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Nigeria’s Window of Opportunity

How to Exploit Boko Haram’s Growing Unpopularity

Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. Emmanuel Braun / Reuters

Babagana was popular in his community in Yobe State, located in Nigeria’s troubled northeast. A member of the Kare Kare ethnic group and respected by local leaders, he worked as a public servant and ran a side business mining gypsum. With a secondary school degree and two jobs, Babagana (whose name has been changed) fared better than many youth in his area. But his community, he said, suffered from a lack of security, poor education, and a seasonal food shortage, due to a government he labeled as unresponsive and corrupt.

Then, several years ago, a man who bought Babagana’s gypsum shared some gripping news: a promising new movement had called for the overthrow of Nigeria’s corrupt government and the establishment of a pure Islamic society. Even though the buyer barely knew Babagana, he loaned the young man money for his business and family while regaling him with tales about the new movement, known as Boko Haram. By 2012, at the age of 21, Babagana had joined the group. “To be honest, the government was not responsive. They were corrupt … [Boko Haram] attracted me with paradise and also showed me they were their brothers’ keepers,” he told Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian and development organization.

The commonly held view of Boko Haram is that its emergence stemmed primarily from widespread destitution in northeastern Nigeria. But Babagana was a middle-class man with secondary education. Indeed, recent research—conducted by Mercy Corps with support from the Ford Foundation and based on interviews with 47 former members of Boko Haram—found no patterns between recruits and their level or type of education, self-described socioeconomic background, or employment status. What united many recruits was their frustration at a lack of opportunity in an environment of massive inequality, along with their communities’ anger toward poor governance.

Political misrule by the Nigerian state and a lack of trust between the citizenry and government officials provided Boko Haram with the opening it needed to build tacit support within some

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