HuffPo It’s Time to Take Back Nigeria’s Youth and End Insurgent Extremism

The story is a sad but familiar one: Impoverished youths saddled with a lack of education and resources, regardless of culture or region, often make desperate and radical choices. In the case of Nigeria’s youth, this scenario is all too real.

Over the past several years, insurgent groups like Boko Haram have attracted Nigerian youth, especially young men, by the thousands. The war between Boko Haram and the government is responsible for killing 20,000 Nigerians in less than a decade, yet the organization’s recruitment base continues to grow. While the appeal of joining such groups may not be immediately clear to us, for the young adults joining the militant ranks, desperate times call for desperate measures.

According to a recent study, unemployment, poverty, misinterpreted Islamic teachings, and manipulation by extremist heads are leading Nigeria’s young men down the road to radicalism. But what, specifically, are terrorist groups like Boko Haram doing to lure them in?

A Promise of Corruption

While some would argue religion plays the largest role in young Nigerians joining insurgence organizations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t necessarily agree. He believes poverty is the driving force, and once the promise of wealth has been sealed, the rest of the “mind bend” takes care of itself.

“…Much of this challenge comes out of this poverty where young people are grabbed at an early stage, proffered a little bit of money,” Kerry said in 2014. “Their minds are bended, and then the money doesn’t matter anymore. [Extremist groups] got the minds, and they begin to direct them into these very extreme endeavors.”

Beyond financial security, extremist leaders guarantee safety. While groups like Boko Haram are notoriously violent, joining those groups promises refuge. Some young Nigerians join for no other reason than to keep themselves and their families safe.

“They think that once they are recruited, they’ll get a weapon, a house, a motorbike, and later even a wife,” said Harouna Lamido, an opposition lawmaker in the area. Even young entrepreneurs and business owners are among extremist group recruits, guaranteed or given loans to boost their businesses — just another ploy to lure Nigeria’s youth.

And while the limited choices provided by poverty are perhaps the top reason Nigeria’s young adults are becoming militants, a lack of education is a close second. Because of disintegrating security conditions, hundreds of thousands of Nigerian children have dropped out of school. Beyond that, several schools have been closed in recent years due to terrorist attacks, leaving countless children without a place to learn. Nigeria’s young people have become a generation of breadwinners, as many of their parents died at extremists’ hands. This, along with poor infrastructure and a lack of jobs, strengthens the possibility of insurgency recruitment.

This lack of education extends to religious teachings as well. Insurgent groups like Boko Haram regularly destroy mosques in addition to churches, making it increasingly difficult for Nigerian youth to learn the true teachings of Islam. Boko Haram is also known to target Muslims speaking out against it, severely limiting young Nigerians’ access to anything but its radicalism.

Still, a small light at the end of the tunnel has begun to emerge — it seems some young recruits choose not to follow through with the violent missions assigned to them. One 14-year-old recruit, discovered in a Kano marketplace, opted not to pull the tab on the explosives under her clothes, saving her life and many others’. A few weeks later, another Nigerian teen admitted to the guards outside a Shiite mosque in Baghdad that, although he wore a suicide vest, he didn’t want to “blow [himself] up.” Another former teen recruit called the Islamic extremist group “a bunch of heavily armed sociopathic militants.”

While this small pocket of Nigerian youths is beginning to carve out new lives for themselves, it’s not enough. They can’t be expected to combat violent extremism on their own. While there’s certainly no easy answer to the lack of meaningful choices Nigeria’s youth faces, there are starting points.

Reversing the Damage

First and foremost, reinstating a solid educational foundation would help mitigate this generation’s tendency to join the insurgency. Due to Boko Haram’s attacks, education in the region is either inaccurate or nonexistent, making its youth more susceptible to manipulation. If the Nigerian government and those aiding it can provide young Nigerians a solid education, extremist groups like Boko Haram will lose their biggest recruiting population.

Furthermore, young Nigerians must find sound support systems, whether through their families or community members. While there are young people — like the brave examples above — fighting to free themselves from the grasp of insurgents, without a broader support network, these brave acts will be few and far between. The Nigerian government must unite itself and reform security forces like the police to support its people. This community support will be ineffective, however, without substantial reinforcements from neighboring African countries and international allies.

In addition, if the region’s youth could find stable jobs with reliable incomes, radical recruiters would lose their appeal — desperation for financial stability would no longer plague Nigeria’s youth, leaving extremist groups with fewer young people to lure. While Nigeria claimed the title of Africa’s largest economy in 2014, the United Nations Development Program still ranked it 80th of 108 countries for severe deprivation.

This disparity of wealth in the most populous African country means Boko Haram has a large population of impoverished, frustrated people from which to recruit. Distributing jobs would alleviate some of the helplessness that leads many Nigerians to align themselves with insurgent groups.

A Seed of Hope

A positive shift is already underway in young Nigerians’ responses to extremist groups. The brutality and violence Boko Haram wields against Nigerian communities are increasingly turning youth away from the insurgent group. Counternarratives revealing the corruption of Boko Haram are resonating with young Nigerians and paving the way for the Nigerian government to rebuild trust with its constituents.

While other national leaders, including those in the U.S., try to remedy the situation, there is still much to be done. International leaders must band together with the Nigerian government to aid communities and help young people regain access to education, safety, and the chance to build a better life.

By restructuring Nigeria’s sense of community and concept of nation building — and by taking a different approach to combating in-country militants — international actors must coordinate a united approach. Whatever is decided, one thing is certain — Nigeria’s youth must regain exactly that: their youth. It’s time to help them take back what is theirs.

Mina Chang is CEO of Linking the World, a humanitarian organization that builds resilient communities in areas of instability and conflict. Mina also served as a fellow with the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at West Point, where she developed community-focused academic programs in areas requiring humanitarian assistance.


Published Huffington Post