Born British, Brought Up Nigerian: London Attackers' Identity Crisis

Assailants who killed a soldier in London may have become radicalized because of clash between immigrant and U.K. identities and value systems.

Akin Ajayi
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Akin Ajayi

The brutal murder of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in London last week turned attention to the United Kingdom’s large Nigerian migrant community. The alleged perpetrators, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both born in the United Kingdom, are the children of first-generation Nigerian immigrant parents. Following the escalating insurgency of the Islamist Boko Haram cult in northern Nigeria (and further back in time, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the infamous “underwear bomber,” partly educated in the United Kingdom), searching questions are being asked of the community: Should we be worried about the radicalization of young Britons of Nigerian descent?

It should be noted that Nigeria, a sprawling nation of more than 160 million citizens and a multitude of distinct ethnic groups, is no stranger to the ravages of radicalized Islam. As far back as 1980, the radical preacher Mohammed Marwa – better known by his nom de guerre, Mai Tatsine – loudly rejected modernity and all its works before spearheading insurrection in the northern city of Kano, leading to more than 5,000 deaths.

But then as now, his uncompromising rejectionist rhetoric – not dissimilar to the Boko Haram of 2013 – bears little resemblance to the practice of Islam elsewhere in the country. Amongst the Yoruba tribe of south-western Nigeria, the origin of the Adebolajo and Adebowale families, Muslims, Christians and adherents of traditional religions have lived together in (relative) harmony for generations. If any link should emerge between the radical Islam of northern Nigeria and the Woolwich murder, it is likely to be coincidental rather than causative.

Attention, rather, should be turned to the experiences of the United Kingdom’s immigrant Nigerian community. Adebolajo and Adebowale were born in the U.K. Their parents were part of a huge wave of migration in the 1980s, precipitated by the collapse of Nigeria’s petroleum-based economy which eviscerated the country’s middle class. It is estimated that there are presently 500,000 people of Nigerian descent in the United Kingdom. (This writer’s family was a part of this wave.) Nigeria was a British colony until 1960: This connection aside, when large numbers of Nigerians moved temporarily to the United Kingdom in the 1960s and early 1970s, many took out British citizenship, making it a logical permanent destination a decade or so later.

The travails of migration, the challenges migrants face in assimilating and being assimilated into new cultural environments, are well documented. The U.K.'s economic recession of the early 1990s was an additional complication; many well educated Nigerians were obliged to take up poorly paid, sometimes unskilled jobs. From this experience grew an ambivalence, at times bordering on resentment, towards a host country perceived as unsympathetic at best. There was also the lack of a true shared experience with older, more established black migrant groups from the Caribbean. Britain was a very cold and lonely place.

A quarter of a century on, the second generation of British Nigerians have begun to evolve a curious hybrid identity, semi-engaged with their parent’s native Nigerian identity, but at the same time not quite fully British. The significant number of successful 'transplants' should be noted. The writers Ben Okri and Helen Oyeyemi, the Turner Prize-nominated artist Yinka Shonibare, the pop musicians Taio Cruz and Tiny Tempah are all Anglo-Nigerian products, first or second generation, from the 1980s immigration era.

But immigration narratives all too often focus on the successes. A truer picture of Nigerian immigration to the United Kingdom can be found in the lower-middle class and working class neighborhoods of north and south-east London: First-generation migrants grappling with the vicissitudes of an uncertain economic and social landscape, second-generation migrants searching for a true sense of self-identity. Many older Nigerians regularly attend church, either the established branches of the main denominations or, increasingly, a network of small but successful evangelical Christian churches, run by similarly-minded Nigerian transplants. Religion, in this case, creates a reassuringly conservative framework as well as a sense of community. A common complaint of the first generation is the challenge of bringing up children in the comparatively permissive social environment of the United Kingdom. It is fair to observe that many Nigerians of this generation subscribe to a more robust model of child-rearing, refusing to spare the rod and trying hard not to spoil the child. In the U.K., the thinking goes, the opposite prevails.

It is in this clash of values – if anywhere at all – that one can try to understand why these two young men of Nigerian ancestry, born and raised in the United Kingdom, wound up slaughtering a British soldier on a busy road in broad daylight. From what we know – and no doubt, more information will come to light in the days and weeks ahead – Adebolajo and Adebowale fell through the gaps created by two poorly-matched cultural value systems. Vacillating between competing cultural systems, contending with perceptions of discrimination towards minorities, the deceptive, destructive lure of radicalized Islamic thinking might seem an attractive alternative. This, I suspect, is where the answers lie: Amidst the failures of imperfect integration. 

Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv who moved to Israel from the U.K in 2007. 

A woman and child arrive for Friday prayers at Woolwich mosque in London.Credit: Reuters

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