Why do young men join Boko Haram?

My reflections on the Boko Haram challenge originally published by The Nerve.

Africa has since the 20th century been characterized as the theatre of the world’s most protracted violence, and this, sadly, continuous to frame the discourse on its youth. In the highly regarded book ‘Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics and Conflict in Africa’ Jon Abbink noted that such a framing obscures and distorts understandings of the realities of young people in Africa. Pundits routinely blame Africa’s woes on its growing youth population – a phenomenon described by researchers as the youth bulge – for current and potential future conflicts in the region.

Analysts who portray Africa and its youth in this way fail to take into account the recent economic, political and social progress that have occurred across the continent. Such analyses are also sometimes too narrowly focused and fail to address some wide-ranging underlying variables which spark, exacerbate or sustain violence – particularly as it relates to young people’s involvement in insurgencies in the region.

In its special report ‘Violence of men and mayhem’ of January 23, 2016, The Economist appears to suggest that the underlying variables for young men joining the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast of Nigeria are lack of money and sex, and inability to meet their basic needs. While the overall position of The Economist does highlight the challenges of young men’s successful transition to adulthood including their limited ability to start family life, it appears to miss wider questions regarding other social and environmental factors which might explain why young men join Boko Haram. It also seems to reiterate the alarmist perspective that Nigeria’s growing youth population constitutes a threat to its stability. The issues related to youth and insurgency in North Eastern Nigeria need to be put in perspective and clarified focusing on these wider range of variables.

Why do young men join insurgencies?

There are various push and pull factors that could explain why young men join insurgencies. John Venhaus, a US Army Colonel, in a report titled ‘Why Youth Join al-Qaeda’ categorises young al-Qaeda recruits as: ‘revenge seekers’ who ‘need an outlet for their frustration’, ‘status seekers’ who join in search of recognition, ‘identity seekers’ who ‘need a group to join’, and ‘thrill seekers’ who are ‘searching for adventure.’ Freedom Onuoha of the Nigerian Army found, similar to most other analyses that poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and weak family structures make young men more susceptible to indoctrination and hence their involvement in the Boko Haram insurgency. Venhaus’ perspective provides a more encompassing framework for why young men join insurgencies and this is explored below.

While economic and social factors, such as those found by Onouha, play explanatory roles for why young men join the Boko Haram insurgency, they only provide a partial understanding. The wider perspective can be gained by looking at the deeper ramifications of Venhaus’ analysis. For example, in relation to seeking revenge, there may be young men who have joined the Boko Haram insurgency to seek revenge as a result of perceived State repression. It is widely reported that Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf was extra-judicially executed by the Nigerian security forces, and the escalation of the insurgency since 2009 has been attributed to this. Moreover, a 2015 Amnesty International report claimed that there was widespread human rights violation by the Nigerian Military in the region – which the Nigerian president promised to investigate. Another possibility is a group that Venhaus describes as thrill seekers, who voluntarily join Boko Haram for some excitement – this group may include both those facing social and economic challenges, and well-off individuals as described by the Economist.

Furthermore, it is well known that Boko Haram militants routinely kidnap young men and women. Given recent suicide bombings involving children, could it be said that not all young men voluntary join Boko Haram? Is it possible that there are substantial numbers of young men and women who are forcibly conscripted into the insurgency? The answer to this is in the affirmative. Although there are large numbers of young men in northern Nigeria, the northeast in particular, who are unemployed and susceptible to exploitation, there is more to a large youth population than being a threat to stability as is being suggested by some researchers.

The youth bulge is not the problem

Although the youth bulge – the notion of a swell in the proportion of young people in a population, has been largely described in terms of its threat to societies, it is at best a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it forecasts doom and gloom – the idea that a youth bulge could result in instability. This is where the work of the Oslo based Peace Research Institute’s professor, Henrik Urdal, gains prominence. His research has found that under certain conditions, such as high unemployment and weak economic performance of a society, a large proportion of unengaged young men could pose a threat to stability.

However, the other dimension of the youth bulge inspires hope for a brighter future. Hinged on the so-called demographic dividend, this aspect of the youth bulge predicts that a large working age population could result in higher economic returns. In a large scale study conducted in 2010 on the potential of a demographic dividend for Nigeria Harvard University’s David Bloom and his team opine that ‘Over the next 20 years, Nigeria will experience huge growth in the number of young adults in its society. If these young people are healthy, well educated, and find productive employment, they could boost the country’s economy.’ This provides an alternative narrative of the youth bulge.

Therefore, rather than blame or fear the youth bulge, perhaps the Nigerian authorities, could heed Bloom’s call and invest in healthcare, education and opportunities for employment for young people. Researchers should also recognise this and explore ways to enable Nigeria harness the dividend. Ultimately, the Nigerian authorities need a more multifaceted approach to address the insurgency in the North East of the country. While military intervention in the region is one approach, perhaps a more robust approach may be one that includes an effort to expand the opportunity space for the youth and create the sense of hope that will enable young people thrive.

Like conflicts elsewhere, no single set of factors can explain the insurgency in Nigeria’s North East. This does not however imply that analysts ignore other factors such as revenge, thrill seeking and conscriptions, factors which may in fact play significant roles in illuminating understanding of the insurgency. It is also important that young men may not simply join Boko Haram for lack of food, money or a wife to give them sex and fulfilment. Certainly there are a range of other factors, including some of those explained in this article, that explain why they join.

It is critical that analysts do not ignore these factors.

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