Extremism in words and images at Stockholm’s Fotografiska

Sweden’s foreign minister joined the UNDP at Stockholm’s Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm recently launched a new report on extremism in Africa at the same time as a chilling new exhibition went up. The SI News Service was there.

Extremism in words and images at Stockholm’s Fotografiska
Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa Director Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, and Sida Director-General Carin Jämtin officially launching the report. Photo: UNDP Sweden

“As I stretch my hand, trying to reach out to my friends, I touch human flesh.”

This was part of the moving testimony of Ahmed Hadji, a survivor of the 2010 Al-Shabaab bombings in Kampala, Uganda. Hadji was speaking at the Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm, at the opening of a new photo exhibition: “Survivors: Stories of Survivors of Violent Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa”.

He was one of the survivors portrayed by Swedish-Eritrean photographer Malin Fezehai in the project, a collaboration with UNDP, the UN Development Programme. She photographed and took the testimony of survivors of extremist violence in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Somalia, and Uganda.

 “I'm a survivor. Not a victim. I want to use my voice as a positive force for tolerance, dignity, and love”, said Hadji.

The UNDP estimates that between 2011 and early 2016, 33,300 people lost their lives to violent extremism in Africa. The photographic project’s aim is to shed light on the plight of the survivors and give voice to those who often suffer in silence.

Extremist recruitment

The exhibition was held together with the launch of UNDP’s latest report, ‘Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives, and the Tipping Point for Recruitment’. The main findings of the report were also presented at Fotografiska.

“It is both a great pleasure and an honour to host such an important and timely report here in Stockholm”, said Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who attended the event along with Carin Jämtin Director-General of Sida, the Swedish International Development Agency, and two high-ranking diplomats, Ambassador Fredrika Ornbrant, and Ambassador Staffan Tillander.

They joined Mohammed Yahya, UNDP Africa Regional Programme Coordinator, and Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, Assistant Administrator and Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Africa, who were presenting the report, and Dr Robert Egnell, an expert from the Swedish Defence University.

The report found that the majority of people who join violent extremist groups in Africa come from peripheral areas that have suffered generations of marginalisation, their parents were less involved in their upbringing, and they did not attend school for a long time.

Among other things, the report found that more than half of voluntary recruits report religious reasons for joining violent extremist groups, but at the same time 57 percent of respondents admit they do not read, or have little to no understanding of the religious texts or interpretations.

Most recruits express frustration at their economic situation, and employment is the most cited need in the time of joining, followed by security, and education.

“Of course it is a very attractive offer to get both a gun and maybe $300 when there is absolutely nothing else,” Wallström told the audience, recalling discussions she had when visiting Swedish troops participating in a UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.

Panel with Malin Fezehai, Mohamed Yahya, and Ahmed Hadji. Photo: UNDP Sweden

There is a high level of distrust in government institutions and security forces, and the final trigger for joining a violent extremist group is, for 71 percent of the recruits, government action.

“Research into the processes of radicalization and recruitment has emphasized the frequently sociable nature of these processes, with peer groups playing an important role,” the authors wrote.

One of the most important findings of the report is that recruitment is a highly social and localised process. It is not done over the internet, but usually through friends and acquaintances at a local level. Around 80 percent of the recruits joined within a year of hearing about the group, and nearly half of them joined within a month.

Grassroots initiatives

With this in mind, Hadji co-founded, alongside his colleague Hassan Ndugwa, the Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum, aimed at combatting radicalisation amongst Muslim youth.

“I wanted to be seen as a role model to the younger generations,” he explained.

“We are a new movement to encourage people to understand and not to take everything that is thrown at them. I am working with colleagues in Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania, so we can be a movement of credible voices. I’m a survivor with a mission.”

Grassroots initiatives like these are of paramount importance, given the social and localised nature of recruitment.

On a national level, however, work still needs to be done. Poor economic conditions and prospects, as well as a lack of education, play a significant role in recruitment processes as well, which highlights the importance of development.

A lack of trust in government institutions, politicians, and security forces shows the importance of improving governance, a process that can be enhanced when local, regional, and international stakeholders work together.

“What UNDP has done here, it has paved the way for a developmental approach to dealing with violent extremism. Now, we all agree that this is important”, said Amabassador Tillander.

Sweden also has a role to play through efforts by organisations such as Sida and the Folke Bernadotte Academy, both of which support international peace and development around the world. Jämtin stressed the value of the UNDP report in shaping the approach of Sweden and other countries in tackling the issue.

“This research by UNDP will increase our knowledge and strengthen our partnership,” she said. “We need to focus our attention on the need for preventive measures.”

The event also helped highlight the importance of Sweden’s approach to battling extremism, Wirkensjö explained:

“Good governance, the respect for human rights and the inclusion of all groups are important for states to deliver regardless of location, be it in the North of Europe or Central Africa. The conclusions of the report tell us that Sweden’s integrated conflict perspective in our development cooperation is highly relevant.”


Lagom: The best way to achieve social health?

Ronoh Philip, who is studying for his masters degree in Infectious Disease Control at Södertörn University, explains why he thinks the Swedish concept of 'lagom' is the best way to achieve good social health.

Lagom: The best way to achieve social health?

During my one week orientation program on August 2019 at Södertörn University, we were presented with many aspects of Swedish culture and practices. One of the new aspects that I learnt was the “lagom culture”, As I quote one of the presenters about applying lagom to our studies, he said: ”Lagom will reduce your stressful burdens of hectic lecture schedules and ensure that you spend equal time of working and socializing in the university.”

So being a student with a background in public health and society, I got interested and searched for the deeper meaning of lagom, and how it can  apply to society and health. I found out that it is a Swedish way of life, it is a concept which means not too much and not too little, just enough. I learnt that it came from a Viking tradition laget om which means 'around the group' and was allegedly used to describe just how much mead or soup one should drink when passing the bowl around in the group.

If this concept is applied to achieve social health goals, it would really fit well. So, what is social health at first? Social health is how you interact with other people and adapt in different situations, it deals with how people in society deal with each other. It is important to note that there is a close link between good social health and improvement of the other aspects of human health, this can lead to the achievement of SDG goal of good health and wellbeing. It also leads to self-satisfaction and happiness; no wonder Sweden is ranked as one the happiest countries in the world. It is ranked 7th in 2019, according to world happiness report. I believe lagom has a big role in this achievement.

In the country where I come from, Kenya, one of the greatest challenges we face in our society, is the ability for people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to interact and form positive and cohesive relationships with each other. From my perspective, when I finish my studies and return, lagom will be worth implementing in the workplace, the place where I live and the society as whole, as it is the best way of finding simple, attainable solutions to our everyday worries like stress, eating better, having downtime and achieving happiness. It’s a balance of work and life, so everything is in sustainable existence with each other.

My goal during my entire university studies at Södertörn, will be to learn more about the lagom principle and also be able to apply it on our SI NFGL Local Network platform, because it is surely one of the best ways to achieve a good  work-life balance, reaching consensus with my colleagues and adapting a team minded approach in dealing with issues in an organization and the society.