Understanding Boko Haram Recruitment

The recent research findings by Mercy Corps and Ford Foundation in some North-eastern states have shown how gifts, gratification and the promise of protection fuel recruitment of community members into Boko Haram.Martins Ifijeh reports
“I am Boko Haram. I will bomb this school.” These were the words written by a primary three pupil on the wall of his community primary school in Borno State. He is looking forward to growing up and becoming like some select members of his community who exude ‘power’, have relative economic upgrade and have the ability to convert other people’s properties to theirs, including having young girls as gratification. He wants to grow up a Boko Haram member.
This, and many more reasons, prompted Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian organisation and the Ford Foundation to embark on a yearlong research to ascertain what fuels the recruitment of community members, youths especially, into becoming tools for destabilisation and destruction, as well as why some communities support the sect’s activities secretly in the North-eastern part of the country, especially in Borno State and its neighbours where its activities were prominent in recent years.
With the help of locals, who were hired as research assistants, Mercy Corps and its research team went into several communities inhabited by members of the sect, as well as friends and relatives of the sect, and then spoke to former Boko Haram members and the youths who resisted joining the organisation to ascertain their motives for joining the sect or why they resisted joining, respectively.
Their findings- with the presence of poverty, lack of economic and social presence in most communities, and the belief by many that their communities lacked government presence, Boko Haram presented a lifeline, offering economic ambition to attract or coerce youths by offering financial assistance for young people to grow their businesses, while also offering protection to those sympathetic to their cause.
For some, Boko Haram invested as high as one million naira into their cattle rearing business or farming, while for others, as low as ten thousand naira, motor bikes or even sewing machines were distributed, and in return, they were either made to participate in the sects’ activities or made to provide other forms of support, including provision of intelligence to the group and logistics. For those who rejected the offers, they lived at the mercy of the deadly insurgents who did not spare some of them.
The lead researcher of the project and a civil society practitioner, Ballama Mustafa, said while most of those interviewed, who received financial support from Boko Haram, would have loved to stick to government and be law abiding citizens, they declared that they received Boko Haram’s offers because they did not see any other viable option for growing their businesses, adding that gifts, loans without interests, and a host of other subtle and attractive approaches from the insurgents became a motivation for most of them who eventually joined the sect, adding that, of the 74 community members interviewed, 45 received financial or other types of support from Boko Haram, while seven respondents outrightly rejected gifts or gratification from them.
Giving a detailed analysis of the report, Mustafa said in a bid to understand the motive behind youth participation in Boko Haram activities, the research team sought out different strategies on how to get information from the members and communities themselves, adding that, they had to work with research assistants, who were members of the communities, known to Boko Haram members and were trusted by the different respondents interviewed, hence the success recorded from getting information needed to complete the research.
“When we started the research, we were not sure if Boko Haram members will be willing to talk to us, but as we went deeper into the project, we discovered they were more than willing to talk. They earned the trust of our research assistants and ours, and they opened up.”
According to him, “for many community members, their financial ambition and needs either attract or make them vulnerable to Boko Haram’s financial service offerings, as they viewed the services as promising opportunity to get ahead or as an essential strategy for keeping their livelihood on tract.
“For instance, a male respondent explained how he was complaining to a friend that he wanted a job so he could better provide for his parents. The friend then liaised with Boko Haram leaders who secured a motor cycle for him. Same was the story of another male youth who used the financing from the sect to open a brick laying business, and in return worked for the sect,” noting that all 45 respondents who got financial or other forms of support from Boko Haram agreed that it was their motivation for joining the sect or indirectly supporting them.
Lack of access to government’s social and economic programmes fueling sect’s recruitment
He said of those interviewed, majority were first approached by Boko Haram, while a few made the initiative to get funding from the group, adding that, most respondents reported that they took support not out of belief in Boko Haram’s ideology or to support the organisation’s activities, but because they did not see an alternative to access cash or credit. “Almost all the recipients said that government’s support was preferable, but that these services were not attainable without political connections or bribes,” he explained.
He said while some respondents said they were unaware of existing government programmes and services capable of supporting their services, others who were in the know said they believed such services cannot be accessible by them, adding that such programmes could only be for the wealthy and well connected.
Boko Haram’s support as a bait for recruitment
Explaining that the financial support by the insurgents have been used for both recruitment and to gain community support, he said some respondents noted that those who benefitted from the financial support were asked to drop out of Nigerian formal education system so as to embrace the ideology of the sect.
“Some of the women given support were also forced to marry male Boko Haram combatants, while the group also forced government employees who benefitted from their support to quit their jobs because the group had declared government activities at any level to be haram,” Mustafa added.
The Lead Researcher also added that another key finding was that Boko Haram could demand services related to recipient’s particular type of business in exchange for support.
“For instance, Boko Haram used achaba (private motor cycle taxi) drivers who had received financial support from the group, as messengers, delivering letters between cities and communities. Also, respondents operating larger scale trading, especially those involved in the transport of goods and services between cities, were offered informal loans or the possibility of participating in a joint venture in exchange for carrying Boko Haram members from one city to another or for smuggling goods.
“In another example, Boko Haram kidnapped a female business woman’s family and used her store to hide weapons and ammunitions. They provided her with both money and goods to keep business operating as a front, but her family remained in captivity, compelling her to comply with Boko Haram’s demands.
“In the most extreme case, as our first study showed, Boko Haram demanded that one of the beneficiaries of its financial support participates in the group’s military activities. He was given boots and a gun, but he ran away to avoid joining. The group later took over his house,” he added.
He said most of the financial support to community members and potential combatants came during or before 2009 when the group became violent, adding that, when people started noticing the violent dimension of the group, respondents increasingly became hesitant to accept the assistance out of fear. “Rather than accepting assistance, some residents who became pressured to become affiliated with the group fled their communities, leaving behind their businesses. Others accepted money, but did not spend in case they were asked for it later.”
In addition to purely transactional demands by the group, he said Boko Haram often accompanied financial services with persuasive tactics intended to garner more widespread support. “Also, there were communities that showed gratitude to the group, thereby exposing government deficiencies in providing for communities.
“Many of those who received financial support from the group later understood there were no particular condition attached to the assistance, as conditions were either fluid and unpredictable. Demands and conditions could come at anytime and without warning, and in some cases, it may be a year after the financial support had been given.”
While many got everything Boko Haram promised them, including finance and protection, the Director of Conflict Management, Mercy Corps, Rebecca Wolfe, said Boko Haram also broke its promises on a number of occasions.
“For instance, one male recipient described how Boko Haram protected his shop for a time, but later burnt it down during massive attack,” the director noted.
According to her, while nearly three quarters of the respondents knew that the financial incentives came from Boko Haram, in some cases, recipients believed they were receiving financial support from a friend or an acquaintance unaffiliated with the group. “Sometimes, Boko Haram approached individuals through a friend or neighbour, with an offer of investment in their business. An example was that of a young woman who was receiving zakat, the Arabic term for giving to the less privileged, considered a religious obligation in Islam. However, she was later told she had to marry someone from Boko Haram in exchange for the money.
Recommendations from the research
Wolfe said from the several respondents, it was clear that Boko Haram took advantage of the deep dissatisfaction with governance and provided economic support to increase its recruits and improve standing in the communities.
She explained that the group’s financial and in-kind support to community members achieved two objectives simultaneously. “First, by providing an alternative set of services for community members, it highlighted government and private sector deficiencies. Second, it provided an immediate pathway for people to get ahead by offering ways for them to expand their businesses.
She said ultimately, the lack of perceived alternatives made residents of the North-east vulnerable to Boko Haram’s financial schemes, adding that while money itself was not the singular driving factor in participation in Boko Haram, the perceived lack of financial options provided opportunities for the group, even if only for a limited time, to juxtapose perceived government’s inability to deliver services with a movement willing to support those looking for a way ahead.
She said in the light of the findings, the recommendations will largely focus on addressing the governance gaps at the root of Boko Haram’s rise.
“Government, private sector and civil society actors should first find out what the youths in these areas need to get ahead in life, whether it is financial capital, in-kind support, skills and training or a combination, and government and all stakeholders should be ready to provide programmes that would increase economic opportunities for them, as this could serve as a useful model.
“Civil society and development partners can provide additional alternatives for the informal sector. These could include business services, informal access to financial programmes, and employment skill for the vulnerable. Any civil society initiative should complement government efforts, not supplant them,” she added.
She called on government to increase accessibility and transparency to its economic programmes, adding that the public perception that government economic development programmes were only available to the elite few creates a receptive audience for Boko Haram’s anti-government messages.
“Additionally, applications for these programmes should be made transparent and the government should ensure programme administrators are held accountable for fair selection practise,” she explained.
She also advised the government to create platforms to warn community members about Boko Haram financial schemes. “Because of the sensitivities of speaking about affiliation with the group and because of a lack of communication channels, youth and other community members often have little access to information about the risks they face.
“Another thing that can be done is for the expansion of the role of the civil society in developing the economic sector of the North-east. Their role and the accountability of government programmes is crucial to ensuring that growth is inclusive and that government policies and programmes target at-risk groups,” he explained.
Meanwhile, the Programme Officer, Ford Foundation, Dabesaki Mac-Ikemenjima, noted that the research found the causes of the recruitment of individuals, adding that when the recommendations were followed strictly, they would help in curbing the uprising in the region.
He said: “It is partly because they lack economic resources, because they are excluded from political discussions, and also because their education system is weak.
On whether some of the recommendations made would help in solving the issue of Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, he said since the recommendations focus on economic livelihood for young people in the region, if integrated with economic and social support, it would be useful in addressing the challenge of youth involvement in the insurgency.