Lack of employment, main driver to join extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa

Women and children displaced in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram violence.  File photo: OCHA/Franck Kuwonu

Lack of job opportunities is the main factor driving people to join fast-growing violent extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The report Interrupting the journey towards extremism underscores the importance of economic factors as recruitment drivers, including desperation.

Lack of income, job opportunities and livelihoods lead to a desperation that “essentially pushes people to seize opportunities, with whomever offers them,” said UNDP administrator Achim Steiner, speaking at the presentation of the report.

He added that around 25% of all recruits cited lack of job opportunities as the main reason, while around 40% stated that “were in dire need of livelihood at the time of recruitment“.

Sub-Saharan Africa has become the new global epicenter of violent extremism, with almost half of the deaths from terrorism recorded there in 2021.

The report is based on interviews with almost 2,200 people in eight countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan.

in their own words

More than 1,000 of those interviewed are former members of violent extremist groups, both voluntary and forced recruits.

A quarter of those who joined these groups voluntarily said that the main factor was unemployment, representing a 92% increase since the last study of UNDP on violent extremism in 2017.

About 48% of the voluntary recruits told the researchers that there had been “a triggering event” that led them to sign up.

Women and children displaced in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram violence. File photo: OCHA/Franck Kuwonu

Abuses also drive recruitment

Of that number, about “71% cited human rights abuses they had sufferedlike government actions,” said Nirina Kiplagat, lead author of the report and UNDP regional peacebuilding adviser.

Fundamental human rights abuses, such as seeing a parent detained or sibling taken away by national military forces, were among the triggers cited.

According to the report, pressure from peers, family or friendsis cited as the second most common factor for recruitment, including women who follow their spouses to an extremist group.

Religious ideology is the third most common reason for joining, cited by around 17% of those interviewed. This represents a decrease of 57% compared to the results of 2017.

Development-Based Solutions

The new report is one in a series of three looking at preventing violent extremism. According to UNDP, it highlights the urgent need to put aside security-based responses and seek others focused on development and prevention.

These answers call for more investment in basic services, including child welfare and educationand call for investment in community-based rehabilitation and reintegration services.

Steiner claimed that a “toxic mix” of poverty, homelessness and lack of opportunity is being created as revealed by the fact that so many people cite the “urgent need to find livelihoods”. And he explained that it is as if a society “that no longer has the rule of law, turns to some of these violent extremist groups to provide security.”

Security-based counterterrorism responses are often expensive and minimally effective, the UNDP administrator said, and investments in preventive approaches to violent extremism are inadequate.

Terrorist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda arise due to local conditionsbut then they begin to accumulate weapons and secure funding, which in the case of the Sahel allows other cells to provide themselves with resources independently.

no surprises

“The geopolitical dimension should surprise no one,” Steiner said, when states are no longer capable of providing the rule of law or meaningful national security, “then the opportunity for other actors to become part of this drama grows exponentially. We’ve seen it in Mali, we’ve seen it in Libya, we’ve seen it in the Horn of Africa.”

Based on the interviews, the report also identified factors that drive recruits to leave armed groups, such as unmet economic expectations or a lack of trust in group leaders.

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