UNODC Commemorates the International Day for the Prevention of Violent Extremism: Interview with Dr. Abiye Iruayenama

February 2023 – On the International Day for the Prevention of Violent Extremism, UNODC sat down with Dr. Abiye Iruayenama, a leading specialist in preventing and countering violent extremism in Nigeria, to talk about the current and future climate for the prevention of violent extremism in Nigeria.

Dr. Iruayenama is an expert socio-cognitive research psychologist, with extensive experience providing technical assistance to UN funded rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for children associated with armed groups, as well as building the capacities of state authorities, non-state actors, youth and local communities in Nigeria, to counter extremism. Previously he led the psychology, research, and policy department at the NEEM Foundation, which is responsible for offering counselling and instituting peacebuilding mechanisms in rural and hard-to-reach communities affected by the insurgency in Nigeria. Through this department, over 20,000 people affected by the insurgency have received psychosocial care and several peace mechanisms were established in remote communities in Northeast Nigeria, since 2017.

Dr. Iruayenama also contributed to the development of a publication by Hedayah, Blueprint of a Rehabilitation and Reintegration Center, which sets guiding principles aimed at supporting governments to set up rehabilitation and reintegration mechanisms for foreign terrorist fighters and their families. Under UNODC’s STRIVE Juvenile project, funded by the European Union, Dr. Iruayenama provides psychosocial expertise on children associated with violent extremist groups. Dr. Iruayenama holds a PhD in Psychology from Brunel University and Master of Science in Psychology, from the University of Sunderland.

  1. Over the course of your work in the prevention of violent extremism (PVE) space, you have conducted a number of interviews with people involved in the insurgency in Northeast Nigeria. Based on these interviews, what can you say are some of the main drivers behind joining violent extremist groups?

The question is not just about the main drivers, it is also about how these drivers interact among themselves along non-linear micro, meso, and macro levels.  For instance, it is not enough to use broad strokes such as socioeconomic or geopolitical factors, or to break it down to smaller factors such as poverty, religious extremism, anger towards the government, disenfranchisement, mass unemployment, or lack of education. One must also consider how poverty influences the individual at a personal level, socioeconomic level, within a system of government and its national, regional, and global influences. How does lack of education make an individual vulnerable? What are the socioeconomic consequences of lack of education on development and technological innovation in the environment the individual resides in? What State initiatives exist to build more schools and equip existing ones? How has the lack of adequate schools impacted the individual? How does poverty interact with lack of education? Not every educated person escapes poverty and not all illiterates live in poverty. How does living in poverty push the individual toward radicalization? How do non-State armed actors offer a way out of poverty and pull the individual toward violent extremism? How is injustice perceived at the personal, social, and institutional level? What instances of injustice has the individual experienced at a personal level, or against his or her group or ideology that pushes the individual against the State? What avenues for revenge do non-State armed actors pull in marginalised individuals with? Does it make a difference if the individual is illiterate and/or living in poverty? Unemployed? Indoctrinated? Abducted? Coerced? Traumatized? (these are aspects to consider).

  1. The first edition of the Journey to Extremism in Africa report published by UNDP (the second edition was recently published Journey to Extremism in Africa: Pathways to Recruitment and Disengagement report), highlighted that several respondents who had been recruited by violent extremist groups cited a "low level of trust in government authorities (police, military and politicians)" and "disaffection with government" as a significant grievance that influenced their decision to join violent extremist groups. In your opinion and based on the work you have conducted in the field, how can new and existing PVE strategies and programmes in Nigeria, respond to these grievances to build community resilience to violent extremist groups?

Responses must be holistic and multifaceted. On a national and international scale, PVE strategies should be geared toward positively enabling good governance, protection of human rights, transparency, and accountability from State and non-State actors. This should include research as well as enforcing, reviewing, and drafting laws, policies and frameworks that protect individuals and communities, such as compliance with the Child’s Rights Act, for instance. At the meso level, there should be a safety net for the most vulnerable communities and individuals at risk. There should not only be availability of schools but the provision of adequate human and non-human resources, as it should be for health centres and opportunities for honest livelihoods. Advocacy and activities should include innovative, yet culturally appropriate ways to transcend the prevalent divisive nature of differences in ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and religion. At the micro level, we need to adjust our preoccupation with focusing on risks and  the negative characteristics of individuals, but instead focus on enhancing their inherent and potential strengths. We need to address the effects of widespread exposure to traumatic events through the provision of psychosocial interventions. We need equity at the individual level, empowering women and youth who have been historically disadvantaged but not leaving out underprivileged men in communities who have also been historically disadvantaged. 

  1. From your experience, what are some of the best methods that have been used in Nigeria, as part of broader national efforts to prevent violent extremism? 

Recognition at the national level of the need to set up the country’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Programme through the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), launched in 2015, as well as the setup of a rehabilitation and transit centre, showed good political will and State action to include a non-kinetic approach to the problem of terrorism. One of the successes of ONSA’s CVE programme is the incorporation of de-radicalization into correctional services. The CVE programme continues to exist across different administrations and presidents. The National Counter Terrorism Strategy has paved the way for different institutions to understand their specific roles in countering violent extremism. The PAVE Network, a multi-stakeholder network has also been helpful in engaging various stakeholders in the fight against violent extremism.  The coordination among non-State actors such as INGOs, NGOs and other civil society organisations through sector and sub-sector working groups, as well as with state actors, needs much improvement but has nonetheless been useful. The provision of mental health and psychosocial support to survivors has also been very useful, particularly, when this support is sustained over a period of time. Engagement with the international community to adhere to, or aspire to adhere to global best practices, conventions, protocols and resolutions, as well as engagement with local communities to seek locally led solutions to the problem of violent extremism is also a commendable approach. UN agencies such as UNDP, UNICEF, IOM, UNODC and UNFPA have been useful in addressing specific issues tied to their mandate. NGOs and INGOs have also been useful in providing various types of support, as well as civil society organisations. Bilateral and multilateral linkages with countries in the Lake Chad Basin has also proven  efficient in tackling violent extremism in this region. Nonetheless, a lot more needs to be done.

  1. Considering the mass defections taking place in the Northeast, how do you think Nigeria can leverage on this to enhance the effectiveness of its PVE efforts? 

The mass defections are what we have long hoped for, to win the war as it were, through the non-kinetic approach of creating the right conditions to influence defection, rather than through kinetic approaches only, which although useful, can sometimes foster more grievances towards the State and possibly lead to more recruits, as highlighted in the UNDP report you mentioned earlier. 

How the mass defectors are handled can be pivotal for PVE in our context. There is a lot to be said here but I would like to keep it short with three salient points. Firstly, immediate needs must be addressed, such as the provision of adequate shelter, food, water, hygiene, and access to healthcare. Secondly, all parties must be recognized. It is not just about the State or between the State and the defectors alone, it is also about the survivors, some of whom have lost everything. It is about current extremists who might defect if the conditions are right, and individuals at risk of joining Non-State Armed Groups. Approaches must find a delicate balance for all parties involved. For instance, it might be important to keep to the promise of non-prosecution upon surrender to further influence more defectors and prevent recidivism, but it is just as important to provide justice to the survivors and to uphold the rule of law. It is important to address the socioeconomic vulnerabilities of defectors, but it is also important to address these vulnerabilities among survivors in ways that are non-tokenistic and non-patronising. In any case, interventions should be hyper-localised and expert knowledge must be transferred to locally rooted actors conversant with the historic, contemporary, and imagined future realities of the affected communities.

The third point I would like to make is that there is a fundamental problem in the way we think about rehabilitation in our context. We are over reliant on rehabilitating the individual but ignore the environmental needs and grievances that radicalized the individual in the first place and continues to radicalize many more. In the beginning of this interview, I spoke about the complex drivers of radicalization leading to violent extremism; push and pull factors operating through non-linear and interacting micro, meso, and macro levels. Rehabilitating defectors, which is currently tasking given the numbers, typically attempts to address the issue at the micro level, sending these individuals back to communities with perhaps, even worsened meso and macro conditions that radicalized  them in the first place.

  1. With the elections just around the corner, if you could offer just one piece of advice to the next incoming government to reduce the threat of violent extremism in Nigeria, what would it be?

As a country with a recent history of military rule, it is important to pay attention to the radically unequal power dynamics between security sectors and civilians, particularly civilians of low socioeconomic status. Abuse of power fuels unrest and feelings of marginalisation, disenfranchisement, and vengeance. Effective counterterrorism and human rights should not be viewed as conflicting goals but rather as complementary and mutually reinforcing.

To add to that, I would like to say that the incoming government would need to note that we can’t keep doing the same thing and hope for a different result. We would need to honestly consider all our approaches thus far to ascertain what works, when, why and how, as well as what has not worked. We need to be prudent in how we allocate resources and shift our focus from outcomes to impact. The State must do a better job at meaningfully engaging youth, as extremists seem to be much better at winning over youth, who form a critical part of their fighting force. We must address unequal power dynamics across gender and advocate for this to start at home, from girl child education to harmful cultural practices. State actors must be given positions based on merit and seek more inclusion of women and youth of merit. Survivors need justice and the country needs accountability, survivors need healing, and the country needs protection from terrorism and violence. Survivors need restitution, and the country needs safety nets for the most vulnerable; the list goes on and on.