Over the past few months, what had then been assumed to be low-level insurgency by Boko Haram has gradually become a clear-cut case of terrorism with the use of more powerful bombs and even suicide bombings. The response of the government to deal with this situation has been slow and somewhat ineffective. There is not only an over-reliance on pure military tactics, but it has also exposed the soft under-belly of the vulnerability of Nigerian security agencies to deal with modern-day security threats. A country such as Nigeria has no known foes in the form of countries, hence all our security threats are internal. However, none of our agencies at present seems to know how to solve them: the police force is grossly ill-equipped and improperly trained, our intelligence agencies seemingly under-staffed and our military better suited to fighting conventional wars and conventional armies. Even worse is that Boko Haram seems to have infiltrated some or all of the security agencies.
One of the numerous ideas that have been suggested to the government by some people to deal with this situation is that of negotiating with the terrorists, and possibly offering amnesty, as was offered to the Niger-Delta militants by the late President Umaru Yar’adua, which before then, seemed to hold Nigeria by the jugular. However, this idea has failed to convince me. While I concede to those in support of this idea that they have good intentions, it seems not to be rooted in the realities of the situation at hand. Let me explain:
To start with, it is wrong to compare the Niger-Delta militancy to the Boko Haram situation. They are not exactly the same. While the former is rooted in economic struggle, the latter is driven by what they believe to be a religious, sacred duty. The Niger-Delta militancy, which is for greater share of the oil revenues of their land which has also made them lose their farmlands and fishing waters due to environmental pollution enjoyed the support of the people they claimed to be fighting for. That struggle did not start with Mujahid Asari-Dokubo or Ateke Tom, but right from the 1960s with Isaac Adaka Boro to Ken Saro-Wiwa in the 1990s, both of whom were convicted and executed by kangaroo courts. The militancy merely gave flesh to a long-ago struggle. This is however not to justify the violence that they carried out. Contrastingly, while Boko Haram claims to be fighting for Islam in general, and for Northern Muslims in particular, they have very little support among their ‘constituency’. Matter of fact, a lot of Northern Muslims have fallen victim to their senseless carnage.
Besides that, those who suggest that since Yar’adua was magnanimous enough to offer the Niger-Delta militants amnesty, President Goodluck Jonathan should also do so to Boko Haram seem to look at this from entirely an ethno-political angle. Yar’adua did what he did as the president of Nigeria, not as a northerner. In the same vein, whatever actions President Jonathan makes would not be as someone from the Niger-Delta, but as the President of Nigeria.
Additionally, we have to ask ourselves whether the Boko Haram sect themselves are willing to dialogue. Not only has their list of demands been expanding since they resurged in late 2010, the condition that their self-acclaimed leader, Abubakar Shekau, has laid down, that President Jonathan ‘repent’ and become a Muslim pending any dialogue, shows that they clearly do not want any dialogue. Either that or we assume that Shekau was showing us he has a sense of humour amidst this serious crisis. Their initial demand in 2010 was that they wanted justice for their slain leader, Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf’s extra-judicial murder. Next, they expanded it to include that they were battling the government for their attacks on Muslims in Maiduguri and to avenge for the killings of Muslims in Jos in the perennial ethno-religious crises. As at writing this piece, they have expanded their demands once again to now including giving an ultimatum, long expired, for all Christians and Southerners to leave the North. This is not to also mention their insistence that they do not believe in the constitution, that the Federal Government is unislamic and must be replaced with one which is, and that Sharia law must be made the supreme law in the land and implemented fully.
You can see a similarity with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, which started in the 1970s in Afghanistan as a force fighting the Soviet Occupation. After scoring victory against the Soviets, they then made ridding the Arabian Peninsula of the ‘infidel’ American forces their mission, and later on, bringing down ‘the Great Satan’ and establishing a global Islamic caliphate. These are people who believe that their campaign of blood-shedding is divine and would not stop unless they have succeeded completely or are dead. For them, it is all or nothing. To live is to wage this ‘Jihad’, while to die is to ‘gain paradise’. How then do you begin to ask them to dialogue and negotiate, or even to accept amnesty deals?
Furthermore, any offer of dialogue by the government constitutes, in my opinion, that they admit that there is some credence or justification to the ‘struggle’ of Boko Haram. The snag with their demands is that these are things which cannot be negotiated in our country. You cannot ask all the Christians or Southerners in the North to leave, nor can you replace the constitution of a multi-religious country with Sharia law. What can you then offer them that will make them lay their arms? Money? They are fighting for a ‘divine cause’. Surely, they cannot be bought. Anything short of their full and complete demands will not be enough for them, and surely we cannot give them that.
Lastly, if ever there was to be dialogue, this should have come when this sect started making a resurgence, when their demand was just to get justice for the murder of their leader, albeit one who was waging a war against the state too. That demand is a realisable one. Right now, any negotiation would be with the Nigerian state negotiating from a position of weakness, as they would be perceived as obviously having been pushed to the wall. It would be a big embarrassment if an entire country is strong-armed in negotiations by not even another country, but a terrorist group.
In my opinion, the best way to deal with this situation in the short-term is to find a way to cut off the head of the organisation and gradually watch the body die, while at the same making sure that another head does not grow out. Let our intelligence agencies follow the money trail that sponsors them and cut off their financial supply to starve them of funds. Also, let them find out where the top hierarchy of the sect are, and either arrest them or eliminate them.
In the medium to long-term, we should strengthen our security agencies so that emerging threats are nipped in the bud before they become thorns in our national flesh. We should also make sure that the economic situation is never one ripe enough as to make for the easy recruitment or radicalization of people, especially young people, into such terrorist organizations.
How we end this terrorist threat will set a precedent for how we handle future situations. I pray we set the right precedent and also send the right message to those with terrorist ambitions.