An American aids group, Mercy Corps sought to answer the question of why people join Boko Haram and they achieved this laudable feat by questioning former members of the terrorist group.
Boko Haram has steadily climbed since it first appeared on the scene in 2002, to occupy a rank as one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world, but things have not always been this way. There was a time when they were considered a tiny nuisance, people who were merely misled and could very easily be defeated. Years down the line, with a resilient force made up of different types of people, from able-bodied young men to young children, the question of why people join Boko Haram is both timely and necessary.
What would inspire people to join a terrorist organization which in recent times has shown to excel in kidnappings, gang raping and forcing girls into sexual slavery and widespread slaughter? To answer that question, Mercy Corps interviewed 47 former members about the reasons they entered Boko Haram and published their findings this week.
The militant group consists of thousands, inclusive of fighters and people playing other supportive roles, such as smuggling and logistics. While the members are mostly young men, they also have some female recruits. Although in more recent times, Boko Haram has become notorious for abducting children and forcing captives to fight or carry out suicide attacks, the report shows that not all the recruits joined against their will. Most of the ex-members interviewed joined because of a heady mixture of both coercion and choice.
The ex-members interviewed proved for one that Boko Haram does not target a specific demographic group when looking to bolster its ranks. They approach anyone, from people who have jobs, people who do not, people who had attended secular school or Islamic school, and others who had dropped out of school all together.
So to the question on hand of why people join Boko Haram, we will give a brief summary of some of the things contained in the report. Prior to that however, Virginia Comolli, the author of Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency who spoke with The World Post, distinguished between recruitment techniques pre and post 2009. With the difference resulting from a change in leadership, that made the formerly docile group, deadly.
Under its now dead founder, Mohammed Yusuf, the group was a radical but predominantly nonviolent sect that espoused strict Islamic governance as the answer to the region’s rampant corruption. After Yusuf was killed, Boko Haram went underground and re-emerged as a brutal insurgency under its hardline and elusive new leader, Abubakar Shekau.
According to Comolli, with Yusuf, community acceptance was more widespread and since he was a wealthy man and a charismatic preacher; “He was able to offer people small amounts of money which they used to set up small businesses like motorbike taxis and paid the proceeds back into the group as membership fees…It was both a way of attracting people and attracting revenues.”
Post 2009, with new leader Abubakar Shekau, researchers had said that they had found less evidence that those tactics were still in use. The report however shows that some post 2009 recruits were lured by economic incentives although the recruitment techniques have evolved a bit. Some common reasons why people join Boko Haram included;
- Young men were lured in by a possibility of getting ahead in an area which had scant financial services and pernicious inequality and corruption. The group therefore played on their ambitions, offering young entrepreneurs loans for small businesses like shops, salons and tailors and then forcing them to join the group when they couldn’t repay the loan. One of the young men told Mercy Corps that they had played him their preaching tapes in an effort to convince him whilst financially assisting him and his parents. Then a time came when his recruiter made it clear that he was obligated to join Boko Haram because of these financial ‘gifts’, so he fled for his life.
- Some other young men in addition to the economic incentives also had religious ideology and social pressure piled upon them. Another young man shared; “I officially joined them when they started killing indiscriminately…I needed protection and immunity from persecution by them so I could continue with my business.”
- Some women told Mercy Corps that joining Boko Haram provided opportunities for religious study and status within the militant group.
- Some other women were abducted or coerced by their husbands into joining; others were recruited voluntarily by friends or family
What the study does is provide an important insight into the profile and motivations of Boko Haram members, after which it offers strategies to stem the flow of recruits. Mercy Corps urged more access to financial services, reintegration of former fighters and support for counter-narratives that have already proved effective against Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria.