Monday, 10 June 2013

Boko Haram: Time to stop the blame game

Tolu OgunlesiPresident Goodluck Jonathan has taken a great deal of flak for Boko Haram. Some of it are deserved – the protracted pussyfooting that hinted at a government hopelessly confused; and the squandering of a large chunk of the budget in the name of national security.
A lot, however, is undeserved. Nigerians are now given to speaking as though Jonathan started the crisis, forgetting that since 1979, every Nigerian government has tried – and mostly failed – to deal with the dangerous spectre of extremist Islam; and that what is happening now is that it has now fallen upon Jonathan to inherit the legacy of decades of mishandling religious crises.
There is also the fact that much of the blame should go, not to the Federal Government, but to the state governments and local politicians – many of whom actually belong to an opposition party, not the PDP –who created and perpetuated the conditions for the tragedy we are today experiencing (more on that later).
Shamefully, the President’s opponents themselves are not helping matters. None of them has demonstrated any evidence that they’d handle the Boko Haram matter given the chance. So, all we get is criticism of a flailing President, but no sensible or coherent strategy on the possible solutions to a crisis that may eventually consume all of us.
Let’s take Maj.-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd) for example, who, 30 years ago led a military offensive similar to the one he’s now loudly condemning. This is how historian Max Siollun describes it, in his forthcoming book, “Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian politics under Buhari and Babangida”:
“Buhari was in charge of troops sent to Nigeria’s north-eastern border region in 1983 to prevent infiltration by armed rebels from the neighbouring Republic of Chad. After his troops successfully cleared the Chadian rebels from the border area, the troops advanced several kilometres into Chadian territory. The political hierarchy ordered Buhari to withdraw his troops, but he refused, arguing that the Chadian rebels would return to the area as soon as his troops departed. Buhari’s view was that it was futile to risk the lives of soldiers by confronting the rebels, only to withdraw and allow them to return once the objective had been achieved.”

Having once been Military Governor of the then North-Eastern State, to which the present Borno State once belonged (1975 – 1976), and having returned to successfully fight armed rebels in that same area (1983), Buhari probably understands the situation better than most of us and should be able to explain why he thinks that a military response to threats to sovereignty was a good decision in 1983 but is a bad one in 2013.
Clearly, in the last three decades, the Northern part of Nigeria has never been free from religious/ethno-religious agitation. Through the Shagari, Buhari, Babangida and Abacha years, uprisings erupted regularly. From Maitatsine (which was put down – or so we thought – by a military offensive ordered by President Shehu Shagari, and which was very similar to the one ordered by President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2009) to Kafanchan to Zangon-Kataf to the El Zakzaky crises of the late ‘90s, the story of Northern Nigeria has been one of persistent religious tension.
Starting in 1999 with Zamfara (following the return of democracy), a number of Northern states began to implement Sharia law. The seeds of Boko Haram were sown in those conditions – the sect emerged around 2002, in Maiduguri, inspired by the radical teachings of a young Islamic cleric, Muhammed Yusuf. Yusuf preached a message of “Jihad”– a call to defend Islam from the corrupting influence of secularism and the West. This, of course, must have fit perfectly into the wider clamour for the implementation of Sharia being pushed by many Northern governors at that time, who saw it as an easy way to endear themselves to the populace (for the purposes of getting a second term, I believe).
However, until 2009, hardly anyone outside of Borno and Yobe states had heard of Boko Haram. I recently attended a roundtable dialogue put together by The Kukah Centre in Abuja, that brought together civil society groups and individuals to discuss “Dissent, Revolt and Militant Religious Ideas in Muslim Communities in Northern Nigeria.” One of the speakers made the point that until 2009, Boko Haram remained a “small ragtag army” and that by missing several “signposts” that might have pointed the way to non-violent resolution, “it was the Nigerian State that radicalised (Boko Haram).”
The argument – which is debatable – is that it was the government that first went on the offensive, killing them even in the absence of provocation, and arresting and detaining their wives and children. (This explanation ties in to what activist groups have been saying about gross human rights abuses by Nigerian security forces, and the perception that the sympathy of many residents of the affected areas is more likely to lie with Boko Haram than with the Nigerian military).
Going by that argument, the resulting attacks on military barracks, police stations and prisons – starting with the five-day uprising in July 2009 that led to the death of the sect’s leader, Yusuf – are the revenge acts of an embittered group on those perceived as having victimised them. This might also explain why Boko Haram in 2011 demanded apologies from the governors of Borno, Bauchi and Gombe states, and has suggested that it should be the one offering the Federal Government amnesty and not the other way round.
At the top of the list of government blunders is the extrajudicial killing of Yusuf and his father-in-law, Baba Fugu, in 2009 while in police custody. In his book, “Power, Politics and Death”, Segun Adeniyi writes about the death of Yusuf. Yusuf was arrested alive by the Army (there are mobile phone video recordings as evidence), and handed over to the Police with nothing more than an injury on his arm. Hours later, the police displayed a bullet-ridden body, and then failed to make up their minds on exactly how Yusuf had died. First, they said he had died while trying to escape. Then, they said he died during an “exchange of fire” with the police, at his hideout. Boko Haram has apparently never forgiven the Nigerian State for those killings, and we can trace the escalation of their insurgency to that.
There is also the political angle, which I hinted at earlier. We now know that in the elections preceding 2009, Northern politicians armed young men belonging to groups like Boko Haram, deployed them to political ends (the same way Niger Delta politicians armed the gangs that morphed into the militants that are now enjoying the amnesty programme in the region), and then abandoned them after the elections. It’s not rocket science – Give a man a gun instead of a job, and the gun becomes the job.
The roundtable speaker I quoted earlier picked out the Ali Modu Sheriff-led ANPP government (2003 – 2011) in Borno State for special blame, pointing out that “there is a very strong dose of anti-ANPP (sentiments] in the top echelons of Boko Haram.”
In the time since 2009, a lot has happened. Boko Haram has become bolder. It has developed international affiliations, enabling it access to funding, training, weaponry and new members. It has also splintered, so that today there are several strands, operating at different levels of radicalisation, and pushing different agenda (the splintering is not new, according to Adeniyi, as far back as 2004 a group broke off that called itself the Taliban, capturing a village in Yobe, which it renamed “Afghanistan”)
And, of course, there’s also been the infiltration of Boko Haram and its affiliates/splinter groups by purely criminal interests, the ones who kidnap for ransom and attack banks for cash.
Now that there are several interests bunched up under the Boko Haram umbrella, it is a very complicated issue, and the Presidency deserves some sympathy for what it has to contend with on behalf of Nigeria.
So, what is the way forward? This is not the time for blame-trading. Nigeria is already at war. My opinion is that we should fight this ongoing “war” to the finish. I also believe the Boko Haram issue ultimately deserves a multi-partisan approach – government and the opposition putting aside all their differences and cooperating to resolve the crisis.
On the basis of the seriousness and urgency of Boko Haram, President Jonathan ought to end at once all the “2015”battles he’s been fighting with state governors, and focus his attention on the one battle that threatens to consume us all.
And the opposition too should stop playing politics with this matter, crafting verbose, meaningless statements faulting every move of the Federal Government.
After all, the APP/ANPP (now APC) has controlled Yobe and Borno states since 1999, and should share in the blame for superintending the transformation of Boko Haram into the monster it now is.
In any case, if Boko Haram wins this current battle, there probably won’t even be a Nigeria to fight for at the polls in 2015.
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