Boko Haram in the face of a Planned Centenary Celebration
Every Nigerian must have known by now that the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914 by the then Governor-General, Lord Fredrick Luggard, to form the country called Nigeria was largely a British idea that culminated in a British creation. Nor have Nigerians found anything wrong with the amalgamation though. Indeed, in just a few weeks away, Africa's most populous country and gateway to the African economy has planned to celebrate the first centenary of that amalgamation. But how can that be done in the face of an ever increasingly aggressive war from a disenchanted section of the populace?
It is quite worrying.
Boko Haram is a humanitarian crisis. Every Nigerian knows that much. The daily atrocities that the insurgents have relentlessly continued to unleash on innocent Nigerian citizens, even at a time like this, obviously calls to question the authenticity of the Nigerian Union which is soon to be celebrated. It may seem all good and well for government to believe it is “sitting on top of the problem” like is done in some Muslim countries like Afghanistan. But Nigeria is certainly not a Muslim country. Even in the North where as many as 12 states have opted out for the Sharia Law system for whatever reason, there still remain so many Christians by birth who would rather die for their Christian faith than give it up for another faith.
Therefore, now that Nigeria has enlisted the participation of the British government as a principal partner in its centenary celebration, is it not proper for the authorities to approach their British counterparts and request them to elicit from these Boko Haram insurgents what they truly want from the “amalgamation” – and at-least offer them some words of advice them? Britain must make it clear to Nigerians and to the world on whose side it is – on the side of the Nigerian government frantically struggling to keep Nigeria united and indivisible, or on the side of the Northern insurgents who possibly want to create an Islamic nation from an amalgamation they refuse to accept? Such a move by the Nigerian government, many Nigerians believe, would be a step in the right direction.
To think, moreover, that what was initially thought to be an internal social rebellion, political affront or religious zealotism could well have turned out now to become mere brigandage – the broad day light robbery of defenceless citizens whose foodstuff, cattle and beautiful damsels are suddenly catered off to unknown destinations by unknown gunmen, men who by any stretch of the imagination are more qualified as armed robbers than anything else that can pass in the name of freedom fighters – leaves a lot to be desired!
The number of innocent Nigerians murdered by suspected Boko Haram sect members in the last few months runs into their thousands. These atrocities constitute crimes against humanity, as contained in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. President Goodluck Jonathan recognizes that in their depth and by their qualifications, the crimes that Boko Haram continues to unleash on innocent Nigerian citizens must be dealt with summarily. But how is government getting about this challenge in the face of its planned centenary celebrations which come up in a few weeks? For instance, what quality of curfew has been put in place in these states where emergency rule has been declared in the last six months or so?
When a curfew is in place in a town or state, say from six to six, it means that no one, and that means no one, is allowed outside his or her home between six in the evening and six in the morning. It also means that between these times, fully armed security agencies are detailed to patrol the main streets in the towns and the main roads in the villages where the insurgents have shown interest. It means that security operatives must arrest and detain any person or persons seen outside their homes while the curfew is in place. It means that government would make visible efforts to utilize the pattern of the insurgents' attacks to speculate, with some degree of accuracy, where they are likely to strike next. It is called intelligence gathering and it is important if Jonathan's government must 'fight' this war against the insurgents successfully to prove to the world, as it has always wanted to do, that all Nigerians are united in their desire to remain a single and indivisible country.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, IISS, which is one of Britain's most reliable 'think tanks' has already faulted Nigerian government's position. When it sketched Boko Haram's terrorist campaigns and attacks which prompted Goodluck Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in the three Northern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, it came to the conclusion that the escalating violence in the North is being fanned by both the government and Boko Haram. It maintained that although the Nigerian government calls its operations a success, with very little reliable information available, the level of “success” remains extremely uncertain. Considering all the atrocities committed by government forces on both the insurgents and the civilian population (because the insurgents mingle freely with other citizens and it is difficult to distinguish who is and who is not an insurgent), the government's optimism is dismissed as premature.
The revelation is unfortunate because it gives the impression that the Nigerian government is only deluding itself. It is also fortunate because it is a wake-up call on Nigeria's military to stay on top of their national problem. While some Nigerians are enthusiastically waiting for the centenary anniversary to happen in their generation, others are planning on how many people's lives will be forcefully terminated on that day the whole world would gather in Abuja to celebrate. So, what hope does Nigeria have in the celebration of this strange "unity"?
Perhaps this was what agitated Governor Shettima of Borno State recently and made him suggest that it appeared the insurgents were better equipped and better motivated than the country's military. The Federal government immediately stood its grounds and asserted that it had superior weapons and had a more meaningful mission than Boko Haram and that, indeed, the end of the insurgency was very much in sight. But the fact remains that the security agents must be serious minded in doing proper patrols the way they should be done in order to forestall the ability of the insurgents to get together at night to plan their next strategy. It is obvious that they don't plan these things in total darkness. Where ever lights are on when they should be off, something sinister could be in the offing. And if security personnel are on the alert, they should be able to act fast. That is curfew with quality. By the same token, the unwillingness of citizens to inform security agencies of dubious characters who live within their environment is not going to help matters.
Come to think of it! In the last two years, Boko Haram has been a particularly painful pin in the neck of government. Among all their atrocities, one of the worst which gripped the populace with great fear was the two extremely fatal attacks which occurred last year in Nigeria's Borno State. One attack was on Baga on 16 April and the other on Bama on 7 May. I guess they have now become history. Boko Haram was quick to claim responsibility for the dastardly acts. On the Baga incident, the Committee for the Protection of Peoples Mandate, CPPM, immediately called on the United Nations to investigate the massacre, alleging that over 185 innocent people were killed, about 2,000 houses set ablaze, 62 vehicles and 486 motorcycles destroyed. As a result of these and other atrocities committed in two other North-Eastern States of Adamawa and Yobe, President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three states on Tuesday, 14 May. The National Assembly later approved an extension of the state of emergency in the three states where the insurgents had concentrated their attacks.
Since then, some particular towns in these states have become consistently bedevilled by recurrent Boko Haram violence. On their part, the villagers have woefully failed to keep faith by coming forth with desirable information regarding the sighting of insurgents. So, the insurgents are somewhat encouraged to continue with their killing spree. Natives are forced to bury their loved ones in mass graves.
Although Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the assault on Baga and Bama in which over 200 innocent citizens, including soldiers, policemen, prison warders and civilians were murdered in cold blood, they had the guts to blame the military for killing civilians, and for setting houses in the village ablaze just as IICC claimed it had observed. In a 12-minute video clip, the Leader of the sect, Imam Abubakar Ibn Shekau, said about the insurgency: “We carried out the attack in Baga and we are also responsible for the attack in Bama. The military went after we had finished and killed innocent people and burnt houses.”
Shekau's video also showed women and children who were taken hostage by Boko Haram insurgents in retaliation for the detention of their family members by security agencies. In the clip, Shekau boasted: “Since we don't get our children and wives, these ones too will not be set free. We will hold them in place of our own in detention.”
Following the most recent Boko Haram attacks, residents of Bama and Gwoza communities in Borno State have been forced to completely desert their ancestral homes. They are on the run.
It paints a grim picture.
Bama is situated about 130 km from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. In the course of the last two years, the town has remained one of the endangered communities which have suffered immensely in the wake of intense and consistent attacks by Boko Haram. In these two years, the sect has issued Bama residents threat letters, intimating them of an impending bloodletting. In several threat letters said to be written in Kanuri and Hausa languages, the sect had even warned civil service residents of the town to resign their jobs and burn their employment documents or face the risk of being consumed by impending war.
Consistent with, and true to, their threat, Police in Borno State confirmed that at least 47 people were killed when gunmen suspected to be members of the Boko Haram sect attacked Bama town early last midweek. Boko Haram stormed the town at about 4 a.m. while residents were asleep and used different types of ammunition which included Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to destroy public property. Even the palace of the town's monarch, the Shehu of Bama, was not spared. About the attack, Borno State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Tanko, said: “Every landmark building, the Local Government Secretariat, the State Low-cost Housing Estate, schools and several other buildings, as well as part of the Shehu's palace were destroyed.”
The Emir of Bama himself gave an account of how the insurgents invaded the town. The Boko Haram rode into Bama in a convoy of Sports Utility Vehicles, SUVs, mostly Hilux Vehicles, motorcycles and tricycles at 4 a.m. The insurgents forced their way into the palace with grenade and explosive devices when it became difficult for them to gain access through the heavily fortified gate. It was then that the Emir said he realized that they (Boko Haram) meant business.
Strikingly, Bama was attacked less than 12 hours after the convoy of the state governor, Kashim Shettima, drove through the town while returning from a sympathy visit to Izge where about 106 innocent citizens had been callously murdered by Boko Haram insurgents the previous Saturday. Governor Shettima immediately rushed to Abuja to brief President Goodluck Jonathan on the unfortunate attack. While briefing Jonathan on the increasing attack on innocent village people in his state by Boko Haram, Governor Shettima commented that the security gadgets in the state were obsolete and inadequate, suggesting that Boko Haram insurgents were perhaps better armed and better motivated than the Nigerian soldiers.
The President was not happy with the observation.
But two points have to be considered here. One is that the two border towns of Bama and Gwoza have remained cut off from the state capital since the declaration of a state of emergency in Borno state. Soldiers blocked the roads linking the town to the state capital, Maiduguri. As a result, Bama has had to witness several attacks by Boko Haram members in recent times perhaps because the insurgents consider that it may be difficult for help to come through those barricaded roads. If that is the case, how have Governor Shettima and the security agencies reacted to this possibility? Why are these two towns still cut off from the assistance of security agencies likely to come from Maiduguri?
The other point is that some of the attacks, which occurred after the declaration of emergency rule were preceded by warnings from the sect. Why then did the residents fail to alert security operatives? For instance, “the insurgents were forced by soldiers to flee their camps in Sambisa Game Reserve to the rocky hills of Gwoza where they still terrorize their new host communities. In fact the insurgents are said to have taken over most of the outskirts of Gwoza which includes Pulka and Kirawa towns, forcing residents to flee into the neighbouring Cameroonian villages as far as 75 km away from Nigerian borders.” Boko Haram had also attacked Konduga, in Borno State, leaving many dead. So, when these villagers sight the presence of the insurgents in their villages, why don't they open up to the security agencies? On whose side are they in actual fact? Or could it well be that there is more about all this than meets the ordinary eyes?
It may be true that youth vigilante groups have sprung up here and there in these invaded towns. But the security of the towns should not in any case be left in the hands of young people. They should be in school. Unfortunately, Boko Haram activities have cut across all walks of life in the North. In the marketplace Boko Haram is there. They are there in the schools. They are in people's farms and in their homes. They are about everywhere, mingling freely with citizens before they retire, unnoticed, to plan their next line of nefarious action against the very people with whom they may have exchanged pleasantries in the day time. They have embarked on the systematic destruction and closure of schools; the exodus of teachers and pupils and creating a pervading sense of fear which is steadily paralyzing the education system in North-East Nigeria.
A damning 20-page report, based on evidence from eyewitness accounts, details crimes committed by the Boko Haram insurgents in which at least 70 teachers and more than 200 pupils have been killed or injured in the last two years. In one such attack in which a school lost over 40 Nigerian children in Yobe, Abubakar Shekau supported and justified the attack. Only today again, Yobe is in the news. The insurgents have struck again, and in one scoop murdered over 50 students in cold blood in their school.
It is never done.
The flagrant violations of the rights of both Christian and Muslim children trapped in Boko Haram's violence must stop. It must stop because both in the short term and in the long run, these atrocities will only impact negatively on Northern Nigeria's access to regional development. Therefore, Jonathan must evolve a faster, more effective, response to these challenges, a response that is anchored within the bounds of law. It is important that at the base of security in Nigeria, government addresses the quality of the curfew it has placed in the states which have emergency rule. It is important that government always monitors that security operatives are properly enforcing curfew times in these emergency states. Otherwise they will be unable to halt the insurgents in their track before they plan their next strike?
It is not news any more that there is a growing culture of impunity goading Boko Haram deeper and deeper into its form of insurgency. This has resulted in victims of the Boko violence being mostly women and children of school age. They are hacked to death, burned alive, or shot because of their ethnic or religious identity or for no reason at-all. Like the one that happened last night in Yobe where the insurgents stormed into a school and slaughtered well over 50 innocent students, just like that!
Before the centenary anniversary takes place, Nigerian government must liaise with the British government, the creator of this amalgamation idea and find out before we make a global mockery of our aspirations what it is that these dastardly devils called Boko Haram say they want from Nigeria's Unity? Only then can government figure out how it is going to contain these challenges from Boko Haram in the face of a planned centenary celebration.
* Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist and editor of the Trumpet newspaper.