared together.

And what do you make of the argument that such practices may prove helpful, but only after the questions of security are resolved?

Obviously, the security focus cannot be neglected, but it shouldn’t be all exclusive either. States cannot successfully counter violent extremism by resorting to purely security tactics, by resorting to war alone. Even powerful countries with superior military resources have failed to defeat violent extremism. It’s why we need to take a very serious look at the tangible contributions of culture.

Culture gives the impression that it’s something purely theoretical, something purely intellectual, but culture is also economic. Many people who are recruited into extremist groups are discontented youth who have no job or serious prospects for the future. So, culture can be a door, it can be a means to find them employment in cinema, theater, sculpture, other arts, music, etcetera, etcetera—the list goes on.

“Since war takes root in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defense of peace must be constructed.”

I’m reminded of UNESCO’s phrase which says in its charter that “since war takes root in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defense of peace must be constructed.” The security crisis is a crisis that requires multidimensional solutions, and each dimension, each behavior, has a fundamental role to play if we are to win this war.

I’m not a dreamer. I’m not a utopian. But the culture of violence that has become normalized today will destroy our world if we do not stop and question our way of doing things. The real challenge for Burkina Faso is to relearn how to live together in peace. If we do not do enough in resolving our social problems, economic problems, and cultural problems, we will find ourselves in a far worse situation. The question of security is a holistic one and our partners need to integrate that into their approach as well.

You and other African intellectuals, such as Nelson Mandela, Wole Soyinka, Achille Mbembe, Cheick Anta Diop, Felwine Sarr, and, of course, the Burkinabè historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo, have maintained that democracy is deeply rooted in African values. Can you tell us more about this?

Yes, I’m delighted to be defending the same thesis as my illustrious predecessors whom you quote! No one can deny that these people are brilliant minds who know what they’re talking about. When I say that democracy is deeply rooted in African values, it’s mainly in reaction to those who claim that democracy is a value that was imposed on Africans by Westerners—and that the so-called “failure of democracy” is linked to it not being part of our culture.

Burkinabè historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo.
(Photo: Buala)

Democracy is a way of organizing societies that poses two important elements. The first element of democracy is the idea that the population has a right to freedom. It’s the idea that people should be treated equally and benefit from the same rights and civil liberties. Secondly, it’s the idea that the authority of leaders to organize society must not be absolute. In a sense, democracy can be summed up as the limitation of power by those who hold it, as well as respect for the freedom and agency of the citizenry. It is around these principles that each society defines its model of democracy and no democratic society should deviate from these principles.

Taking these elements, the question becomes whether, in African societies before the colonial era, we had societies where the power of those who ruled was limited. The answer is an emphatic “yes!” And power was limited by what we call custom. Our customs emerged from the laws of traditional, pre-colonial societies. Because there was limited use of writing, these laws were widely transmitted through stories and traditions within the community.

The first element of democracy is the idea that the population has a right to freedom.

Some African societies, according to prominent anthropologists, were based on the idea that there should not be one leader above others, opting instead for a form where all citizens were treated as equals. Such societies existed in Africa.

Considering that democracy is a system in which those who govern do not wield absolute power, I can cite the African examples of Moagha, Lobi, and Gurunsi societies. Democracy is not something new or unknown in Africa before the event of colonization.

Secondly, democracy is the idea that the authority of leaders to organize society must not be absolute.

Another example is the form of decision-making in traditional African societies based on consensus, commonly known as the palaver tree. Democratically speaking, I can’t think of a better way to make decisions. African societies are based on the premise that group ideals must be preserved in all situations. So, in Africa, when there’s a problem, we discuss it—men, women and young people. We listen to one another. Some authors go so far as to say that Africans have no concept of time. It’s true, Africans aren’t slaves to time. Rather, it’s time that must submit to Africans because what’s important is the cohesion of society. It’s the community that matters.

It’s obvious that some forms of government that we inherited from colonization have contributed to breaking these inherent social models. But we have to acknowledge that we helped to break our internal systems of organization without assessing whether it was what was best for the population. From that moment on, when we inherited a model from outside without adapting it to our values and identity, it was bound to create problems. Today, the result is that the way “democracy” is practiced in some countries is highly contested. And for good reason!

How do you see the relationship between democracy and security?

It’s a big debate that emerged with the security crises in the Sahel countries. Before this period, I don’t recall anyone saying that democracy and security were somehow opposed. It’s also linked in ways to everything we’ve seen in the DRC. Fragile states are often subjected to this kind of post-hoc analysis—a sort of Voilà that’s it! That’s why some people like to say, “security first, democracy second.” But I think that it’s a debate that doesn’t stand up to analysis because insecurity emerges in and feeds on the fragility of states. One of the causes of state fragility is the weakness of democratic institutions. For me, the two notions democracy and security are mutually reinforcing. There is not one without the other.

If you take a map of the world, you will observe that countries where there is the most insecurity are those with the weakest democratic institutions. But the more a country is truly democratic, the better it is able to ensure the security of its citizens.

Displaced women gather under a shade at the Torodi IDP displacement camp in Dori, northeast Burkina Faso. (Photo: Fanny Noaro-Kabre / AFP)

So, the real question we need to ask is: how can democracy be best mobilized to address insecurity in a given country? What is the right model for states like ours in the Sahel? How should democracy be organized after the experiences we’ve had?

Countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger had only begun moving down the path toward democracy in recent decades—and this process was far from complete. We are now confronted with a serious security crisis. So, people are saying this is linked to democracy. But these democratic transitions were starting from very shaky foundations inherited from years of authoritarianism. And only a poor form of democracy was practiced. What we need now is to implement courageous reforms to strengthen the rules of democracy, to strengthen institutions, and that, in turn, will lead to strengthened security. So, you can’t pit democracy and security against each other. They go hand in hand. Any other formula doesn’t make sense from my point of view.

What lessons can be learned from Africa’s past experiences of military rule?

Well, there’s a lot of passion here on the question of military versus civilian rule. Burkina Faso has experienced more military regimes than civilian. I’m not posing the problem in terms of civilians or the military. What we need is for those in power to abide by the constitution.

What we need is for those in power to abide by the constitution.

We mustn’t be naive: a civilian regime can be worse than a military regime if it doesn’t respect the rules of the constitution. But we simply must prevent the army from intervening in political life through coups d’état, even if their motives may seem a priori to be sincere. That’s why we see some popular support for certain coups d’état. Let’s be careful not to make this the rule though, or we run the risk of permanent coups d’état.

So, I prefer to speak in terms of constitutional regimes. What we need to do is to work to ensure that the constitutional regime is accepted by everyone. We need to include mechanisms in the constitution so that incompetent leadership or political deadlock can be resolved constitutionally. Similarly, there needs to be a mechanism that prevents leaders from clinging to power beyond their mandates. In the United States you have the impeachment process. What’s preventing Africans from having an impeachment process in their constitutions? If you have a security crisis that is prolonged because of the president’s incompetence, it must be possible to remove him by constitutional means without the military staging a coup d’état. That’s what we need to work toward.

What do you think needs to be done to strengthen democracy in Africa? What future do you see for democracy in Africa?

I think democracy is the hope of free people. I think that all people are inspired by freedom, and no one wants to be held in slavery. So, from this point of view, I’m not worried about the future of democracy. We need to give Africans the time to go at their own pace, building authentic democracy as all the countries giving lessons today have done. African countries haven’t had a chance to build their relationship with democracy over time. We didn’t ask ourselves what model of parliament suits Africans, for example. We didn’t ask ourselves what kind of political system would be best: should the president be elected by direct universal suffrage or by indirect universal suffrage. We haven’t asked ourselves what kind of state model is best suited to African states, whether it’s a decentralized state, or a federal one, or something else. For example, I’m in favor of a highly decentralized state with real, legitimate governors at the local level, rather than officials subject to a central administration, as is the case with the Burkinabè model.

What we need now is to implement courageous reforms to strengthen the rules of democracy, to strengthen institutions, and that, in turn, will lead to strengthened security.

We must therefore take very good decisions to rebuild the state and its institutions, but only by opening up an inclusive and transparent debate. In principle, the 2014 uprising should have enabled the Burkinabè people to settle institutional issues for good. But the short transition period didn’t allow for this. We have to listen to the people. We haven’t done that so far. Part of the elite (including me) have monopolized the debate on strategic choices for the country’s future. But that’s not democracy. Democracy is the voice of the people, creating, from our traditions and values, spaces for mediation and deliberation.

To answer your question precisely, I think that the partners of Burkina Faso, the partners of Africa, need to be very clear-headed at this very difficult time, and listen carefully, so that we don’t miss the fight, but continue to build this dream of a world of peace and security. Those in power must not allow Burkina Faso to topple over, with consequences for the entire West African sub-region. What I’m saying here has relevance for our sister countries Mali and Niger as well. It’s not enough to believe that we can consolidate security in Côte d’Ivoire or Ghana. We need to think frankly about the collective security of our states. This will require the establishment of what many citizens call ‘true democracy.’

Additional Resources