Boko Haram

Boko Haram and a Nation Gripped By Fear

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In most cultures of the world, a word exists for a frightening creature or the bogey man. In Hausa for instance, it is the dodo. A fiendish entity, other-worldly, yet beastly in its aggression and human in its scheming prowess, the dodo lurks, stalks and terrorises. Stories of the bogey man are used strategically by parents to whip misbehaving children back into line, because no one knows quite what the bogeyman is – it is everything and nothing.

In Nigeria’s North-East, the heart of the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency, the bogeyman may have traversed the realm of fantasy into cold reality. Boko Haram militants lurk at night, to murder school children while they sleep. In the last few days, we have been held spellbound by the brutality unleashed on defenseless school children in Borno and Yobe. 43 young people were killed in the attack on a secondary school in Buni Yadi, Yobe. About 20 female students were abducted by the militants from a school in Konduga, Borno.

Survivors have recounted spine-chilling stories of dormitories set on fire and of escapees gunned down. The few that evaded gun fire were chased, and slaughtered like cattle. Photos of charred remains of adolescents and of bodies drenched in blood from sliced throats and bullet wounds have flooded the Internet. The massacres occur daily. The bogeyman has come to life – it spares no one in its violent wake.

Naked fear is firmly embedded into the spines of most. The fear in part stems from the realisation that regardless of class or economic status, no one is safe. The ‘unknown gunmen’ who routinely terrorise others are hardly ever caught and prosecuted. The murders of prominent citizens such as Bola Ige, Saudatu Rimi and Sheikh Jafar are yet to be resolved years after, not to mention crimes against faceless and nameless ‘commoners’ in Bama or Baga. The Police, the Civil Defense Corps and the Army seem to be out-gunned, out-motivated and over-whelmed. In a country with massive economic and social inequalities, this collective insecurity is one area where all Nigerians are equal.

Mostly, this fear comes from confronting a deadly enemy which appears fluid, formless and extremely vengeful – a bogeyman. Boko Haram is a rapidly changing, complex and fragmented movement. Its doctrine is as fast changing as it is contradictory – anti-democracy, anti-secularism, and anti-establishment. Yet it liberally employs internet enabled smartphones and other tools of modernity and western education to perpetrate attacks. Any criticism of the group’s approach by ordinary citizens, Imams or traditional rulers in the North draws a swift and vicious response.

The eccentric pre-2009 hermetic ragtag sect, avenging the death of their slain leader Muhammad Yusuf from 2010, have quickly metamorphosed into a highly sophisticated terrorist group with deep local and global networks. From laying siege on police stations and army checkpoints, they have attacked churches, brothels, prominent Islamic clerics, mosques, northern traditional rulers and now they’ve added the murder of helpless school children to a blood-drenched résumé. It’s difficult to project what tactics they will adopt next.

So little credible information about the group is available. Boko Haram itself thrives on secrecy. The Army bragged about the leader, Abubakar Shekau’s death in August 2013 only for his taunting videos to resurface shortly. Whenever an evident victory is proclaimed by the authorities, a more daring attack is perpetrated. The insurgency has become like the monster in Greek mythology, Scylla – when one head is sliced off, three more sprout up in its stead. As the rise of the ‘yan Gora or the Civilian Joint Task Force – the youth vigilante fishing out suspected insurgents from the community – is celebrated, Boko Haram ferociously retaliates against such communities working with the authorities.

Where little information is available, speculation thrives. Where speculation is rife in the midst of unbridled fear about a formless enemy, conspiracy theories fill the gap. In Nigeria, these conspiracy theories are as numerous as they are destructive: Boko Haram is a creation of “disgruntled northern politicians to destabilise Goodluck Jonathan’s government”. “Boko Haram is a creation of the Federal Government in Abuja to destroy the North for political advantage”. The group “is a creation of the West to fulfill their prediction of a disintegrated Nigeria by 2015″. Some of these toxic opinions neatly overlap with people’s innate prejudices particularly in the wake of the divisive 2011 elections.

While these conspiracy theories are mostly ludicrous, anecdotes of suspicious events give them weight. According to the Yobe state governor, the soldiers guarding the school in Buni Yadi were mysteriously withdrawn from their duty posts a few hours before. The traditional ruler of Bama bemoaned that while the town was sacked and torched over several hours in February, frantic efforts to call local Police and Army chiefs were futile as they were all mysteriously unavailable. Ground troops, whose courage must be appreciated, are known to be severely under equipped relative to the sophisticated weaponry carried by Boko Haram despite the almost one trillion naira allocated to security in the national budget.

Most troubling is that recently, Reno Omokri, the President’s Special Assistant on New Media was identified as the author of a malicious article falsely alleging that the ‘suspended’ Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido is a Boko Haram financier. Many such unexplained events have planted suspicion in the minds of many in the North-East, and allow for dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.

A Screen Shot showing the article and the author details. Source: Feyi Fawehinmi on Twitter @doubleEph

The reality is that fighting such an entrenched insurgency anywhere will be a grueling and bloody war of attrition. The difficult experiences of America in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, despite being a highly militarised super power are instructive. In this trying period, it is necessary to ensure that some semblance of national cohesion against the insurgency exists.

For a start, genuine efforts must be made at restoring the trust of residents in the North-East in the Federal Government. Symbolic gestures by the President to sincerely console victims of brutal murders would alleviate some of the widespread sense of alienation in the region. Greater efforts must be made to address lapses and incompetence by the security agencies in order to lay conspiracy theories to rest. Proper investigations of leakages in the security infrastructure must be made to understand why combat troops in the firing line are under-paid and under-equipped. President Jonathan must as a matter of urgency, take decisive and punitive action against the despicable act of his aide- Reno Omokri, failure of which would send the message that the frame up attempt was sanctioned by the Presidency.

Finally, Nigerians must be commended for the resilience and the solidarity in expressing collective outrage in the wake of the recent escalation of violence in the entire North-East. Despite the prevalence of fear and the sense of helplessness, we must have faith that Nigeria will somehow endure and emerge stronger from this all.

The Burka Avenger “fights” the Taliban in Pakistan

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The Burka Avenger. Photo credit: Human Rights Watch

 

Culled from Aljazeera:

“She is called the Burka Avenger and is like no other superhero before her.

By day she is a Pakistani school teacher, but by night the secret martial arts expert dresses in a veil while fighting bad guys  (who want to shut down schools).

The animated children’s series is about to hit TV screens across Pakistan.”

This is a potentially effective form of positive indoctrination and soft approach to fighting terrorism and extremism in a society. Given the numerous similarities between northern Nigeria and Pakistan in this regard, perhaps northern Nigeria also needs its own version of the Burka/Hijab Avenger to fight the Boko Haram baddies.

The Story that Got an Al-Jazeera West Africa Team Arrested

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On Saturday 15 June, the Al-Jazeera West Africa correspondent Yvonne Ndege, and her 3-man crew were arrested in Niger. According to information posted on the Al-Jazeera website:

The team was initially detained at around 9.00 (GMT) on Saturday, questioned, and asked to hand over the material from a story they were filming about refugees.

The four were then interrogated for about ten hours before being officially arrested and charged with espionage, with no evidence being presented to support the charges.

…the authorities confiscated the team’s passports, filming equipment and personal belongings before putting them in a shared cell without food or water.

On Sunday, the Attorney General said that there was no evidence against them and the team was free to go, while the police headquarters said the filmed footage was cleared for release.

Within an hour of this order being given, the team was detained again without charge and the filming equipment was once again confiscated.

The team was eventually released, according to Premium Times:

“The four-person team was released late on Monday evening without charge to make way back to the border into Nigeria,” Kevin Kriedmann, a spokesperson of Aljazeera disclosed in a press release early Tuesday.

As for the reason behind their arrest, The Washington Post reports the team was arrested on charges by the Nigerien government that they failed to get proper accreditation:

Niger’s government spokesman said the group was filming illegally, having entered the country with only a visa. Journalists in Niger are required to also apply for an authorization from the ministry of communication, said spokesman Marou Amadou, who is also the country’s justice minister. He denied that the team had been held, saying only that their material was seized and inspected.

However, the reason for the detention may not be unconnected with the story the Al-Jazeera team was covering, about thousands of refugees fleeing across the border into Niger, from neighbouring Nigeria. The Nigerian government declared a State of Emergency on 14 May and launched a military operation to flush out the Boko Haram insurgents in their stronghold states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.  Borno state in particular shares a border with Niger.

Here is the first footage of the reportage by Al-Jazeera on the refugees in Niger:

So far, Al-Jazeera is one of the few media agencies (among both local and international media) that has covered the plight of refugees fleeing these areas. Mobile communication networks have been switched off in these states since the military operation started, and thus, there’s little information coming out, and the little that does, is heavily controlled and determined by the Nigerian Army.

What I find more disturbing is the Nigerian government’s hasty dismissal of these refugees as citizens of Niger “fleeing” back to their country, and not Nigerians, even though it is common knowledge that when conflict erupts in an area, the residents tend to leave for somewhere safer until the conflict abates.  Agence France Presse (AFP) has also reported on the plight of Nigerian refugees in Cameroon, fleeing the military offensive in the North-East.

This hasty dismissal by the Nigerian government, along with the knee-jerk response by the Nigerien authorities confounds the situation further.

Premature Election Fever and Security Challenges in Nigeria

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This piece below was written for Democracy in Africa. Find the original HERE.

‘…These actions amount to a declaration of war and a deliberate attempt to undermine the authority of the Nigerian state… As a responsible government, we will not tolerate this’, declared Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. This was during his recent imposition of a State of Emergency to mark the onset of army raids in parts of Nigeria’s North-East, the strong hold of the Jama’atul Ahlus Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad, commonly known as Boko Haram, which has waged a deadly insurgency war against the Nigerian state since 2009.

While Boko Haram is apparently the biggest security headache for Africa’s most populous country, it certainly isn’t its only security challenge. Pockets of violence in the oil-rich Niger-Delta, the rise of other militias in the South-West and the Middle-Belt, alarming incidents of kidnapping in the South-East, frequent eruptions of communal violence in Jos, and other forms of violent crime abound. Crucially, the increase in militant activity should be situated within the larger context of Nigeria’s political economy and the 2015 general elections, on which most of the political elite and their networks are now fixated.

Since the transition to democracy in 1999, Nigeria has experienced a period of sustained economic growth averaging 7.4%, driven partly by the rise in global oil prices. Lucrative oil revenues, accounting for 80% of government revenues, have heightened intensely competitive contestations for political office, to do-or-die proportions. Politicians frequently ratchet up identity-based rhetoric along North-South, Christian-Muslim, and other fault lines in the run up to elections. Predictably, with such fierce competition for public offices, election season is punctuated with violence. Events in the Western Region in 1964 and in parts of the North in 2011 serve as particularly notorious examples of the devastation such violence can cause.

Given the enormous (oil) revenues accruing to the government, political posturing towards 2015 elections seems to have started much earlier than usual. Presently, political discourse in Nigeria is feverishly centred on the potential candidates for president and the state governors. Heated political commentaries focus on what region’s “turn” it is to produce the president. The threats and counter-threats being made by various groups are indicative of the acrimony that followed the collapse in 2011 of the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) 12-year power-sharing formula between the North and the South. Steps towards a coalition by the main opposition parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC), add fuel to an already raging debate. Nigeria’s growing number of militant groups can only be understood within this context of fierce rhetoric and political re-alignments.

One thread that runs through the militias – Boko Haram, Niger-Delta militants, the Odudua People’s Congress (OPC) and others – is that despite their varied approaches, they provide platforms for those disillusioned with Nigeria’s narrow political system to express their grievances, albeit violently. For example, people in the Niger-Delta have long demanded that underdevelopment in the region be addressed by the government. However, it was only after young men from the area engaged in a sustained insurgency, which crippled oil production, that a government-backed Amnesty Programme was initiated in 2009 to address some of their grievances.

A similar pattern is observable with Boko Haram, where radicalised young men up North have now attained local and international infamy. Their goal is not just to secure the release of detained members but also to reach the unfeasible goal of usurping Nigeria’s secular constitution with Islamic law. Alongside ongoing military action, the government is also considering an amnesty proposal for Boko Haram.

Consequently, these groups cannot just be understood in terms of the security risk they pose or the criminal elements they harbour. They must also be read in political terms, and seen as platforms for the assertion of authority by sections of Nigerians. The country has an exclusionary political system dominated by ‘big men’ or ’godfathers’, and their associates and networks. Barring familial link or other ‘connections’ to these networks, direct participation in Nigeria’s political system depends on luck, or as these groups have discovered, by causing enough mayhem to get the attention of those who matter.

Without such violent mobilisation, members of these militia groups would, politically, be in the same boat as any of the 61% of Nigerians living below the poverty line, or the rest of the rising middle class, who are yet to constitute a critical mass that can effectively demand representation or accountability in decision-making. The power, ‘fame’ and lucrative payoffs that insurgents have gained by carrying arms against the state undermines the sustainability of state interventions and begs the question: what can they realistically offer these groups, and those that will follow them, to pacify their actions in the long term?

Returning to the run-up to Nigeria’s elections in 2015, there are several ways in which militia groups might exercise their new-found power. Some may rally around a particular candidate, allowing them to benefit from the mix of legitimacy and fear that such groups bring. In Nigeria, where there is a long trend of political thugs being recruited by desperate politicians, this would not be an unexpected development. Conversely, Boko Haram, in particular, may try and prevent elections in the North East happening at all. Finally, should these groups be co-opted or crushed, we may see the rise of counter-militias to fill the vacuum that they leave. The massive funds allocated to national security at just under N1 trillion ($4.5 billion) may well give the government the firepower it needs to temporarily destroy or buy-off these groups, but such large funding flows could, just as easily, create sectors of the government who have a vested interest in maintaining an atmosphere of insecurity.

Whatever course these government and militia groups take, the results of the election in 2015 will undoubtedly have immense implications for political stability and security in the country. Boko Haram, for example, is understood by many Southerners in Nigera in terms of the country’s North-South divide. Currently, the group is split into three factions. The main group’s ‘war’ against the Nigerian state started in 2009, before Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner from the Niger-Delta, became President. However, the narrative that has gained currency in the South, is that Boko Haram is a tool used by disgruntled northern politicians, in the fall-out of the PDP’s power-sharing agreement, to destabilise Jonathan’s government. In the unlikely event that the APC fields a northern-Muslim candidate who defeats Jonathan at the polls, the knock-on effects for Boko Haram will be huge.

Regardless of whether Jonathan is unseated, 2015 will also be an important moment for the oil-rich Niger-Delta. Ex-militants have been pacified by an expensive amnesty programme which coincidentally expires in 2015. They have also benefitted immensely from government pay-outs and lucrative security contracts, in one instance worth $103 million. Whether these conciliatory measures continue will depend on who the incoming President needed to appease to secure their electoral victory.

As tremendous political and financial resources continue to pour into Nigeria’s security challenges and its upcoming elections, it is unclear who the winners will be. However, it is unlikely that they will include most ordinary Nigerians in the sun-scorched arid areas of the North-East or those in the oily creeks of the Niger-Delta.

Boko Haram Rejects Amnesty Offer: Now What?

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“Mr Shekau said his group had done no wrong and so an amnesty would not be applicable to them.

It was the Nigerian government that was committing atrocities against Muslims, he said.

“Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is we that should grant you [a] pardon,” AFP news agency quotes him as saying in the Hausa language audio recording.” 

Read the full report on the BBC News website

Of course, this was to be expected and sadly, many of us “observers” were just waiting for this. Boko Haram NEVER requested or plead for amnesty, it has no use for it whatsoever. You don’t need a sophisticated anti-terrorism profiler from Mossad to tell you that Boko Haram thrives on and draws its strength from the fear it inflicts on those commanding the machinery of government and the people, in seeking its “vengeance” (however warped that quest for vengeance is). Amnesty as it stands, would rob it of its lifeblood (its ability to inflict fear and terror). By default, Boko Haram is wired to reject this offer, as it has.  Now what?

This phase of the Boko Haram insurgency against the Nigerian state and the offer of amnesty by the government is analagous to two people, Mr. A. and Mr. B., engaged in bloody physical combat with Mr. A gaining the upper hand against Mr. B. Upon realising how imminent his defeat is, Mr. B., proclaims in between steely punches smashing his face “I forgive you Mr. A., I grant you amnesty”. Of course at this point, Mr. A will realise how powerful he has become, and simply finish off Mr. B.

I have keenly followed the pro- and anti- amnesty debate over the past two weeks or so in Nigeria. I found it all rather confounding, disturbing, distracting and absolutely pathetic! The debate got so heated and was as usual, unnecessarily politicised by both sides. I actually supported the President’s initial position of “not granting amnesty to faceless ghosts” because Boko Haram did not request for it, has insisted that it doesn’t recognise the authority of the Nigerian state (not to mention its feeble amnesty offer) and has continued butchering innocent Nigerians. However, President Jonathan was cajoled and bullied by SOME northern leaders into offering the amnesty.

On the other side of the divide, even those who genuinely and naïvely assumed that an amnesty offer would be the magical elixir to solve this bloody insurgency quagmire, were viciously painted by vociferous anti-amnesty voices as Boko Haram “sympathisers”. Now Boko Haram has flipped the bird or as we Nigerians call it, did the “uwaka” sign to us all, by rejecting it!

Photo credit: amebor.com

Personally, I am more incensed at the folly of SOME of the proponents of amnesty and their gross inability to see how this would play out. I say a big Thank You for giving the world the opportunity once again, to laugh at your sheer recklessness. So, what next then? Start begging Boko Haram or bribe them with Hajj pilgrimage or Dubai trip offers?

The baby steps towards a sustainable solution should be clear and visible. In my opinion — based on my humble observations and from general discussions — I believe they include:

  1. Implementation of recommendations of several reports by various commissions and committees set up, on this insurgency. Most of these reports have concrete recommendations proposed by committee members who are in the know, yet they have been dumped somewhere. Go back, pick them up, and start working from the recommendations, if they haven’t been eaten by dust mite that is. If the Federal Government seems unwilling or keeps dragging its foot, our “esteemed” and opinionated northern elders clearly have their advocacy work cut out for them;
  2. The JTF needs to stop killing innocent people and thereby providing a ready supply of recruits and suicide bombers to Boko Haram from a pool of angry, spiteful, vengeful and disillusioned orphans. The logic here is so ridiculously simple and apparent: the more you kill fathers in the presence of their impressionable teenagers and brutalise innocent young men, the more likely the victims are to fall into the willing embrace of Boko Haram or just refuse to help the government. Government needs to realise the pivotal role of winning the hearts and minds of people caught in the midst of all this, and denying Boko Haram any sort of popular support;
  3. In addition to spreading fear through its carnage, Boko Haram primarily thrives on spreading its warped and twisted ideology to angry, frustrated and hungry Nigerians. Its ideology needs to be countered by Muslim clerics all over the country, especially in northern Nigeria. Already, we have people like Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, who, despite his sometimes controversial statements, has come down hard on the sect, and because of that, he has been the target of several bomb-assassination attempts. Importantly this de-radicalisation needs to filter down to the grassroots, and shouldn’t be restricted to the elitist spheres such as the Sultan Bello mosque in Kaduna or the Indimi mosque in Maiduguri. The real recruitment takes place in inner-city districts, slums, suburbs and rural areas. This is where some of our noisy northern leaders could be helpful, rather than bullying the President to offer a hollow and meaningless amnesty, they should (if they are doing so already) continue convincing local imams in every street mosque and district, to preach fearlessly against this radical ideology, with credible evidence from the Holy Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), to expose the flaws in the ideological basis of Boko Haram and hopefully turn some of its members against it;
  4. There might still be a chance for amnesty… but there has to be a different approach. Again related to (1) above, the government (Federal and States) should go back to those reports and their recommendations, importantly, to start prosecuting perpetrators especially those in the security agencies responsible for extra-judicial killings of innocent citizens. This might be a highly contested approach but yes, start by prosecuting the killers of Mohammed Yusuf and others, which Boko Haram has frequently cited as the reason for its war against the Nigerian state. Prosecution of these erring officers might draw whatever humanity is left in some of the sect members to the negotiating table.

Lastly, the main problem with Nigeria, as is evident from this insurgency is that of sheer and criminal impunity. People steal, plunder, rape, murder and do everything under the sun, yet they are allowed to get away with it. This not only sets a precedent for other members of society to do same or worse, but it leaves victims with malicious grievances and a thirst for vengeance. Mohammed Yusuf, the sect’s alleged founder was brutally murdered (captured by the lens of Aljazeera’s cameras), the perpetrators are still walking about freely. The various suspects of church, market, mosque and school bombings are still walking about freely. Soldiers who have snuffed the life out of innocent citizens are still walking about freely. This breeds nothing but hateful grievances while the cycle of bloodletting continues. In the case of the sect, Jama’atul ahlul Sunna Wal-Liddawati wal Jihad, or Boko Haram, it is quenching its thirst for vengeance with the blood of innocents and this is what needs to stop.

A Glimpse into the World of Almajirai in Northern Nigeria

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I first met Hannah Hoechner in May this year, at the Oxford University Pan African Conference. I was outside the conference hall, getting some fresh air and chatting with several people when this friendly long haired brunette came to us and said hello in Hausa. Fascinated, we proceeded to ask her how come she could speak the Hausa language, to which she replied, that she had lived in Kano for some time, doing field research for her DPhil, as a student at the Oxford Department of International Development (ODID). We chatted briefly before she left.

Fast forward to October 2012, as a new DPhil student myself at ODID; I met Hannah again, and I learnt about her DPhil research on Traditional Qur’anic Schools in Kano. The research “aims to understand the experience of Qur’anic students (almajirai) in Kano State in Northern Nigeria”. One of the most interesting things she said during a presentation of her field research findings to ODID a few weeks ago is that not all almajirai in northern Nigeria are beggars and not all child beggars are almajirai. Infact if one comes across an almajiri (singular) who isn’t begging, it’d be difficult to identify him as such. Think about it!

During the course of Hannah’s 13-month field work in Kano, she produced a docu-drama offering an arguably never-before-seen comprehensive view of the life and experiences of an almajiri on celluloid. The movie, titled, “Duniya Juyi Juyi” (How Life Goes) was co-produced by the Goethe-Institut Kano and had some touch of the Kannywood (Hausa) movie industry. What I found quite fascinating is that real life almajirai were fully involved in the movie – nine almajirai from different parts of Kano were trained to write the script for the film, to do most of the acting, to handle the camera, and to give the stage directions.

On set of the Duniya Juyi Juyi movie. Almajirai playing the roles of cameraman and actor. Photo credit: Carmen McCain's Flickr photos
On set of the Duniya Juyi Juyi movie. Almajirai playing the roles of cameraman and actor. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos
Some of the crew members of the movie. They are almajirai. Photo credit: Carmen McCain's Flickr photos
Some of the crew members of the movie. They are almajirai. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos
Some cast and crew. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos

Watching the movie at ODID, several strong emotions — mainly of gratitude and guilt — coursed through me. I was grateful that first hand stories of these young boys, involuntarily enmeshed in the complicated traditional-Qur’anic system (whose present utility is hotly debated) have been shared. These boys are often vilified and even demonized by society. For instance, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka inaccurately described almajirai as the “Butchers of Nigeria”, depriving such boys of their humanity and agency, depicting them as would-be arsonists, killers and terrorists who in his view are “deliberately bred, nurtured, sheltered… ready to be unleashed at the rest of society”.

I was also grateful that Hannah’s in-depth and highly analytical research provides new information and sheds light on the almajiri system – the truths, the stereotypes around it and confirms what many have pointed out, that is a system in dire need of urgent reforms. At the same time, a streak of guilt flashed through momentarily, that Hannah, from Germany, is the one providing an insight – and she does it brilliantly – into one of the most contentious socio-cultural issues in Nigeria.

I obtained Hannah’s permission to share the absolutely amazing work she is doing with her research and the fascinating first hand story of these boys on this blog. Due to technical (in)compatibility issues, I couldn’t embed the Duniya Juyi Juyi video directly here, but find below two links to the video posted elsewhere:

To view the video in small format, click on this link HERE
To view the video in medium format, click on this link HERE

The movie is just about one hour in total. Enjoy!!! …and please leave your comments and/or questions below, I am sure you will have many!

June 2012: Who is “Crushing” Who?

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President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife Patience Arriving in Seoul, South Korea

March 28th 2012 is one of those memorable days many Nigerians will not forget in a hurry. This was the day when reports filtered out that President Goodluck Jonathan had in an interview in far away South Korea, the previous day, confidently assured the international community that Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad commonly referred to as Boko Haram would be contained by June 2012. Of course Boko Haram, not one to let such an opportunity to display its peculiar propensity for viciousness and violence against its perceived “enemies” to pass by, shortly after, did what it does best — carried out deadly attacks at select targets such as Universities and Media Houses along with its usual offensive against churches, police stations, security posts and installations. These attacks so far have persisted and become more fierce and bloody, and the rest as they say is history…

I can vividly remember that afternoon in late March, what I was wearing, and what I was doing when I learnt about President Jonathan’s enthusiastic and optimistic assurance. I cannot recall though, the precise flurry of emotions that coursed through my very being in reaction —  amusement, incredulity, perplexity, exasperation or a mish-mash of all these. I wondered why the President couldn’t have been more tactful in his choice of words knowing well that Boko Haram generally relishes the slightest opportunity to flex its ferocious muscles and it would interpret his statement as some sort of dare. I also dreaded what Boko Haram would do to disprove the President’s statement.

And indeed, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad retorted, first, with a very menacing video clip, vowing to “bring down” and “consume” President Jonathan’s administration and then unleashed a string of attacks against several targets with such astonishing levels of aggression and ferocity, dashing the faintest hopes of anyone who thought the group would be contained within this period. The most recent violent campaign within this month, being the mayhem in Kaduna state – attacks on churches in Wusasa, Sabon Gari and Tirkanniya, the reprisals and the counter reprisals – and the bomb blasts, gun battle and prison break in Damaturu, Yobe state have left hundreds dead in a bloody trail of death and terror. Residents of these cities have been subjected to 24 hour government imposed curfews for the better part of last week, paralyzed in fear and uncertainty. Though the curfews have been somewhat relaxed, the sudden clampdown on movement has had traumatizing effects on residents, has done little to calm frayed nerves in a very tense atmosphere and crippled economic activity in the interim.

As June fast approaches to an end, leaving in its wake, an atmosphere of uncertainty and gloom, it is pertinent to reflect on the President’s statement and consider whether Boko Haram is really being contained, controlled or crushed as the international community was assured way back in March or whether it is Boko Haram which is containing and crushing Nigerians. If the reality on ground is skewed towards the latter scenario, one has to wonder then, why Mr. President made that statement. Was it because he felt that such an assurance was necessary to restore the confidence of (potential) investors in Nigeria’s political and economic viability to absorb their crisp emerging market Dollars, Yuan and Won?

Kabiru Sokoto, alleged master-mind of the 2011 Christmas day bombing at St. Theresa church Madalla, Niger state, Nigeria

Of course as Commander-in-Chief, President Jonathan is privy to classified reports from intelligence agencies and his security advisers. Based on such intelligence reports, he probably felt confident that the noose was tightening fast around Boko Haram and thought it timely to enthusiastically inform the world of such impending victory, at Seoul. Quite possibly, the President felt sufficient information to close in on Boko Haram had been garnered from the scores of suspects apprehended in the past few months, such that security forces were just on the verge of moving in for the kill. Or perhaps President Jonathan’s premature enthusiasm was just one of those one-off statements leaders make, on the prodding of their advisers, as a gamble, with their fingers crossed under the table and toes crossed in their presidential shoes, hoping against all odds that such a statement turns out to be true.

Whatever the reason behind this rather impulsive and premature assurance, it is now evident that the exact opposite came to pass. One could speculate thus, that it is owing to this realization by the President, that he fired his erstwhile National Security Adviser (NSA) General Andrew Owoye Azazi and the erstwhile Defence Minister Alhaji Haliru Mohammed Bello. This much can be inferred from the reason given by President Jonathan for sacking them in order to “conform to the changing tactics of the Boko Haram insurgency”.

Photo courtesy: Naijanedu.com

Considering how dark and bloody June 2012 has turned out to be contrary to earlier assurances, one truly hopes that the President would be more tactful and selective in his choice of words on such combustible issues, in the near future. This would perhaps depend on the outlook and the new security strategy that would be adopted by the newly appointed NSA and yet to be appointed defence minister. Hopefully again, this bitter and dark lesson learnt would spawn a culture of having regular press conferences which would avail Nigerians of real and actual progress made by security agencies in tackling insecurity in Nigeria at all tiers of government, especially the Federal Government. This should particularly apply to progress made in the arraignment, trial and conviction of key suspects who have so far been apprehended. This is just so that ordinary Nigerians’ fears are allayed and people are more informed about what is quite frankly, a life or death situation for many.

“What is Boko Haram?” ~ A Report by BBC’s Andrew Walker for USIP

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Several weeks ago, in an NGO where I was working then, one of the Executive Directors of the organization came to my department, to say hello to everyone. We exchanged pleasantries, and he asked of my nationality, to which I replied “Nigeria“.  He then asked what part of Nigeria and I said “…from the North…”. He then exclaimed: “Oh! Boko Haram boom! boom! boom!!!” Everyone laughed, I laughed, but deep down I didn’t find it funny. I wasn’t offended at all but I was sad that Boko Haram was the first thing that came to his mind when Northern Nigeria was mentioned.

This anecdote shows how these days, Nigeria, or Northern Nigeria in particular is being increasingly identified with the insurgency group, Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (popularly referred to as Boko Haram). I have written severally about the group’s activities notably its deadly onslaught against its perceived enemies: the institutions of the Nigerian state, churches and Christians, Politicians, Muslims and Imams who dare question them, media houses, universities, primary schools and so on; I have written about the pattern of its attacks; the conflicting and sometimes misleading narratives about the group’s activity and the overall implications for Nigeria’s stability and unity.

What Boko Haram stands for and the consequences of its activities touch me personally and deeply, as the group operates chiefly within Northern Nigeria. The group’s activities — and that of its numerous factions, splinter groups and copy cats — are wreaking tremendous havoc on the political-economy, the social cohesion and stability of my home basically:  the various bomb blasts, gun fights, targetted assasinations, government curfews restricting movement and police and military check points are having a devastating impact on economic activity, scaring away investors, tempers and tensions are high between Christians in the region who feel most vulnerable and Muslims who feel they are equally victims. My “home” is crumbling and falling apart, and the situation is hardly improving.

There is a general sense of confusion, fear and paranoia in the North in particular and Nigeria in general over Boko Haram and the general state of insecurity. Since the escalation of the group’s insurgency in 2011, it seems there’s little new information available (to the public) as it is becoming more of a the-more-you-see-the-less-you-understand phenomenon. Therefore, I strongly advocate any research, any report or any useful information that would shed more light on the Boko Haram insurgency, suggest ways of effectively addressing it and restoring some sanity to the North and to Nigeria in general. One of such reports is: “What is Boko Haram?” by Andrew Walker – a  BBC journalist – written for the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) based on extensive field research and key interviews . The following is the summary and key highlights of the report (you can access the full report in PDF HERE):

  • Boko Haram is an Islamic sect that believes politics in northern Nigeria has been seized by a group of corrupt, false Muslims. It wants to wage a war against them, and the Federal Republic of Nigeria generally, to create a “pure” Islamic state ruled by sharia law.
 
  • Since August 2011 Boko Haram has planted bombs almost weekly in public or in churches in Nigeria’s northeast. The group has also broadened its targets to include setting fire to schools. In March 2012, some twelve public schools in Maiduguri were burned down during the night, and as many as 10,000 pupils were forced out of education.
 
  • Boko Haram is not in the same global jihadist bracket as Algeria’s al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or Somalia’s al Shabab. Despite its successful attack on the UN compound in Abuja in August 2011, Boko Haram is not bent on attacking Western interests. There have been no further attacks on international interests since that time.
 
  • Following the failed rescue of hostages Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara in north­eastern Nigeria in March 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan played up the connections between the group and international terrorism. However, links between Boko Haram and the kidnappers are questionable.
 
  • It is difficult to see how there can be meaningful dialogue between the government and the group. The group’s cell-like structure is open for factions and splits, and there would be no guarantee that someone speaking for the group is speaking for all of the members.
 
  • Tactics employed by government security agencies against Boko Haram have been consistently brutal and counterproductive. Their reliance on extrajudicial execution as a tactic in “dealing” with any problem in Nigeria not only created Boko Haram as it is known today, but also sustains it and gives it fuel to expand.
 
  • The group will continue to attack softer targets in the northeast rather than international targets inside or outside Nigeria. It is also likely to become increasingly involved in the Jos crisis, where it will attack Christian indigenes of the north and try to push them out. Such a move would further threaten to destabilize the country’s stability and unity.
 
  • Now that the group has expanded beyond a small number of mosques, radical reforms in policing strategy are necessary if there is to be any progress in countering the group. Wide­spread radical reform of the police is also long overdue throughout Nigeria. As a first step, jailing a number of police officers responsible for ordering human rights abuses might go some way to removing a key objection of the group

Without intending to sound overly pessimistic, my mouth went dry literally and I struggled to swallow hard at various times whilst reading the report. Nevertheless, in my frank assessment, the report is rich in information and detail, seems quite balanced, very nuanced and accurately captures the dynamics of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. Hopefully, Nigerians in general and our policy makers in particular would put this information to good use. Afterall, according to British scientist and historian Joseph Needham (1900-1995):

“no knowledge is ever wasted or to be despised”

Nigeria’s Porous Borders in Pictures

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I have always heard that Nigeria’s borders are porous, I never quite grasped the magnitude of the “porousness” until I received these pictures below of the Nigeria-Niger border at Birnin Kuka. I kept thinking afterwards, of a word synonymous with, yet which would signify an extreme form of “porousness”, combined with the words “Useless” “farce” “joke” and “ridiculous”  to capture this incredible scene, but I couldn’t quite come up with any.

Nigeria - Niger border post at Birnin Kuka, Katsina state

Just in case you still aren’t sure whether you saw the word “border” or not, or you think this is some rather early April Fool’s prank or that perhaps your eyes are playing tricks on you, its none of those things. This is actually Nigeria’s border with Niger Republic, at a small border town called Birnin Kuka in the North-Western state of Katsina. The person on the left wearing red and white trousers is an officer of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) while the one on the right is a “Camp boy”, a term describing locals of any border post or out station recruited by officers of NCS. And what you’re thinking at this moment is right on point: the tree logs in the pictures literally demarcate Nigeria from Niger Republic; crossing the logs means you’ve crossed over to the other country!

These pictures were sent by a source at the NCS and are very much authentic. The source  confirmed that apparently, with as little as N100 (less than $1), anyone can conveniently and comfortably cross the border to the other side.

So if like me, you’ve been wondering how the North African affiliate of Al-Qaeda, the “Al-Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel” (AQIM) wormed its way into Nigeria especially in light of the recent abduction and murder of the British and Italian hostages and the recent capture of a German hostage in Kano, then this is your answer right here. A large white mammoth from the prehistoric era could traverse this boundary without anyone raising an eye brow. So, for a highly sophisticated and secretive terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda, it would literally be a walk in the park, or in this case, a stroll in the desert!

Let me state categorically that not all of Nigeria’s border towns or entry points are this disorganized, poorly managed, poorly manned, insecure, and a throw-back to the medieval era. For instance the more well-known entry and exit points like the Seme border in Lagos, the Jibiya border station in the same Katsina state and a number of others are far more organized and relatively more secure than the Birnin-Kuka border in terms of having a proper border station, guards, sentries and immigration/customs/border officials and all the works. However, many of the less-known boundaries are like the Birnin-Kuka border post: poorly manned or in some cases just wide open, probably due to the lack of sufficient and trained officers, paucity of funds (But the government earmarked N922 billion or $6 billion for security in this year’s budget!) and just nonchalance and lack of foresight on the part of the authorities, that is the Nigeria Customs and Immigration Services respectively.

My source confirmed that even the relatively more organized border posts like the Jibiya station below “are OPEN” but in this case not to everyday individuals who can pay N100 but especially to “big men” and  “smugglers”. The source made particular reference to a renown, wealthy and influential smuggler whose trade is now flourishing more than ever as scores of his trucks laden with smuggled goods pass through weekly without being inspected.

The border station at Jibya in Katsina State

The source further confirmed that “Big Men are dreaded by officer(s)” who “earn little” and as for the renown smugglers, if an officer insists on searching their trucks, you “search and you risk getting sacked”.

The perviousness and porousness of Nigeria’s borders are an addition to the litany of shortcomings the Nigerian state is facing towards addressing security challenges. Already there’s the incapacity and mediocrity of the police and security agencies, dearth of intelligence gathering, politicization of insecurity by politicians, pervasive corruption and mismanagement of funds, widespread public paranoia and now to crown all these are our very porous borders.

These depressing facts further reveal the government’s weak position in combating the growing terrorist insurgency in Nigeria. For that, I’ve let my imagination become very active envisioning (nay hoping) a scenario unfolds where the various terrorist groups — the main Boko Haram, its various factions and AQIM — clash over turf and territory, and such turf war becomes very bloody where they mutually annihilate each other. This is a bit of a stretch I know, but you know how the saying goes: desperate times…!!

Nigeria, Boko Haram and Pervasive Distrust

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At around 01.30 am in the wee hours of Tuesday 13th March, while checking local Nigerian and global news as I usually do before heading to bed, I came across an article on the British daily’s website The Independent, titled “On the Trail of Boko Haram” by Andrew Stroehlein, the Communications Director of the International Crisis Group. Thinking it was one of those typically reductionist articles written by one of those foreign “experts” or “keen observers” of Nigeria, I initially dismissed it. However, my curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to skim through thinking that if I found it to repeat the same trite assertion of an impending apocalyptic implosion of a “Muslim-North and Christian-South” I would silently curse the author and go to bed.

As I read the article though, I had the exact opposite reaction, I felt it was brilliant and captured the situation in Nigeria accurately, objectively and succinctly. I had wanted to share it immediately on Facebook, Twitter and on several Nigerian online discussion boards, but my eyes were heavy, so I put it off for when I woke up in the morning. Not surprisingly, by the time I woke up, the article had gone viral, at least in Nigeria. Amidst glowing commendations, one interesting description of the article was thus: “one of the most accurate summary of the Boko Haram group in Nigeria, sadly by a foreigner”. What then is so spectacular about this piece when so much has already been written and said about Boko Haram and insecurity in Nigeria?

The insecurity in Nigeria especially with the orgy of violence unleashed by the group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad popularly known as Boko Haram, or what I prefer to call the Boko Haram plague has been escalating as the group’s tactics have similarly evolved. Local and international media agencies have been falling over themselves to report (accurately and inaccurately) the group’s deadliest and bloodiest attacks. Journalists, columnists, pundits, analysts, experts, and bloggers all claiming some knowledge and expertise over the group’s activities, it can be argued, have covered all possible angles of the Boko Haram insurgency. However, what Andrew Stroehlein seems to have done differently is to go straight to the heart of the issue without looking at any angle per se. He focuses on the cold hard facts and that is why his sounds like the gospel truth to many. The four salient points which I believe the author strongly makes are:

First of all, he desists from treading the simplistic path taken by many foreign “analysts” and “experts” of depicting Nigeria as hopelessly polarized along a “predominantly Muslim North and Christian South” fault line, subtly implying the two parts are irreconcilable and probably better off apart than together. Consequently, Stroehlein does not succumb to the tendency to portray Boko Haram as a manifestation of a disgruntled and increasingly alienated “Muslim-North” unhappy with and trying to undermine the Federal government largely under the control of the “Christian-South”. He says: “Like other political and armed movements that have sprung up in this country, including the recent fuel subsidy protests that brought the country to a standstill, Boko Haram is just a symptom of the crumbling Nigerian state.” He does admit that: “…the vast majority of Nigerians do not turn to armed militancy, of the Islamist variety or any other…

By so doing, Stroehlein depicts Boko Haram rightly, as a bye product of state failure, bad governance and especially rampant corruption which he argues needs to be addressed by pouring “the oil wealth into government services rather than officials’ overseas bank accounts”. This is one point many analysts have alluded to, but perhaps because of the high level of tension and paranoia in the Nigerian public sphere, those who have made this argument have been rashly labelled as Boko Haram supporters or “sympathisers”. This fierce rejection of alternative narratives reminds me of journalist Richard Hall’s op-ed on the UK riots last year, where he makes a clear distinction between attempting to understand something and condoning it. In particular, Hall says:

“The impression appears to be that the crimes committed were so great and so senseless that to try and understand them is to condone them… Any discussion about the potential causes of the riots become indistinguishable from excusing those who carried them out, and those who attempt to analyse become apologists.”

In Nigeria, sadly this seems to be the case.

Secondly, the author points out that Boko Haram should be dealt with as criminals and also harps on an urgent need for reform of the Police, the intelligence agencies and strengthening the Judiciary’s independence to deal with such criminal challenges. Even though, Stroehlein links Boko Haram to the wider problems of poverty, corruption, bad governance and predatory management of state funds, he avoids the pitfall many foreign analysts fall into of advocating for an “appeasement” of the “marginalized” Northern-Muslim establishment (purportedly the sponsors of Boko Haram) who lost out in the current political dispensation as a way of mitigating and addressing the Boko Haram plague.

Alleged Christian Bombers in Bauchi. Photo Courtesy Daily Times Nigeria

Thirdly, the author corroborates what many have said before, especially those with first-hand knowledge of the North, that there are splinter groups of Boko Haram and that “Boko Haram” is now a cover for criminal activity across a wide spectrum. Stroehlein notes: “anything that turns violent can be blamed on the Islamist movement, whether it has a link to it or not. It is a perfect alibi, one that prevents further questioning. Bank robbery? Boko Haram. Attack on political opponents? Boko Haram.”  This became more evident in the recent high-profile abduction and murder of the British and Italian hostages, the group’s denial of its culpability given that it wastes no time in bragging about its violent attacks and the emergence of a new player, Al Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel (AQIM) claiming responsibility for the abduction and murder. The argument about the existence of Boko Haram copycats is also given more credence especially when one considers that many of those caught-in-the-act whilst trying to burn churches in Bauchi in August 2011 and again in February 2012 and Bayelsa for instance are aggrieved church members or those who do not fit the typical Boko Haram profile.

Fourthly, Stroehlein makes a damning indictment of the media — both local and international — as concerned with being very sensationalist by misinformation and spreading fear and paranoia in covering the insurgency in Nigeria, typically spreading the now trite narrative that Boko Haram is a manifestation of the promise made by prominent “disgruntled Northern politicians who have vowed to make the country ungovernable for Goodluck Jonathan”. Stroehlein says: “the hype in much of the Nigerian media also contributes to the problem, as many media outlets chasing sales seem all too willing to fall for unsubstantiated rumour and outright lies proffered by political trouble-makers — or by nobody at all”. Of international media, he asserts their reports have: “also been more scare-mongering than substance, presenting this as a new terrorist threat to the West, when it is fundamentally a Nigerian issue.”

From these thrusts of Andrew Stroehlein’s piece and the reactions the article has elicited, it can be inferred that there is a deep-seated lack of trust in Nigeria between ordinary Nigerians of each other and of the government, fanned, aggravated and enabled by the local media feeding fat on public paranoia. The mutual distrust is symptomatic of the deep cleavages in Nigeria which have extended to the public sphere such that any attempt by traditional or religious leaders especially from the North where Boko Haram is most active to explain the context of group’s activity is misconstrued by a militant and sectional press, members of the public and even some politicians as trying to rationalise, sympathise or justify Boko Haram’s activities. Those who been persistently calling for dialogue with the group have been labelled Boko Haram “apologists“, even though the Federal Government has recently began talks with the group ostensibly out of realization that the purely militarized approach has done little if anything to contain the insurgency. Conversely, the general perception in the North, is that Boko Haram’s activities are a deliberate and calculated attempt at sabotage and destruction of the economy and social cohesion of the region from elsewhere.

The danger here is that this distrust is increasingly preventing sincere, meaningful, fruitful national discourse in the Nigerian public sphere on Boko Haram and insecurity in Nigeria. Consequently, analysts like Stroehlein who sum the facts we are all aware of and state the obvious are seen to have said something spectacular (and it is in many respects) precisely because in our national subconscious Stroehlein falls outside the categories and labels we are increasingly allowing ourselves to be boxed into — “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Northerner”, “Southerner” “Core North”, “Middle Belt”, “Minority” etc — he is regarded as a neutral party more capable of stating the unbiased facts apparent to everyone better than Nigerians themselves.

Effectively tackling Boko Haram requires a strategic, concerted, collective and coordinated action by all and sundry: not just the government and security agencies, but traditional and religious leaders, the media and members of the public. This would entail an adept combination of the military approach, dialogue and any other effective tactic as is required and is deemed fit. Unless Nigerians come to the realization that everyone is a stakeholder when it comes to Boko Haram and appreciate the need to engage in meaningful discourse on what Boko Haram stands for, the threats it poses to national security and social cohesion and ways of halting the orgy of violence, Boko Haram will continue “winning” against Nigerians.