"We Were Changing the World": Radicalization and Empowerment among Young People Associated with Armed Opposition Groups in Northeast NigeriaThe conflict in northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin has evolved in complexity and intensity since 2009, with armed opposition groups (AOGs) like Boko Haram demonstrating the ability tomobilize support and offer disaffected youth a sense of belonging, purpose, and community. As the violent conflict enters its tenth year, there is a need for a new strategy that examines the assets and agencies of vulnerable youth, prioritizes positive youth development (PYD) approaches to transforming radicalization, and creates humanizing offramps for radicalized youth to reintegrate into society. Current interventions around rehabilitation and reintegration, structured as they are around victims – the abducted women, boys, and girls – are not effective for the category of young people studied who choose to be part of AOGs. That women and girls are denied agency and men and boys seen as only perpetrators is problematic for those concerned. As leadership of AOGs fragments along ideological lines, there is a unique opportunity to strengthen direct engagement with those who have left or wish to leave these groups. That these opportunities were not available to young people before or open to them now is an indictment of age (and gender) hierarchies in mainstream society.

This study, a companion to an earlier EAI report, “Two Sides of the Same Coin,” (released in May 2018),
contributes to understanding the relationship between empowerment and radicalization through in-depth
interviews with 22 young people who were ideologically aligned members of AOGs in northeast Nigeria. Our
findings aim to strengthen a shared agenda and address evidence gaps related to DDRR efforts by examining
young peoples’ assets, agencies, and resiliencies in northeast Nigeria. It is clear from respondents interviewed that current interventions (or the lack thereof) are not working. Alternative approaches, described herein, to empower individuals to increase self-awareness, self-responsibility, agency, belonging, and involvement in social change need to be developed. Governments and implementers must be comfortable with taking risks and trying new approaches, including direct engagement with radicalized individuals and ex-members. By understanding the journeys of young people before, during, and after association with AOGs it is possible to create offramps for reorienting young people towards inclusive and constructive opportunities for self-actualization, civic engagement, and social change.

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