MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Using every resource from psychologists to agriculture experts and security forces, the Nigerian state at the heart of an Islamic uprising hopes to reach a reservoir of angry and rootless young men easily recruited by Islamic extremists and transform them into productive members of society.
"We are trying to look inward at what is the immediate cause and who are these people" in the Islamic sect, Boko Haram, that has morphed into a terrorist network, Zanna Mustapha, deputy governor of Borno state, told The Associated Press.
Mustapha heads a high-ranking committee that is seeking to stem the root causes of extremism in Borno, one of three northeastern states under a 3-month-old state of emergency.
One way to prevent further radicalization of the population is by "transforming" the lives of thousands of unemployed, restive young people disenchanted with life, the committee concluded.
"A hungry man is an angry man," Mustapha said. "The angriness of youth in society has made it easy for whoever wants to recruit them" especially Boko Haram — the extremist group whose name means "Western education is forbidden" and which is blamed for the deaths of more than 1,700 people since 2010, according to a count by AP.
Mustapha said Boko Haram members "are living inside society."
Ordinary residents of a typically poor neighborhood — a warren of mud brick buildings without running water or electricity — told a reporter that more than half the people living there before the military crackdown that began May 14 were members of Boko Haram.
In some areas of Maiduguri, the birthplace of the extremist movement, up to 60 percent of residents belonged to Boko Haram, said an unemployed 40-year-old carpenter in the Moduganari neighborhood, where the stench of open drains filled with excrement and other filth is pervasive. He refused to give his name because he said he could be killed.
He said the Islamic extremists have split families: In his neighborhood, he said every second family has a son or sons who have joined the extremists. Conversely, he added, the extremists have killed at least one member of virtually every family in the neighborhood.
A major problem Mustapha identified is the practice among poor Muslim families of sending children as young as six to go to Islamic schools where they live with a Muslim cleric where they learn nothing but how to recite the Quran. They grow up with no skills and once they reach their teens are abandoned to fend for themselves on the streets, he said.
"Some have been here for 20 years and don't remember where they are from or who their family is," Mustapha said.
Using psychologists, agriculturists, technicians, civil society leaders, security and other forces he hopes "to transform these youths ... to talk to them to change (their) minds."
Mustapha said they plan to train some 15,000 young people by the end of the year — an ambitious program in Nigeria where much state money is diverted to the pockets of politicians and contractors and many grandiose schemes have come to nothing.
Opposition politician Babagana Musa cast doubt on Mustapha's plan. He accused Mustapha's All Nigeria Peoples Party, or ANPP, of failing to bring projects to fruition which has contributed to Boko Haram's growth.
"The incompetence of the present government in Borno state leads to so many hardships; so many pledges made by the present ANPP are not fulfilled; and due to lapses of the ANPP government, they cannot show a single project that they have executed in the past two years."
But Mustapha's plan was praised as a "very good initiative" by Michael Femi Sodipo of the Peace Initiative Network based in the northern city of Kano. Anything that will engage the youth and take them out of their volatile and restive state" is positive, said Sodipo. He praised a similar plan in Kano, where he said the state government has taken hundreds of youths off the street and employed them as security guards.
Throughout the Nigeria, there are millions of marginalized young people. Official statistics say 63 percent of Nigeria's 160 million people are under 25 and about 37 percent of young people are unemployed. The poverty and unemployment much worse in Nigeria's Muslim-dominated north than in the oil-producing and mainly Christian south. Some estimate that more than 50 percent of those aged 18 to 30 are unemployed in the north.
Christopher Benjamin, a 28-year-old Christian, said nearly half his friends are unemployed and the rest, like him, do menial work despite professional qualifications.
Benjamin helps support his five siblings as a hotel room cleaner on a salary of 16,000 naira ($100) a month that is barely enough to feed himself. He said his girlfriend is getting angry because he cannot afford to marry.
"My friends are selling onions and kola nuts on the roadside. The lucky ones are taxi drivers and bricklayers," says Benjamin, who earned a diploma in marketing in 2002 but has never got a job in that field.
It is the unemployed young that deputy governor Mustapha hopes to reach with the training program.
Mustapha said he plans this month to start training 800 young people to create community watchdog groups as paid civilian security guards.
Others among the young and unemployed can be trained to be part of the "agricultural revolution" — a federal government project to make this mass food importer return to self-sufficiency, he said, adding, "We want to convert them to become very usable to society, the community and the state."