The special powers given to the military to take extraordinary actions to contain the Boko Haram insurgency is widely commended, but Nigerians only wish the measure would achieve its purpose. Vincent Obia writes
When Boko Haram struck in a full-fledged terrorist style nearly two years ago, Nigeria was hopelessly unprepared for the rebel challenge. Now with the Islamic sect holding territory and more than 2, 000 people killed in attacks by the group since the June 16, 2011 bombing of the police headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s first experience of suicide bombing, the federal government has resolved to apply special measures to contain the insurgency.
President Goodluck Jonathan on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in the Boko Haram hotbeds of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states.
“What we are facing is not just militancy or criminality, but a rebellion and insurgency by terrorist groups which pose a very serious threat to national unity and territorial integrity,” Jonathan declared in a broadcast. “Already, some northern parts of Borno State have been taken over by groups whose allegiance is to different flags and ideologies. These terrorists and insurgents seem determined to establish control and authority over parts of our beloved nation and to progressively overwhelm the rest of the country.”
The president directed the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ola Sa’ad Ibrahim, “to immediately deploy more troops to these states for more effective internal security operations.
“The troops and other security agencies involved in these operations have orders to take all necessary action, within the ambit of their rules of engagement, to put an end to the impunity of insurgents and terrorists.”
Jonathan explained the rules of engagement to include arrest of suspects, seizure of suspected structures, and lock-down of areas of terrorist operation.
Nigeria’s first experience of a state of emergency was in 1962 in the old Western Region following the Action Group crisis. The next time was on May 18, 2004 in Plateau State, during the tenure of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, following bloody sectarian violence. Before Tuesday’s proclamation, Jonathan had on December 31, 2011 declared emergency rule in 15 local government areas across Borno, Yobe, Plateau, and Niger states, citing insurgency and sectarian violence.
The current state of emergency in the three North-east states, however, is like no other in the country’s history. It does not dismantle the elected executive and legislative institutions in the affected states, and the president says it will run alongside ongoing efforts to strike an amnesty deal for insurgents who turn their backs on militancy.
But many have expressed doubts about the civility of the Nigerian military’s rules of engagement in internal security operations. Such worries stem from previous experiences that resulted in many civilian deaths. In the military operation against Boko Haram, the fears are even more intense, as the insurgents hide among civilian communities and homesteads.
About 200 people, many of who were said to be civilians, were allegedly killed on April 16 when the military launched an operation to root out Boko Haram insurgents from Baga, a border town in Borno State.
Experts say to bring credibility to the military operations, independent observers could be embedded with the military units to travel with them and report freely on any issue that does not jeopardise the peace restoration process. Besides bringing credibility to the operations, the presence of embeds could also be a considerable restraint on the soldiers.
Protection of civilian lives is one issue the military must take seriously to avoid the ugly backlashes that have been the bane of its internal security operations in various parts of the country. However severely provoked, the ability to show restraint in not retaliating against innocent civilians is one critical mark of professionalism that would surely endear the soldiers to the communities and help to isolate the insurgents. It would also enable the world to identify with and understand the current Nigerian crisis.
The United States and other Western countries and organisations have cautioned against unjustly hash measures in the current operations in the North-east. A U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell is quoted as saying, “We call on Nigerian officials to ensure that Nigeria’s security forces protect civilians in any security response in a way that respects human rights and the rule of law…
“We have made it clear to the Nigerian government that its heavy-handed response to insecurity in northern Nigeria and the failure to address human rights violations will potentially affect our ability to provide security assistance going forward.”
But some critics have doubted the efficacy of the present emergency rule in the face of continued political control by elected officials, some of whom are alleged to be complicit in the sponsorship of the insurgent activities. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar recently alleged that the immediate past governor of Borno State, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, had ignored his advice against the formation of political gangs that metamorphosed into the present Boko Haram menace. It was not the first time Sheriff would be accused of involvement in the Boko Haram crisis.
The truth, however, is that as the security situation became more complex, with the alleged annexation of territories by Boko Haram, making the mission to restore order in the affected areas almost impossible, there was need for some extraordinary measures to re-establish control. This is more so as the group had spurned dialogue.
Besides, there is nothing in Section 305 of the constitution that says elected authorities must cease to exist after the declaration of a state of emergency. That decision seems to be the discretion of the president – if he feels those institutions may hinder the emergency operations. Many believe it is thoughtfully democratic for Jonathan to have allowed the governors of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states as well as their Houses of Assembly to continue in office during the pendency of the state of emergency.
But as a long term solution, the political class and the government must work to address the economic and political injustices that feed rebellion.
Action Congress of Nigeria’s denunciation on Wednesday of the state of emergency declared on Tuesday by President Goodluck Jonathan in Yobe, Borno and Adamawa states was hasty and devoid of critical thinking. ACN had in a statement by its national publicity secretary, Lai Mohammed, dismissed the emergency campaign as “nothing new” and “more of the same” military strategy that had not worked. It alleged that Jonathan might be on a mission of political lockdown to frustrate the opposition’s ability to canvass votes in the affected states ahead of 2015. But ACN offered nothing new save a cliché-ridden advice on the “need to think out of the box.”
The Boko Haram insurgency and, indeed, insecurity in the country is a national problem. The whole country is in it together. A party like ACN, which is seen by many as the human face of the opposition, should have tried for once to come up with a sincere solution, considering that its sing song of dialogue and minimal force have not worked.
Nigerian politicians must learn to know when to think carefully and maturely about issues, without allowing personal biases to affect them. They should borrow a leaf from politicians in the United States who during the recent Boston lockdown appreciated the action as extraordinary but prudent in an effort to rid their country of terrorism. ACN and the opposition should be wary of errors that could cost them a great deal of the goodwill they are beginning to garner among the masses.