By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Boko Haram has lured young entrepreneurs and business owners in northeast Nigeria to join the Islamist militant group by providing or promising capital and loans to boost their businesses, aid agency Mercy Corps said on Monday.
Seeing successful business ownership as a way to escape poverty, many Nigerian youths - ranging from butchers and beauticians to tailors and traders - accepted loans for their businesses in return for joining Boko Haram, Mercy Corps said.
Yet the lure of business support is often a trap, as those who cannot repay their loans are forced to join the militants or be killed, said the report from the U.S.-based aid agency.
"Boko Haram is tapping into the yearning of Nigerian youth to get ahead in an environment of massive inequality," said report author and Mercy Corps peacebuilding adviser Lisa Inks.
"It is incredibly clever - either such loans breed loyalty or Boko Haram use mafia style tactics to trap and force young people to join them," Inks told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Six in 10 Nigerians live in absolute poverty, on less than one dollar a day, a figure which rises to three quarters of the population in the northeast of the country, according to the latest statistics from Nigeria's National Bureau of Statistics.
Many young people told Mercy Corps they would struggle without the support of powerful "godfathers" to provide capital for their businesses, or cash transfers for equipment and goods.
Boko Haram has therefore been able to fill a critical gap in financial services, said Mercy Corps, which conducted interviews with 145 people including young former Boko Haram members, family of former members, and youths who resisted joining.
The report called for increased access to financial and business services, more support for conflict-hit communities and greater efforts to reintegrate people who have fled Boko Haram.
Women and girls freed from Boko Haram are subjected to discrimination, rejection and persecution from their families and communities when they return home, said a recent report by International Alert and the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF).
A regional offensive by Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon last year drove Boko Haram from much of its territory it held in northern Nigeria, undermining its six-year campaign to carve out an Islamist caliphate.
But the militants have since struck back with suicide bombings and hit and run attacks on civilians.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)