El Rufai: Letter From the Front Line
ENGAGEMENTS BY Chidi Amuta
The reign of terrorists is not without its own sardonic humour. Soon after storming Kuje prison in Abuja to free their comrades in arms, ISWAP terrorists indicated an interest in two pricey trophies: President Muhammadu Buhari and, my friend and brother, Nasir El Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State. While their interest in the president as their adversary in chief is understandable, the choice of El Rufai was somewhat curious. Why not Bello Matawalle of Zamfara, the national epicenter of all the variants of terrorism or Babagana Zulum of Borno state where it all began or, for that matter, even Aminu Masari of Buhari’s home state of Katsina who has advocated that citizens arm themselves against bandits and terrorists. In the buffet menu of ready targets for the jihadists’ human acquisition, there are too many attractive gubernatorial takeaways. I am fascinated by the terrorists’ fascination with el Rufai.
Maybe the attraction is somewhat mutual. Kaduna State’s uncommon governor, Nasir el-Rufai, has been relentless in his hawkish disposition towards the terrorists and bandits who have been tormenting the entire north and his state in particular. In turn, the terrorists have been unrelenting in their attacks on targets in Kaduna state. Kaduna state may have witnessed the highest incidence of terrorists and bandit attacks in the last five years on a state by state basis.
El Rufai has now authored an unusual but very consequential letter to President Buhari on the matter. In the normal ritual of governance, communications between our governors and the president ought to be routine. But this letter is existential in its timing and geo strategic origins and very consequential for the nation at large. It is rooted in the very kernel of our festering insecurity as a nation. Simply put, the central contention in the present state of our insecurity has been reduced to whether or not the sovereignty of Nigeria as we know it will endure. It is no longer a matter of abductions for ransom by cash strapped incidental bandits and casual criminals. It is now serious business, a contest for the sovereign control of the Nigerian state. The terrorists and jihadists want to capture control of the state so they can help themselves to the treasure pot instead of waiting endlessly to negotiate ransoms in miserable tranches.
El Rufai’s message is simple and yet of fearsome urgency. He has technically formally informed the president that his strategic state is in immediate danger of a terrorist overrun. Among other things, the governor, a man of unusual courage and sterling patriotic zeal, has served notice that Kaduna state is at the verge of falling to the rampaging power of relentless terror. The state is sliding towards ungovernability as the terror squads have literally overrun the rural and sub urban areas.
But Mr. El Rufai has in his characteristic direct manner posed the question to an audience of one that matters the most. The president probably needs to be told by no less a person than a state governor that the Nigerian state and its component parts are gradually being eroded. The activities of unrelenting violent non- state actors are chipping away at the territorial sovereignty of the Nigerian state, leaving a shrunken and badly compromised state.
Mr. El Rufai’s specific alarm is that Jihadist terrorists especially of the Ansaru franchise of Boko Haram operating in much of rural and sub urban Kaduna state have literally set up a parallel government. The machinery of state security and national defense have so far proved incapable of halting this threat. To wit, these non- state agents are countering the legitimate orders and directives of the state government on matters of urgent national importance. These range from revenue collection to preparations for the imminent general elections.
By far the most frightening aspect of the revelations in El Rufai’s letter is the speculative fear that the terrorists could plunge the state and most of the North West into darkness by breaching the power transmission system that supplies the states in the region. There is of course nothing in this scenario that should come as a surprise to Abuja. After all, the jihadists had previously overrun a number of local governments in Borno, Yobe and Niger states. They have sabotaged or destroyed critical infrastructure such as rail lines or used IEDs to blow up bridges in vital places.
Of course, questions abound about El Rufai’s letter. Could the governor not keep the letter secret and confidential since it has a national security implication? Could the governor not have fared better breezing into Abuja to have a conversation with the president and possibly the relevant service chiefs on the matter? In a nation ruled by the politics of headlines and front page grand standing, El Rufai’s letter could as well be another ruse to catch the attention of an overwhelmed president and already frightened public.
Mr. El Rufai’s alarm is not new. He has repeatedly cried out about the seeming helplessness of our defense and security establishment on dealing with repeated incidents of insecurity. Only recently, he advocated total aerial bombardment of forests and other ungoverned spaces where the terrorists are known to be quartered. On the appropriate disposition of the state towards repeated challenges to its monopoly of force, El Rufai has been unapologetically hawkish, insisting that the federal state has no business playing ping -pong with its armed opponents and adversaries. There is every reason to believe that El Rufai’s all too frequent outbursts on the security situation in his state and the entire northern zones is the result of frustration with conventional communication with the security authorities.
In the context of our worsening insecurity especially the geo strategic thrust of the more recent jihadist targeted attacks, El Rufai is not just another ordinary governor. His state occupies a strategic position in relation to our overall national security geography. The consequential theatre of engagement in the advance of the jihadist forces has since moved down from Borno and Yobe states to Kaduna and Niger states with Zamfara as training base. This is an equation in which Kaduna occupies a unique position as a veritable frontline state.
The frontline status of Kaduna derives from its historical, cultural and strategic importance. Apart from being the political and cultural centre of the old northern region, Kaduna has remained a contentions restless melting pot of different cultures. Most conspicuously, the long standing clashes between a migrant settler Fulani herder population and an a Hausa population of land owning crop agrarian indigenes has led to frequent sporadic violent upheaval. Violent clashes between generations of these groups has made Kaduna state the hotbed of a homegrown culture of bad neighborliness. Not even the succession of military regimes in the past was able to quel these frequent bouts of unrest on a sustainable basis.
This landscape has only been aggravated by religious differences among these divergent groupings. While the settler herder community tends to be predominantly Moslem, the indigenous populace are mostly Christian. All the ugliness of the larger Nigerian Christian versus Moslem politics and jostling for predominance is constantly at play in parts of southern Kaduna at any given time.
The recent spread of jihadist militancy in parts of northern Nigeria has only weaponized and taken advantage of this already incendiary backdrop. Southern Kaduna has consequently remained a killing field in the spate of sporadic clashes. Therefore, in the context of the wider national cultural and religious ferment of communal clashes, Kaduna remains a natural frontline state of sorts.
By most strategic military calculations by both the Nigerian state and its jihadist adversaries, Kaduna is the decisive frontline state in the present spate of engagements with non -state actors. It is the last credible defense line for Abuja. In addition it is the home of a good number of vital military institutions and assets. These range from the Nigeria Defence Academy to the Command and Staff College in Jaji as well as some of the oldest barracks and training schools . There is also the School of Civil Aviation in Zaria.
Under El Rufai as governor, Kaduna has also become a frontline state in more respects. Mr. El Rufai has from inception waged a protracted war against some of the long standing cultural values that he deems to have held the northern zones of the country hostage for decades. Through a rampaging reformist sweep, he has challenged the hegemony of a decadent status quo of traditional rulers and instiitutions.
He has also tackled educational backwardness through an aggressive education reform programme. Illiterate teachers have been sacked. Ghost civil service workers have been expunged from the public pay roll. Untrained teachers have been sent back for retraining and re-orientation. In the pursuit of these reforms, the governor has been fiercely combatted by vested interest and conservative bastions. To that extent, this governor has been in the trench of a modernization drive in a state that is a critical center of culture and politics in the north.
These governmental and political battles further define Kaduna as a frontline state in more respects than are immediately obvious. In today’s Nigeria, cultural and identity issues have come to the forefront in a vastly divided country. Matters of religion, ethnicity and long held prejudices have come to the front of national discourse and communal existence in many parts of the country.
In addition to the now familiar weaponization of the Moslem-Christian divide by politicians, Kaduna has also been a real time theatre of more aggressive versions of religious fundamentalism. It has for long been the epicenter of the militant Shiite movement of Mr. El Zak Zakky, the embattled Iranian backed sect leader of Shiites in Nigeria. That movement has frequently engaged the Nigerian state in pitched battle and sporadic urban guerilla warfare sometimes with fire fights in the Abuja city centre.
More importantly, Kaduna state under Mr. El Rufai has come to occupy a prominent place in the battle to deploy political will to effect long awaited reforms in society, culture and overall development. The regional ideological implications of some of these battles make the state a hotbed of more than the physical security threat posed by franchised terrorists and irate jihadist squads.
Therefore, Mr. El Rufai’s recent pronouncements and now this letter to Buhari and its trenchant note of alarm are contextual in two respects. First, the alarm is coming at a moment when the Nigerian state seems to be shrining in terms of its control of both the territorial space and the processes of a normal society. The Abuja-Kaduna railway corridors has been shut down after a series of terrorists breaches that has left a few dead, many abducted, millions of dollars in ransom and the rail line permanently breached. The Abuja-Kuduna highway itself is sporadically ravaged by armed gangs of kidnappers, terrorists and bandits. Those intent on travelling on that route now say their last prayers first, no knowing if they will get to their destination in either direction.
In furtherance of the shrinkage of the state, the Nigerian railway corporation has announced the closure of the Kano-Lagos, Itakpe-Ajaokuta and a partial shut down of the lucrative Lagos-Ibadan line. This is a virtual shutdown of the entire national railway network on account of the threat and activities of terrorists and violent gangs.
In the immediate prelude to this moment in time, terrorists have targeted and successfully attacked targets in the Abuja area. The Kuje prison breach is still fresh. The threatened attack on the Abuja Law School claimed the lives of soldiers from the famed presidential Brigade of Guards. Some schools in the federal capital territory have been closed just as the police and the military have beefed up security measures around the Federal Capital Territory.
Elsewhere in the country, the pattern is not radically different. Cells of terrorists have continued to be uncovered in different places. In Ondo state, a key operative in the unfolding drama of arrests of perpetrators of the Owo catholic church killings has turned out to be one of the convicted terrorists freed from the Kuje prison breach. In and around Ogun state and the periphery of Lagos, suspicious movements of suspected terrorists continue to engage the attention of security agencies.
In the South East, an untidy combination of jihadist infiltrators and homegrown criminal cartels have turned Imo, Enugu and parts of Ebonyi state into danger zones for innocent citizens.
However, El Rufai’s alarm is about Kaduna state over which he presides. This is precisely because Kaduna has become a frontline state in the nation’s encounter with jihadists, zealots and identity militants. Although the Jihadist terror of the Boko Haram variety first originated in the North East, factions and franchises of the movements have gradually moved the theatres of operation to parts of the North West and North Central zones of the country. From an initial epicenter in Borno state, the jihadist onslaught has moved southwards to overwhelm Yobe, Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Bauchi, Niger and Nassarawa states.
To all intents, then El Rufai’s letter to the president is in many ways a parting open epilogue to a gubernatorial tenure spent literally in the trenches of reform and insecurity. It is above all a wake -up reminder to this president of the most fundamental requirement of sovereign power in a nation state in case he has forgotten. In his latest book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, Francis Fukuyama reminds us of Max Weber’s classic definition of a state: “a state is a legitimate monopoly of force over a definite territory.”
The question on most Nigerian lips today is simply this: does this state dominate its territorial space to enable its citizens exercise the full meaning of life in a democracy?