Religious Education: A Tool for Countering Violent Extremism in Northern Nigeria

by Hadjara Shibkau

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Nigeria returned to democracy in May 1999. Since then, armed non-state groups, largely using young men as foot soldiers, have significantly undermined the country’s internal security. Many young people become radicalized and have joined these armed groups, the most well-known being Boko Haram. Boko Haram’s ideology is premised on an extreme Islamic teaching that rejects most Western ideas and institutions as un-Islamic. This rejection earned the group its popular name: Boko Haram literally means “Western education is forbidden.”

High levels of social marginalization and fragmentation due to poor governance and a lack of religious literacy are some of the root causes of extremism in Nigeria. This has created sects in both Islam and Christianity out of which independent preachers have arisen. As a result, young people are extremely susceptible to recruitment and radicalization by these roaming clerics, the extremist groups they represent, and the frequently distorted ideologues they proclaim. In the case of Boko Haram, members are primarily (but not only) drawn from among disaffected youth, unemployed high school and university graduates, destitute children and street beggars in northern Nigeria. Nevertheless, its membership also includes in its number wealthy, educated, and influential individuals.

Since religion plays a dominant role in the life of a typical Nigerian, religious education has become a tool for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).  In fact, some states are advocating the use of this strategic tool at the high school level. In addition, Nigeria has also developed a National CVE Program to reduce violent extremism in the country. However, I think the national CVE program is not sufficient to tackle the issue. We have to make sure the communities affected – especially women and youth (who are mostly deeply rooted in religious beliefs), religious leaders, community leaders – receive appropriate training that will equip them to stand up to extreme voices and empower them to deny violent extremists a platform.

Some of these religious actors do promote peace and tolerance while preaching. They can effectively present counter-narratives within their own specific faith tradition, sect or group.

In some cases, however, that is not the reality.  Therefore, there is the need for Nigeria to monitor and regulate religious preaching in the public sector in collaboration with civil society organisations (e.g. in Gombe State).  Another strategy of the federal government is to create jobs for Nigerian youth. The aim of this policy is to effectively reduce poverty and increase human capital development programs for youth who are most vulnerable to recruitment and radicalization.  The federal government has also encouraged the religious leaders and civil society in Nigeria to use the mass media to pass messages, amplify voices and provide counter-narratives. There are also opportunities provided within a number of Nigerian states to engage in intra- and interfaith dialogues (e.g. Kano, Kaduna, Plateau and Gombe) that engage all religious leaders and communities to discuss a way forward for peace and tolerance.

Nevertheless, Nigeria needs to train religious leaders to acquire the knowledge and understanding necessary for the work of countering violent extremism, which includes developing the capacity to place it in culturally and religiously relevant frameworks. It is imperative that Nigeria enhance the provision and quality of its education programs. Many youth and women are illiterate, especially in Northern Nigeria, and this contributes to their vulnerability of being coerced into religious violence. In addition, Nigeria has many destitute children who are prone to recruitment by religious extremists. It is recommended that the Nigerian government should increase funding for the National Council for the Welfare of the Destitute and encourage its partnerships with civil society organisations. The aim of doing so is to develop and advance training programs that enable destitute children to effectively and efficiently function in society.

The religious violence that has occurred in Nigeria in the past ten years issues a critical call that must immediately be addressed. Ignorance of true religious teachings and disrespect toward human rights are major causes of the increase in youth radicalization and religious extremism. Thousands of people have been displaced and private and public properties have been destroyed.  Therefore, supporting religious actors as viable advocates in addressing the political dynamics that contribute to violent extremism, and even as potential intermediaries with extremists, is critical to the security of Nigeria and harmonious relations between its diverse citizens. Poverty, unemployment, and the neglect of children heighten the potential that young people will fall prey to violent extremism. For example, Boko Haram has leveraged this vulnerability to deepen their process of recruitment and radicalization, especially in northern Nigeria. Thus, any attempt to effectively reduce religious violence in that region must account for these factors. According to Freedom C. Onuoha, “Addressing the conditions that make it possible for insurgents to recruit from the pool of young men in Nigeria can significantly diminish the strength of the insurgency, if not eliminate it altogether.”

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