The year 2016 ended on a bang for Buhari after a sluggish and uninspiring start for the government. The news that Nigerian soldiers had flushed out Boko Haram elements from their stronghold in the Sambisa forest was probably the government’s most glorious moment since it took power some 18 months ago. The news of the “defeat” of Boko Haram was not just a big military moment for the Nigerian army; it was perhaps even more importantly a psychological victory against the insurgents. In military-speak, the Sambisa forest could be regarded as Boko Haram’s centre of gravity.
There is another sense in which the “defeat” of Boko Haram must be seen as a spectacular feat: the general belief among many researchers in terrorism studies is that terrorism is rarely comprehensively defeated militarily. The argument is that one wave of terrorism runs for about forty years, gets exhausted only to be replaced by another wave. In fact David Rapoport , Professor Emeritus of Political Science at University of California, Los Angeles, who is regarded as one of the founding fathers of terrorism studies, identified four waves of global terrorism - the Anarchist wave (which began in the 1880s in Russia), the Anti-colonial wave (which began in the 1920s), the New left wave (which diminished after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s) and the current religion-inspired wave, (which started in 1979). We can of course quarrel with Rapoport’s ‘waves’ but the point is the belief that terrorism can only be contained, not defeated. Boko Haram has openly pledged its allegiance to ISIS and is thus part of the international terrorism franchise. Its “defeat”, (if the capture of Sambisa forest turns out to spell a defeat of the group) would turn terrorism theory on its head and possibly lead to revisions in current terrorism studies.
To put in perspective the import of the “defeat” of Boko Haram, consider that after the terrorist attack in the US on September 11 2001, President George W Bush was reported to have declared a “war (that) would not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated”. More than 15 years after Bush made that statement; the USA is still fighting a war against terrorism. In fact about 100 years before the September 11 attack, when an anarchist (anarchism is regarded as the earliest form of modern terrorism), assassinated the US President William McKinley in September 1901, his successor Theodore Roosevelt called for a crusade to exterminate terrorism everywhere but terrorism has survived to this day. Buhari promised to defeat Boko Haram and did so in less than two years!
As Nigerians celebrate the fall of Sambisa forest, we must however not lose sight of the fact that Boko Haram has shown incredible capacity for regrouping after suffering setbacks. For this, we will have to wait for some months to determine whether the capture of Sambisa forest really signifies a defeat of Boko Haram or not.
A crucial question is how will the President capitalize on the momentum gained from the capture of Sambisa forest as we prepare to enter into the New Year? There are several possibilities:
One, I believe that while the government might not have created several of the current challenges the country faces, its actions and inactions, especially during its first year in office, helped to exacerbate the problems. For instance its demonization of former President Goodluck Jonathan and its probe rhetoric seemed to have ignored group dynamics in politics and that the identity that is perceived to be under threat is often the one most vociferously defended. Essentially I believe that had the government embraced reconciliation rather than triumphalism after the election, we would probably not have a resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta or a more aggressive agitation for Biafra. I also feel it was an error of judgment for the President to exclude the South-east from his kitchen cabinet on the grounds that they gave him “five per cent” of the votes during the election? How many votes, one may ask, did several states in North- west and North- east give to Jonathan in 2011 and 2015? How many votes did the South-west give to Shehu Shagari and Obasanjo during the 1979 and 1999 presidential elections respectively? How many votes did the Igbos give to Awolowo in the 1979 election despite having an Igbo as his running mate? And how many votes did the Kanuris for that matter give to Shehu Shagari in 1979? The truth is that there are circumstances in which groups take a stand for or against a candidate or political party. Normally after the election, comes reconciliation. The Buhari government chose a different path. I believe inclusive politics is still an area the President needs to do more - even though there are encouraging signs that the government is trying to correct the mistakes of the past.
Two, the President needs to send a powerful signal that 2017 would be a watershed in his administration. The President should use the opportunity of the planned cabinet reshuffle and emerging re-alignment of political forces, to inject into his cabinet, accomplished professionals, who are cosmopolitan and have international clout. I think the President should take a cue from the quality of people in the cabinets of IBB, Obasanjo (during his second coming) and even Jonathan. The truth is that for every appointment made, Nigerians have a way of comparing the calibre of the person appointed with the calibre of the person who previously held that position. This comparison often affects people’s perception about the competence or otherwise of a cabinet and consequently their decision to legitimate or de-legitimate it.
Three, the economy continues to be the government’s Achilles’ heels. However with oil prices beginning an upward tick, the government simply needs to ensure it gets the Niger Delta problem resolved so as to return crude production to what it should be. It will be a mistake to be goaded by the military successes over Boko Haram to believe that purely military solution will also work in the Niger Delta. Let us not overlook the fact that a big part of the reasons why the military successes over Boko Haram were not politicized was because Buhari is a northerner as is Lieutenant General Yusuf Buratai, the chief of Army Staff. . Former President Jonathan could not have led military onslaught against Boko Haram the way Buhari did without having to deal with the ‘Nigerian factor’. For instance when Jonathan declared a state of emergency in some Northern states, some leaders of the region claimed it amounted to a declaration of war against the North. In the same vein, when retired Lt General Ihejirika led the onslaught against Boko Haram, he was accused of deliberately killing Northern civilians as a revenge for the civil war. This is the sort of landmines that the President has to navigate if he decides to embrace a purely military solution for the resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta.
Four, the President should capitalize on the boost from the capture of the Sambisa forest to re-think the continued detention of Ibrahim Yaqoub El Zakzaky, Nnamdi Kalu and Sambo Dasuki. The truth is that if our history is anything to go by, their continued detention is boosting their images among their followers and they will eventually come out of prison as heroes - just as all those jailed for corruption during Buhari’s First Coming did. God forbid that any of them will die in detention. The incarceration of these men is attracting unnecessary bad press for the government from human rights activists and the international community. Does the President really need such distractions?
Five, I will also like to see 2017 as a year in which the current war against corruption is retooled. I am not so much bothered about accusations of selectivity in the war because every regime in the country has been similarly accused. My main concern is that in its current form, it is undermining the development of institution-driven campaign against the social malaise. I also believe the government has not properly defined what it means by corruption just as I believe that corruption is merely the symptom of a more fundamental social problem and that the line between it and vendetta is blurred in every regime. I will suggest that the President consider conditional amnesty for all people accused of corruption. That was actually his initial promise when he was the President elect. In fact let the beginning of 2017 be a time when the President announces an amnesty to all Nigerians and groups he holds grudges against. The President should similarly call on people and groups bearing grudges against him and his government to also forgive. This may be just a symbolic gesture but we need a complete reset in order to jointly confront the momentous challenges facing the country.
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