Backdrop Boko Haram: What We Should Understand about Youth in Nigeria

Last year, Boko Haram brazenly kidnapped 276 teenage girls from their school in the middle of the night, prompting international outrage and bringing the dangers of Boko Haram further to the fore of international security conversations. At least 200 of the girls remain missing, feared trafficked or sold into sex slavery. While additional kidnappings have taken place, recent weeks have seen an unprecedented surge of attacks, including a massive attack in Baga reportedly killing 2,000. These events raise new questions and urge renewed focus on what’s behind the rise of Boko Haram and what to do about it.

Q1: Why are youth central to this crisis?

A1: Young people represent nearly a third of the Nigerian population, and given the youthfulness of Boko Haram members and victims alike, short- and long-term questions concerning youth in Nigeria and surrounding countries should be asked. Demographics, poverty and marginalization, instability and conflict are inextricably linked. Hopelessness and despair increase the likelihood that young people see no other option but to engage in illicit economies and black markets like human trafficking and weapons trading, and make youth that much more susceptible to recruitment into Boko Haram and other such groups. Similarly, social exclusion and immobility, inequality and lack of purpose make Boko Haram attractive to youth, especially male youth, who seek a sense of faith, cause, belonging, and power. A 2012 National Baseline Survey found that among those who had committed a crime, 74 percent were young men. Thus, while the Chibok kidnapping demanded attention to the significant challenges and adversity faced by the young women of Nigeria, the situation, well-being, and opportunity of all youth clearly warrants a better understanding as well.

Q2: What is the general state of youth in Nigeria?

A2: The horrible fate of the abducted girls sadly reflects the disadvantaged and vulnerable situation faced by many of the 26 million young women in Nigeria, where roughly 40 percent of female youth are illiterate, and fewer than half ever enroll in secondary education. Nearly half of girls are married before their 18th birthday, and 16 percent are married even before they turn 15. In the North East region, child marriage estimates are as high as 68 percent. The bad news is that the situation for the majority of all young Nigerians is also grim. For starters, as many as 90 percent of youth may be living on under $2 a day, and World Bank estimates put youth unemployment at 38 percent—though actual unemployment numbers are likely even higher given the large numbers of young people in the informal and rural sector (the National Bureau of Statistics estimates 54 percent). At the same time, though Nigerian youth demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit and promise in agriculture, they are constrained by corruption, lack of capital or access to land, and a poor business climate (Nigeria ranked 170 out of 189 economies in the latest World Bank’s Doing Business indicators).

In the CSIS Global Youth Wellbeing Index (developed and published April 2014 in partnership with the International Youth Foundation), Nigeria ranked last—30 out of 30 included countries. Nigeria also placed last in terms of the safety and security and education sub-indices, scoring low on systemic and outcome indicators like rights protections, internal peace, trafficking, as well school expectancy and secondary, tertiary enrollment, and youth literacy. Importantly, young Nigerians also expressed dissatisfaction with their education (a cause for dropping out), significant concern for personal safety (a cause to seek protection or act proactively), and, among the citizen participation measures, a very low sense of value in society (which extremist groups can prey on). A recent United Nations violence prevention report also points to a weak situation for youth. For example, while there is a law against gang or criminal group membership, enforcement is limited, and youth violence prevention programs such as life skills training, mentoring, or after school activities are nonexistent or implemented at a very small scale. Youth in Nigeria also suffer in terms of health and economic opportunity—ranking 29 out of 30 and 27 out of 30, respectively, on these Index sub-indices—all of which were unsurprisingly correlated. We also know, even in light of sparse regional data, that more than two-thirds of youth live in rural states and provincial communities where they are likely to be at further educational and economic disadvantage.

Q3: Are there reasons for optimism?

A3: The good news is that young Nigerians can be a force for peace and a constructive voice for government accountability. The 2012 national survey also showed that young people were keen to participate in conflict resolution activities with various organizations including religious institutions, schools, and the police, and in the Index’s citizen participation sub-index, Nigeria scored well above average on feeling served by government. Moreover, when given the chance, young Nigerians demonstrate an overwhelming will to learn, work, and contribute to society in a way that can bring a genuine return on investment in youth development and participation. For while there plainly is a very real danger in generational poverty and rising numbers of youth who lack opportunity and guidance, there is also hope in Nigeria’s rising generation of innovative, entrepreneurial, young men and women fueling economic growth and social progress. Take for example, Oladipupo Ajiroba and Kelvin Ogholi. Ajiroba set up the Environmental Advocacy and Management Initiative, which has engaged more than 10,000 volunteers in campaigns and workshops. After seeing livestock farmers, including his father, struggle to pay for feed, Ogholi cofounded UNFIRE, a social enterprise producing poultry feeds from common organic waste such as mango seeds and seaweed. It costs half the price of normal feed, offering a substantial savings to farmers.

Q4: What can policymakers and donors do to support young people in Nigeria?

A4: The Boko Haram crisis underscores the seriousness of the plight of young people in Nigeria and can serve as a call to action for the international community. Young Nigerians want change and, like youth around the world, will take advantage of opportunities provided. The government of Nigeria and its domestic and international partners in the public, private, and civil society sectors must continue and step up their short- and long-term partnerships and programmatic investments in youth; ensuring conflict sensitivity and scaling proven projects to regions where conditions are weakest and threats are strongest. Nigeria’s social spending remains among the lowest in the world, with health spending at around 1 percent of GDP and education at about 1.5 percent, far below established norms, even in the developing world. The Nigerian government must also strengthen the Federal Ministry of Youth Development and ensure its youth policy and related laws and strategies are fully budgeted, implemented, and evaluated and maintain if not increase its engagement and consultation with young people at all levels. In addition to development assistance for youth programming, the United States and other donors and diplomatic partners can elevate and increase pressure regarding youth matters—especially assuring youth education, economic opportunity, and participation—into its high-level dialogues and policy negotiations like the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission.

Nicole Goldin is a senior associate with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Nicole Goldin
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development