Muhammad Kabir was 19 years old when the Boko Haram insurgency started surfacing in his home city of Maiduguri in North-Eastern Nigeria. In a movement born from poverty, unemployment, and government oppression, the insurgents only attacked government buildings and the military at first. Most people celebrated their acts and even gave them cover. “I began to think,” Muhammad told Peacemaker 360, “that one day these same people who are celebrating will be hunted and become victims as well.”
It turns out, he was right.
“The thirteen states of the North-East and North-West zones of Nigeria have experienced a murderous and devastating insurgency by Boko Haram (BH) since 2009,” he explained. “The BH insurgency has not only dislocated social and economic activities in these states, but also has resulted in at least 20,000 deaths, the enslavement of thousands of girls and women, the forced conscription of thousands of boys and young men into the insurgency, and at least 2.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). The humanitarian costs of this conflict are tremendous, not only to Nigeria but also to the three neighboring countries of Niger, Chad, and Cameroun. Boko Haram has been a major threat to the national and human security of tens of millions of people living in West and Central Africa. The scale and scope of the insurgency varies significantly across different states, regions, and communities. Unfortunately, I happened to find myself in the state, region, and community where it all started and where the impact was tremendously felt.”
To combat this situation, Muhammad focuses on changing the narrative around violence. The prevailing story used by Boko Haram and circulated among Nigerian youth is that violence is justified because violence is the only language government leaders will understand. Muhammad works with local, national, and international organizations (including the United Nations Population Fund, the UN Human Rights Commission, Nigerian Youth Network on Countering Violent Extremism, Young Leadership Association of Nigeria, Bulunkutu Abuja Youth Development Association, and Search for Common Ground) to change that narrative. “The new story,” he told Peacemaker 360, “is that violence cannot be justified, and it has changed the perception of the youth in their various communities and given them the opportunity to be considered and be heard by leaders and other stakeholders.”
The hardest thing about this work for Muhammad is seeing young people allowing themselves to be used, meaning radicalized, manipulated, and brainwashed. But he also draws a lesson from it, learning that groups like BH prey on the specific weaknesses of the youth in different areas in order to radicalize them. These weaknesses include joblessness, illiteracy, and poverty.
The biggest challenge, he says, is reaching fellow youth in remote areas. He does this by partnering with local youth organizations. The young people he meets are also his greatest inspiration, “especially young women who are tirelessly working to make an impact in their communities and the globe at large. . . . There is a saying and I always go by it, ‘when you educate a woman, it is as if you have educated the whole nation;’ when a woman is empowered, the entire nation is empowered. So women activists should keep the ball rolling and should never give up fighting for their rights. In fact, they inspire me the most.”
“I firmly believe that there is no alternative to peace,” Muhammad concluded, “and violence can NEVER be justified. We can only have meaningful development when peace and social justice are allowed to reign in our societies.”
Muhammad Kabir is willing to serve as a resource for other activists countering violent extremism, and may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on twitter @mkabir13_k, and on Facebook as Muhammad Kabir.
Peacemaker 360/ Maija Jespersen