Simon Kolawole: Is poverty really behind terrorism?

by Simon Kolawole


Religious extremism is neither a class nor an economic issue. It is a mentality issue. You can be poor and still refuse to be a terrorist. You can be rich and still be a terrorist. You can be well educated and still be a suicide-bomber.

Let me scare you a bit – crude oil ittle did it occur to me that my side note on “Poverty and Terrorism” last week was going to generate significant interest. I had said poverty makes recruiting terrorists easy, but disagreed that the primary factor is poverty, as suggested by President Bill Clinton. I received reactions from people whose viewpoints I respect a lot. Most of them disagreed with me. They thought I was trying to play down the poverty factor in terrorism. Without poor people, they argued, the terrorists would have no foot soldiers to recruit. Without foot soldiers, terrorism will be incapacitated. I have, therefore, decided to expatiate on my position today.

Terrorism, by nature, is driven by a religious, political or ideological mindset. The stated goal of Boko Haram is to establish an Islamic republic where Sharia will be the governing law. The first thing to note, therefore, is that terrorism is not accidental or spontaneous. It is pre-planned. It is organised. There is a central principle driving it. If people say they want to establish Islamic rule, that is a clear goal. Ideology drives their activities. They are not bombing for the sake of bombing – they are promoting an objective through the use of violence.

How are the chief planners of terrorism able to recruit foot soldiers? That is the bone of contention. A school says “blame it on poverty”. However, I still beg to disagree. Straightaway, I can identify three major factors: one, resentment; two, extremism; and, three, poverty. There are obviously several factors – and that is exactly my point! It is not possible that one factor will be responsible for terrorism. To hold poverty solely responsible – or even suggest that it is the biggest factor – is to sweep other key factors under the carpet. It will not do us any good. We can never address a social phenomenon through a mono-dimensional perception.

First, let’s talk about resentment. If you are a Palestinian and you watch Israeli soldiers demolish your father’s house, rape your sisters and desecrate the Quran, I don’t think you need any poverty before you volunteer to suicide-bomb Israeli targets. The resentment is natural. As for Boko Haram, the massive military and police crackdown on their members in 2009 clearly produced a negative result. Rather than mellow them down, it provoked a deep feeling of bitterness, resentment and vengeance. That was when they started their bombing campaign. In retaliation, the militants initially targeted police stations and security formations. Today, they have been infiltrated by Al Qaeda and are out of control.

Two, extremism is a factor in recruiting terrorists. Just like every other religion, Islam has many tendencies. You have sects that preach love and tolerance. But you also have sects that believe that the “kafirs” have no right to exist. These hate-preaching sects seize on every opportunity to propagate scriptures that tend to suggest hostility towards non-Muslims (and, in fact, towards fellow Muslims). They build their ideology on these verses. They incite people to hate and violence. It is from these sects that terrorists are usually groomed. People naturally volunteer to go and defend the supposed cause of Islam after being pumped up by the hate doctrines. That, again, is not about poverty.

Three, and I did admit this last week, poverty certainly aids recruitment. If you are poor and don’t believe you have a future, life can easily lose meaning to you. A young man, who has no self-confidence and cannot even talk to a woman, is promised dozens of virgins in heaven if he dies fighting for Islam. Of course, he may take to suicide-bombing. Also, an idle man is tempting the devil. For as long as people don’t have jobs and lack the basic comfort of life, they will be vulnerable to recruitment. I agree 101 per cent with this. What I completely disagree with is to reduce terrorism to a poverty issue. No. There are many factors at play. Poverty is just one of the several motivating factors.

Having said this, however, I would like to quickly emphasise that there are many Muslims who resent the “enemies of Islam” but would never take to terrorism. How do we explain that? Resentment is, evidently, not enough motivation. There are also millions of religious extremists who would never kill a fellow human being. How do we explain that? Even religious extremism is not enough motivation! Equally, there are millions of poor Muslims who would never accept to be suicide-bombers. How do we explain that?  It means even poverty is not enough motivation!

At the end of this debate, we have to admit that there is something extraordinary about terrorists that makes them do what they do: they have twisted minds. They have reached a point of no return. It takes someone who is completely twisted to turn himself to a bomb. Of course, when resentment mixes with extremism, it is very easy for reason to take flight. Throw poverty into the mix and you have a very dangerous formula brewing. But the danger in focusing on poverty alone is that we risk missing the whole picture. Religious extremism is neither a class nor an economic issue. It is a mentality issue. You can be poor and still refuse to be a terrorist. You can be rich and still be a terrorist. You can be well educated and still be a suicide-bomber.

We may need to remember that most home-grown suicide-bombers in the UK and US were well educated and had good jobs. Some were computer scientists and engineers. These guys volunteered to die because of an ideology they considered bigger than their economic well-being. It is not poverty or opulence. It is a conviction, a dogma about martyrdom. Our own Farouk AbdulMutallab was not a poor boy the last time I checked. But his mind was twisted by ideology. These guys believe they are fighting a holy war. They even kill fellow Muslims and expect a reward in heaven. Can you beat that?

My conclusion: the poor, the not-so-poor and the rich are all vulnerable to becoming terrorists. The fundamental pre-qualification is a mind twisted by resentment and extremism. With poverty joining in the fray, we are faced with a real situation. But to reduce the whole complex construction to a single factor is not going to be helpful at all. Trust me.


And Four Other Things…

So Alhaji Aliko Dangote is now the world’s 43rd richest person on the Forbes Billionaires List? His estimated worth of $16.1 billion moves him up by 10 steps from No 53 last year. Interestingly, he’s the only “pure manufacturer” so ranked. The Forbes Richest Man in Africa has commendably stepped up his philanthropic activities, giving over $100 million to causes such as poverty alleviation, education, health, flood relief and the arts last year. While I congratulate Nigeria’s biggest employer of labour and biggest tax payer, I also want to challenge him to step up his philanthropic activities this year. To whom much is given…

I was in Abeokuta, Ogun State, on a private visit last week. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The ancient city is under reconstruction, with the expansion of roads and building of drainage systems and flyovers. My mum used to live in Abeokuta and I was a regular visitor to the city until 2011 when we moved her. Last Thursday, I almost missed my way because of the city’s emerging new look. I understand a similar urban renewal project is going on across the state, including Ijedu Ode and Ota. This is a bold initiative by Governor Ibikunle Amosun. I just couldn’t resist ringing him up and telling him so!

Nigeria is full of ghosts, apparently. Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said last week that the government was unable to trace the officials responsible for writing the names of  45,000 “ghost workers” on the payroll. This has cost us over N100 billion. In other words, some “faceless” people stole N100 billion through the scam. And, most tragically, we say we cannot trace them! Really? I thought civil service procedures are typically formal and documented. Who prepared the payroll? We can’t trace them? Are they ghosts too? As Fela would say, “Second bass jare!”

While we debate whether or not to grant amnesty to Boko Haram militants (for the record, I have always favoured a combination of military action and amnesty as we did in the Niger Delta – because I believe negotiated peace is more enduring), I find it quite disturbing that the terrorists keep targeting telecoms masts. Of course, terrorism is not about reason, if not these militants would realise that they are not only trying to drag the region into the Stone Age, they are in fact damaging the economy of the North. Livelihoods of common people are being destroyed by these militants. These attacks must stop.

Read this piece at THISDAY



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (2)

  1. Spot on once again.

  2. Great article, agree 100%.

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