Penultimate Monday, a (presumably) regular reader of this column sent me an sms from 08025720606, in apparent anticipation of today’s piece. “Is it still poverty that caused the attacks on Christians yesterday? Is this not Jihad?” he asked, and promptly answered himself – sort of. “Be honest and write the truth,” he exhorted, obviously expecting someone with the image of a Muslim fanatic like me not to.
The reader was, of course, referring to penultimate Sunday’s massacre of Christian worshippers on the old campus of Bayero University, Kano (BUK). Boko Haram reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack in which between 13 and 20 people (depending on which media), including two professors, lost their lives. Several others were maimed.
Obviously this reader believes the connections I, like several other analysts, have tried to make between widespread poverty and perceived inequities in the North and in Nigeria, on the one hand, and the rise of Boko Haram’s terrorism, on the other, are, at best, tenuous, and, at worst, dishonest and untrue.
Poverty, I agree, was not, and could not have been, the immediate cause of the BUK massacre. Media reports of the terrible incident said those who carried it out came on motor-bikes and used sophisticated weaponry; these are not the toys of a poor man.
But then the massacre itself was not, and could not have been, Jihad – certainly not in the way it should be properly understood, as against its deliberate distortion by Islamophobes. Jihad in Islam is to strive for conversion by example and reason and not by force or violence. As such the BUK massacre was simply irrational and, in any case, could only give Islam a bad name.
No less irrational was last week’s attack on Thisday premises in Abuja and another in Kaduna, shared by Sun and Moment, in which several people lost their lives and for which the sect has reportedly claimed credit. To terrorise a story teller, even when he seems to have distorted the story, couldn’t be more irrational; the sensible and reasonable thing to do is seek to counter the perceived distortion with a more credible version of the narrative.
The irrationality of the attacks on soft targets like churches, the academia and the media allegedly by Boko Haram can only lend weight to the position of those that say dialogue as a solution to its insurgency is pointless, even when it has become obvious by now that the scorched-earth policy of the authorities has also not worked – and it’s not likely to.
If government’s strong-arm strategy has not worked it is essentially because the strategy has lacked human intelligence, as even some of the strongest advocates of the use of force like The Punch have acknowledged. “Government,” it said in its editorial of May 3, “must change tactics of its containment to be intelligence-driven.”
But then it should be clear to even someone with less than average intelligence that you can hardly get useful information from a community caught between the terrorism of insurgents and that of the security forces that are supposed to protect it. And this seems to be the case with the Boko Haram insurgency.
You are even less likely to get any useful human intelligence when members of the terrorised community have cause to harbour suspicions that the security forces – and their political masters – have no genuine interest in ending the insurgency but instead stand to benefit materially and politically from prolonging it.
This suspicion is not to be sniffed away because each time the trail of terrorism in the country points away from Boko Haram as the main suspect, the trail suddenly goes cold.
Take, for example, the case of a massive illegal importation of arms from Ghana that was reported by the BBC in January. In this case the Ghanaian police caught a truck in Accra, the capital, with a false bottom carrying enough AK47s, rifles, pistols and rounds of ammunition to arm the army of a small country, heading for Nigeria.
The Ghanaian police arrested five persons, one British, one German, two Ghanaians and two Nigerians as a result. You would expect our security services to jump at this opportunity of stemming the flood of illegal arms into Nigeria. However, five months on, the federal authorities have told Nigerians absolutely nothing about the fate of the two Nigerians involved.
Take, again, the case of last Christmas’ bombing of a Catholic church in Abuja whose mastermind has since been arrested and which has resulted in the dismissal of the commissioner of police in charge of the case. The mastermind reportedly fingered five others who are not Muslims as his accomplices. Nothing has been heard of the fate of those accomplices and the mastermind himself is yet to be tried.
Again, take this year’s Easter bombing in Kaduna. Daily Trust published the plate number of the car used for the bombing. The police traced the ownership of the car to a non-Muslim living in a predominantly Christian Kaduna South. Since then nothing has been heard about the case from the security forces.
The point of all this is that there is probably much more to the Boko Haram story than the authorities are telling the public. At any rate the popular thinking in the North is that Boko Haram has become a portent weapon in the hand of the Jonathan presidency for keeping any Northern opposition to Jonathan seeking re-election in 2015 on the defensive by further widening the region’s existing deep religious divide.
The only way to prove that Boko Haram is not being manipulated for sinister purposes is for government to enter into dialogue with its leadership in good faith. And it’s not enough to say its leadership is not known because that would mean an admission by our security forces that they have failed in their basic duty of identifying a self-declared enemy of the State.
It’s also not enough to say the sect’s stated goal of Islamizing Nigeria is irrational and unrealistic, which is true; no power on earth can force a people to change their faith. But then this is only one of several of its stated goals. And the point about dialogue is to give and take.
It’s also not enough to say, as The Punch (May 3) did, that it is “illogical” to compare Boko Haram with “MEND, OPC, MASSOB, etc” simply because the sect is “known to be receiving weapons and support from foreign groups.” As the editors at The Punch know only too well, of the three ethnic militias it mentioned, only MASSOB, with all its provocative posturing, never took up arms against the Nigerian State. None of the sophisticated arms the others used against our security forces are manufactured in Nigeria, and it was a notorious fact that both MEND and OPC received support from abroad.
In an interview with the London Financial Times (February 17), General Andrew Owoye Azazi, President Goodluck Jonathan’s National Security Adviser, rejected any talks with the violent sect. “Some people say that we must reach out to them (Boko Haram). But if you reach out to somebody 10 steps away from the centre, you are wasting your time.”
Before this interview he had written a well-publicized article in the neo-conservative Washington Times (January 4) in which he sought for America’s help in fighting Boko Haram.
“We,” he said, in the 914-word article, “can destroy Boko Haram in its early stages, before it goes truly international. We don’t want or need American troops. But we will benefit greatly from American know-how and other forms of support as we develop our new counter-terrorism strategy.”
His controversial and somewhat coded intervention at the BRACED Summit of the six South-South on April 26, suggests that the NSA has now changed his mind about rejecting any talks with Boko Haram. Military force alone, he has said, cannot solve the problem. “I think,” he said, “it’s a combination of everything (religion, poverty and a desire to rule Nigeria). Except you address all those things comprehensively, it would not work.”
“Boko Haram,” General Azazi had said in the WT article, “is an enemy of all decent people. It is striving to spark a religious war the way racist extremists (in America) in the past tried to provoke race wars.”
Azazi may be right, but there are those, including this reporter, who believe his position tells only half the story. The other half is that there seems to be rogue elements in government and plain criminals who are using it for sinister motives or for material gain – or for both.
It seems, at least to this reporter, that the best way to stop both Boko Haram and those using it as cover for their own objectives from achieving those objectives is not just to talk to the sect’s leadership through honest brokers. It is also necessary that the dialogue is entered into in good faith.
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