No one thinks of himself as a terrorist.
“Not even members of Boko Haram,” said Dr. Bukola Oyeniyi, assistant professor of history.
Oyeniyi, who is from Nigeria, has spent the last 10 years researching the roots of terrorism in West Africa.
Looking at terrorism’s Latin root words “terrorem,” which means to instill great fear or dread, and “terrere,” which means to fill with fear or to frighten, his definition of terrorism includes individual, group and state activities.
“The definition is always what others do to us. It’s always going to be a guy or group on the other side of the street.”
His work helps governments address roots of issue
Approximately 50 agitators or groups exist in West Africa. Oyeniyi has written and presented extensively around the world on Boko Haram, which has garnered attention from the media since it was assembled in the early 2000s.
According to Oyeniyi, this group is easier to study than most since the founder, Muhammed Yusuf, recorded sermons and distributed them widely in the form of CDs, DVDs and leaflets in the early 2000s.
“There are people who will come out boldly to address the public in the form of open-air preaching. What are they agitating for? Their belief system,” Oyeniyi said.
The initial sermons are contraband now, but founding members of Boko Haram serve as a lead for Oyeniyi. These ex-members offer insights into what drives agitators to don a suicide vest. Moreover, these former members could also bridge the gap to begin peaceful negotiations.
As a social historian, Oyeniyi looks for patterns within the movements of specific groups and traces the roots of the conflict. He begins to postulate: What are they really fighting for? How are they getting their training? Who are their allies? Who funds them? Then, he and his collaborators create suggestions and form conclusions that the government can work with to address the roots of the issue.
Grievances behind social agitators in Nigeria
What he has to say might shock you: He understands Boko Haram’s complaints.
“They are requesting something, part of which includes the fact that the nation-state is, as it is, not properly governed.”
Their grievances are, at least in part, related to a long-standing religious struggle. Two categories of Muslims abound in Nigeria: those who believe the Quran is not open to interpretation and want to see Sharia law enforced as the indisputable law of Nigeria, and those who see the Quran as open for interpretation and therefore welcome innovations, like Western education. In Nigeria, the second category is the majority.
One of the primary reasons behind the formation of the Boko Haram — who want Western education to be taboo — was the removal of innovations from Islam. Since 2000, Boko Haram has engaged in heated ideological and doctrinal debates with other Muslims, who found the group’s teachings not welcoming to progress and sought state intervention to rein in the group.
In addition to ideological disparity, socioeconomic issues like abject poverty, endemic corruption and unemployment are driving Nigerians to desperately rise up against the state. Police brutality, and excessive or misuse of military force, also contribute to these social grievances, as evidenced by the fact that the initial targets of Boko Haram were the police, not civilians.
“The state itself needs to understand at what point human rights kick in. Boko Haram may be a terrorist group, but they also have fundamental rights that must be respected. We must recognize this if we’re going to fight and win against Boko Haram,” said Oyeniyi. “As things are, the government has failed to realize that dissatisfaction in the eyes of man will almost always force (a group) to take radical actions.”