The surge in the “Boko Haram” radical group poses a challenge to the international community. It calls into question the approaches to this phenomenon of hyperviolence for researchers, the military and developers alike. It tests the response capacities of development assistance organizations faced with the new scale of needs and the unlimited use of brutality.

© IOM 2014 - Craig Murphy
© IOM 2014 - Craig Murphy

Researchers are working hard to update our understanding of an ever-changing phenomenon. Their analyses clearly show us how pointless it is to reduce it to single-cause explanations. Responses can only be conceived on the basis of a holistic understanding of Boko Haram, combining its economic and social, political and geopolitical, religious and identity dimensions – without forgetting the environmental factors in a part of the world deeply affected by climate change.

But this multidisciplinary approach is no longer sufficient. In order to impact reality, the “decompartmentalization” movement underway in the research community must also do away with the typical silos that exist between professionals in charge of analysis, strategy and operations. Moreover, this convergence must take place at the same time in the security, diplomatic, humanitarian and economic professions – and thereby allow much more frequent exchanges between them. This exit of “professional silos”, albeit modest, is underway. It must be continued.

The asymmetric combat waged by the armed group has also surprised the military. Despite recent defeats, it continues to taunt the heavily armed Nigerian forces, and has inflicted considerable losses on the Chadian army. The odds are that this game of cat and mouse will continue to benefit the rebels as long as the misperception of the very notion of security has not been dispelled: Is the aim of the mechanisms deployed in the region to ensure the security of African capitals and OECD countries, or the everyday security of populations in the territories of the Lake Chad basin? The only way to halt the process of the disintegration of the social fabric at work is to improve the everyday security of the men and women who live in fear and often turn to violent groups for protection.


Structural factors of fragility

The group’s sudden rise in power illustrates the security risks caused by situations of chronic underdevelopment. It has now been established that certain structural weaknesses of States and societies contribute to the breeding ground of violence. We can mention five:

  • The massive increase in the number of young people without prospects of economic, political or social integration in society. They are humiliated every day by the fact of not being able to make the transition from childhood to adulthood, due to the lack of sufficient economic resources;
  • The marginalization of whole territories of Nigeria, Chad, Niger or Cameroun, which are excluded from the promises of economic growth and often deprived of access to the most essential public services;
  • The tensions over access to natural resources: local conflicts between farmers and herders for water, land and fodder are embers in these areas which the entrepreneurs of violence know how to fuel;
  • The inadequate systems of governance, which combine modern and traditional institutions with varying degrees of success;
  • The massive population displacements due to the crisis, which cause increasing tensions between host and refugee populations.

Aid programs can target these factors of fragility while aiming to strengthen the resilience factors of societies affected by violence.


How to intervene?

The crisis caused by the Boko Haram movement involves a range of methodological difficulties to which development organizations are today seeking to find responses: How to remain close to the assisted populations without putting excessive risks on local and international aid professionals? How to “do no harm”, meaning ensuring that aid interventions do not inadvertently exacerbate tensions in territories where such tensions are omnipresent? How to coordinate security, humanitarian and development interventions to deal with chronic crises where the issues of security, day-to-day livelihoods and more long-term economic prospects are interconnected and feed into each other? How to take action in a coherent way on both sides of national borders that mean very little to Boko Haram and local populations – while cooperation mechanisms are structured country by country?

Despite the progress achieved in providing a response to these difficulties, they will not disappear overnight. Our institutions will continue to face a complex and fast-changing reality for a long time to come. It is important to accept this, with all the humility that these situations require, in an iterative process of trial and error and honest evaluations of results. Yet this must not hold back action, because the costs (human, economic) of inaction on the root causes of violence are high. Moreover, in a fluid situation where much is unknown, certain findings are now well established – and give first keys for interventions.

Firstly, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons destabilizes societies which are already vulnerable. The reception of refugees by host communities has avoided a large-scale humanitarian disaster. But when these displacements become long term or are imposed by force, there is a risk that they will fuel tensions between communities. Without in-depth action to support host populations and refugees on the peripheries of the crisis, it will spread like wildfire to Niger, Northern Cameroon and Chad. The UNHCR estimates that on average refugees stay in their host countries for over seventeen years. Humanitarian, security and development actors must combine their expertise in order to provide a long-term response to the issue of population displacement.

Secondly, youth is demanding inclusion, which is not only an economic issue. Inequality in education is the first source of exclusion. The failure of the public education system, alongside the weakening of traditional institutions, produces ignorance – including of the basic precepts of Islam – on the basis of which obscurantism flourishes. The training of teachers and the construction of classrooms to educate generations of young Africans contribute to fighting against phenomena of social disruption among youth, for whom radicalization becomes a form of expression.

However, the demand for inclusion by youth will not be resolved simply by building classrooms. The inactivity of young adults, who struggle to find a place in patriarchal societies, offers the sect a recruitment pool which extends well beyond the stronghold of the movement in Northeast Nigeria. By giving a Kalashnikov and motorbike to some of its recruits, Boko Haram awards them a source of income, a social status, a feeling of belonging – or even of vengeance – vis-à-vis a society which has not managed to make a place for them. The response to this demand for inclusion requires youth-oriented integrated approaches which focus as much on the political participation processes as on access to high-quality education, vocational training, income-generating activities… These activities must also bring about social and identity integration, bearing hope and confidence in the future.

Thirdly, the need for territorial rebalancing requires a priority investment in these regions which have for a long time been marginalized by public authorities. The lack of public services in whole sections of the territory contributes to the loss of State legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. It opens the floodgates to the proponents of its replacement by a  mythologized caliphate, governed by an idealized Sharia: as with other Jihadist groups, Boko Haram threatens to compete with the State for basic services (security, justice, education, social safety nets). Corentin Cohen, a doctoral student at the International Research Center of Sciences Po-Paris, rightly notes that with no public social security, the razzia-redistribution system set up by the fighters has become the most effective redistribution system in certain areas. Development aid, by assisting the return of basic public services in remote villages, can demonstrate that a State is at the service of its citizens. This requires coming out of the sectoral silos on which development assistance has long been organized: multisectoral projects must provide a critical mass of public services at the level of the threatened municipalities. Finally, programs that help manage tensions over access to natural resources, first and foremost land and water, will need to support the changes these territories will undergo in the decades to come.

Development aid institutions are working to adapt their modes of action to the challenges of regions that combine security, humanitarian, economic and environmental crises. If it is essential for them to succeed, it is because the activities they finance can tackle many of the weaknesses in which terrorist movements take root. None of these responses in themselves will provide a solution to Boko Haram or to its Jihadist avatars. Development aid is not an alternative to the repressive component of the fight against terrorism. It will not replace the long-term work on the ideological field, which has been abandoned to obscurantist ideas for far too long. But deserting this battleground would seal the fate of populations taken hostage. Indeed, while extreme poverty does not cause radicalism, it undeniably fosters it: from Pakistan to Nigeria, Northern Mali, Brussels and Paris, the feeling of injustice and exclusion is one of the powerful engines of terrorism. We have no alternative to taking action with humility, patience and determination – or leave the field free to the soldiers of terror.



The full version of this post, entitled: Development Assistance and the Limits of International Interventions. The Case of de Boko Haram, has been published in edition n° 255 of the review Afrique Contemporaine entitled: “Understanding Boko Haram” (coordinator Nicolas Courtin, Deputy Editor-in-Chief) (French version only).


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

I subscribe to the ID4D newsletter

Once a week, I receive the latest blog posts!