ENGAGEMENT With Chidi Amuta
The boys of Kankara Government Science Secondary School committed no crime known to law in a secular state. Their parents enrolled them in a government boarding school in search of education, knowledge and enlightenment. Like their compatriots in the rest of the country, they all aspired to become great scientists, teachers, doctors and leaders in different callings. They had no cause to be afraid because they believed, quite justifiably, in the government that inscribed its name on the signpost of the school. But on the night of Friday, 11th December, their dreams and aspirations were sadly interrupted by machine gunfire. The serenity of their school environment was disrupted by rough unschooled bearers of violence. The children cried desperately for help and protection. Their parents were far away. The school authorities who were acting in locus parentis were helpless. For a whole week of nightmare in uncertain agony, the Nigerian state failed these young citizens and left them in the hands of agents of dark violence and death. Boys who went to bed as free citizens of this republic woke up in a dark forest as unwilling guests of a devilish collective of transactional bandits in the service of deranged jihadists.
Happily, the nightmare ended rather quickly with the news of the sudden release of the boys. Whether they were released after negotiations with their captors or they were rescued in an unusually amicable security operation, the important point is that the boys are free and back in the warmth of their respective homes. While we await the full details of how they regained their freedom, the scar of this weeklong excursion into the dark will likely remain etched in the minds of these young Nigerians for life.
In one week only, the abduction of the Kankara boys dramatized all that is wrong with present day Nigeria. We showcased to the world, our perennial wrestling with facts and figures, our penchant for bare faced lies and uncoordinated frenzy in the face of avoidable mishaps. For a whole week, no one could tell exactly how many boys were missing from the Kankara School. The first speculative report said they were between 500 and 600 boys. A later report by school a sources indicated no less than 300. Later, the Katsina state governor, Mr. Aminu Masari, put the figure at 330. The BBC and CNN later indicated 337. A spokesman of the Abuja presidency casually dismissed the entire claim of mass abduction and put the figure, in a BBC interview, at about 10-11 boys, as if even the loss of one boy is not bad enough. The Nigerian military insisted on a figure of 333, making this the second largest haul of kidnapped school children after the 2014 Chibok incident with 276 girls. The numerical ping pong may no longer matter in the euphoria of the boys’ release but we have further reinforced our reputation for disrespect for precision in matters of fact and figures.
Nonetheless, whatever effort led to the early release of the boys is commendable when we consider what could have become of these innocent boys in the absence of such concerted action. If it was military action, our forces deserve commendation especially given the minimal loss of lives. If it was negotiation, so be it. If it was ransom payment, welcome to a fast growing sector of the underground economy, the area of transactional kidnapping!
No one can blame the Nigerian public for the spontaneous outburst of rage and hysteria over the Kankara episode. The abductions were coming against a backdrop of similar mass stealing of young students in previous incidents in our troubled north. Coming after Chibok (2014) and Dapchi(2018), this latest incident brought back memories of these unresolved ones and the tardiness of their handling by our authorities.
Yet, in spite of the commendable early resolution of this school abduction drama, the ultimate political casualty of this latest incident remains the beleaguered president Buhari and his administration. By some opportunistic political calculation, the terrorists chose to conduct the Kankara abduction in the first night of Mr. Buhari’s arrival in his home state of Katsina, ostensibly on a short vacation. For a president who has repeatedly restated his commitment to national security as a key political objective, this abduction was a slap in the face. The expectation that the president’s home state would be one of the safest places in a turbulent Nigeria is only natural. In conducting the Kankara abduction on such a massive scope and with the audacity that we have come to associate with the new breed of bandits and Boko Haram, the terrorists were literally taking the battle to the president’s doorstep and literally challenging his mythic reputation for military bred toughness.
For a presidency already patented for epic incompetence and ineffectuality, the instant public outrage and political backlash towards Buhari were predictable. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led the fray in castigating the president and his party for an embarrassing handling of the general security situation in the country. Even the usually tepid National Assembly was unavoidably critical of the president and timidly urged him to ‘wake up’ to the responsibility of protecting the citizenry.
The Sultan of Sokoto condemned the attack and posed it as a challenge to the capacity of the Buhari administration to keep the citizenry safe. Wole Soyinka spoke in similar vein and posed the attack as a direct affront to Mr. Buahari to prove that he is still in charge of the nation. Predictably, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, outspoken critic of the Buhari administration and fastidious advocate of education rights especially of the girl child, used the occasion to renew her call for a medical evaluation of the president to ascertain that he is still of sound mind and body to competently preside over the affairs of state.
Major political groupings and voices especially from the northern segment weighed in on the incident. They issued fiery statements and staged angry demonstrations in Katsina and later Daura, hometown of the president. The Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) spearheaded the political axis.
Predictably, Boko Haram stepped forward to assume responsibility for the raid. With an exclusive franchise on industrial scale terror, Boko Haram is eminently positioned to appropriate every act of mass terror in Nigeria. Claiming responsibility for the Kankara abduction made logical sense as it fits well into a pattern it had established with the Chibok and Dapchi girls’ mass abductions. To prove its claim, the terror gang posted a video of the innocent boys begging and appealing to Nigerian authorities to do nothing that would endanger their lives.
Hate them as we all do, Boko Haram must be credited with a rather sophisticated sense of political opportunism and communication scheduling. It knows when to strike for maximum effect and the best political foot to put forward. A school abduction conducted under the nose of the president, in his home state and calculated to disrupt his vacation homecoming is ordinarily a master stroke. It dramatized the progressive devaluation and decay of the power of the Nigerian state. There could be no more argument as to who had been ‘degraded’ or ‘substantially neutralized’. But the Nigerian military establishment is not one to be beaten in the game of political grand standing. As late as last Wednesday, a military spokesman asserted that the Kankara abduction was further indication that Boko Haram has lost its foothold in the North East and was now foraging for relevance elsewhere! But then Kankara is a clear 750 kilometers away from Maiduguri, the favourite playground of the jihadists. An insurgency that has been ‘virtually defeated’ does not roam freely through thousands of kilometers unchallenged. Nor does it so easily earn the right to negotiate the release of the boys with agents of the state.
The crucial import of the Kankara episode is the weight it lends to the sinister logic of the Boko Haram insurgency and what it means for the future of education and civil society in Nigeria. Boko Haram has remained unambiguous and consistent in restating and pursuing its war objectives. As its name implies, its core war aim is to erode and discourage Western education and its underpinning value system in its target territory. This has majorly defined its operational targets. It has targeted schools, abducted girls into sex slavery, forced marriage and quickly brainwashed and tutored some of them in suicide bombings. With the Kankara boys, it graduated to young school boys, some of whom could have ended up as child soldiers, programmed killing machines and fanatical conduits of sectarian insanity.
I am not aware that the Nigerian state and its military and security apparatus has proffered an alternative coherent doctrine to counter Boko Haram’s war objective. Beyond the threadbare rehash of the push to defeat Boko Haram as an insurgency that is a threat to our national sovereignty, the Nigerian military and security establishment has not quite thought it fit to generate a credible set of contrary war objectives. Beyond defeating the insurgency, how do we kill the extremist doctrinal basis of Boko Haram? How do we defeat the insane fundamentalism of Boko Haram without hurting our people’s right to freedom of religion and belief? How do we re- establish confidence in the secular essence of the Nigerian state and the secular values undergirding its order? How do we underline the belief of the Nigerian state and its people in Western education as the key to national modernization? These and more are the questions that go beyond these episodic encounters with bandits and criminals hiding under jihadism to institutionalize organized crime and extortion as permanent features of our reality.
In the brief duration of the Kankara abduction, the leaders of certain states tacitly abdicated their oaths of office and surrendered to the blackmail of Boko Haram and its principal war objective. In quick succession, governors began to announce the closure of schools in their territories. The governor of Katsina state, the epicenter of the abduction, ordered all schools in the state closed for fear of further attacks. Similarly, the governor of neighbouring Zamfara state declared an indefinite closure of schools in the state. Kano state, easily one of the nation’s most populated states, followed suit by shutting down day and boarding schools. Benue State, located further south in the mid section of the country, announced a similar shutdown of schools as late as last Thursday. Without the early release of the Kankara boys, it was looking likely that all 19 Northern governors would go the same route.
These school shutdowns were presumably predicated on the need to ensure the safety of school children. Underlying these thoughtless reflex decisions however was the hope that the terrorism and banditry that made the closures necessary would cease merely because the schools have been closed. How long would it take to re -establish security in the states and therefore reopen the schools? Were we now going to run a nation where the northern half is without schools indefinitely? It is hard to understand the common sense that informed these hasty knee jerk reactions.
Irrespective of how many more attacks and abductions of school children take place in the future, we must as a nation stoutly reject this cowardly closure of schools as a solution to the increasing influence of bandits and jihadists in any part of the country. We must defend the right of our children to receive education in open unfettered schools. That incidentally is a constitutional responsibility of our president and governors to guarantee the right of citizens to knowledge, education and freedom from ignorance.
It is not just schools that are now under threat of terrorism in parts of Nigeria. Along with schools, other indicators of normal life are threatened. The economic prospects of these states, most of which are already functionally bankrupt, is endangered. Normal activities cannot go on let alone the prospects of either domestic or foreign investment in the region. The larger Nigerian economy will eventually take the hit as foreign investors will avoid the northern states for fear of the ravaging insecurity.
The examples of other countries wracked by insecurity and terrorism ought to instruct us. In Iraq, for instance, the northern regions of Kurdistan have remained the most attractive destinations for western investors for years on account of their relative peace, security and stability. On the contrary, the southern Sunni and Shiite territories have remained unstable war zones and play grounds of sundry terror gangs and foreign occupation forces, making them unattractive for sustainable economic activity. Similarly, the border regions of Waziristan between Pakistan and Afghanistan have for decades remained hotbeds of insurgency and safe havens for sundry terror gangs and hence a no go zone for investment, civilized social life and meaningful development.
Beyond the Kankara episode, therefore, the answers that we urgently need to the epidemic of insecurity require more of common sense and political will than additional budget provisions for more arms and sophisticated war planes. In the face of an enemy that moves around in droves of motor bikes and armed with conventional small arms, costly heavy armaments may be useless.
We need to think for instance of a special schools protection security plan for the vulnerable states. This will require political leaders and military authorities coming together to arrange for the permanent posting of security personal in schools. In addition, we may consider a special weapons training programme for and the arming of selected teachers in schools located in the vulnerable areas. Admittedly, the area in question is large and expansive while the manpower numbers of our military and security outfits may not be adequate. But in the age of appropriate technologies, it is relatively easy to maintain a round the clock surveillance of the entire territory using a combination of camera equipped mobile drones and manned aerial reconnaissance by the Nigerian air force. Regular armoured convoys and combat aircraft may be useless in this theatre as they imply the presence of a visible army of insurgents in conventional battle formations to be targeted and assaulted.
In matters of public security, unusual problems necessitate innovative solutions. When in the 1970s the hijacking of Israeli and Israel -bound passenger jets became the favourite of Arab terrorists, the state of Israel began the policy of emplacing special commandoes in every El Al flight and other passenger flights bound for Israel. Similarly, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York in September 2001, the US government introduced the system of placing armed marshals, often seated in the front rows, in every US domestic flight.
Similarly, in response to the numerous school shootings in the US, the federal government and states introduced the placing of armed guards in most schools in suspect areas. In addition, special weapons training programmes for teachers were introduced to enable teachers act as first defenders of their schools in an emergency before the arrival of the police. We can do a bit more to protect our schools in the north. Our country already leads the world in the number of out of school children. The north leads the nation abysmally in this regard as well.
Perhaps the Kankara episode is a walk into the womb of darkness and back. But it is also a metaphor that defines what Nigeria owes its citizens and most especially our children, their education and our future.