Still playing dangerous politics with Boko Haram
Category: Wednesday column
For the umpteenth time President Goodluck Jonathan has seized the opportunity of his attendance at a church service to reassure Nigerians that the end of Boko Haram insurrection in Nigeria is well nigh. This time it was a service on the last Sunday of last year at the Ekklisiya Yan Uwa a Nigeria (EYN), in Abuja, to mark the end of 2012.
“We are,” he told the congregation, “suppressing the insurgency. For instance, before Christmas, we were told the whole of Abuja will be burned down, including Maiduguri, among others. Though we had some incidents but they were minimized... I assure you the excesses of Boko Haram will be brought to a reasonable control in 2013.”
I do not know any member of the congregation, much less talk to anyone of them. But I’ll be surprised if the president’s assurances induced anything else but “we’ve-heard-all-this-before” big yawn. After all, have his past assurances not almost always been followed by even worse spate of bombings allegedly by the sect?
It will be a big pleasant surprise if the president’s assurance makes any difference this time. However, I, for one, have my doubts based on at least three reasons. First, we have a president who seems easily given to hyperbole, at least on Boko Haram. This is a dangerous flaw in anyone’s character, but even more so in a leader, if only because it will invariably lead him to over-react in looking for solutions to a problem.
The reader will recall how our president once described the sect’s threat as worse than the country’s civil war between 1967 and 1970. This was at the National Christian Centre, Abuja, during the 2011 end of year service. It simply beggars belief that anyone, much less the president of a country who, like our own president, is old enough to have experienced it, can compare the horrors of a full scale war with the effects of any insurrection.
The president was back again to his hyperbole mode during last year’s end of year service. This time he went beyond our borders to compare the Boko Haram insurgency to the civil war in Syria and to the rebel insurrection in Central African Republic. The wars in those countries, he said, are “akin to what Boko Haram is trying to do in Nigeria, to take over Abuja so as to make me and those in government to go and hide.”
His comparison of Boko Haram with the CAR rebels is understandable, but isn’t it incredulous that he will compare himself with Syria’s president, Basher Assad, whom the West and Israel, the main sources of our president’s foreign security advisers in his fight against the sect, regard as the bad guy who should be kicked out of office and out of his country or who, better still, should be dead?
The second reason I am sceptical about the president’s last assurance that the end of Boko Haram is nigh is his predilection for using churches instead of secular institutions to make pronouncements about the sect. Since last November alone he has used occasions of church events no less than four times to pronounce on the sect, as if Muslims too have not been victims, probably worse, of the sect’s terror. Our president’s apparent preference for churches, as against secular institutions, to speak on this ostensibly religious issue exposes him to suspicions that he is not averse to exploiting religion to divide and rule Nigerians.
Thirdly, his recent altercation with his erstwhile benefactor, former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo – of recent there appears to have been a falling out between the two - over the president’s handling of Boko Haram suggests that, like so many Islamophobes in and out of this country, he believes in one law for terrorism in his part of the country and another for the Muslim North.
The genesis of the altercation between benefactor and protégé, as we all know, was Chief Obasanjo’s dismissal of the president’s handling of Boko Haram as “tepid” compared to the iron fist with which he said he had handled a similar insurrection by the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) in November 1999.
The former president couldn’t have chosen a more apt occasion to rebuke his protégé; the 40th anniversary celebration in Warri on November 22, last year, of the call of Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor to the ministry. As president of the Christian Association of Nigeria few, if any, have spoken more forcefully than the pastor against any form of accommodation with Boko Haram. To date no president of CAN has been as hawkish as the pastor, not even Dr. Sunday Mbang, the retired Prelate of the Methodist Church, who was once quoted as saying, “Whether they like it or not we will not allow any Muslim to be president of Nigeria. I am declaring this as President of CAN.” (Thisday, July 31, 2000.)
As if to add salt to an injury, Chief Obasanjo’s belligerent former spokesman, Femi Fani-Kayode, added the gratuitous, and evidently incorrect, rider that Odi effectively destroyed MEND; as several press adverts that seem to have the imprimatur of the presidency have pointed out, MEND merely went deeper underground after Odi only to return with a vengeance that ultimately forced the federal government to negotiate an amnesty for all Delta militants.
In his own response to the former president, the current president, during his media chat last November, in effect, described Odi as a crime against humanity. When, he said, as then deputy governor of Bayelsa, himself and his boss, Diepriye Alamieyeseagha, visited Odi after the operation ordered by Obasanjo all they found were, “some dead people, mainly old women and also children. None of those militants was killed. None. So the bombardment of Odi was to solve the problem but it never solved it.”
This raises the logical question of why the president has since persisted in using the same method against Boko Haram insurgency that he has strongly denounced as a crime against humanity. One possible answer is that for the president MEND was “us” but Boko Haram is “them.” Another and related answer is that it is against his political interest for peace to return to the North where opposition to his retention of the presidency in 2015 is likely to be strongest.
Those, like the president, that insist on a hard-line solution to Boko Haram obviously miss the historical lesson of terrorism, even of the emergence of Boko Haram and of the apparent inability of government to destroy it. Contrary to Obasanjo’s claim of government’s failure to nip the sect in the bud, its massacre in Maiduguri in July, almost ten years to the anniversary of Odi, was predictably worse, if only because Odi is a hamlet compared to Maiduguri as Borno State’s capital.
It is also telling that when the late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua ordered the army to put the sect down, he boasted that “The operation we have launched now will be an operation that will contain them once and for all.”
As we are all by now painfully aware, putting down Boko Haram has been anything but a cake-walk. And no one interested in ending its terror will deny the fact that what Amnesty International described at its November 1, 2012 press conference in Abuja as “serious human rights violations carried out by the security forces in response (to Boko Haram), including enforced disappearance, torture, extra-judicial executions, the torching of houses and detention without trial,” will never work.
Anyone who imagines that it will should take a lesson in the history of terrorism. One good place to start, as I once mentioned on these pages, is a three-page primer on the subject in The Economist of August 20, 2005. As the report pointed out in a comparative history of 19th and 20th century anarchism and contemporary jihad, just like repression did nothing to stop the former it also cannot on its own deter the latter.
Terrorists, the magazine said in its wise editorial to the West on the subject, “...can be caught, sometimes before they have done anything terrible. That argues for excellent intelligence and police work. Perhaps their numbers can be reduced by ameliorating the grievances that lend them justification for their attacks. That argues for political action. And certainly the public needs re-assurance. That argues for honest explanation – that terrorism does not threaten any western government, that retribution, like police injustices committed in nervous haste, is likely to provoke more violence, that new restrictions are unlikely to bring new safety.”
None of these three elements – excellent intelligence and police work, political action and honest explanation – exists in President Jonathan’s strategy for bringing an end to Boko Haram terror.
Instead what we have, as I said on these pages in my longest piece on the subject to date (December 6, 2011), is a government that seems hell-bent on playing dangerous politics with Boko Haram.
Last week’s piece elicited a number of reactions on factual errors it contained along, of course, with many interesting comments. I’d intended to publish them but lacked the space. I’ll do so next week, God willing, along with reactions to the piece before on the 70th birthday of General Muhammadu Buhari, former military head of state and a leading opposition figure.