Hope for better jobs eclipses religious ideology as main driver of recruitment to violent extremist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa

New UN Development Programme report findings challenge traditional assumptions about what drives people to violent extremism, and highlight urgent need to move away from security-driven responses to development-based approaches focused on prevention

February 7, 2023

Cash for work as a prevention and an all of society approach of rebuilding communities creates opportunities for people to earn a decent wage, making them less susceptible to the allure of joining violent extremist groups.

UNDP Nigeria / Rejoice Emmanuel

New York — Hope of finding work is the leading factor driving people to join fast-growing violent extremist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new report launched today by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Among nearly 2,200 interviewees, one-quarter of voluntary recruits cited job opportunities as their primary reason for joining, while 40 percent said they were in urgent need of livelihoods at the time of recruitment—a 92 percent increase from the findings of a groundbreaking 2017 UNDP study.

Religion came as the third reason for joining, cited by 17 percent — a 57 percent decrease from the 2017 findings, with a majority of recruits admitting to having limited knowledge of religious texts.

Nearly half of the respondents cited a specific trigger event pushing them to join violent extremist groups, with a striking 71 percent pointing to human rights abuse, often conducted by state security forces, as ‘the tipping point’.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has become the new global epicenter of violent extremism with 48% of global terrorism deaths in 2021. This surge not only adversely impacts lives, security and peace, but also threatens to reverse hard-won development gains for generations to come. Security-driven counter-terrorism responses are often costly and minimally effective, yet investments in preventive approaches to violent extremism are woefully inadequate. The social contract between states and citizens must be reinvigorated to tackle root causes of violent extremism,” UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said.

“Journey to Extremism in Africa: Pathways to Recruitment and Disengagement” draws from interviews with nearly 2,200 people in eight countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan. More than 1,000 interviewees are former members of violent extremist groups, both voluntary and forced recruits.

The report explores pathways out of violent extremism, identifying factors that push or pull recruits to disengage. Interviewees most often cited unmet expectations, particularly financial expectations, and lack of trust in the group’s leadership as their main reasons for leaving. It also presents gendered data to understand violent extremism from the perspective of women.

“Research shows that those who decide to disengage from violent extremism are less likely to re-join and recruit others. This is why it’s so important to invest in incentives that enable disengagement. Local communities play a pivotal role in supporting sustainable pathways out of violent extremism, along with national governments amnesty programmes,” UNDP Preventing Violent Extremism technical lead in Africa Nirina Kiplagat said.

To counter and prevent violent extremism, the report recommends greater investment in basic services including child welfare; education; quality livelihoods; and investing in young men and women. It also calls for scaling-up exit opportunities and investment in rehabilitation and community-based reintegration services.

This report is part of a series of three reports on the prevention of violent extremism, including the report, “Dynamics of Violent Extremism in Africa: Conflict Ecosystems, Political Ecology, and the Spread of the Proto-State” which analyses  the latest dynamics of violent extremist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa and provides recommendations for specific development actions. 

About the Report

“Journey to Extremism in Africa: Pathways to Recruitment and Disengagement,” builds on UNDP’s groundbreaking 2017Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives, and the Tipping Point for Recruitment”.