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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 communities in the northeast. It used that support to recruit many young people into its ranks—in addition to forcing some youth to join through fear or intimidation—employing clever tactics that preyed on their sense of inequality, including offering them business loans. Youth interviewed by Mercy Corps identified successful business ownership as one of the few viable options for social advancement. A young butcher from Borno joined Boko Haram in its early days after he met the late first leader, Mohammed Yusuf, who offered to help his business grow. He started buying and selling gum arabic for the group and later became a core member. Others described more coercive tactics, in which they were offered loans by strangers or near strangers, and then, when unable to pay, were forced to take up arms for the group. This tactic, which is often employed by organized gangs, preys on the ambitions of youth who are willing to take risky measures to get ahead economically.
But now, having failed to prove itself to be any better than the government it decries, Boko Haram is suffering from the same discontent that brought it to power. A strong, locally grown counternarrative about its corruption and hypocrisy has damaged its reputation, possibly beyond repair. The Nigerian government must seize this window of opportunity, given Boko Haram’s unpopularity and recent military setbacks, to regain—or in some cases, gain for the first time—the people’s trust in the Nigerian state and to establish a stronger foundation for governance and long-term development.
Since Boko Haram carried out its failed 2009 uprising in Maiduguri, a clash with Nigerian security forces that left over 1,000 dead, many local politicians and civil society actors have emphasized the role of northeastern Nigeria’s endemic poverty in the emergence of the jihadi movement. According to this thesis, the absence of a healthy economy, coupled with high population growth, has created a swell of impoverished youth, many of whom have turned in desperation to Boko Haram. Economic expansion, in this line of argument, is thus the key to combating violent extremism.
Still, whereas poverty has clearly contributed to Boko Haram’s rise, government and civil society actors should avoid overemphasizing its role. Available data generally suggest that Borno State, the epicenter of the Boko Haram movement, had better socioeconomic indicators than many other states in northern and central Nigeria before the current insurgency. Indeed, a 2010 survey by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics found the absolute poverty rate in Borno to be lower than in the other 12 states that make up the northeast and northwest geopolitical zones. Although neighboring Yobe State, another major theater of the Boko Haram conflict, appears to have suffered greater levels of economic deprivation, its inhabitants were no worse off than those living in Sokoto, Kebbi, or Katsina, which have, for the most part, been left untouched by Islamist violence.
Political misrule by the Nigerian state and a lack of trust provided Boko Haram with the opening it needed to build support within some communities in the northeast.
Instead, it seems that popular discontent with local governance served as the primary driver behind Boko Haram’s initial rise. In interviews with Mercy Corps, the former members, all but one of whom defected, regularly described the northeast as a land bereft of the rule of law prior to the Boko Haram uprising. Although northern Nigeria as a whole has long suffered a violent political culture, official malfeasance, and rampant crime, the northeast, in the years immediately following the 1999 reestablishment of civilian rule, experienced levels of administrative turbulence that were extraordinary even by regional standards. Armed bandits stalked the countryside, targeting travelers and vulnerable communities. At the same time, most state governments in the region came under the control of venal politicians who secured power through blatant vote rigging and deploying private militias to target opponents and harass voters.
The 2003 and 2007 elections exemplified this last trend. In both cases, power brokers allegedly used local criminal gangs such as Kalare and Ecomog to violently attack political opponents and intimidate voters. According to many civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations active in the northeast, the politicians there devoted the majority of their energies toward looting state coffers and rewarding cronies with coveted public-sector jobs and government contracts. During this time, the region’s socioeconomic stratification became even more pronounced.
Popular frustration with the political status quo provided Boko Haram with an opportunity to grow. About half of the former members of Boko Haram interviewed by Mercy Corps researchers said that in the early days, their communities generally supported the insurgents. They welcomed any movement that might bring about a change in government. Before the 2009 Maiduguri uprising, some youth joined as a direct result of their wish to change or fight the government. Taking advantage of deeply held political grievances, Boko Haram led communities to believe that it would fill the governance vacuum by providing public services. After 2009, the reasons young men joined began diversifying, and public support for Boko Haram waned as the group became more violent. By then, however, the atmosphere of acceptance had already helped Boko Haram bolster its membership among frustrated youth.
After months and years in the group, many former members who had joined, at least somewhat voluntarily, left Boko Haram unfulfilled. Some youth said that the group had become too violent, and others explained that its leaders had failed to deliver on their promises. As one former member said of Boko Haram leaders, “I thought they were youth who want to teach the Koran and more about Islam, but now I think they are just greedy people looking for money.”
Understanding what gave rise to Boko Haram is also crucial to understanding its Achilles’ heel. What could have been a popular uprising appears to have instead degenerated into a fringe movement that terrorizes the very people it needs to stay afloat. Boko Haram factions came to rely heavily on a host of illicit activities to fund their operations, including kidnappings for ransom, extortion, and armed robbery. Although Boko Haram did target members of the elite, many of its victims seem to have been from the middle and lower classes.
The 2014 establishment of a short-lived polity by Boko Haram did little to change its predatory behavior. By all available accounts, the jihadi group made little effort to administer its short-lived territory apart from offering cash and credit to some community members to start or grow their businesses. Another study that Mercy Corps completed later in 2016 found that Boko Haram used financial incentives and coercion not only to increase recruitment but to also further the group’s economic interests—such as providing capital to business owners if their shops would serve as a meeting point for members. Despite the strings attached to financial incentives offered by Boko Haram, they remained attractive to many who perceived government economic support as inaccessible to those without political or social connections. But these sporadic services came at a cost to communities. Fighters frequently pillaged government buildings and businesses, coerced farmers to turn over a portion of their crops, and forced transport workers to carry their troops. Since being routed from much of its stronghold in 2015, Boko Haram has only intensified its practice of forcibly extracting services and goods—including food—from noncombatants, exacerbating an already grim humanitarian situation and further diminishing any remaining popular support.
This behavior is reversing Boko Haram’s former gains, as it is increasingly viewed as corrupt. Among the youth who resisted the group’s pull, many told Mercy Corps that they saw Boko Haram’s leaders as wholly self-interested and exploitative, which was in line with the denouncements that came from local religious and traditional leaders. Combined with the group’s increasingly brutal tactics, its reputation of hypocrisy and greed appears to have poisoned its brand.
Although Boko Haram has been increasingly losing control of Borno State, the government should not grow complacent. It remains possible that some surviving Boko Haram factions could rehabilitate their image, in part, or rebrand themselves, using a new name. Boko Haram’s reported leadership split suggests that some elements within the group recognize how abuses against Muslim noncombatants have damaged their reputation in northeastern communities. Government and civil society seeking to restore peace in the region can and should do two things now. First, they should amplify local counternarratives on governance and corruption that are already working to damage Boko Haram’s brand. The government, as well as local civil society, can help amplify the voices of influential local leaders.
But talk must be paired with action.
To this end, the second and more difficult task for the government is to increase community trust. All levels of government must prioritize improving the quality, availability, and fair distribution of basic services, such as education, electricity, and health care, as well as improving infrastructure, such as roads. In the immediate term, this includes addressing the self-identified needs of conflict-affected populations. To demonstrate commitment to reform, the government should aggressively and impartially investigate senior officials suspected of malfeasance. While the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has already taken steps to prosecute some individuals suspected of graft—including officials accused of pilfering food supplies intended for people displaced by Boko Haram—it remains to be seen whether it can succeed in diminishing the corruption embedded in many of Nigeria’s political and economic institutions.
Many in the Nigerian government acknowledge the urgent need to improve services and regain the trust of the populace, as evidenced through new initiatives such as the Buhari Plan for Rebuilding the North East, which seeks to integrate government, multilateral, and donor countries’ reconstruction and recovery efforts. This plan will succeed only if leaders actively involve communities, including youth, in decision-making at the local government level, appropriately budget for development at the state level, and maintain transparency so that local civil society actors can hold government accountable as it spends what will be sizeable development funds. In the war against Boko Haram, these are the kinds of battles in which weapons and ammunition are of little use.
It is probably not a coincidence that the two other areas of sub-Saharan Africa where violent Islamist groups have established a major presence—southern Somalia and northern Mali—were also sites of exceptionally bad governance. The lessons of northeastern Nigeria may apply to these regions, as well as other countries where violent extremist groups have leveraged widespread disillusionment with local governance. As the body of evidence grows around what does—and does not—drive youth participation in violent extremist groups, governments need to adjust their approaches to preventing and countering violent extremism. Failure to do so will likely condemn afflicted regions to years of violence and misery.