By CHIDINELU OKERAFOR
No one thought it was ever going to happen. Given the stiff-necked positions that the violent religious sect, called Boko Haram, had taken before now, many Nigerians saw nothing other than a prolonged war of attrition between the militant organisation and the Federal Government.
When Dr. Reuben Abati, the President’s special adviser on media and publicity, confirmed reports that the government had indeed, commenced negotiations with representatives of Boko Haram, not many people could be taken by surprise. Days ahead of Abati’s admission, Boko Haram had made an apparent U-turn in their hitherto intransigent posture, when they declared themselves open to conditional talks with the Federal Government.
Some Nigerians have criticised Dr. Jonathan’s decision to follow the path of dialogue with the sect, despite the hellish state of affairs they have inflicted on large sections of the country. However, the government can also argue, with some justification, that the approach of both the stick and carrot has borne fruits. Were it not so, then, why did it take the capture or arrest of a number of the organisation’s top leaders for the movement to turn around in support of negotiations?
The now-established link between the sect and some highly respected northern politicians is also instructive. Could it be that the hardworking Nigerian military and intelligence service are now close to uncovering the main kingpins behind the Boko Haram insurgency? In that regard, according to some, the only logical, if not rational, way to go, as far as Boko Haram and their main backers are concerned, might be to adopt negotiations as precursor to some for of soft landing. So many hue and cry have understandably trailed the latest reports of talks between the two sides.
No one knows who next or what group or part of the country will want to trigger another insurgency, since groups, like MEND and Boko Haram, have tried it and seem to have prevailed. But, let Nigerians just take a hard look at how large parts of the country’s Northern Region have turned into a virtual Afghanistan within just three years. In fact, the first time this year President Goodluck Jonathan addressed this worried nation was Sunday, January 8, or thereabout.
That was on the eve of the nationwide industrial action spearheaded by the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress, in response to the controversial January 1, 2012 petroleum subsidy removal. The president’s television speech was, perhaps, primarily, designed to dissuade labour and Nigerian’s from going ahead with the strikes and protests. But, also, Jonathan was forced to admit, during the same address, that his government, and indeed, the country, were already on the verge of being submerged by a security challenge such as the Nigerian state had not experienced since the civil war years.
Yes! Boko Haram has so far caused the deaths of over 5,000 Nigerian civilians and security forces personnel in parts of the North since New Year’s Day. When in the year 2009 the people of this country first heard and read about the Boko Haram, they’d probably decided that it was and had to be just a mere re-enactment of the ad hoc religious sects of years gone by, which sprang up to inflict an intermittent reign of terror in the north, only to be put down by armed force. During the era of d the Maitatsine religious disturbances, back in the 1980’s and nineties, the terrorists weren’t this organised, nor were they this well-armed or trained.
They were suspected mostly to have infiltrated the country from neighbouring Chad and Niger Republic, and crucially, they didn’t fight with Kalashnikovs, R.P.G.’s advanced telecommunications gadgets, machine guns or improvised explosive devices, I.E.D’s. Their weapons of war were mainly bows and arrows, hunting guns, daggers, knives, axes and machetes. Even though they could and did kill people in large numbers, they were no match for the regular army. Back then, the government of the day treated their violent agitations as mere “religious riots”, which they quickly put down. Well, did anyone expect the threat from Boko Haram to have been different? Astonishingly, the answer is “no.” For some ridiculous reasons, Nigerians first thought that Boko Haram was like the business of old.
Some Nigerians forgot, rather horrendously, that after the militarisation of the Niger-Delta by elements, like MEND, or Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta, people now knew how to arm themselves with the most sophisticated weaponry available anywhere. It was just a question, and is just a case, of securing funding, arranging your smuggling networks, acquiring collaborators from among the army. Intelligence services or the police, securing training bases outside or within the country, and you’re set to take on even the world’s most professional military.
If, in recent decades, this kind of terrorist violence has been applied to great effect in the Middle East, Asia and in South America, then who says Nigeria can be immune? Back to that nationally televised speech by the President. Even those 10 months back, it was as if Jonathan was hinting on the impossibility of an outright military victory, because he, rather plainly, told Nigerians the truth: that the threat posed by Boko Haram militancy was beginning to have a crippling effect on the country.
That was nothing new. But, then, he shocked some of his audience by proceeding to say that the terrorist organization “has infiltrated” the armed forces and even the government he leads. That is mind-boggling to say the least, because, obviously, the organization would have infiltrated the police as well, and how painful and scary it can be to hear the President of the Federal Republic and commander-in-chief of the Nigerian armed forces saying it in the open, and for the records, that there are now Boko Haram members in the judiciary, the executive and the legislature, as well? The President did draw an obvious conclusion from what he said were hard facts.
This phenomenon is now complicating efforts to stamp out the threat, which is steadily growing into an all-out insurgency. He didn’t stop there. He even drew parallels between the threat posed to the nation during the civil war years, from 1967 to 1970, and what we now have in the north of the country. His conclusion was chilling. He said the Boko Haram “insurgency” is a more serious problem than that posed by Biafra separatism in the South East. It’s difficult to say why President Jonathan said what he said. Was he admitting that the state was losing the war in the north?
Was he trying to instill fear in the citizenry, in order that the ire of Nigerians might be diverted from the deregulation fiasco, which in itself represented an unprecedented public rejection of any government policy in Nigeria since independence? Perhaps, the commander-in-chief was preparing a weary and angry nation for the negotiations that have now reportedly taken off. Maybe, he was just reaching out to his own supporters wherever they were: bringing it to their attention, perhaps, that even the powerful Federal Executive Council, or FEC, over which he’s presided since late 2009, could also be brimming with Boko Haram members or sympathizers or ardent followers.
It’s true that government’s decision to enter into a dialogue with a group that has killed so many and destroyed so much may not have been a very popular one. Besides, the debate about whether or not the Federal Government had, earlier in November, gone into negotiations with just one faction of the organisation remains alive. To make matters worse, there seems to be no clear-cut objective(s) that Boko Haram is pursuing. Its leadership proves adroit at shifting the goal post at the slightest opportunity. Originally, those leaders said they abhorred “Western education and influences.”
Later, Nigerians were treated to a set of other demands, including, frighteningly, the islamisation of the entire north of the country. When that couldn’t materialise, they’ve now set about a kind of systematic ethnic cleansing, which in other words boils down to using violence and the sectarian differences among Nigerians as a weapon to drive non-natives in the North out of that region. The dangerous dimension to the entire crisis is in its religious coloration. So, what next? Should the government keep alive the so-called carrot approach, even if that resulted in splintering Boko Haram? Is it not worth taking some time to try to establish what they really want?
Certainly, their grievance must transcend the cold-blooded murder of their former leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2010. As painful and as unwelcome as it surely is, talking to these people, if they can be identified, is both desirable and useful. Their guerrilla tactics, for one, have caught, and may continue to catch, the security forces on the wrong foot. Even the most professional armies of the world, with all their counter-terrorism training and experience, have not made so much headway, and the Nigerian security structure cannot be expected to fare any better.
Apart from the recurrent problem of poor training and under-funding, the country’s security apparatus, like every other institution of state, is incredibly riddled with corruption. If the executive, the police, the armed forces, the national assembly, the judiciary have, as Mr. President has warned, been infiltrated by a dangerous organisation like Boko Haram, then, who is there to fight and defeat them militarily? Confronting them exclusively by military means will only harden, not just their resolve, but will almost certainly polarise and poison the sentiments of the mass of Nigerians in the north.
If that happens and when that happens, the Nigerian state will find itself fighting, not just one terrorist organisation, but, also a population that has been heavily infiltrated and indoctrinated. It’s easy to understand where those against holding talks with Boko Haram are coming from. It may sound like the equivalent of condoning murder and destruction and blackmail.
But, the almighty truth is: the threat they pose to Nigeria’s corporate existence is by far greater than the face that the government may lose by seeming to kowtow to them. Besides, if negotiations have worked in bringing a large measure of peace to the Niger-Delta, then, let’s also try it in the North. • Okerafor lives in Lagos. 07036776571.