At least 33,000 people were killed in Africa between 2011 and 2016 at the hand of armed groups with ideology rooted in religious fundamentalism.
This is affirmed in a study Journey to Extremism issued by the United Nations Development Programme UNDP on the basis of interviews with 718 individuals, 495 of whom admitted to have been, or in a few cases still were, members of fundamentalist organisations and that they joined of their own free will, whereas another 78 persons interviewed said they had been forced to enrol. The remaining 145 individuals declared themselves neutral.
The interviews were collected in Cameroon, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. According to the UN report, the causes of the radicalisation of individuals are multiple and often concomitant: sentiments of social or ethnic marginalisation; illiteracy and joblessness; influence on the part of extremist preachers who take advantage of young persons with scarce knowledge of the real teachings of their religion; impact of repressive policies on the part of governments which instead of solving the problem only exacerbate it.
Paradoxically economic growth registered in some African countries, for example Nigeria, exacerbates the division between a centre relatively prosperous and suburban areas abandoned in conditions of indigence. What is more, the majority of those interviewed were from environments where the overall levels of literacy and education are low. A good 56% of the people interviewed gave religion as the reason for enrollment. However some 57% admitted to having ‘limited or even no knowledge’ of the specific religious texts. Those with several years of above-average religious instruction are less influenced by the propaganda of extremist groups and show no intention of joining . Education, religious or in general, is therefore crucial if we are to prevent the radicalization of youth, and convince those who have joined some extremist group to leave it.
Poverty and radicalization
The economic factor is another element which pushes young people towards radicalism. “Employment is the immediate necessity at the moment of joining an extremist group” according to the report. Youths interviewed who were members but were studying or working at the time when they adhered to the organization, took more time to reach the decision to join compared to those who were jobless or had a precarious job”. However membership of an extremist organization, is no guarantee of a salary . “Some of those interviewed – according to the UN report – were paid more than a local average wage, but at least 35% received no pay at all during a lengthy period of adhesion”.
This said, disaffection regarding government was the factor most cited by those who had opted of their own will to join a terrorist group. Several of those interviewed mentioned factors such as: conviction that government cares only about the interests of a few; little trust in government authorities; corrupt civil servants. There emerged ultimately one strong “motivating element” which forces vulnerable youths (jobless, difficult family background, etc…) to make the step to join a violent group. Some 71% of those who said they had joined of their own free will, pinpointed a certain “government act”, for instance “the murder or arrest of a family member or a friend”, as the incident or event which had pushed them to join the extremist group. Therefore indiscriminate violence committed by security forces against the population, the basin of recruitment for radical groups such as Boko Haram, is clearly counterproductive.
Why young people join
Patrick Tor Alumuku, director of Social Communications in the archdiocese of Abuja, capital of Nigeria, expresses his opinion of the factors emerging from the study which induce a youth to join a terrorist group: “I can only speak about our Nigerian experience relative to Boko Haram” says the Catholic the priest. “Although we have seen episodes of violence against civilians by the armed forces, I would not indicate violence against self or family by security forces as the principal reason for which a young man join would Boko Haram. Quite the contrary, Boko Haram has caused widespread mourning and immense suffering to the people and when the army forced the men of Boko Haram to flee the areas they had under control, the soldiers were hailed as liberators”, said Patrick Tor Alumuku. “I agree on the other hand that the economic factor in recruitment is important. Most Boko Haram members are jobless youths coming from extremely poor environments. On joining the group they are given three meals a day and a wage, very minimal, but something they did not have before”.
The Social Communications director is convinced that the factor of Boko Haram economic assets must be taken into consideration. “We know that funding for Boko Haram comes from certain Arab countries through Al Qaida Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) which transfers across the Sahara to northern Nigeria, money, arms and brand new motor vehicles. This trafficking must be investigated ” the priest concluded.
The Jihadists of Boko Haram
Boko Haram (literal meaning in the Hausa language “western education is forbidden”) is a Sunnite jihadist terrorist organisation (Salafit leanings ) present in Nigeria, openly allied with so-called Islamic State. The group was started by Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf in 2002 in the city of Maiduguri with the idea of establishing an Islamic state in Nigeria, with Sharia law as its basic legal system. Initial recruitment was achieved through the propagation of an ideology which connected government inefficiency with Western influence on Nigerian lifestyle. The group continued to spread and increase its operative capacity, launching in 2011 a series of terrorist attacks in a number of cities in Nigeria and targeted murders of political and religious personalities. That wave of attacks and massacres bought the country to a sort of civil war .
In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in Chibok, Borno state. More than fifty of the girls managed to escape. Last May, eighty-two Chibok schoolgirls were freed in exchange for detained suspects with the extremist group,. but those who remained have not been set free. Boko Haram extended its activity to Cameroon and in 2015, a coalition of security forces from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger launched a counter-offensive against the Boko Haram insurrection.
But the group still continues its activity: at least 381 civilians have been killed in a new suicide-bombing campaign backed by Boko Haram in Cameroon and Nigeria since April 2017, Amnesty International reports. The NGO adds that millions of people are now in urgent need of protection and humanitarian aid because the attacks and insecurity hinder the arrival of aid supplies.
The growing numbers of civilians killed in the extreme north of Cameroon and in the Nigerian states of Borno and Adamawa is due to growing numbers of suicide bombing attacks. “Boko Haram is committing war crimes on a vast scale with a terrifying strategy: it is forcing young women to blow themselves up and so doing kill as many other people as possible ” said Alioune Tine, director of Amnesty West and Central Africa.