Unemployment driving young Africans into extremist militant groups, says the UN

Rural Niger offers young men no way to make a living, forcing huge numbers to emigrate and others to turn to crime

After you come of age in rural Niger, there are not many opportunities, says Abdoul Madjid, a 21-year-old who lives in Chadakori in the southern Maradi region.

His village of about 8,000 people is a quiet place, where donkeys pull loads through the streets and children direct them. Chickens and a kitten roam around Madjid’s small home, which he shares with his parents and seven siblings.

Madjid finished his education early. He completed four years of secondary school, but then failed his exams twice. That meant that he was no longer allowed to attend lessons for free: a problem that affects many young Nigeriens, he said, because they cannot focus on studies when they are distracted by “financial needs”.

Now the young man trades in clothes, biscuits, chocolate and sweets. He is lucky: he has a supportive mother and was able to raise some money to get started. “Many want to be like me but they don’t have capital. They are jealous,” he remarks.


For young Nigeriens without means, there are limited options. Many go on what is called “exodus”, moving abroad to countries such as Gabon and Ivory Coast, where they labour in construction or gold mines. Not many – but “some” – aim for Europe, Madjid says; the journey is expensive, reliable information about the route is hard to come by, and success is far from guaranteed. Other young people drive rented taxis or motorbikes for one-off fees; a salaried job is almost unheard of.

Niger, a landlocked west African country, is one of the world’s poorest states. The World Bank put its 2021 GDP per capita at $590

Though it is not common where he lives, Madjid says he can also imagine young people being tempted by another option: joining criminal or militant groups. “They have nothing [else] to do.”

Niger, a landlocked west African country, is one of the world’s poorest states. The World Bank put its 2021 GDP per capita at $590. It islocated in the Sahel region, where terrorism, conflict and insurgencies have displaced millions of people over more than a decade. According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, nearly 8,000 people were killed in the Sahel last year as a result of violent events involving militant Islamist groups: a 130 per cent increase on 2020.

Climate change, unemployment, poverty and inequality, along with a population boom, are worsening the problems, according to some authorities, locals and humanitarian workers. Niger has so far mostly been spared the extreme level of insecurity seen in neighbouring countries, but is that likely to change?

Ongoing debate

A debate is ongoing about how violence in this region can be stopped and what the Sahel’s future might look like. Underlying that are attempts to understand the cause of the conflicts. Is insecurity being fuelled by climate change? Do poverty and inequality stem from war? Or is it the other way around?

“We have a huge demographic pressure,” says Laouan Magagi, Niger’s minister of humanitarian affairs, during an interview in his office in capital Niamey.

Niger’s population of roughly 25 million people is expected to grow to as many as 68 million by 2050. Magagi says the government is trying to reduce the average number of children that women give birth to from seven to four, through education in sexual and reproductive health. Every year, 600,000 children reach the age where they should enter education, he says, and “in order to host them in school you need 12,000 schools”. This is not possible for Niger’s government to provide without international support, Magagi says.

Of course, he adds, he is worried about the growing number of unemployed young people and whether this might cause a security risk in the future. “There is a huge risk, that’s why migration is happening. If we keep them here it’s a boomerang effect, they can be recruited by groups.”

In February, a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said the desire for employment was the leading factor driving people to join violent extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa. The report drew on interviews with nearly 2,200 people in eight countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. Sub-Saharan Africa is “the new global epicentre of violent extremism”, UNDP administrator Achim Steiner said, with 48 per cent of global terrorism deaths taking place there in 2021.

The UNDP’s findings echoed interviews done by The Irish Times in northeast Nigeria in late 2021. A nearly 14-year-old Islamist insurgency continues to rage there, with much emphasis placed on militants’ desires to carve out a caliphate, but former members of the once Islamic State-aligned Boko Haram said they joined the group for economic and financial reasons. After defecting, some even said that they would consider joining again if they had no other way to support themselves and their families.

Officials have been warning about the dangers stemming from unemployment for years. “Youth under 25 years of age form the largest demographic constituency in West Africa and the Maghreb and are disproportionately affected by the growing unemployment in the Sahel region. Unemployed youth are particularly vulnerable to religious radicalisation,” said a 2014 submission to the UN Security Council. Since then, recruitment has continued along with violence.

The recent UN report made recommendations aimed at countering and preventing violent extremism, which included making a greater investment in basic services including child welfare, education; and quality livelihoods.

‘Game changer’

Ilaria Manunza, Niger country director for Save the Children, says the humanitarian community, donors and Niger’s government know that they need to focus more on youth employment, and they have begun to talk about it quite intensely. “We understand that that’s possibly the game changer… That would help, definitely, in reducing the number of youth joining non-state armed groups.” She says young people joining for financial reasons is “a phenomenon that is growing… They are attracted by salaries, or even one-off [payments]: €100, €150.”

You’re 20 times more likely to be in extreme poverty growing up in conflict-affected states than you are in a stable state

—  David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee

Such views about the risk of recruitment associated with unemployment or inequality are not shared by all NGOs. David Miliband, head of humanitarian organisation the International Rescue Committee, which works in Niger, disputed that inequality and poverty play a major role in fuelling insecurity. Speaking on the phone from nearby Cameroon in late January, he said the “greatest security threats [in the region] are arising from conflict, and to some extent from climate”.

“You’re 20 times more likely to be in extreme poverty growing up in conflict-affected states than you are in a stable state,” said Miliband, who has been criticised for taking an annual salary of more than $1 million (€945,000). “But I think most people would say that it’s conflict that drives inequality rather than inequality that drives conflict.”

Is it possible to quantify the role of climate change in all of this? The UN has said that temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, making the region one of the most affected in the world. This is despite the fact that five Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – contribute less than 1 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change exacerbates competition for resources, and large swathes of land were inhospitable anyway, with about 80 per cent of Niger covered by desert; roughly the same percentage of the country’s population who are dependent on agriculture to survive. “Climate change is severely affecting people and undermining hard-won development gains. The analysis shows that it is deepening cycles of poverty, fragility and vulnerability across the Sahel,” said World Bank vice-president for western and Central Africa, Ousmane Diagana, last year.

Climate change means harvests are less productive, they say, making it impossible to survive as they traditionally have

In 2021, Ireland and Niger jointly proposed a resolution focused on the links between climate change and insecurity in the UN Security Council, but it was vetoed by Russia. “Research and evidence on the ground show clearly that climate change is creating insecurity and instability. This council will never live up to its mandate for international peace and security if it does not adapt,” the countries said in a statement afterwards.

The discussion goes on. Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which collects statistics and information related to conflicts in the Sahel, says he thinks the role played by climate change and poverty when it comes to recruitment by militant groups are both “secondary”.

“It is a multidimensional crisis indeed, but I still don’t think one should put too much weight on either of them. Climate change affects people pretty much all over the world. And the same with poverty, but it’s not that all poor people take up arms. So there are many other kinds of dynamics and historical perceptions of injustice, ethnic competition, or competition over access to land, resources. Above all, injustice plays a significant role.”

Few opportunities

He says that while there are “certainly economic incentives for many people who join these groups… it takes specific circumstances for a person to engage in a conflict and take up arms”.

But for those living in Niger’s in rural areas who spoke to The Irish Times, both climate change and unemployment were top of their lists in terms of the problems they are facing, and the link with insecurity seemed obvious to many. Climate change means harvests are less productive, they say, making it impossible to survive as they traditionally have. Beyond farming, their children are left with few opportunities to build any kind of life.

“Our worry here nowadays is young people, boys and girls,” says Madjid’s mother, Rakia Mamoudu, in Chadakori. “They’re jobless, unemployed and they have no future prospects in their life. This worries us. These people need to be taken care of by the government or NGOs, otherwise later it will be a serious problem. Stealing, banditry, they will end up in this.”