How religious leaders can help ex-Boko Haram fighters return to society

A new study co-authored by Yale political scientist Elizabeth Nugent and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that radio messages delivered by a highly regarded religious leader promoting the forgiveness of repentant ex-Boko Haram fighters made people more willing to accept the former extremists back home and to believe that their neighbors also support reintegration. Messages from trusted religious authorities can persuade people to reintegrate former Boko Haram fighters into the Nigerian communities terrorized by the violent extremist group for more than a decade. 

The results suggest a possible low-cost and effective method for changing people’s minds about reintegrating former fighters, which could help to end a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, subjected hundreds of school-aged girls to kidnappings, and displaced millions of people, Nugent said.

The study is particularly timely given that thousands of Boko Haram fighters have surrendered to the Nigerian military since May, when the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, killed himself with a bomb blast to escape capture by a rival extremist faction.

Nugent and the study’s other lead authors — Graeme Blair of the University of California-Los Angeles, Rebecca Littman of the University of Illinois Chicago, and Rebecca Wolfe of the University of Chicago — partnered with the global humanitarian and development organization Mercy Corps to design and conduct an experiment in Maiduguri, Nigeria, the birthplace of Boko Haram. In the experiment, 1,452 adult Muslim residents underwent a detailed informed consent procedure in which they were assigned to listen to either a treatment radio message from a religious leader or a placebo message unrelated to the conflict with Boko Haram.

The study showed that the religious leader’s message significantly increased support for reintegration and willingness to interact with ex-Boko Haram fighters. For example, 60% of respondents in the placebo group said that they thought former fighters should be reintegrated into the community. This number increased by 10 percentage points among those who listened to the religious message. The willingness to interact with the ex-fighter — trade or meet with him, vote for him, invite him to weddings, etc.— was nine percentage points higher among the treatment group versus the placebo group across the survey categories measuring behavioral intentions, according to the study.

The study’s other co-authors are Mohammed Bukar of Mobukar Research Consultancy Services, Benjamin Crisman of Princeton University, Anthony Etim of Mercy Corps, and Chad Hazlett and Jiyoung Kim of UCLA.


Read the full article on YaleNews.