“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us…Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight.” – Barack Obama
The above statement is an extract from President Barack Obama’s landmark speech at National Defense University in 2013. It was in this super-stringent context that the United States administration approached Boko Haram and the various Islamist threats emerging in northern Africa, including the groups ultimately responsible for the Benghazi attack.
This attitude was reflected broadly in speeches by Obama warning that America must get off a “perpetual wartime footing,” and declaring that “core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self.”
It is in this context that I want Nigeria to approach the current insurgency in the country which obviously has gone beyond the issue of “western education is bad” to that of open confrontation to the nation –state.
As President Muhammadu Buhari rightly pointed out last Thursday while decorating the new Service Chiefs at the State House, “the increasing incidence of attacks and destruction perpetrated by these insurgents has led to the deployment of various instruments of national power in a bid to contain their activities and restoring law and order in every part of the country”. Unfortunately, these efforts have not led to the end of Boko Haram, rather; they have continuously devised new methods of inflicting pain and death on helpless Nigerians. Little wonder then that Buhari at the same event gave the service chiefs three months to stamp out the terrorist group from the shores of the country. But it remains doubtful if this will be possible this time around. We recall that Buhari had, during his electioneering campaign, promised to stamp out same group within one week of his inauguration, which never happened. Last year, former Chief of Defence Staff, Alex Badeh and Ex-National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki all made similar promises upon their appointments, but Nigerians now know better.
At the formative stages of terrorist attacks, the insurgents were seen as some northern elements waging war against federal and state government in protest against what they called westernisation of the country. Later in 2011, it was seen as activities of some anti-Jonathan politicians who were not happy that despite all political calculations, the Bayelsa –born Ijaw man emerged president of Nigeria.
President Jonathan himself in June 2012 added another dimension to the insurgency when he claimed that Boko Haram has infiltrated his government. Said he: “Some of them are in the executive arm of government; some of them are in the parliamentary/legislative arm of government, while some of them are even in the judiciary. Some are also in the armed forces, the police and other security agencies.”
However, present realities have shown that all the permutations were wrong. Victims of Boko Haram attacks cut across all strata of society- Muslims, Christians, Ibos, Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri, Yoruba, Tiv, Ijukun , non-believers, educated and illiterates alike. If Boko Haram as alleged, is waging war against western imperialism, how come they are killing and maiming even the poor and wretched with little or no western education? How come majority of those being killed and displaced are people who cannot say their names in English language? How come the war is not directed at state but rural, poor population, most of whom have never visited any government house since they were born?
Based on the above realities, I am of the opinion that we need to look beyond our country’s borders for solution to the insurgency. If my calculation is right, there is every possibility that both funders and attackers are none-Nigerians wanting to destabilise and dismember this nation. One such area is Libya.
The Libyan civil war gave militant groups in Africa’s Sahel region like Boko Haram and al Qaeda access to large weapons caches, according to report by the United Nations assessment team.
One precedent for Boko Haram was the 1979 revolt led by Mohammed Marwa, known as “Maitatsine” — the one who damns. He declared himself a prophet and led a rebellion against religious authority in Kano that claimed 5,000 lives. His supporters, the “Yan Tatsine,” were often non-Hausa northerners alienated from local power structures and facing declining employment prospects. They are not direct precursors to Boko Haram, but they do reveal a history of violent rebellion in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram’s back story also taps into an older historical tradition of resistance to the colonial-controlled Sokoto elite led by Muhammad al-Kanem. Boko Haram’s hierarchy is dominated by Kanuri people, who are descendants of the Kanem-Bornu Empire.
Historical legacy aside, Boko Haram’s rise has been fuelled by economic decline. Lake Chad has shrunk by 90 percent in the past 40 years, drastically affecting fishing livelihoods and irrigation farming for a surrounding population of 30 million and desertification claims more than 770 square miles of cropland every year. Boko Haram has emerged in the poorest part of Nigeria, where 71.5 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty and more than half are malnourished.
Still, despite the complex matrix of political, economic and historical trends into which it emerged, Boko Haram began as a simple local dispute. A decade ago, the radical Kanuri cleric Mohammed Yusuf was running an effective alternative government to then Borno State Governor Ali Modu Sheriff, providing welfare and jobs to locals who lacked access to the governor’s patronage network. Yusuf was popular among the region’s impoverished and disaffected youth, and his death in police custody in 2009 after an altercation at a funeral prompted many of them to take up arms and begin attacking police stations to avenge their slain leader. Yusuf was succeeded by the more militant Shekau, (whom we understand is now dead ) .
Five years on, however, Boko Haram has morphed from a local rebellion into part of a pan-Sahelian insurgency with a diffuse set of targets, from schools and universities to the U.N. It has formed linkages sharing expertise, training camps and equipment with groups in Mali and Libya. It has now also splintered into six factions, including Ansaru — which has more direct links with Al-Shabab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
What remains baffling is the ease with which terrorists penetrate secure and vulnerable locations using various devices including women and teenage suicide bombers, which creates a far more complex picture than imagined.
Although political solutions are often touted as the answer to armed insurgencies, there’s little reason to expect that Nigeria’s politics as it is presently played – with a northern Muslim as president — will produce an answer to current security challenges posed by Boko Haram. As Obama told Americans, we Nigerians “must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us…. God forbid.