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Nigerian Native, MSU Professor Offers New Way of Understanding Terrorism


When the term “terrorism” appears almost daily on TV, radio, or news updates on our phones, the stories are associated with almost-routine violent acts. An assistant history professor at Missouri State University professor asks if what we know about terrorism is the only way to perceive it.

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” said Dr. Bukola Oyeniyi, who is from Nigeria.

As an infant, Oyeniyi’s life was spared during the Ife-Modakeke conflict in Nigeria in 1969. Then as a young adult, in 1983, Oyeniyi once again found himself in the same conflict, but was rescued by several soldiers.

Inspired by these two personal experiences, Oyeniyi has dedicated his career to studying and researching conflict in Africa. Oyeniyi received his bachelor and master degrees from University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and his doctorate from Leiden University in the Netherlands.

What is Terrorism?

Government agencies and academic scholars have yet come to an agreement on the technical definition of terrorism. The complexity of defining the term, according to Oyeniyi, lies on the interests of different groups.

“Terrorism then became a label for governments used to categorize their opponents,” Oyeniyi said. “In that sense, you find defining terrorism difficult. But for me, terrorism is simple to define.”

In Latin, the word terrorism means “anything that could lead to extreme fear.”  

From 2006 to 2008, Oyeniyi collaborated with a team of researchers and published the book “Domestic Terrorism in Africa, Defining, Addressing and Understanding its Impact on Human Security.” It was from this that he generated his own definition of terrorism.

“It’s not so much different from what the world has gathered as terrorism,” Oyeniyi said. “The only thing is that we successfully removed bias, which allows governments to demonize opponents as terrorists.”

“So to me, anything that could lead to extreme fear is terrorism,” Oyeniyi said.

Why are they fighting?

Oyeniyi has spent the last decade studying terrorism in Africa.

“(These are) people who desire both social and economical changes to better their lives!” said Oyeniyi.

Oyeniyi uses Boko Haram as an example. The formation of the group is based on the belief that the Quran is not revisable, and that Sharia law should be enforced as it is in Nigeria. However, the majority in Nigeria believe that the Quran should be subject to interpretation, he says.

“We have 10, 20, 30 different groups who share that belief in Nigeria,” Oyeniyi said. “Boko Haram is receiving all the attention today.”

Oyeniyi added, “If we remove Boko Haram from the picture… They share the same belief; they share the same radical approach to Islam. And it’s a common belief that permitted the entire area over a long period. So even if we remove those groups, what about the people who share that belief? That Quran is the word of God; you can’t change it; you can’t interpret it; you just obey it!”

Without education, without a responsive government, the only tool some Nigerian people have in order to agitate against the state is religion. According to Oyeniyi, the ideology of going to heaven by killing as many Christians and infidels as possible has been planted in their minds since they were kids.

“There are no counter narratives; the state is not taking care of anything!” Oyeniyi said. “So if the state is effective on the ground, issues of terrorism will disappear overnight.”

Rather than finding solutions to combat terrorism, Oyeniyi agrees that the solution should come from how African leaders govern.

“Leadership problem is a big factor, hinged by religious factors,” Oyeniyi said.

Resorting to Violence

Oyeniyi says terrorism is a tool used by those seeking change. While it’s typically not the first method used, it can become one if no progress is being made.  

“When you are agitating over a long period for a change, and nothing is changing; then extreme violence is bound to happen!”

Can the same concept be applied to the recent events in Dallas and Baton Rouge, where police officers were gunned down in an ambush?

“There’s this popular saying in Africa, ‘The threshold that justice cannot cross, vengeance will!’….” Oyeniyi said. “So look at police brutality in the United States, you cannot be shooting people of color and expect them to keep silent!”

He called the act of terrorism “a weapon of the weak,” and said victims of terrorist acts are often “proxy targets”. He said terrorists intentionally cause collateral damage to draw attention from a leader or an oppressed system.

“So if you are looking for ways to stop terrorism, it’s not about those targets,” Oyeniyi said. “The terrorists know those targets mean nothing to them. They are using them as a mean to get to the state, to get to the oppressor.”

Oyeniyi continued, “So whether we are looking at police brutality, black vs. white, or we are looking at al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, it still trickles down to the same thing: the use of proxy targets to get the attention of the bigger guy. That’s what terrorists do; it’s a conscious choice. They have tried different means, and they are not getting results. Then let’s meet force with force.”


Decades of researching conflicts and terrorism, Oyeniyi does his job with a sense of duty.

“We researchers are filled with duties,” Oyeniyi said. “Nobody is sitting down and looking at the problems we are facing. I said: ‘O.K.! Let me face this problem and inform the world!’”

Among his findings, Oyeniyi offers two ideas to help tamp down terrorism.

First, Oyeniyi suggests individuals and organizations trace back to how indigenous people solved similar problems.

“We have all kinds of indigenous systems of checks and balances, of conflict resolutions,” Oyeniyi said. “Today, Western civilization pushes all these things to the background and nobody reckons with it. Why can’t we search within local practices, indigenous practices? What are different ways to solve these kind of things before imposing a one-size-fits-all system?”

Second, empower the people.

“Not until we empower them, they wouldn’t believe in any other ideologies,” Oyeniyi said.

One way to do so is through a quality education, he says.

“We need to investigate if that’s actually what you are teaching. So that we are able to determine what kind of training you are putting in the minds of the young ones,” Oyeniyi said.