Boko Haram: Prologue to Dialogue

13 May 2012

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My fears about Boko Haram are more than I have openly acknowledged. The sadistic attacks on church services at the Bayero University—in which, after throwing bombs into the crowd, the militants waited outside and shot at worshippers who tried to escape—tormented me for days. I began to look at different scenarios and different possibilities. Fear gripped me, almost crushed me. For one, I asked myself: what if the Christians decide to retaliate? What if some guys invade a crowded Jumat service and begin to throw bombs into the mosques? What would happen next? “God forbid!” I said. The truth is that it is not only Boko Haram militants who know how to make and throw bombs. So, in the face of provocation, we have to be thankful to God that the Christians have not started retaliating. It would be too Lebaneous (my sincere apologies; I just created that adjective for Lebanon).

Another fear that often grips me is the likelihood of Boko Haram striking in Lagos. Everyday, I pray: “God, don’t let these guys come here. The consequences would be dire!” If Boko Haram strikes in Lagos, I foresee a situation where there would be instant retaliation—and it is the innocent Northerners that would bear the brunt. I foresee a situation where area boys, OPC and the like would descend heavily and kill anybody who looks like a Northerner (it won’t matter at the end that a suspected Yoruba commander of Boko Haram has just been arrested). What would happen next? There would be counter-killings in the North. Anybody who looks like a Southerner would be slaughtered, no questions about that. Wouldn’t that be 1966-67 all over again? We, therefore, have to be thankful that Boko Haram has not struck in the South—or Lagos for that matter.

I also fear that if this insurgency is not stopped or contained, we may begin to lose parts of the Nigerian territory to these guys. Borno State has been a major battleground between them and the security forces. If we lose the state to them, then we are done for. The moment they can capture a state, they automatically have an operational base all to themselves. They can begin to conscript more militants, acquire some more sophisticated war weapons, launch full-scale warfare and begin to eat deep into the Nigerian map. The Taliban gradually took over Afghanistan that way. In Yemen, the al-Qaeda militants are virtually in control of the South, forcing the US to seriously consider sending troops to help the government. Al-Shabbab are having a field day in most of Somalia.

What is the way forward? Every day we are assured that Boko Haram would soon be history; every day the militants come up with new tricks. When President Goodluck Jonathan said the insurgency would be over by June (next month, that is), I thought he had done his homework. I thought the security agencies had identified the financial and operational backbone of the sect. I thought the key leaders and commanders had been captured and the source of logistical support suffocated. Terrorism, unfortunately, is effective because of its loose organisational structure. Although the planning of the attacks may be centrally done, the foot soldiers and the top hierarchy are so far apart that you cannot simply capture a few foot soldiers and middle-level “officers” and jump to a eureka conclusion. That was what the president did.

Those who favour military or security operations as the means of ending the insurgency are of the opinion that you do no negotiate with terrorists. If you negotiate with terrorists, you create an incentive for more terrorist groups to sprout with the belief that the government would eventually have to negotiate with them. The answer, therefore, is to continue to bombard them. This option will help the ego of the state. But there are some assumptions that go with it, one of which is that the state has the capacity to crush Boko Haram. By capacity, I mean the state has a robust intelligence-gathering architecture, a competent and well-motivated security structure, enough manpower and unity of purpose, irrespective of ethnic and religious affiliations.

Can the security chiefs come up with a winning strategy against Boko Haram? Most importantly, can they win the war? If we choose the military path to tackle Boko Haram, are we sufficiently empowered to go all the way and deliver victory to Nigerians? This is the question we must consider as we look at the way forward. Soldiers can invade houses and compounds and kill everybody in sight. SSS can arrest some chaps with bomb-making materials. Police can intercept a car wired for suicide-bombing. These are little victories until they get to the root, the source. Why is it that with all the arrests and foiled attacks, these guys are still inflicting damage all over the North? That is some food for thought.

Those of us who favour dialogue in one form or the other are also motivated by the fact that we need a lasting solution to this menace. When late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua offered amnesty to Niger Delta militants and met with their leaders at Aso Rock, it was like an abomination. But at the end of it all, we achieved some peace (although, I need to admit that it is an expensive peace because the ex-warlords now live off the national treasury—but something has to give anyway). The security forces kept assuring us that they would end militancy in the Niger Delta, but it never happened. Instead, the attacks kept ballooning. It was amnesty that eventually did the trick.

I have heard a lot of our friends from the Niger Delta argue that we cannot compare Boko Haram to their own militancy. MEND (and others) were fighting injustice in the oil-producing areas while Boko Haram are seeking to Islamise Nigeria. With due respect, I don’t completely agree with that notion. I would say, to the best of my knowledge that the militants were not fighting against any injustice. They were just stealing oil and legitimising it by claiming to be fighting for their people. I don’t think we need to deceive ourselves about that in the name of politics. The militants and warlords were created by politicians as thugs; they later gained independence having tasted raw petrodollars. They became monsters that could not be tamed. It took Yar’Adau’s amnesty to tame them. He must have felt humiliated at some stage, but his ultimate goal of securing oil production for our economic survival was achieved and we are enjoying the benefits today. The crude oil theft (without militancy) has resumed, of course, but that is a topic for another day.

Now, how do you dialogue with the Boko Haram militants who want to Islamise Nigeria? What would you be discussing at the round table? “You take Yobe; let me have Kogi”? This is the question on the lips of many people who are against this dialogue option. I myself became sceptical along the line on the efficacy of dialogue in this circumstance. Boko Haram are driven by hate—religious hate. Unlike MEND, they are not even mouthing injustice or poverty (although some of their sympathisers in government and media have tried to smuggle that into their agenda). All they seek is to actualise the never-ending ambition to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state. So how do you hold a sensible and fruitful discussion over an impossible demand?

However, I have analysed their statements and actions closely and discovered that at various times, the Boko Haram guys showed an indication that they were ready to discuss. They have people they listen to, people they respect. There were even failed attempts to engage in some discussion in recent times. For me, that is already some ground yielded by the militants. So dialogue remains a possibility. Gaining their voluntary laying-down of arms will save more lives and property. The only peace that can last in a situation like this is the one that is negotiated, agreed upon and implemented WITHOUT compromising the sovereignty of the state.

Whatever option the government eventually settles for, it must act quickly. We cannot afford to lose more lives. A thousand Boko Haram militants killed cannot atone for the life of one innocent Nigerian murdered in their attacks. After all, they have no value for their own lives. Nigerians are worried. They are paranoid. They want to be assured that the government in power is capable of protecting their lives. Their morale is at an all-time low.


Adio’s Metropole

All roads, as they say, lead to Abuja on Thursday as Waziri Adio launches a pioneering all-colour, all-gloss magazine on life and style in the nation’s capital. It’s called Metropole. Adio, former Political Editor and Editorial Page Editor of THISDAY, has always been an inspiration to me, right from our days at the University of Lagos when he was clearly the best and the most intelligent guy in class. I was a bit surprised when he told me last January that he was toying with the idea of a lifestyle magazine for Abuja. Those of us who know him well would recall that when he left journalism in 2003, it looked like a final goodbye. But, as I always say, journalism is a DNA issue. You cannot flush it out of the system. Journalism is his first love. All you need do is take a look at a copy of the magazine. Simply beautiful and professional.

Sick SEC
The public show of shame by the top echelon of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at the House public hearing last Wednesday has exposed, once again, why Nigeria is like this. One by one, the commissioners dissociated themselves from the key decisions being taken by the DG, Ms Arunma Oteh, who obviously came to the commission with a mindset of alienating the very people she was meant to work with. She brought in outsiders, many of them with freshly minted certificates, and placed them in very sensitive positions. That is the problem I have with most of these “experts” and “technocrats” that we import from Europe and America to come and lord it over us here. They come with a mindset. They see all of us in Nigeria as idiots and fools who have nothing in our heads. They see us as thieves and greedy lots. But, as we can all see now, they are no saints either!

Spare a Thought
In the midst of the Boko Haram carnage, we need to spare a thought for the hapless security agents who are victims too. Let’s give them some credit: they have tried their best, given the very difficult circumstances under which they have been working. It hurts me anytime I hear that a soldier or SSS operative or police officer has been killed by these militants. These are people fighting for their fatherland. They have families—mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children. These are human beings being wasted. As I write, there is a large population of widows, widowers and orphans created by Boko Haram. There is suspicion as to the judicious use of the security budgets by the security chiefs, but that is beside the point. We must respect the memory of those who have died in the line of duty. It’s only fair.

Yekini’s Missed Goal
The issue of mental health is one of the most underemphasised in Nigeria. But as I have come to discover in recent times, there are so many of us who suffer depression in different degrees. We fail to seek medical help on time. Maybe because we are very religious, we often attribute our emotional turmoil to evil spirits. But many of these conditions are treatable, some through counselling or psychotherapy. The society also does not help matters. A depressed person is quickly categorised as “going mad” or “hearing voices”. It’s double jeopardy—he recoils into himself; the society ignores him and gossips about him. Millions of Nigerians, even the most religious ones, are going through depression, whether mild or severe. It is becoming a public health issue. Obviously, Rashidi Yekini had a post-career depression. He kept to himself. By the time help arrived, it was too late. He scored many goals in his glittering career, but his handling of his depression was over the bar.

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