Why Do African Youth Join Boko Haram?

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Photo/Wilhan José Gomes

Boko Haram draws its members mainly from disaffected youth. What would force youth not only to join Boko Haram but to adopt their violent tactics against their countrymen, their continental brothers, women, and children?

Boko Haram’s tactics, focus on bombings, targeted assassinations, ambushes, drive-by shootings, slitting victims’ throats, and beheading.

What would cause them to fight and die for the cause?

Surveys, interviews, and focus groups conducted in Nigeria in 2013 by the CLEEN foundation suggest that “poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and weak family structures make or contribute to making young men vulnerable to radicalization. Itinerant preachers capitalize on the situation by preaching an extreme version of religious teachings and conveying a narrative of the government as weak and corrupt. Armed groups such as Boko Haram can then recruit and train youth for activities ranging from errand running to suicide bombings.”

According to a special report by the United States Institute of Peace: “it is not clear when Boko Haram came into being. A common account of the group’s origin traces it to 2002, when Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic preacher, became its leader. To Nigeria’s intelligence community, however, its true historical roots hark back to 1995, when Abubakar Lawan established the Ahlulsunna wal’jama’ah hijra, or Shabaab group (Muslim Youth Organization), in Maiduguri, Borno state.

Results from the CLEEN foundation study, including news reports, videos, and interviews reviewed by Nigerianreporter.com suggest that just as roles vary in any “profession” so do motives for joining that profession vary and so do the motivations for joining Boko Haram vary. A martyr carrying out a suicide attack may have a very different motive for said attack, then a person abducting hundreds in Damasak.

Without diving into specific and extrinsic motives for youth to join the jihadist regime, it is clear that social, economic, and political factors are at the forefront of assimilation.

As Virginia Comolli explains in Boko Haram Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency:

“In the North of Nigeria, the northeast in particular, are the states that desperately need injections of capital – given that they are desperately poor – in a country that appears to be running at two speeds. The continent’s number one oil producer, Nigeria became the richest nation in Sub-Saharan Africa, in April 2014, replacing South Africa as the largest economy.

In spite of such wealth, life expectancy (54) is 16 years less than the world’s average (70), and 60.9 percent of the population – 112.47 million – were living in absolute poverty in 2010, a paradoxical increase from 54.7 percent in 2004.

Moreover, the local picture shows great disparity in the redistribution of resources with poverty plaguing 27 percent of southerners and an alarming 75 percent of northerners.”

These are not only alarming statistics but par for the course for an angered and frustrated youth looking for something to commit to and that possibly will commit to him.

Education Plays a Key Role

As, journalist Austine Akhilomen explains in his op-ed piece The Decadency of Nigerian Education, “education which plays a vital role in developing, sensitizing and empowering all living human beings in any given society, has suddenly become a tale of woes in Nigeria, where the standard has depreciated and the system has gone sour without any sign of urgency to proffer concrete solutions to change it.”

Nigeria’s literacy rate stands at 61.3 percent, compared to the world literacy rate of 89.5 percent and its Sub-Saharan comparative, South Africa has a literacy rate of 90 percent. The ability to read and write, and understand information, can affect your job chances and with continued lack of access to primary, secondary, and tertiary schooling for Nigerian youth in rural communities it may be easy to connect why African youth join Boko Haram.

From the outset, communities in Northern Nigeria have also been affected by repeated Boko Haram attacks and possession of territory that has affected their opportunity for market trade, sales, and agricultural growth as these are key and primary economic opportunities for many young men in the region.

Non-governmental organizations, international organizations, and local government officials are working to intercept youth that may join Boko Haram, or already have in order to teach them how to read. Large numbers were following the jihadists version of the Islāmic text (Qur’an) from their leaders; because they could not read the text. Once an opportunity arose for them to learn and read the text in their own right many chose to abandon the philosophies of the extremist sect.