ENGAGEMENT with Chidi Amuta
In a nation besieged on all sides by frightening insecurity and a frenzy of violent convulsions, diverse merchants of violence seem to be in a contest of supremacy. Boko Haram seems insistent on occupying the front row. With over a decade of expertise in hands-on terrorism, this untidy army of fanatical zealots has graduated from random deployment of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices to more strategic targeting. It is no longer all about the dismemberment of limbs, scattering of torsos and entrails or drenching of markets and worship places in the blood of innocents.
Lately, it has narrowed its targets to three critical categories. First, through ambushes and direct attacks, it has been attacking soldiers as enemy combatants. In its choice theatre of Borno state, it has severally and repeatedly targeted the governor as its prime political competitor. And with the latest massacre of farmers in Zabarmari it is zeroing in on farmers as agents of Buhari’s favourite pursuit of food security through the empowerment of peasant farmers. An enemy with such strategic clarity of objectives cannot be dismissed as either inconsequential or “technically defeated”. It is even more delusional to dismiss Boko Haram as largely neutralized or ‘largely degraded’. Practical terrorism hardly obeys political language.
Boko Haram’s murder of farmers in the outskirts of Maiduguri last week may indeed be the ‘next level’ in the specter of insecurity and violent insurgency that has gripped the North Eastern extremity of the country. In a formally declared war, a casualty count of 100, either of combatants or ordinary defenseless civilians on either side of the battle line would warrant a closer look. The quality of military leadership that would allow this number of defenseless farmers to be murdered in one day alone deserves closer examination. The Nigerian military has admitted a death toll of 43. The United Nations puts the casualty figure at 110. Mr. Sekau, the omnipotent undisputed leader of Boko Haram, says the kill count is 78. Some were beheaded, others were disemboweled while others were shot through. We may not know the exact figure. But it is better to find an average between the admission of the acknowledged killer and the UN which has satellite imaging devices overhead every inch of our earth. On this and many other issues of death count, not much light can come from the Nigerian military’s sense of numbers given its recent struggles with truth and basic numbers be they at Lekki Toll Gate or in the various theatres of engagement where their services have lately been enlisted.
There is national outrage and trepidation that daily blood letting and human sacrifice have become the new normal for Nigerians. In rural communities especially in the north, anonymous killer squads have routinely murdered hapless villagers and razed whole settlements. Groups of cattle rustlers have been freely helping themselves to livestock in the northern states. Kidnapping for ransom, abductions of high value citizens and other transactional criminal acts are common all over the country. Similarly, unresolved routine murders by casual killers as well as an all time high trade in babies and minors from so called ‘baby factories’ have escalated into thriving lines of trade. Never in peace time Nigeria has the nation witnessed such a high degree of insecurity as we see today.
Even in war time Nigeria, thw parts of the country far away from the immediate theatre of war were relatively secure. In fact, as wars go, the Nigerian civil war was perhaps a relatively ‘civil’ conflict in these terms. It confined violence to the actual theatre of war in the enclave that opted to call itself Biafra for two and half years. In large measure, most of the rest of war time Nigeria hardly needed battalions of combatant soldiers in battle fatigue in daily pitched battles with armed criminals sometimes in broad daylight. All over the country, there is certain a warlike atmosphere in which armed soldiers mount checkpoints sometimes taking time off to harass civilians and extort motorists. insecurity across the land has converted the entire national space into a virtual battle field. It is a war of the few against the many, one in which there are no rules of engagement. Innocent passengers in an interstate bus are often targets of criminal gangs. So are children being driven to or from school. It is an endless rehash of criminal formats.
Despite presiding over an ostensibly democratic society, Mr. Buhari has in the last five years institutionalized the domination of internal security operations by the military instead of equipping and increasing the size of the police. Understandably, the concept of joint security operations by combined teams of the military, police and civil defense corps can be understood in the context of an under policed society. But there ought to have been an phased programme of disengagement of soldiers from these operations in the interest of democratic consolidation.
In the case of Boko Haram which is purely a military operation, the performance of our military has been less than impressive for a force that has residual battlefield memory and experience from home and foreign operations. The Nigerian military who are paid to check very dangerous trouble makers and chase off internal and external enemies are constantly caught off guard by a largely itinerant rabble of fanatical terrorists or plain common criminals. With each attack by the terrorists, the defence establishment is content with offering sometimes laughable political excuses. It is either a lament about lack of equipment or a non cooperative civilian population. At other times, they engage in fruitless arguments about the statistics of casualty figures.
After the mass murder of the Borno farmers, the army turned around to blame the farming community for not providing intelligence that could have led to their halting the terrorists. Yet the community is reported to have apprehended one of the menacing terrorists and handed him over to the military authorities. Yet when the killings took place, the soldiers who had advance information of the attack were nowhere in the vicinity. From far away Abuja, regime megaphones in the presidency shamelessly blamed the victims for daring to go to their farms without the permission of the army! Belatedly, the army spokesman has conveniently blamed the persistence of the insurgency on an international conspiracy against Nigeria!
On his part, the Chief of Army Staff, General Buratai, himself easily the most politicized army chief in recent Nigerian history, has kept shifting the goal post for the defeat of Boko Haram. Under his watch, the army has made endless claims about killing Mr. Shekau, the ubiquitous leaders of Boko Haram. But from most evidence, Mr. Shekau seems to be alive, well and active. In spite of numerous assurances to the nation’s political leadership that Boko Haram has been ‘technically defeated’ or virtually ‘degraded’, Mr. Buratai has in the aftermath of the farmers’ massacre done a volte face to assert, via a recent Facebook post, that it might take another 20 years to defeat Boko Haram because the war against this insurgency is an ‘unconventional’ war! I thought that every general worth his salt is trained to adapt his fighting methods to achieve his objectives with different iterations of enemy forces. The object of assuming a command is to fight and win either a conventional or an unconventional war. Excuses do not win a war. And yet this is the army chief that Mr. Buhari has inexplicably left as the head of the Nigerian army for much longer than is excusable. I understand that the records indicate he should have retired since 2018!
Public quest for solutions to the spate of insecurity across the nation has been a diverse stampede of chaotic suggestions. The search for security has united Nigerians acorss region, creed and party. Most people think that Mr. Buhari’s service chiefs have overstayed their usefulness. All four of them have since exhausted their career tours of duty and should have retired from service two years ago on the average. In their excess tenure, they are holding their subordinates who have fallen due for promotion and professional advancement to ransom. In the process, Mr. Buhari has unconsciously allowed some of the service chiefs to acquire political appetites. For instance, a great deal of the information that emerges from the Defence Headquarters and especially from the army public relations unit is more political than technical and professional.
Above all, there is something to be gained from a sense of newness and novelty of perspectives and tactics from a gamut of officers with far better ideas than their present service chiefs. In military matters, high morale and the impetus to make a mark by achieving better results than your predecessor goes far. Mr. Buhari’s stubborn insistence on keeing the present crop of service chiefs is an impediment to the deployment of alternative strategies and new energy into an area that has become a bugbear of our present internal security burden.
Yet others have insisted that the lopsidedness and divisiveness inherent in the appointment of the service chiefs has become an albatross around the neck of the normally lethargic Mr. Buhari. He seems to place fidelity to his nativist provincial reflexes over and above competence in matters of grave national security interest. There are enough Nigerians who hold the view that the relative higher intensity of general violence and insecurity in the Northern half of the country is an indictment of Buhari’s lopsidedness in the appointment of defense and security chieftains. With all top defence and security positions in the country controlled by northerners as a matter of deliberate scheming, it is a tragic irony that the same North is today more insecure than it has ever been in the history of the country. As it were, Mr. Buhari has tempted people to come to unsavoury conclusions. It is either that the particular northerners he has emplaced at the top of national security represent a careful selection of the most incompetent people. It could also be that these individuals are oblivious the provincial sensitivities that drove the president to appoint them in the first place. In the eyes of the larger Nigerian public, what is at issue is the general insecurity of life and limbs in the whole of Nigeria. The nation is either secure or not. Since it is not, the president must be held fully accountable for the fulfillment of the most elementary item in his oath of office.
In all of this as in nearly all recent incidents of national grief and tragedy under his watch, Nigerians watch in consternation as President Buhari remains either aloof or curiously silent or helplessly watches as his incompetent security chiefs trifle with national security. The greater consternation is that Mr. Buhari seems to be largely oblivious of the political cost of his disastrous record on matters of national security.
In the wake of more recent incidents of violent insecurity in the country, an increasing number of voices have risen to call out the president. Even the National Assembly, which in its current iteration is seen as a rubber stamp of the president and his party, has risen to insist that the president must address them on the state of national security. More significantly, the Northern Elders Forum, a body that played a significant role in the emergence of the Buhari presidency has demanded that the president resign his position for his abysmal failure to guarantee national security especially in the hitherto peaceful northern half of the country. These calls, coming a clear two and half years from the end of his tenure in May 2023 can only heighten the atmosphere of political instability in the country. Politicians may like it but it is a negative signal for the society and the economy which is already in dire straits with a second recession in five years.
The demand of the Northern Elders is of course borne of frustration in the embarrassing incompetence of a president that they all had backed to champion their geo strategic interests while ensuring a credible national leadership. The call for Buhari’s resignation may also be a high stakes political manoeuvre aimed at dissociatinf the political north from an ambassador wh has done an ugly job. Increasingly, it is beginning to look like Mr. Buhari is incapable of rising to either the occasion of an illustrious northern messiah or indeed a tolerable national leader in any area of national life. Under his watch, the North has degenerated into a Hobbesian hell while peace time Nigeria is witnessing a spate of insecurity far greater than under any previous administration in the nation’s history. Even Mr. Buhari’s most ardent disciples now find it hard to explain let alone defend the job performance of their principal as Nigeria now tops the list of nearly every global index of negativity.
Mr. Buhari may have put his best foot forward. It may not be good enough in the context of the issues and challenges that bestride today’s Nigeria. In a democratic context, I see some good in Buhari’s less than impressive outing so far. The fear of insecurity, grinding poverty and lack of direction under him will help Nigerians make the democratic decision in 2023. One of the beauties of democracy is that a lack luster leadership is the greatest campaign for the next brilliant one. Or an even worse one!