UN News/Daniel Dickinson A Nigerien soldier guards a strategic location in Ouallam, Niger.

The leading factor driving people to join fast-growing violent extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa is lack of job opportunities.

This according to a new report released by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) on Tuesday.

The report entitled, Journey to Extremism in Africa: Pathways to Recruitment and Disengagement, underscores the importance of economic factors as drivers of recruitment.

Lack of income, the lack of job opportunities and livelihoods, means that “desperation is essentially pushing people to take up opportunities, with whoever offers that”, said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, speaking at the report launch.

He added that around 25 pc of all recruits cited a lack of job opportunities as the primary reason, while around 40 per cent said they were “in urgent need of livelihoods at the time of the recruitment”.

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

The report draws from interviews with nearly 2,200 different people in eight countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan.

In their own words

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

A quarter of those who volunteered said the main factor was unemployment - a 92 percent increase from the last UNDP study of violent extremism in 2017.

Around 48 per cent of voluntary recruits told researchers that there had been “a triggering event” leading to them signing up.

Abuses driving recruitment too

Of that figure, some “71 per cent cited human rights abuses they had suffered, such as government action”, said Nirina Kiplagat, main author of the report and UNDP’s Regional Peacebuilding Advisor.

Fundamental human rights abuses such as seeing a father arrested, or a brother taken away by national military forces, were among those triggers cited.

According to the report, peer pressure from family members or friends is cited as the second more common driver for recruitment, including women who are following their spouses into an extremist group.

Religious ideology is the third most common reason for joining up, cited by around 17 percent of interviewees. This presents a 57 percent decrease from the 2017 findings.

The new report is part of a series of three, analysing the prevention of violent extremism. It highlights the urgent need to move away from security-driven responses to development-based approaches focused on prevention, said UNDP.

It calls for greater investment in basic services including child welfare, education and calls for an investment in rehabilitation and community-based reintegration services.

Steiner said a “toxic mix” was being created of poverty, destitution, and lack of opportunity, with so many citing the “urgent need to find livelihoods”. It is tantamount to a society “no longer having a rule of law, turning to some of these violent extremists’ groups to provide security.”

Security-driven counter-terrorism responses are often costly and minimally effective, said the UNDP Administrator, and investments in preventive approaches to violent extremism are inadequate.

Terrorist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda emerge due to local conditions, but then begin to amass weapons and secure financing – in the case of the Sahel, allowing other cells to resource themselves independently.

“The geopolitical dimension should not surprise anyone”, said Steiner, where States are no longer able to provide the rule of law or meaningful national security, “then the opportunity for other actors to become part of this drama grows exponentially, we have seen it in Mali, we have seen it in Libya, we have seen it at the Horn of Africa”.

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

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