Filing reports for international news agency CNN, Alkassim Abdulkair found himself speaking to the leader of the lethal sect and close to the mayhem. He shares what he heard – and saw:
“Those twelve minutes were perhaps the most courageous twelve of my life. I choose my words carefully – but comments Qaqa made unnerved me.”
by Alkasim Abdulkadir
In September, news filtered in that Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo had visited the family of the late Yusuf Mohammed, Boko Haram’s ideological leader who was killed under extrajudicial circumstances by the Police.
Obasanjo was not the President when Mohammed was killed; his successor Umaru Yar’Adua was. As the news settled in, I wondered what was going through the minds of the upper echelon of Boko Haram.
In the days following the UN Building bombing in which the group Boko Haram claimed responsibility, I interviewed the spokesperson of the group, Abul Qaqa for CNN. One of the questions I asked him was, “Are you willing to negotiate with the government?”
Abul Qaqa’s reply was simple – the Prophet had laid down guidelines before negotiating with his adversaries; for Boko Haram, Qaqa said, only the Federal Government’s unconditional release of all their members held in police custody or in jail can guarantee a step towards negotiating with the government.
Blood and war
Those twelve minutes were perhaps the most courageous twelve of my life. I choose my words carefully – but comments Qaqa made unnerved me. I tried to reconcile the carnage I had seen at the UN Building bombing site with the voice on the phone sounding serene and courteous as he gave me the details of Mohammed Abul Bara, the 27–year-old man from Yobe State who had driven the Honda Accord car loaded with explosives into the UN Building killing himself and many others. This revelation of the identity of the suicide bomber shocked me. Aside the shock, this was also the first time the group was revealing the identity of the UN House bomber to anyone! I scribbled fast and hard – my hands trembling. I asked some more questions forgetting others that had formed in my mind.
For rationale, he quoted the Arabic Surah Tauba Verse 14: “Fight them; Allah will punish them by your hands and bring them to disgrace, and assist you against them and heal the hearts of a believing people.”
According to Qaqa, this verse from the Quran forms the bedrock of the Boko Haram attacks. I imagine it was at the back of the mind of Mohammed Manga as he attempted to ram his car into the police headquarters that resulted in his death and the injuries of several policemen. It is sadly also the motivation for several hundreds of members of Boko Haram. In the words of Abul Qaqa, they are mere mortals being used by God to fight the injustice and inequality in the land; an injustice which the UN “known for its global oppression” was partnering with the Nigerian government to perpetrate.
A city under siege
On a Friday, at the Abuja Central Mosque, semi-automatic gun wielding security operatives can be seen asking motorists not to park beside the mosque; aided by a member of the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) checking those with bags, while other security operatives sit at alert in a van with the lettering ‘Anti-bomb Squad’.
It’s a simple fact that ours is a case of a reactive intelligence, as those the security agents are up against are always ahead of the curve with our security forces left to always play catch up. Our intelligence needs to move to more covert style operation, not the obvious I-am-an-S-S-guy type that we have around. This coupled with a proactive community intelligence gathering technique can change the tide of things. This should not only be applicable to militancy or terrorism alone but it should be applicable to the unsolved assassinations and even armed robberies that have bedevilled the country.
Our total lack of preparedness to tackle disasters came to fore in the wake of the UN bombing, the underbelly of our emergency response was exposed to highlight our ineffectual state. This is despite the fact that we don’t suffer from raging bush fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, mudslides, volcanic eruption, and earthquakes. The mere meaning of the word ‘emergency’ points to the fact that it is unexpected, but it is as if the denotation is lost on our security agencies and health care system.
One of the biggest problems is not that we don’t know what to do, but how to do it. I remember begging and shouting at two policemen to allow some Red Cross officials enter the UN premises after they had begged on end. Another instance was when an Army General accosted a Civil Defence man walking with sniffer dogs and barked at him ‘Who authorised you to bring those dogs to the scene?’
The entire FCT health system which should be a model to the rest of the country wasn’t prepared for an emergency of this magnitude. It didn’t expect 8 intensive care patients and more the 70 people with various degrees of injuries from the blasts; as such, the blood bank soon started calling for donations to augment their supply. As residents heeded the call to donate blood this in turn angered the crowd of sympathisers that had already gathered at the National Hospital.
At the UN House blast site near the epicentre rescue operation was in full uncoordinated swing with members of the FRSC disagreeing with the Fire service, the Anti-Terrorist Squad watching in disbelief, the Army and Police all trying to take charge of the operation by securing the perimeter. The bottom line? There was no coordinated effort towards rescue and evacuation. There were too many weak links.
I recall a NEMA top official complaining that spectators were tampering with the evidence. I had to tell him that it was his duty to ensure that spectators were kept beyond the accident tape barrier.
Is anyone listening?
Information management during emergencies is one area that needs tightening. NEMA and the security agencies should set up a Joint Communication and Data Centre that will be authorised to give out reliable information to news agencies, relatives and the general public.
Not until FCT Public Relations Officer Jimoh Moshood rallied the journalists present for an on the spot briefing by Police Commissioner Micheal Zoukomor –the first official statement almost four hours after the explosion; before then we had gathered the bits of evidence and at some point journalists had more information than the officials.
Though Channels, AIT, ITV and even NTA were on ground and had started covering the blast. The Nigerian Television Authority, Africa’s largest TV network located about 20 minutes from the blast site was showing the Osogbo Festival, while I had already gone live on CNN.
I received a call from Kristoffer Rønneberg of Aftenposten a Norwegian Newspaper. They called after seeing my tweet on the death of a Norwegian lady later identified as Ingrid Midtgaard. The calls kept coming from BBC Wales, BBC TV, CNN Wires and later at about 8 pm I was a guest on the BBC Have Your Say Program. The last interview came at 10 pm on France 24.
It is inexcusable that we wait for others to tell our people the narratives of our tragedy. The days of the Nigeria Television Authority’s editorial guidelines asking it to be pro-government should have ended in 1999.
Getting out I have always advocated for dialogue in this ongoing war which we are not ready for. Military action as exemplified by similar examples in other parts of the world has the tenacity to breed more foot soldiers. Each deadlier than the last; pacifism is also a strategy.
One hopes that this visit by Obasanjo will be the forerunner to the end of this vicious and tragic wheels driving the nation; a mindless cycle of blood and gore in which no one is safe.
The army of unskilled, uneducated, unemployable disenchanted young men growing in Nigeria – especially in Northern Nigeria must be given hope beyond measure. The only war we can fight against future insurrection and the only fruitful engagement we can have with future armies that may rise in this nation is to deliver continuously on the mandate of good governance and accountability. We must pray hard in order to get it right. Afterwards we must get it right. Y!