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Economic Circumstances and Radicalisation in Kenya and Nigeria – Dr. Anneli Botha

May 11, 2017


Economic Circumstances and Radicalisation in Kenya and Nigeria

By Anneli Botha

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 9 (May 2017)

One of the most controversial aspects when discussing the conditions conducive to terrorism is the potential role economic circumstances – especially poverty – plays in radicalisation. It is particularly politicians who tend to be convinced that there is a positive link between poverty, radicalisation and terrorism. On the contrary, a number of academic studies found a negative or limited correlation between economic circumstances and activism and even discovered that some individuals involved in acts of terrorism came from a professional and economically privileged background. For example, in a study conducted on al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) in Kenya, al-Shabaab respondents in Somalia rated the highest with 27% identifying a direct relationship between economic circumstances and their decision to join the organisation. A further 25% of respondents in Somalia combined religion with economic reasons, while a further 1% referred to economic reasons and adventure. In Kenya, 12% of MRC respondent  sand 4% of al-Shabaab respondents specifically referred to economic circumstances as a reason why they joined the respective organisations. These respondents thought by joining these groups, membership would become a career. This places a question mark on the ideological commitment of these individuals. In other words, if respondents had access to other employment opportunities they would not have joined al-Shabaab.

In contrast to Kenya and Somalia another study conducted by Finn Church Aid (FCA) in Nigeria (of which the author was part of), in its sample did not only include interviews with Boko Haram members, but also interviews with individuals representing civil society (referred to as peace builders) and ordinary Nigerian citizens. This project was particularly interesting as it tested perception against reality. One of the perceptions tested was the role economic factors might play in the decision of individuals to join Boko Haram. It was especially peace builders that identified economic circumstances – after religion – in explaining why Boko Haram attracted willing recruits. For example, poverty was identified as the most prominent reason of 26% of peace builders that drove individuals to Boko Haram. This is followed by a lack of education (20%) and employment opportunities Boko Haram offered (16%). This perception is supported by Aghedo and Osumah, who noted in the 2010 census that Yobe State, the headquarters of Boko Haram, has the highest unemployment rate in the country with 33.2%. In contrast to this perception only 15.13% of Boko Haram respondents indicated that they had joined the organization because of poverty and the need to be paid a salary, whereas only 5.88% of former members referred to the employment opportunities the group presented. Only 1.68% of former Boko Haram members considered being frustrated with life as a factor influencing others to join Boko Haram, while 5.88% of Boko Haram respondents were themselves drawn to the organization for this reason. The perception amongst 16% of peace builders and 10,64% of ordinary citizens that individuals join Boko Haram due to the need to be employed was refuted as only 5,88% of Boko Haram respondents joined Boko Haram for the employment opportunities the organization offered. Instead 61 Boko Haram respondents were employed and 58 respondents indicated that they were unemployed at the time of joining Boko Haram.

Despite the fact that economic circumstances, and most notably poverty is not a main contributing factor towards radicalisation, the relation between socioeconomic circumstances and other forms of marginalisation – most notably political, ethnic and religious circumstances and differences – requires closer scrutiny. Instead of the immediate connotation with poverty, the discussion on economic conditions needs to extend well beyond only poverty. It is these other indicators that rather ‘facilitate’ or provide favourable circumstances for recruitment. These for example include, unequal access to resources, the growing divide between rich and poor and limited education and employment opportunities.

Although linking radicalisation and poverty is unfounded, the introduction of the concept ‘relative deprivation’ by Ted Gurr holds more water in explaining why people turn to violence. According to Gurr the relative deprivation theory consists of two key components: Firstly, the perception of inequality, or a perceived discrepancy between one’s own position and that of others; and secondly, the implication related to perceived inequality or, to put it differently, the intensity or degree of inequality. These circumstances contribute to defining in- and out- groups. If what is expected exceeds that which a person has or experiences, the next question in that formula will be: what will the costs be to balance the scales?

Relative deprivation alone is however not sufficient, it requires another element in addition to the difference between the rewards people expect versus which they receive in transferring ‘I’ to ‘us’: This comes in the form of marginalisation based on ethnic, religious or class differences in which the group feels that collective violence is a legitimate and considered the only response available to balance the scales. When economic progress and political representation visibly divide people based on ethnic or tribal and religious differences, the possibility for violence and terrorism increases. Considering that immediate circumstances often serve as the trigger, it is not surprising that based on these differences, self-determination groups are formed. In addition to relative deprivation, the possibility of success further contributes to vulnerability. Thus explaining why it is commonly accepted that weak, failed and collapsed states are particularly more vulnerable to the possibility of political violence and terrorism. The possibility of achieving its objectives increases when the state no longer has a monopoly on the use of force, and that is when the probability of resorting to violence becomes plausible especially under the youth. Uneven development and subsequent relative deprivation, played a prominent role among MRC respondents in joining these organisations, with 14% of MRC respondents  referring to a combination of ethnic and economic reasons. Respondents who mentioned economic circumstances specifically referred to situations where increased economic disparities occur within identifiable ethnic, religious and geographic groups. Education and the type of employment provided additional insights and should be used as valuable indicators, considering that when respondents were also asked to indicate their level of education, 67% of MRC and 47% of al-Shabaab respondents only had a primary school education. It was therefore not surprising that 75% of MRC and 46% of al-Shabaab respondents in Kenya were in low-income careers. These two factors directly impact on upward mobility, especially when the perception exists that these discrepancies are based on a religious, ethnic or geographical divide. The MRC in Kenya most prominently referred to a comparison between the economic circumstances of coastal people versus those in other parts of the country, but more specifically the discrimination they experience in comparison to outsiders living in ‘their’ region. Similarly, the economic divide in Nigeria between north and south on religious, but also ethnic terms had a similar impact on the emergence of Islamist extremism in the north. Consequently, relative deprivation became a political issue and a driving factor behind frustration and radicalisation. Therefore, monitoring socioeconomic trends in preventing radicalisation will be useful where there are economic disparities within identifiable ethnic, religious and geographic groups.

It is also not surprising that extremist movements specifically target the youth and young adults between the ages 15 to 25. Being naturally impatient, their frustration can easily lead to action. Young people are not only more susceptible to indoctrination, they are also more inclined to get physically involved.

Unequal social upward mobility based on religious, ethnical or even political differences therefore requires serious attention in identifying communities at risk. Indicators that will be particularly useful are population growth, access to public service, uneven development, urbanisation and uneven unemployment and education opportunities – especially if these are based on religious, ethnic or any other identifiable categories. These factors will contribute not only to social conflict, but also to that country or community’s vulnerability to radicalisation. In addition to encouraging economic development, government also has to step up to its responsibility to provide basic services for all people, and especially to communities that are regarded as marginalised.

Governments need guidance and assistance in creating an environment that encourages innovation. Much is still needed to equip young people, not only to be better educated, but also to recognise their role in the financial health of their country. Although low-interest loans are often referred to as a solution, the ultimate success of these and other initiatives will depend on the level and the type of education and the prospect of a better future not determined by a person’s religious or ethnic association.

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