hile our leaders, past and present, hurl verbal missives at each other in the open, in northern Nigeria members of a deadly terrorist sect hurl IEDs and homemade missiles at military and civilian spaces – and people. As formerly ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ PDP stalwarts find new political religion in APC and convert by the day, Islamic extremists up North are converting Christians by force or by death. Literally, with every selfish speech made by our politicians predictably politicising the issue of terrorism in the North, dozens of people are getting butchered to death. Where is the cavalry? Now that Boko Haram, a Salafist Islamic terror group whose name means “Western education is forbidden” and goal is to have sharia law implemented across the Nigerian state, is bombing military air commands, taking over military instalments, and killing our men and women in uniform with gleeful ease, it appears the cavalry cannot save us.
Human Rights Watch estimates that over 2,800 people have been killed, by both Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces, in the conflict that has engulfed the Northeast since the 2009 bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja. One of the defining criteria for a conflict to be defined as a ‘civil war’ is “The first says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political centre, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second says that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.” The Boko Haram crisis, fulfils both conditions, as a non-state actor fights the state for control of the centre and major change in policy (its goal of Islamising the whole country) and has clearly claimed much more than 1,000 lives.
What has the Nigerian government response been? Predictably, increase the security vote. By 2013, the security vote of N1.2tr ($6bn) accounted for a quarter of the 2013 federal budget, and its use and implementation is completed shrouded in secrecy. Alongside the other security votes that goes to our illustrious governors, these monies are completely at the discretion of the officials handling their budgets.
How has the Nigerian government response been? Ineffectual at best. Whatever amounts the NSA, SSS, Office of Presidency, NDA, and other arms of the national security services have allocated to upgrades in counterintelligence (if we have anything of the sorts), or weaponry, have largely come to naught. When a non-state terrorist sect, which the Presidency boosts it will curtail and destroy every other month, is able to now wage such daring and successful excursions as ending in the takeover of military central commands and destruction of several state police headquarters, it is safe to say the war on terror is tilting firmly against the Nigerian state.
Unfortunately, Nigeria is ill equipped to handle the 21st century guerrilla methods of increasingly sophisticated, well-funded terrorist organizations. What some allege had its roots in politically-inspired violence as a Northern elite grappled for power in the aftermath of losing out on the presidency to a Southern Christian minority, has clearly morphed into a vicious, well-oiled terrorist machine with resources extending as far out as from AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Maghreb) to disgruntled members of the political establishment. With their understanding of their home terrain, from its mountainous ranges to the low-slung savannahs, their ability to adapt and re-arrange is unparalleled in the face of a security force largely consisting of men and women deployed from other states, with likely less level of conviction in the cause of the Nigerian state. Also using hapless civilians as foils and human shields sets up the police and military to incur excessive innocent casualties and potentially lose the ‘soft’ war for the hearts and minds of the people – an extremely critical task to acknowledge and accomplish. [Amnesty International estimates that… civilians] have been killed in extra-judicial killings by trigger-happy police and soldiers.
As former president Olusegun Obasanjo noted in his letter to president Goodluck Jonathan, conventional military tactics cannot be employed to counter guerrilla warfare waged by determined terrorists. They have read the Al Qaeda playbook of fighting guerrilla-style in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria; they can tap their criminal networks in the Sahel for funding to acquire sophisticated grenade launchers, RPGs, Kalashnikovs – and if not, they can build homemade bombs with kitchen chemicals and basic materials; they are able to hide behind innocent people and cow them into reluctant acquiescence through their campaign of terror. In short, they are willing, incentivized and able to conduct an everlasting war against the state; the state must employ a different tactic than the traditional weapons of warcraft, statecraft must become a weapon as well.
The only reason, in my estimation, that the Nigerian government would shut down telecommunications upon declaring a state of emergency in 3 states – Adamawa, Yobe and Borno – is that they do not have sufficient surveillance equipment or expertise. Otherwise this should have been a goldmine for mining metadata and monitoring terrorist networks. Alas, that opportunity is lost, and the biggest losers are the people of these states, who are now in utter isolation from the outside world as the wheels of commerce predictably grind to halt as well.
Our regrettably porous borders also pose a terrorist’s wet dream, as terrorist networks find safe havens in Niger, Chad and Cameroon by night and pop into Nigeria by day to wage war. In the absence of a national identification scheme and incorruptible border patrol, this will remain an ongoing issue. The fact that our neighbouring countries to our Sahelian north are essentially failed states only serves to exacerbate the issue.
Terrorism waxes strong in the absence of a strong state. Several indicators of a weak state include inability to collect taxes, poor security for citizens, porous borders and prevalence of insurrectionist groups. These things go hand in hand. If a government lacks the credibility to enforce a social contract with its citizens a la taxation collection and also the ability to sufficiently protect its citizens, increasingly groups of people, be they well-intentioned or criminally minded, will rise in defiance of the state and its lack of usefulness. The most basic need a government can provide for its wards is guaranteeing them a quality of life that is higher than that of mere animals. When people are left to fend for themselves, private security arrangements begin to be made, armed militia begin to appear. Nature abhors a vacuum, so someone will fill it for them. In exchange for protection, these groups tend to impose their own form of ‘tax’ on the citizens, be they through protection rackets or other forms of non-state sanctioned or illicit enterprise. Given their ability to function without state support, many grow quite big for their breeches and declare a separation from these failing states. This is how insurgencies and insurrections come to pass. The warning signs are always there, they don’t happen overnight. After all, it is not for coincidence that the Northern part of the country scores lowest on every index of human development, as against its Southern counterparts. It wasn’t overnight that the elite in that region of the country have pillaged the federal treasury and re-invested very little into their region of origin; it wasn’t in the blink of an eye that the youth of the North have been denied of basic education, the women denied basic rights, their children their basic needs; it was not by chance that the weeds of radical Islam have grown, choking the moderation of Sufism that the North has historically been practiced for centuries until now.
Poverty, under – and mis - education and young people are a combustible admixture. It is usually only a matter of time before a people oppressed rise up and overthrow the existing power structures – and it is usually not a pretty sight. Throw in the opium of false religion and you have all you need for the seeds of terrorism to germinate and blossom. These issues did not take a day to happen and will not be solved overnight by inducements, amnesty or military might.