Boko Haram and Nigeria’s “war on terror”

by Tolu Ogunlesi

Nigeria is a country perpetually under siege. During the military era the blockaders operated in uniform from the corridors of power. Democracy only succeeded in accomplishing a reshuffling of the prime characters in that siege scenario, replacing the military with militias and militant groups: the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Arewa People’s Congress (APC), and a flurry of shadowy groups in the Niger delta (NDPVF, MEND, etc).

Somehow, much of the ethnic tension fizzled out, thankfully. But the delta militias, empowered by politicians seeking personal armies to fight “do-or-die” electoral “battles”, and justified by a ready-made cause – years of criminal neglect and oppression by successive governments – soon upgraded themselves into full-scale terrorist organisations, and in effect began to wage war against the Nigerian state.

And then, just when we thought it was time for peace – with the decline of kidnappings in the south east, and the seeming effectiveness of a controversial amnesty programme in quietening militancy in the delta – a new monster has emerged, in full force: Boko Haram, an extremist Islamist organisation with a ruthlessness and stubbornness that sometimes makes the delta militants look like boy scouts. Boko Haram believes Western education is sinful, and it also seeks the imposition of Sharia law in Nigeria. These warriors are not fuelled by oil pipelines.

If the ethnic militias went a long way in defining the Obasanjo years, and the Niger delta militants the Yar’Adua years, Goodluck Jonathan had better start realising that Boko Haram is his own cross. And no, good luck will not make it a lighter burden.

There is yet no evidence that Boko Haram (sometimes also referred to as Nigeria’s Taliban) is linked to Al-Qaeda, but considering that there is an active branch of Al-Qaeda in North Africa (Algeria), it is only a matter of time before a mutually beneficial alliance is worked out – the brand equity and organisational efficiency of Al-Qaeda combining with the local experience and recruiting prowess of Boko Haram.

So what should President Jonathan do?

Two possible responses – both extreme – may be isolated from the Obasanjo and Yar’Adua governments. On the one hand is the Obasanjo “scorched earth” policy – no-enemy-left-behind, which he employed in Odi in Bayelsa State in 1999 and in Zaki-Biam in Benue State in 2001.

On the other hand is the Yar’Adua “amnesty” policy – appeal to the consciences of the aggressors.

I doubt that any of these two approaches will work with Boko Haram. An amnesty offer may have worked in the delta (even this is still open to debate; the programme has been dogged by a disturbing lack of transparency, regarding cost and logistics), but it’ll not work with Boko Haram. Already the group has rejected one amnesty offer from the new Borno Governor.

There is a depth of ideology and indoctrination involved here – misguided and fanatical religious underpinnings – that was absent in the Niger delta struggle, and that will not be dispelled by a million olive branches from the state. (There is also the culture of impunity that a blanket – and default – resort to amnesty encourages. Doomed is the country that tries to throw an amnesty at every aggressor.)

A scorched-earth policy would be equally infeasible. In fact that approach has been tried already – in 2009 the military routed the Boko Haram, killing several hundreds of them, and executing the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. That move brought only a temporary halt to the crisis; since then Boko Haram has been wise enough to choose a stealthier approach (bombs and assassination attempts), as opposed to attempting to challenge the government’s military might head-on.

There is no way this “war” can be fought and won by the Nigerian government without a well-defined strategy that combines a series of smart tactics: from the infiltration of ‘enemy’ camps to the use of “moderate” Islamic scholars and clerics as influencers to counter the radical indoctrination, to a mapping of the complicated webs of international funding and ideological inspiration that may be sustaining the terrorist campaign.

It will certainly take far more than the appointment of a Special Adviser on Terrorism to solve this problem. A good starting point, no doubt, would be to dismantle our so-called “intelligence” system, and build a capable and proactive replacement.

I seriously doubt that Nigeria currently possesses any terror-fighting capabilities. Programmed to sniff out coup-plotters and to harass journalists and pro-democracy activists, our intelligence agencies are (expectedly) proving remarkably clueless in dealing with real terrorists. They failed with MEND, and are now poised to fail with Boko Haram. Imagine America trying to fight Al Qaeda with a ‘manual’ developed for the Soviets, and you get an idea of where Nigeria currently stands in the inevitable war on terror.

Mr. Jonathan needs to take charge early on. Whether he likes it or not there is a “war” on his hands, and a very unconventional one at that.

While he takes charge of this battle and makes the all-important decisions, need we remind him, and the northern state governors, of the value-adding governance that the region, like all other parts of Nigeria, desperately needs – to at least slow down the furious ticking of the several time-bombs (poverty, illiteracy, frustration, etc) buried across the land.

This article was first published on on June 8, 2011.

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