A Letter on the Road to Maidugurio  

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Okokomaiko - Badagry Road

By John Joseph

I am a communications consultant and former member of the British Army who has been to Nigeria over 50 times.

I write this as I journey along a road that is at the epicentre of the territory the size of Belgium that Boko Haram seized in North East Nigeria, which General Sir Mike Jackson wrote about in the Spectator, the highly influential UK magazine, last week. Today this road is a major Boko Haram crossing point and the villages along its route are their recruiting grounds.

I was motivated to write this article when I read, the general’s statement that “within the first few months of Buhari’s presidency Boko Haram was forced to retreat”, as it is peddling a deeply misleading myth.

The truth is that before leaving office President Goodluck Jonathan had brought in a South African military consultancy, STTEP, in late 2014 to train Mobile Task Force 72 for a new type of aggressive “composite fighting.” Jonathan also provided new equipment including a fleet of helicopters, which were essential to deliver this strategy.

Jonathan postponed the February 2015 election to April to allow the military  recapture the territory so that the people of North East Nigeria could vote. Ironically,, it was these voters who contributed to his defeat. Plus, by announcing the delay, it allowed Buhari to mercilessly attack him for using it to rig the election, which he duly lost.

It served Buhari (a failed military dictator who was so bad his own military had to remove him from office in 1985) to take credit for this victory when he entered office in May.

Perhaps in his only decisive action since taking office (it famously took him over six months to announce his cabinet, which gained him the name “Baba go-slow”) he immediately cancelled the contract with STTEP as he did not want Nigerian troops trained by white South Africans.

Since then the offensive capabilities of the army have diminished, allowing Boko Haram and ISWAP (Islamic State of West Africa Province) to infiltrate deep into the North East and beyond.

General Buhari sits in Abuja giving orders but neither he nor his administration have any grip on what is happening on the ground. His reputation of being a tough military man is illusory. As the nation has seen on his election trail, the man can hardly stand up.

His reputation for tackling corruption is equally illusory as, unfortunately for the soldiers on the ground, money that has been provided to the military for new equipment and supplies has been “chopped” before it reaches them.

None of the helicopters brought in by Jonathan are still flying and the Nigerian Army has suffered a string of heavy defeats. Just two months ago 157 Battalion at Metele was over-run, suffering over 100 deaths according to Reuters.

The over-running of a professional Army Battalion’s prepared defensive position by insurgents just should not happen. A lack of ammunition was blamed.

Last week, following the withdrawal of Cameroonian troops from the town of Rann, when reports of Boko Haram’s approach reached the Nigerian forces defending the town, they too withdrew, claiming insufficient arms and ammunition again.

When Boko Haram entered the town they rounded up 60 elders and local leaders and murdered them in gruesome fashion, leaving one alive as a witness of the atrocity to tell others.

With dead soldiers being buried in mass graves without tributes from their Commander in Chief, Buhari, to hide the extent of their defeats from the public, morale has hit rock bottom.

When the administration pushes back against the death toll in the international media they use the words “only 44 soldiers were killed“.  “Only”?  The death of anyone should be the subject of concern and grief not a tool in communication management.

It is clear on the ground that the majority of Nigerian people can’t wait to see the back of Buhari in the elections just one week away.

The latest poll by Williams & Associates, who accurately predicted Buhari would defeat Jonathan by 9%, is giving Atiku Abubakar, his opponent, a strong 12% lead.

The three biggest issues impacting on who voters will choose for President are unemployment, poverty and security. Atiku leads by a large margin on each one.

This is not surprising given Buhari has presided over unprecedented unemployment, up from 7 million to 21 million and new levels of poverty with over 100 million people unable to afford one decent meal a day.

People are hungry and angry and see their vote as the one thing that could change their fortunes.

On security, Buhari has seen insurrection spread from the North East to the North West and North Central regions which account for almost 60% of registered voters. With a record number of people being killed in 2018, Buhari’s electoral base in the north has turned against him.

Atiku is also ahead on 9/10 of all the issues that influence voter intention.

However, the big unanswered question is whether the will of the people will be reflected in the final result?

Last August Buhari promised Theresa May when she was visiting Nigeria that he would conduct free and fair elections.

Yet just two weeks later in a gubernatorial bye-election in Osun, Buhari’s party, allowed violence in seven zones to force a recount which was duly rigged to ensure their candidate stole the election.

The UK and US Embassies issued a statement which said “we were concerned to witness widespread incidents of interference and intimidation of voters, journalists, and civil society observers”.

The international community need to ask the President whether Osun was an exception to his promise or represented his definition of ‘a free and fair election?’

Whilst the election appeared quite tight at the start of the year, there was a veritable tipping point three weeks ago when the balance of the seesaw visibly shifted to Atiku’s side.

This followed his visit to America, which the opposition had said he would never be able to do, and then Buhari’s illegal suspension of the Chief Justice. This became a clarion  call for the entire country to defend its constitution.

Since the seesaw tipped, many of Buhari’s allies have slid down it into Atiku’s camp. The levels of endorsements from every region and ethnic group and defections from the ruling party have become a veritable torrent.  That critical commodity in electoral success, momentum, is clearly on the side of Atiku.

It is now clear that almost two thirds of Nigerians do not expect Buhari to win and according to the Williams poll, the majority of his own party’s supporters believe that Atiku will be the next president.

So the Nigerian people will feel especially aggrieved if this election miraculously results in Buhari getting another term via electoral malpractice as he was the beneficiary of what was generally perceived to be free and fair elections. His opponent President Goodluck Jonathan graciously accepted the result and stood down. He lived up to his promise that “my ambition is not worth the blood of any Nigerian”.