Jonathan, CNN and Boko Haram

29 Jan 2013

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Engagements By Chidi Amuta.

Presidents are first human.  So, in their private capacity, they are entitled to the foibles that make us all human. But when they step out to play the role for which they parade our democratic mandate, they must wear a costume of reason and some logic because in that garb, they carry the burden of our collective wisdom or lack of it to the world outside.  When playing president, therefore, we expect Dr. Goodluck Jonathan to embody our aggregate wisdom as a people. In the words and actions of Mr. President, we must see ourselves as edified not devalued, emboldened not cowered, adequately represented not disfigured, diminished or patently insulted. This is a critical part of the job description of President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Above all this, leaders are presumed to articulate what is often loosely referred to as the ‘reason of state’, that intangible and often irrational body of wisdom that underlies either the brilliance of state action or its naked foolishness. In its best form, the reason of state confounds ordinary men and women because it takes those who think for the state unbroken months and even years of blind fidelity to national values and governance tradition to fashion. It is what it is.

Beyond theory, I have trouble fitting the utterances of President Jonathan and his handlers into any known pattern of presidential communication. First, whoever unleashed my friend Christiane Amanpour of CNN on Jonathan at this point in time may not wish the man well. Amanpour is undiluted, unsparing, insightful, rigorous, experienced and very informed. Jonathan is clearly not a philosopher king. Nor is his gift of the garb particularly impressive. He is instead what one may describe as the president as ‘everyman’, an ordinary man who Obasanjo and Yar’Adua drafted to a dizzying political height. He is a Ph.D alright but belongs in the category that the late Professor Ikenna Nzimiro would refer to as  ‘intellectual ordinary men”.

He is prone to direct, simplistic and often superficial responses to serious questions about his complex job. When you have that kind of subject, elementary public relations dictates that you do not put him in the direct line of fire on global television to face an Amanpour. Amanpour of CNN, Stephen Sackur of BBC or David Frost of Al Jazeera. You may not like what you get afterwards.  And that is the outcome that Nigerians have been reeling from in the aftermath of last week’s Jonathan interview on CNN.

Specifically, on the troubling issue of the Boko Haram insurgency, the president committed intellectual hubris by insisting that the insurgency is neither the result of poverty nor bad governance. It is just plain terrorism born partly of sectarian rascality and is part of the current global wave of terrorism.  By that logic, all that is required to eradicate Boko Haram is a security clamp down and more international assistance.

By this curious presidential logic, Boko Haram qualifies to be treated and classified alongside other terrorist organisations.  It also follows therefore that Nigeria deserves to be treated like other terrorist harbouring nations! But this runs counter to the butt of our diplomatic engagement on the matter. Nigeria has insisted from the incident of the underwear bomber that the country should not be seen as a natural home ground of terrorism. Nigerians only get involved in terrorist activity on account of their exposure to external negative influences.

To the best of my knowledge, the main thrust of Nigeria’s diplomatic engagement with the United States Department of State on the Boko Haram problem has been to discourage the US and other Western governments from categorising the group as an International Terrorist Organisation. More out of economic self-interest and higher geo strategic considerations, the US State Department in particular has rightly insisted that the Boko Haram crisis is part of Nigeria’s crisis of governance and rising inequality.  This position coincides with the view of enlightened civil society in Nigeria.  It is in our higher national interest that this view persists. It helps us to garner support to deal with the increasing crisis of inequality and embarrassing governance at home. More importantly, it also saves our citizens the international harassment that nationals of countries with certified terrorist organisations undergo abroad. Curiously, however, the president tried so hard in his interview to literally invite a definite branding of Boko Haram and vicariously the sanctions and polite insults that accrue to nations and nationals so branded.

It is more convenient to reduce the insecurity occasioned by Boko Haram to an aspect of international terrorism.  That way, our national security challenges become part of the global war on terrorism. That can be quite fashionable and can earn us international solidarity. We have already enrolled in the global war against terrorism. But our terrorism is a manifestation of something more fundamental and horrifying.

We are dealing here with a succession of governments that have related to citizens more as statistics for revenue allocation than as people. The result is a most embarrassing genre of poverty. As recently as a few weeks back, the government’s own Bureau of Statistics acknowledged the ravages of this poverty especially in the Northern half of the country in its 2012 annual survey. These frightening statistics have shown up repeatedly, year after year. And yet, the effort to combat Boko Haram has no developmental or poverty eradication component. All we hear about are guns and yet more guns. We are scarring and scaring our poor instead of offering them food, livelihood, skills or hope.

Fine, let us battle terrorism. But let us put concrete things on the table. Let us offer skills, jobs for bombs, cash for guns and a comprehensive empowerment programme. Let us design an amnesty programme for Boko Haram as well. By all means, let us flush out criminals in the region but let us not frighten innocent people with guns and jackboots.

But this war like any other war must be fought on the basis of a correct doctrinal interpretation of the source of adversity.  A war against terror demands an even more rigorous articulation of a war aim and what defines the restoration of normalcy and order. What do we want to achieve by drafting troops to the states affected by Boko Haram? What are the rules of engagement? What does the enemy look like? What is our strategic national objective?

I raise these questions because in Nigeria, once a national problem persists for longer than a few months, it graduates into a business. Soon the JTF troops massed against Boko Haram will need to be appeased in order not to brand locals as Boko Haram. Those branded and arrested may need to ‘bail’ themselves from the cells of their supposed liberators. Their commanders are likely to want the Boko Haram ‘war’ to last a little longer in order to attract funds to buy more useless guns. We have seen it before in the Niger Delta where some of the troops deployed to battle militants and oil thieves became escorts for illegal oil blunderers.

As commander in chief, the minimum requirement of the president in a war on terrorism is a rigorous definition of war aims and therefore an appropriate doctrinal anchor for the engagements on the ground. Who is securing who and from what?

Everybody in the street knows that Boko Haram has found sectarian anchor and affiliation with Islam-based international terror movements. Nigeria with its weak state and security infrastructure and an impoverished citizenry in its northernmost precincts would be a choice destination for terrorist adventurism.

Against the president’s definitive rejection of a socio economic explanation for Boko Haram, we could pose the questions differently. If we had more accountable governments in the northern states and a contented citizenry with skilled citizens, jobs, a reasonably high standard of living and opportunities in Borno, Yobe, Bauchi or even Kano and Kaduna and the other affected states, would they play ready host to Boko Haram?

In any event, when we were confronted with the high point of armed militancy in the Niger Delta, it was correctly understood that the problem was first socio economic injustice, which had produced a security challenge. That is why the combination of amnesty, disarmament, law enforcement and political concessions were deployed to stabilise the Niger Delta. How come we are not ready to interpret Boko Haram correctly and apply the combination of solutions that glaringly stare us in the face?

The Federal Government may be ready to discuss with Boko Haram. But what is the government’s poverty eradication or economic empowerment template? What are we putting on the table? Is it the same concoction of bribes and ‘settlement’ of elite that come forward in the name of an invisible adversary that we all created through decades of criminal insensitivity? It is the same insensitivity that is denying the socio economic origins of this bloody scourge.

If there is no poverty or bad governance in the states afflicted by Boko Haram, there is a simple way to test the president’s CNN contention. One mark of a responsive and compassionate leader is the readiness with which he identifies with citizens in their place of grief. Let the president pay a long overdue fact finding tour of Maiduguri, Damaturu, Bauchi, Potiskum or even Kano. He should ride with the respective governors in open vehicles to acknowledge the cheers of appreciative citizens. He should touch and be touched by the masses and walk the streets even if briefly to reassure the rest of us who are afraid of journeying to these places. After all Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron have frequently visited Afghanistan and Iraq, which are foreign lands. It should be easier for our own president to visit parts of our country to check on the welfare of those whose mandate he is parading.

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