The latest threat of attack by Boko Haram has raised the need for government to be more circumspect in the ongoing prisoner swap deals with the deadly sect, writes Olawale Olaleye
The prisoner exchange programme had never gone down well with an average Nigerian in the first place and the ill-feeling towards the idea didnâ€™t start with the Muhammadu Buhari government. A majority of Nigerians consider the idea a subtle way of yielding to the caprice of a group that constitutes huge threat to the socio-political and economic fabric of the country. Yet, it is not one that is peculiar to Nigeria.
A fortnight ago, the federal government secured the release of 82 of the remaining kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls who were abducted in 2014. The news though enlivened the hitherto drab political atmosphere in the country, especially coming at a time the presidency was dealing with the health challenge of President Buhari. Curiously, it was not a feat recorded through military campaign; it was by negotiating with the terror group and in exchange for the release of some of their men held by government for various acts of terrorism.
President Buhari government had chosen to swap the 82 girls with Boko Haram prisoners as against paying a ransom to the terrorist group. The government, it was learnt, did not want a repeat of ransom payment, as the case was during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan.
But soon after the deal was struck, the Boko Haram commanders, who were swapped with the girls threatened to bomb Abuja in a new video obtained by Ahmad Salkida, a journalist believed to have access to leaders of the terror group.The video, released by the Abubakar Shekau faction, featured one Shuaibu Moni, a Boko Haram commander, who was one of those allegedly swapped for the girls.
In the video, Moni issued threats to the Nigerian government and President Buhari and also dismissed the story that only five insurgents were released in exchange for the Chibok girls. He then warned of imminent bombing in Abuja and insisted thereâ€™s been no dialogue with government and that there wonâ€™t be any.
Expectedly, the threat to launch attacks on Abuja had quickly fuelled apprehension and reservation about the viability of the prisoner exchange deals. The threat had also raised doubts among Nigerians about the effectiveness of the swap deals, which many feared might also swell the depleting ranks of Boko Haram commanders.
But, in the midst of this, the federal government has reiterated that it was still pursuing the prisoner exchange option to secure freedom for the rest of the schoolgirls.
And sensing the import of the fresh threat, the Nigerian Army too came out to dismiss the Boko Haram video as mere propaganda meant to seek relevance. Director of Army Public Relations, Brigadier-general Sani Usman, told the public not to panic, saying the video is a mere publicity stunt by a terrorist organisation on its last legs.
He said, â€œAs you are all aware, he (Moni) was a direct beneficiary of the process that led to the release of 82 of the abducted girls, and does not have a say or capacity to do anything. Therefore, his threats should be ignored. We would like to assure the public that the Nigerian Army is totally committed to the federal governmentâ€™s determined efforts of rescuing all abducted persons and peace in the country. We will not relent on our determined efforts of clearing the remnants of the Boko Haram terrorists as manifested through the on-going clearance operations.
â€œThe Nigerian Air Force is unrelenting in its bombardment while other security agencies are equally doing their best. Therefore, we wish to solicit for more support, cooperation and understanding of the public, particularly members of the press. We should not give in to terroristsâ€™ propaganda and empty threats. We have come to a very critical stage of the fight against terrorism and insurgency in Nigeria that requires more patriotism and security consciousness by all and sundry. Gone were the days when people glamourised terrorists and their criminal acts.â€
In the same vein, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Abayomi Gabriel Olanisakin, said the terror group would soon be history. He stated this when the staff and members of the United Kingdom Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) led by Major General Lawrence Craig paid a visit on him at the Defence Headquarters Abuja. He was represented by the Chief of Defence Policy and Plans, Air Vice Marshal Bashir Saidu.
â€œTerrorism and insurgency are global security challenges and the Defence Headquarters has recorded significant victory over the Boko Haram terrorists, who hitherto halted socio-economic activities in the North-east,â€ he said, adding that â€œwith the reinvigorated armed forces of Nigeria and the collaboration of the Multinational Joint Task Force, the Boko Haram terrorists menace would soon be over.â€
Understandably, one of the downsides to the exchange deal, which some have identified as strategic is the fact that the federal government is dealing with a divided group, complicated by leadership rivalry. What this means in effect is that even if a faction plays along in whatever discussions, the other faction could choose to throw spanner in the works, thus compounding such moves.
Although details of the deal are not known to the public yet, what is clear from the latest development is that government has not had a profound negotiation with the sect while the emerging threat from them proves that the deal, whatever the terms were, might have put the sect in a position of strength.
It could be convenient for Usman and Olanisakin to dismiss the threats by the sect for argument purposes. They are serious threats and cannot be wished away. It is pertinent to state that apart from the fight against corruption which government is still struggling with, the fight against terror is another area designated as its strength and cannot afford to take incalculable risk that would undermine national security and pride.
Therefore, the news that government is still talking to the group with respect to securing the release of the rest of the girls is cheering. It is important that it has learnt from this very experience and that in moving forward, negotiations cannot further weaken the position of the federal government, while bolstering the sect. Evidently, the fight against terror is far from being over but certainly not impossible.
Importantly, government must note that the process of debriefing the girls is a very serious one that is germane to the successful fight against terrorism. Otherwise, the girls, having spent about three years with their abductor are as useful for the insurgents as they are good to be back in the embrace of their friends and family. A close monitoring of the girls is therefore a major security concern that cannot be taken with levity.
There is no doubting the fact that a majority of them might have developed affinity with their abductors, the reasons some of them were said to have refused to return home. What this implies is that the debriefing and monitoring process are going to be unending until the grey areas are certified safe. Government would have failed should the girls become useful to the terrorists than the state.