A (Shaba Ward) lesson for the new NSA – By Mohammed Haruna

For most Nigerians, I suspect, the penultimate weekend’s sack of General Andrew Owoye Azazi as President Goodluck Jonathan’s National Security Adviser, (NSA) came like a bolt of lightning. For me it certainly was.

The reason for the sack, the president has said, is the failure of Azazi’s strategy of scorched earth strategy for destroying, or at least pacifying, the Boko Haram sect, a strategy whose seemingly guaranteed success must have given the president the confidence to issue his clearly ill-considered pledge several months ago that the country would see the back of the sect by June; the month has come and gone, but the insecurity has only worsened. Even then most Nigerians probably believe there’s more to the sack than the president’s explanation.

Perhaps the recent spate of attacks on churches in Kaduna and Zaria and on other targets elsewhere, and the subsequent revenge attacks along what has since turned into a “corridor of deaths” for Muslim travellers between Abuja and Kaduna at Gonin Gora on the southern outskirts of Kaduna, was the last straw. But then Azazi had survived worse spates of attacks and counter-attacks.

More tellingly he’d even survived openly contradicting his principal on more than one occasion over how to end the insurgency, focusing as he did on the use of force as against the president’s apparent preference for the use of more carrots than sticks; as recently as January the man, in an article in the extreme right wing and Islamophobic Washington Times (January 4, 2012), was making a spirited pitch to the Americans to help Nigeria destroy Boko Haram in every which way, short of sending in the Marines.

“We can,” he said in the article, “destroy Boko Haram in its early stages, before it goes truly international. We don’t want or need American troops. But we would benefit greatly from American know-how and other forms of support as we develop our new counterterrorism strategy.”

It is therefore an irony that Azazi would get the boot – along with the defence minister, Dr Bello Halliru – only after he seemed to have reversed himself from his hard stance against the sect; only a few weeks ago the two jointly but separately issued statements pleading with the Americans not to declare Boko Haram a global terrorist organisation on the grounds that such a declaration would make it harder, if not impossible, to negotiate an end to the sect’s insurrection.

No less surprising than Azazi’s sack was his replacement by Colonel (Rtd) Muhammad Sambo Dasuki, a friend and course mate of Azazi’s at the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, and eldest son of the exiled Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki. A onetime Aide de Camp of military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, his promising military career came a cropper when, like virtually all the officers who were involved in the coup which brought General Sani Abacha to power in 1993 – notably senior officers like Generals Aliyu Mohammed and David Mark – he became estranged from the then new head of state.

However, for close observers of the country’s upper echelon cloak and dagger politics, replacing Azazi with Dasuki may perhaps not have been so surprising; sometimes last year the president reportedly toyed seriously with the idea of giving him the job.

At any rate even though Dasuki comes to his new job with little experience as a formal intelligence officer, those who know him say what he lacks in this respect, he more than makes up by his personal intelligence, integrity and a vast network of friends and associates that cut across the ethnic, sectarian, political and social divides in the country – and abroad.

It may not be idle to speculate, as many pundits have done, on why the president did what most Nigerians had thought he couldn’t. However, it is more useful to talk about how the change can bring the country back from the brink of disaster on which it has been perched since the Boko Haram insurrection broke out three years ago in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.

Obviously the most important lesson of the president’s shot from the blues was the failure of Azazi’s erstwhile scorched earth policy against the sect. This simply means Abuja should renew in earnest the negotiations it had started with it through the good offices of Dr Datti Ahmed, Chairman of the non-governmental Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria, the only person both the sect and the government have so far expressed confidence in as an honest broker.

The sect called off the negotiations when the authorities violated the agreement that it should not be leaked to the press. Since then it has indicated it is willing to return to the negotiation table.

It will be a mistake for the authorities to think this is a sign that the sect is already smelling defeat, given how it has shown it is capable of turning its murderous machine on and off at will. And as Azazi said in the Washington Times article in reference, regardless of what some leading Christian clerics say, Christians are not the only targets of this machine. “Churches,” he said in the article, “are not the group’s only targets. Boko Haram claims to be Islamic, but targets the Muslim faithful. Boko Haram is an enemy of all decent people.”

Decent people like those of the overwhelmingly Muslim working class neighbourhood of Shaba Ward in Kaduna North, one of the oldest wards in the city, where I partly grew up as a young man and where my extended family house is located. On the day the killing of Muslims took place at Gonin Gora in revenge for the June 17 fatal bombing of a church in Kaduna South, the return of some bloodied residents to the neighbourhood (Shaba) from the Kaduna South suburb with tales of how they escaped deaths from the hands of some marauding youths, almost shattered the decades-old harmony that had existed among Muslims and Christians living or trading there.

No sooner did the victims of the revenge attacks tell their stories of lucky escape than some of the youths in the neighbourhood mobilized to attack the hundreds of Igbo traders who owned many of the shops in the well-known Shaba market. What saved the day was the courage of the Sarkin Kasuwa (the leader of the market), Mohammed Abdul Danjuma, who, along with several of the community elders, physically stood between the armed youths and the Igbo traders, and thus preserved the peace and harmony among its residents that has made Shaba Ward one of the most secure and peaceful neighbourhoods in Kaduna.

The ward may have escaped the violence that engulfed many parts of Kaduna between June 17 and 19 due to the courage of its community leaders, but it should be pretty obvious to anyone with even half an eye that such courage alone would not have saved the day if its residents had been victims of the kind of brutalization many Nigerians have suffered from the security forces in the name of fighting Boko Haram.

Those who think negotiating with the sect would amount to submitting to blackmail by those who dislike where President Jonathan comes from and what Deity he believes in may look like they have a point, especially if the new NSA eventually succeeds where Azazi has clearly failed. They would also seem right to argue that Dasuki’s success, as a northerner, is likely to send the wrong signal that violence pays.  Right or wrong, however, succeed he must because his failure may only lead our country to a Somalia-type failed state – or worse, given the size and complexity of Nigeria.

In any case the blackmail argument misses the fundamental issue that for most ordinary Nigerians, as it was for the brave Shaba elders, the problem with their country is not any more the faith or the places of origin of its leaders than it is the faith and places of origin of their subjects. Rather it is, more than anything else, the problem of the venality and bad faith of their leaders, and at times, their crass incompetence.

Dasuki comes to his new job free of these terrible baggages. Of course this is no guarantee that he will succeed. But it is enough to hope that he will.