Cyberia, the late Pius Adesanmi’s excellent coinage for Nigerians in cyberspace, is an interesting place to observe what another intellectual, the still very much with us E. E. Sule, opined to be the “chaos of perceptions”. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of internal security issues as popularly understood. In the last week, there has been more outrage over Senator Ibrahim Gaidam’s bill to create an agency to carry out DDR for repentant Boko Haram members. While these have focused on an alleged provision for “foreign education” for repentant terrorists, the entire fiasco, which I have discussed here, underlines a different matter—the utter ignorance by both Senator Gaidam and his opposers on how the subjects of the bill, which is being opposed, got to where they are now.
Nigerian exceptionalism is the curious observation that, in this country, none of the social problems we face arise out of our own actions. Southern Nigerians, for example, variously assume that Boko Haram is either a plot by the North to gain attention or cause trouble. For a few dizzy months, some believed it did not in fact exist. Other Nigerians, realizing that Boko Haram is getting well out of hand, have responded with the self-assured certainty that it is a Northern problem. In northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has been thought to be an Israeli, and in some cases American, and recently French, plot to destabilize the region. The undermining and unraveling of key cosmopolises in northern Nigeria—Jos, Kaduna, Maiduguri, possibly Kano—is pointed out as indicative of grand design. The insurgents themselves, who were named Boko Haram (Western education is to be prohibited) by others, have pointed that the problem is the corruption of society for which the only solution is a return to an erstwhile pristine state, with a different dynamic, from a different period entirely.
The problem of HOW and WHY thousands of young children have become radicalized, are blowing themselves up in markets, shooting waylaid passengers dead at military checkpoints outside a major city, abducting thousands of girls and women, massacring secondary schoolboys, is ignored because the children doing all these terrible things have nothing to do with us, with our Nigerian society. For this type of Cyberian, Boko Haram came from heaven, or hell, or there. Never here. That this is simply not true, but that this is widely held, believed and stated, is a cause for concern.
How does a young boy, perhaps a teenager, son of parents who have been oppressed by local politicians without complaint for decades, grandchild of dead persons who have lived in ungoverned spaces for decades without protest, get up one day, accept an AK 47, and proceed to cause mayhem and seed terror in his own local community?
It has been argued that poverty, the widening gap between rich and poor, as well as similar inequalities in and of themselves lead to violence. This is not the case as, in societies, people have been relatively poor for centuries without even realizing it. What is of interest is the activity of people who must be called conflict entrepreneurs, who are not in fact productive businesspersons. They are opinion leaders and shapers who frame deprivation and inequality in a way that identifies an aggrieved community as blameless and exclusive, identifies an Other community as the perpetrators of inequality, reinforces this identification and then, only then, advocates violence as a prelude to a new form of social structure after the second identified group has been removed—killed, bombed, shot, dispatched by any means. It is the method of these salesmen of chaos we must study in order to answer the all-important HOW and WHY questions.
We start with at-risk youth—the typical young person who has nothing and has nothing to lose. He has been failed by a social structure whose job it is to socialize him into being an active citizen, one who can exploit opportunity and add value to his community. The salesmen of chaos or crisis entrepreneur reaches out to this at-risk youth with a three-pronged approach—direct indoctrination which works with the weak-minded, the idea of an exclusive community which works with those who already have notions and, lastly, the straight-up identification of an enemy through propaganda, be it “the West”, “Israel” or “yan Boko”. The effect of this layered seduction is a young person who has been turned against his erstwhile best interests, one who now holds beliefs contrary to social cohesion and the idea of live-and-let-live. At this point, these at-risk youth are ripe to be classified as passive terrorists. They have accepted the extreme ideology of the crisis entrepreneur and now only await activation, a call to violence. The next step is to create a community of this aggrieved, where mutual reinforcement of grievance and how “they don’t like us” makes the most capable of these young people into active terrorists who want to “do something”.
This is how the chap who blows himself up in markets comes to be; this is how the dead kid in raggedy blue slippers, who should be in school, dies on a battlefield while trying to kill soldiers and policemen. What the crisis entrepreneur does not say, of course, is that with each terrorist attack, poverty, and oppression, heightened by the insecurity their action prompts, increases. In fact, the inevitable effect of violent extremism and terror is seen as a signature of its effectiveness. Everyone, crisis entrepreneur, state, citizens, passive terrorists, active terrorist, NGO person and God himself becomes tied at the hips in lockstep of illogic.
Now, putting it all together. If we are to be serious about de-radicalization of Boko Haram members, we have to understand the process by which they became radicalized. The signature Nigerian pretense that readily believes these kids came from Mars must be exploded to powder and blown away by the wind. Only by understanding and continuously blocking the strategy points of the crisis entrepreneur can we comprehensively deal with the problem of the Boko Haram insurgency. Remember the analogy of the spiderweb? Destroying a few cells here and there, burning a few lines every now and then, will not identify where the spiders are. Nor will it lead to any long-term degradation of the network.
The creation of agencies to address the symptoms of a problem will not solve the problem. Sending repentant terrorists to vocational education or “foreign schools” will not address the ways crisis entrepreneurs continue to indoctrinate weak-minded at-risk youth, how they create exclusive communities online and offline or how they disseminate propaganda by apps or CDs. Gaidam’s agency will not reach out to youth who are already passive terrorists, to understand and motivate them away from their false beliefs, so they do not go active. This agency will not stop the creation of communities of the mutually reinforcing aggrieved. As a solution, it will not de-radicalize because it does not understand radicalization. All this will do will be to create a new set of at-risk people, this time the children of the primary victims of the insurgents—the children of our soldiers and policemen who have died in the line of duty. This category will likely watch the fiasco of a DDR and await the arrival of their own crisis entrepreneur. We must avoid lockstep, a quagmire that is borne of the chaos of perceptions.
Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy-shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at email@example.com