Release of Timbuktu Institute-Led Study on Violent Extremism in Niger

As part of IOM's many efforts in producing expertise that can be mobilized by public policies and actors in the international community, an innovative study was conducted on youth violence in the Zinder region in relation to the extremist phenomenon. This new study was led by Timbuktu Institute through its Observatory of Radicals and Religious Brotherhoods in Africa under the direction of Dr. Bakary Sambe 

As the most populated region in Niger, Zinder is facing strong demographic growth and must address the growing needs of a youth representing more than 70 per cent of the population in the region (National Institute of Statistics, 2015). This demography, combined with one of the lowest schooling rates in the country, caused a serious employment crisis and social integration difficulties for a significant number of young adults and teenagers in Zinder. Since 2010, the alternating political power issue in Niger has been widely discussed publicly and raised social claims linked to these issues.

In the city of Zinder, young people created informal groups to compensate for the State and authorities’ lack of social and integration frameworks. These informal youth groups, called fadas or palais, are identified as the main actors responsible for urban violence in Zinder.

These groups sometimes act as gangs, and are often involved in crime, violent protests, drug use and trafficking. Thus, the proximity of Zinder with Northern Nigeria – together with linguistics, family and ethnic ties, and with important flows of people and trade between the two regions – raise the question of the potential influence of the extremist group Boko Haram, present in North Nigeria, on Zinder’s youth. This question is even more important that young people have reported that Boko Haram recruiters have been approaching young people from the fadas and palais since 2012.

In addition, violent religious demonstrations in the city of Zinder recently led to the destruction of public buildings, places of worship and Christian homes, together with attacks against Christians or people perceived as such. The research aims therefore to understand whether there is a correlation between the conventional youth violence and violent extremism based on religious motives or the use of violence motivated by or based on religious grounds. Building from individual interviews with young people from the fadas and palais and members of the local population, this study reveals the influence of the violent extremist ideology on young people from Zinder. They often get a rudimentary or indirect knowledge of Islam, through relatives or the Internet. They are also exposed to radical religious messages that are spread through social networks, traded or sold on CDs and USB drivers on the local market or through informal networks. In addition, charismatic religious leaders are supporting the spread of a rigorist and violent vision of the religion through regional preaching.

The mosques and Koranic schools are playing a key role in the dissemination of these ideas, as the religious speech became tougher, and is now affecting more than just the religious aspect. Thus, the study reveals that these messages and sermons are playing an important role in the knowledge and attraction young people have for actions led by extremist groups like Boko Haram. Furthermore, a significant number of young people have a positive vision of these actions, which they justify as acts of defiance towards a system perceived as unfair, as the State policies are not supporting people’s aspirations and are viewed as inadequate. Violence is perceived as a means of pressure and assertion against a State seen as a repressive entity, while the religion is perceived as the only tool available for social regulation. In Zinder, where there are several religious movements, the study noticed the rise of the izala Salafists, a religious group opposed to the traditional Islam practiced in Niger and close to the Sufis and Malekites.

Furthermore, young people’s interest for these rigorist practices and interpretations of Islam can be explained as a form of self-development, an identity assertion and a quest for meaning for young people facing precariousness, a lack of socioeconomic opportunities and marginalization. Surveyed young people come from neighbourhoods deemed to be violent and stigmatized as such, with lack of basic infrastructure and where marginalized people (such as people with leprosy, disabled, deaf or blind people) have been displaced. Most of them are unemployed, or have seasonal jobs, and depend on the food and financial assistance from their families. The unemployment and precariousness of young people in Zinder’s palais and fadas thus push many away from the traditional patterns of self-fulfilment and social recognition, making them vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups. Supporting strict religious groups also allows them to define themselves against the religious heritage of their parents and the rest of the society, and thus to build an original personal identity. Finally, these young people often participate in their neighbourhoods’ informal economy, through drug trafficking, prostitution or theft. For some of these young offenders, religious motives tend to socially legitimize violence, an offence punishable under criminal law.

By becoming “defenders” of the values and religious causes, they gain some social recognition. Overall, surveyed young people think that the factors explaining violent extremism are poverty, social exclusion and injustice, but they also argue that political and religious leaders play an important role in the indoctrination and manipulation of the youth, including through financial incentives. They also point out the role of the preaching centres and Koranic schools for spreading extremist and violent ideologies. Despite the distrust expressed towards the State, the majority of young people think that the State is the stakeholder that is most likely to prevent violent extremism, along with religious leaders. The authors made the following main recommendations:

  • Promoting local dialogue frameworks, especially for intergenerational dialogue;
  • Re-engaging the State in the most deprived neighbourhoods;
  • Implementing a mediation policy with the assistance of religious leaders;
  • Adding the prevention of violent extremism in advocacy policies;
  • Promoting the rehabilitating and reintegrating process of former violent perpetrators;
  • Developing policies for combating young people’s precarious conditions and poverty, in particular through implementing training centres and supporting entrepreneurship;
  • Implementing a conflict management system at the neighbourhood level; and • Creating recreational centres and youth development frameworks.

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