10th Dec 2023


EU couldn't handle a million refugees, how will it handle a billion?

  • Troops in Mali: The West's approach has not just failed, it has backfired (Photo:
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There could be 1.2 billion refugees in next 30 years. Many will be from my part of the world — Africa — where droughts, conflict, and food insecurity already threaten millions.

In fact, more evidence shows the 'next Afghanistan' is not in the Middle East but in Africa, specifically West Africa where religious violence, political corruption, weak states, and the devastating impacts of climate change have combined to create an unprecedented crisis. In the last 15 years, terrorism across the region has increased tenfold.

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But not enough is being done to mitigate this bourgeoning issue — with decades of questionable and disappointing Western foreign policy instead targeting the Middle East — where, if we learned anything, it's that strong societies, not strong security states, are all that can prevent extremists from overturning West Africa's political order, sending a flood of refugees north to the Mediterranean and Europe beyond.

To put that into perspective: in 2015, the Syrian war spilled into Europe, sparking a crisis that the world's largest economic bloc has not yet recovered from.

From Europe to the US, tensions over migrants, culture, religion, and race remain at the forefront of political agendas and diplomatic tension—affecting the West's ability to cooperate in the face of climate change, an energy crisis, spiralling inflation, and the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

But while Syria has under 20 million people, West Africa has over 420 million. That means that if the near collapse of Syria was worrisome, even the fraying of West Africa will be terrifying.

Yet, so far, Western policies have overlooked Africa on the world stage and subsequent counterterrorism military operations have only dispersed and spread terrorist activity. The West's approach has not just failed, it has backfired. France has withdrawn from Mali, leading Germany to decide on the same course.

Russia has instead rushed in with its Wagner Group, but Russia is even less likely to succeed—not only because Russia is poorer than the West, but because Russia is also busy fighting Ukraine.

So where does that leave Africa?

Concerned that terrorism is spreading from the Sahel, in countries like Niger and Burkina Faso, to West Africa's coastal states, the Accra Initiative links major West African governments and sees its founding five governments (as well as Mali and the aforementioned Niger) "collaborate against violent extremism in the region." Their actions have included joint military operations, arrests of suspected terrorists, and weapons seizures.

But all the while, the threat of terrorism is growing. That might by why in the recent Accra Initiative convening, officials from the European Union attended—and, alongside military officials, traditional leaders too.

The first means Europe understands the importance of the region. But the last of these, the traditional leaders, is what Europe and West Africa should focus on next.

The scale of the West African crisis is already significant and will only grow worse without sustained attention. We do not need more weapons, more armies or more drone strikes. We should be developing African countries sustainably and resiliently, replenishing the grassroots strengths that long protected us from radicals that prey on people and pervert their beliefs.

Instead of seeing religion as a threat, remember that religion was what kept African society rich, vibrant and capable of adapting to change for ages. The world should be focusing on the development and safeguarding of African countries through grassroots projects which provide alternatives to extremism. Prioritising moral leadership and governments that support 'community buy-in' is how countries like Somaliland have effectively countered Al-Qaeda.

This means developing African strengths, of course, but that doesn't mean isolating Africa. Very recently in The Gambia, a small West African nation, the Muslim World League— a global pan-Islamic body led by Dr Mohammed Al-Issa — sponsored a Faith and Climate Forum, empowering Gambian and West African religious leaders to fight extremism.

These kinds of initiatives should be amplified: West Africa must partner with global Muslim and Christian networks, as well as international bodies like the European Union and the United Nations, to empower West African leaders to renew and revive their traditional strengths.

In 30 years, 25 percent of the world's population will be found in Africa. We — as a continent — will shape trade, climate change, and migration patterns for decades to come.

But we will also be on the frontline of a host of competing crises, and without urgent intervention, Africa could open the floodgates for the rest of the world.

Author bio

Mutaru Mumuni Muqthar is the executive director at West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism (WACCE), an independent regional organisation focusing on preventing violent extremism and conflict across West Africa. Muqthar was also a Mandela Washington Fellow for the US State Department.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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