Thousands of members of Boko Haram, the homegrown extremist group that has terrorized northeastern Nigeria for over a decade, have recently defected and are hoping to reintegrate into their former communities. But whether locals accept them may depend in large part on messaging from religious leaders, according to a study by UCLA researchers and colleagues.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that radio-style messages from a respected local Muslim cleric focusing on forgiveness toward the former militants significantly increased community members’ willingness to accept their return home.

“The idea that religious leaders can effectively advocate for positive social change is as old as religion itself,” said co-author Graeme Blair, a UCLA assistant professor of political science. “But with scarce resources to spend on this pressing problem in Nigeria, we wanted to deliver clear evidence for policymakers about what works. Sharing messages from religious leaders encouraging reconciliation is not only effective but cost-effective.”

The researchers sought to understand how to improve community acceptance of former militants in Maiduguri, Nigeria, the birthplace of the rebel group and an area deeply affected by the conflict, which has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions. Of the nearly 1,500 study participants, 67% had had a relative abducted or killed by Boko Haram, and many had witnessed killings or had been tortured themselves.

“The question of whether former Boko Haram fighters will be able to return home is vitally important not just because disarmed fighters await reintegration but also for ending the conflict and preventing the proliferation of new armed groups,” said co-author Chad Hazlett, a UCLA associate professor of political science and statistics. “Many fighters still hiding in the forest may no longer wish to fight but will not lay down arms if returning home and facing their neighbors would be impossible or dangerous.”

In addition to UCLA’s Blair and Hazlett, Jiyoung Kim, a UCLA doctoral student in political science, was a co-author of the study. Other co-authors included Rebecca Littman of the University of Illinois–Chicago, Elizabeth Nugent of Yale University, Rebecca Wolfe of the University of Chicago, Mohammed Bukar of Mobukar Research Consultancy Services, Benjamin Crisman of Princeton University and Anthony Etim of the international humanitarian and development agency Mercy Corps.

The team worked with Mercy Corps to implement the study in neighborhoods and camps for internally displaced persons in Maiduguri, where they randomly offered community members the chance to listen to one of two simulated radio broadcasts.

The first featured a respected sheikh talking about the importance of forgiveness in the Islamic tradition, announcing that he would forgive the former militants and calling on listeners to do the same. The second, a “placebo” recording, included only information on health and hygiene.

When participants were subsequently asked about a hypothetical former Boko Haram fighter who wanted to return to their community, 70% of those who heard the forgiveness messaging said they were willing to have him return, compared with 60% of those who had heard the other message — a significant 10-percentage-point difference.

“It’s difficult to change attitudes, particularly in such charged areas,” said Bukar. “But we asked a number of different questions and found that even though the forgiveness messaging didn’t make feelings like anger and fear go away, it still changed people’s willingness to accept them back and interact with them, which is crucial.”

The researchers found that the messaging also had a positive impact on people’s willingness to trade with the former militants, have them marry into their families and allow them to participate in politics.

“This seems like a promising start tackling a very difficult problem,” said Radha Rajkotia, chief research and policy officer for Innovations for Poverty Action. “And it comes at a critical time. If we want to successfully wind down protracted conflicts, we need programs like these.”

Sheikh Goni Muhammad Sa’ad Ngamdu, who made the recording used in the study, said the findings highlight the important role religious leaders like himself can play in promoting peace.

“I urge religious leaders to look at these findings [and] think about how they’d benefit the region, how they could help bring about an end to the conflict,” he said. “It is their duty to use their platforms and spread the word that reintegration, done the right way, could finally bring lasting peace back to the region.”

The study’s findings, said Hazlett, have implications not only for Nigeria but for conflicts in many parts of the world.

“What we learn here about the willingness to reconcile and what influences it will also be instructive for other settings facing the challenge of what to do with returning fighters and collaborators from recent violence, such as in Syria, Iraq and Mali,” he said.

Funding for this project was provided in part by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office through an award to Innovation for Poverty Action’s Peace and Recovery Program.