Business loans draw young Nigerians to join Boko Haram

People in Gambaru, Nigeria, stand outside burnt houses following an attack by Boko Haram in May 2014. (AP Photo/Jossy Ola, File)

Boko Haram is best known for its brutal terror tactics that resemble modern Islamist terrorist groups, but it mimics a much older organization when it comes to building support – the mafia.

Informal loans and promises of protection help Boko Haram maintain control in parts of northern Nigeria. These tactics also help attract young people, especially men, to join. It is particularly effective in areas where government services are insufficient or missing, according to researchers with the Portland, Ore.,-based aid group Mercy Corps.

“We haven’t seen a demographic profile of who is joining Boko Haram,” Lisa Inks, peacebuilding adviser for Mercy Corps, told Humanosphere. “One of the reasons: The financial support provided by Boko Haram plays on the sense of inequality and fulfills a very practical need.”

Interviews with former members and in communities once controlled by the group show that about half of the people supported Boko Haram in one way or another in the past. Former supporters’ backgrounds vary significantly. Some people were out of work and others had jobs. Some went to Islamic schools, some did not go to school at all and others went to secular schools. But just about everyone had some sort of connection to the group prior to joining, whether it was a family member or a friend.

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Just like the mafia, money is a powerful tool. People become financially engaged with Boko Haram in different ways. Some people said they sought out loans, but most were approached by the group. Businesses got interest-free loans. Some received money and gifts with no strings attached. Each deal was unique with different requirements.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau speaks in a 2014 video. (AFP PHOTO / BOKO HARAM)

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau speaks in a 2014 video. (Credit: Agence France-Presse/Boko Haram)

Some of the people interviewed said that they provided financial kick-backs to Boko Haram out of their profits. A few also helped carry out illegal activities, like smuggling and theft. But it wasn’t just about the money – support ran deeper than that. People suddenly realized that the government was failing to provide opportunities, and they began to appreciate the added layer of security provided in the deals with Boko Haram.

This is an important piece of information for the Nigerian government and aid groups like Mercy Corps. Financial services are one piece of the puzzle, but Nigerians need more support from their leaders. Simply put, the government has to do a better job.

“Good governance in the broadest sense is what is needed in the long term, regardless of services. I think that a lot of people hide behind the complexity argument that this is too difficult and put it into the longer term basket,” said Inks.

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Providing opportunity is crucial. Recent research from Liberia on former child-soldiers found that providing both therapy and money could help reduce criminality, violence and drug use. The differing circumstances in Nigeria will require unique programming, but the broader lessons apply.

Martha Mark, the mother of kidnapped school girl Monica Mark cries as she displays her photo, in the family house, in Chibok, Nigeria. In a new video released late Oct 31, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau dashed hopes for a prisoner exchange to get the girls released. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File)

Martha Mark, the mother of kidnapped school girl Monica Mark cries as she displays her photo, in the family house, in Chibok, Nigeria. In a new video released late Oct 31, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau dashed hopes for a prisoner exchange to get the girls released. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File)

Inks is also encouraged by the fact that there is a developing counter-narrative about Boko Haram. Stories about people being cheated or forced to do things against their will are making the rounds in some of the communities. Local leaders are making the case that Boko Haram is no better than the government – providing an effective tool to shift support away from the group.

“[Boko Haram financial support] is not better than the government’s, but the government does not care about its people,” one unnamed man, who received Boko Haram support, told Mercy Corps.

The report’s recommendations can be boiled down to increasing transparency and investing in the region’s development. A more robust financial sector and better information and availability of government programs can act to overcome the lack of opportunity and trust.

“There is a growing understanding that we need to tackle the root causes of a conflict even while it is happening,” Inks said. “We think that working on those long-term development issues that dovetail with conflict prevention is a good place to start.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.