This article is a response to an email a friend sent me. In the email, my friend pointed out that “Mr Soyinka does not have the right to call UK a cesspit and a breeding ground for terrorist when his home country is battling with religious conflict, exported a terrorist that nearly blew up a plane with 279 passengers and is on US Terror Watchlist”. While her irk, I believe, was not directed at me but at the audacity of Mr Soyinka, I could not help but wonder if terrorism should be, in addition to all other crimes we’ve been known to commit outside the shores of our country, included to the list? In my opinion, I don’t think so. Allow me to explain.
1. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was radicalized in Yemen and possibly, the UK.
Reports that emerged immediately after his attempt to bring down the Northwest Airlines flight, his subsequent arrest and the weeks of investigation that followed showed that growing up, the suspect was a devout Muslim but he was not in the least militant. During his high school years in Togo, he was fondly called ‘Pope’ and ‘Alfa’ because of his pious attitude, “very decent and gentle, in fact a pacifist. His views on religion were very mainstream,” thus indicating that at this stage, he was just a young boy trying to be morally upright as preached in the holy book, Quran. While undertaking his undergraduate studies at the prestigious University College London, Abdulmutallab became the head of a British University Islamic Society (ISOC). It could have been here as the head of ISOC that he became radicalized as he was in the most conducive environment where he can meet and interact with Islamist extremists. The guys over at Christian Science Monitor asks whether the fact that “his four formative years in London coincided with public anger over the Iraq war and the London subway and bus bombing by Islamists in July 2005″ played a role in his terrorist aspirations but one cannot be certain for sure. After graduating from UCL and in between moving first to Egypt, and then Dubai in the United Arab Emirates where he studied for an MBA before dropping out, Abdulmutallab made two trips to Yemen for short Arabic and Islamic courses. It was the trips to Yemen that many believed left a deeper mark on the young man and where he became radicalized. In interviews with FBI agents, Abdulmutallab said he made contact via the Internet with a radical imam in Yemen who then connected him with al Qaeda leaders in a village north of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Additionally, he said he lived with the al Qaeda leader in Yemen for about a month and was not allowed to leave as he was trained in what to do and how to explode the bomb device.
From the above brief investigation reports, one needn’t be a rocket scientist to realize that the only link between the suspect and Nigeria stems from his nationality- a Nigerian, though he is of a different pedigree than most Nigerians of his age. Does being Nigerian automatically makes him or other Nigerians a terrorist? No. One thing to remember about Abdulmuttalab, in addition to the fact that he was not radicalized in Nigeria, is this: his formative years- a period of psychological, ideological and identity development- was spent outside the shores of Nigeria, in Togo and UK respectively. This fact says more about where the real terror threat is (and is not) coming from. Also, his elite upbringing and background puts in a different class from most Nigerians and into that of known international terrorists. Dayo Olopade in her article points out that “like Bin Laden, [Abdulmutallab] is an affluent cosmopolite whose wealth allowed him to move with ease from Lagos to London to Dubai, as a result, joins a group of attackers, from Zazi to “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla to “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid, who have spent significant amounts of time in Europe or the United States.” Also, let’s not forget that Abdulmutallab’s father, was so disturbed by his son’s radicalization that he reported him to the American authorities. Surely, this is not a sign of a country filled with homegrown terrorists out to destroy America and her interests, no?
2. Religious conflict does not prove that Nigerian Muslims are nut jobs out to harm America and rid the world of western influences.
I’d have to go into far more detail than a blog post allows to fully analyze the cause of the religio-tribal conflict in Northern Nigeria, but I think one can safely assume that the vast majority of these conflicts stems from misunderstanding between local tribes, struggle for resources, poverty or political struggle manipulated by the ruling elite, and confused or potrtrayed as religious conflict by the media. Again, my point is not to prove that some of the conflicts aren’t strictly religious in its context. In fact, the Boko Haram incident of July last year is a recent example of religious/terror inclined clash but the fact that it was quickly quelled by the Nigerian police and armed forces, and condemned by the national body of Muslims shows that Nigeria is highly unlikely to become the next Afghanistan or even Yemen, or even a supporter of those who do. Which bring me to my main point: religious clashes and by extension extremism in the Northen Nigeria have been less about ‘religion’ itself and more about general dissatisfaction among many due to lack of rule of law and functioning institutions. I know we have a lot of things wrong at home but active exportation of jihad and jihadists abroad is NOT one of them.
Should we be worried at all?
Of course not but as a country, we should be watchful lest we fall and become that we thought we would never be. The above analysis points to the fact the majority of clashes stems from general dissatisfaction, poverty and misunderstanding. The policy and political implications are clear. In fact, Nneoma’s write-up on the importance of education of boys, which presented the World Bank findings that countries with a low rate of secondary school attainment amongst young males are more likely to be conflict-prone attests to this. It goes without saying that conflict-ridden countries serve as a breeding and recruitment ground for would-be terrorist (see Afghanistan, Iraq). To prevent the constant occurrence of clashes of various kinds, thus a de-facto breeding ground for both local and international terrorists, our government must, in addition to fulfilling its other legitimate duties, actively seek ways to use education as a strategy to reduce the risk of political violence, particularly among the Nigerian youth.
Which brings me back to Mr. Soyinka, I understand his frustration and why he’s not happy about Nigeria being on the terror watch list. If anything, Abdulmuttalab’s case tells us less about radicalization in Nigeria and more about radicalization in the UK or elsewhere. Also, attributing the various religio-tribal conflicts in Northern Nigeria as signs that the country is on its way to becoming the next terrorist hotspot shows deep lack of understanding of political realities on the ground, as they may have nothing to do with international terrorism but more about local radicals motivated by local grievances and politics.