It is no news that Nigeria has over the past three years gradually become one of the epicentres of terrorism in the world, occupying an inglorious place alongside other countries like Iraq and Pakistan. This is no thanks to the activities of bloodshed and carnage of the Boko Haram terrorist organization bent on establishing an Islamist state in the country based on the strictest and most backward of rules.
Over these years, the government has made several attempts to end terrorism, alternating between using military action by deploying large numbers of troops to the areas most affected and even declaring a state of emergency, to setting up a presidential committee to dialogue with the terrorists and even propose a form of amnesty for them.
It is evident that restoring the security of lives and properties of Nigerians ranks very high on the government priority list, as it should be, clearly seen from the large percentage of the budget allocated to the security.
This is in addition to the political pressure of being seen as non-performing government, made worse by the fact that opposition politicians and parties continuously point out the problem of insecurity, although they are yet to suggest a better way to go about solving this terrorism crisis.
Thus, it is quite tempting for the government to view s0lving terrorism in Nigeria in terms of immediate results which they can declare as a victory, and win back the huge political capital they have lost.
For example, there was a lot of cheer in government circles and even the larger society when the military declared about two months ago that the Boko Haram leader, Sheikh Abubakar Shekau was suspected to have died from wounds sustained in a gun battle with the Joint Task Force. Naturally, many assumed this would mark the beginning of the decline of the terrorist group.
On the contrary, there has been a sort of resurgence by the group, killing close to 400 persons in the period since Shekau’s suspected death was announced, including blocking the busy Damaturu-Maiduguri Highway a fortnight ago and killing about 181 persons.
Ending terrorism in any country is not a goal that can be achieved in the short-term. In fact, it can be said that terrorism is never really ended, but merely curtailed or its occurrence reduced to the barest minimum.
For example, it took the British government three decades to reduce the threat of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to the point where people can live and go about their daily activities without the overt fear of their attacks.
This is because terrorism is not a war where the battle is against a conventional force or army. With terrorism, the persons engaged in it blend in with the larger society, emerging to carry out attacks that will cause as much damage as possible, striking fear into the hearts of those fortunate to survive, in the bid to cow them into submitting to the aims, which are always political.
In every area where terrorism is active, there are always a set of unique factors that play a role in enabling it to thrive. It could be the ideology on which the terrorist organization (a radical, hardline brand of Islam as in the case of Boko Haram) and other factors such as the economic situation of the area, strength and presence of the government and community, and the role of politics.
For example, in the case of Boko Haram, it thrives most where there is abject poverty, poor government presence and some of the most dismal statistics in education in the country. It is aided by the fact that our borders are porous at best, and non-existent most times. There has also been linkages between the sudden sophistication in the manner of the attacks of the terrorists and the zer0-sum manner in which politics is played in Nigeria, or in a more familiar phrase, ‘do-or-die politics’, as shown by the fact that almost every approach to tackling this issue becomes turned into political football. This is not to mention the fact that it took way too long for some of the communities where the group is most active to fight them back, and for Islamic clerics to publicly criticize and counter their violent brand of the religion.
A military approach to fighting terrorism is far from enough to reduce to the barest minimum threats of such situation resurfacing. Even if every member of the organization is captured or killed, and all other factors remain the same, it will only be a matter of time before we begin to deal with another version of Boko Haram.
Thus, it behoves every stakeholder in the country as a whole, and in the areas affected in particular, to play an active role in reducing terrorism in Nigeria to the barest minimum. It starts from preventing the attacks via intelligence-gathering and making sure that no person involved with the group is left to go scot-free; to government at all levels improving the lives of the people such that the opportunity cost of engaging in terrorism is too high; to clerics leading the spread of an ideology that will be in stark positive contrast to that of the terrorist group; to community leaders making sure that persons of evil intent do not find safe havens among them; and finally and most importantly, to the political elite holding in high premium the security of the people as to not use violence as a means of achieving political aims.
These will not be achieved immediately, in the short-term or altogether at once. But efforts to achieve them can start to be made from now and sustained continuously until it becomes a way of life.
Any declaration of victory against terrorism now will be akin to when former U.S. President George Bush stood proudly behind a banner saying, ‘Mission Accomplished’ and declaring victory in Gulf War II, only to witness the deaths of 4347 American soldiers in Iraq after that, and being stuck in an ugly guerilla war they were unlikely to win.
We are in for a long but winnable fight against terrorism.
We should keep this in mind and never assume that the threat of terrorist attacks is over.
It is hardly ever over.