Boko Haram and the Military: A Dialogue of Bombs and Bullets


Events during the last fortnight have disproved the assurance given by the Chief of Army Staff that the military will soon end the Boko Haram insurrection in the Northern part of the country. The group went about its activities in complete disregard to his words. It escalated its attacks unimpeded, leaving the nation in the safety of generals whose superficial measures depict the incapacity of the nation's security apparatus to execute its most fundamental duty.  

Inexperienced in urban warfare, the military mounted, with little success, roadblocks with the hope of intercepting weapons and arresting the insurgents. Abuja, for example, suddenly became inaccessible to workers as a result of the measure. Vehicles were moving at a speed of a kilometer per hour. It was such an embarrassment that the checkpoints on the arteries leading to the city had to be removed before the following day. Corruption and indifference also came into play. During the period, I drove from Bauchi to Abuja and back to Bauchi through Kaduna and Kano without my booth checked at any point. In spite of the situation, security personnel at the roadblocks were more interested in a tip than in discovering any arsenal I might carry. Nigeria we hail thee!  

Before I returned to Bauchi, however, militants suspected to be members of the dreaded Boko Haram stormed the divisional police station of my local government in Toro. To the delight of the police, the militants allowed them to disperse unmolested, abandoning, without hesitation, the station for their dear lives. The militants missed the Divisional Police Officer who had left the station two minutes earlier and upon hearing the gunshots there, was reported to have hid in the neighbouring secondary school. Though they missed their target, the DPO, the militants were able to cart away with rifles and ammunitions, without harming anyone in town.  

Five days later, similar militants attacked a bank and razed down a whole divisional police headquarters at Alkaleri. They distributed part of their loot, as they did in Katsina a month earlier, to the villagers who scrambled over it, causing the death of one boy. In Maiduguri, the headquarters of Boko Haram, bombings of apparatus of coercion have virtually become a daily occurrence. Two days ago, a bomb for the second time exploded in Suleja, though no group has claimed responsibility, as was the case in the first instance during the election campaigns. Yesterday, another bomb exploded at a drinking joint in Obalande, Kaduna, killing six people and injuring seventeen.  

However, it is the unfortunate turn of events at the epicenter of the crisis that is beginning to catch the attention of the world. There was a shootout between Boko Haram members and members of the Joint Task Force (JTF), a collection of military, police and State Security Service personnel deployed to Maiduguri to crackdown on the insurgents. In revenging the killing of some of its personnel during the Sunday shootout and under the pretext of harboring Boko Haram members and refusing to divulge intelligence, JTF men cordoned some sections of the town and set ablaze houses and cars, allegedly raped women and killed all men they could find in the houses that they broke into. There had been rumours making the rounds that the military has vowed to kill 50 civilians for every soldier killed by Boko Haram members. According to a source, this is exactly what they went about doing two days ago. The reports aired on foreign media like the BBC, VOA, RDW, and RFI throughout yesterday, Monday 11 July 2011, have corroborated these accounts.  

To Nigerians familiar with how the military boys behaved in Zaki Biam and Odi, this gross violation of human rights is typical and did not come as a surprise. The Nigerian military still thinks that it reserves the right to take the lives of 'bloody' civilians with impunity. It must have known that it must lose some personnel in the course of its duty in Maiduguri. So to organize the killing of as many civilians as possible in retaliation to the death of a soldier or two would be the most unfortunate thing any officer could contemplate. In an interview he gave to the BBC Hausa Service, a spokesman of the JTF, Lt. Col. Raphael Isa, did admit, in the usual carefree tone of a Third World soldier, that an unknown number of civilians were killed.  

A force sent to protect civilian population did not even care to know how many people it killed and could, without the slightest sign of remorse, look at a foreign correspondent and acknowledge his ignorance of the number of his victims. His celebration of successfully killing eleven Boko Haram members at the end of the unfortunate operation casts a thick shadow of doubt over claim by a government spokesman last week that the roadblocks measures have enabled the arrest of a hundred members of the sect. Not a single member was paraded before the newsmen, in contravention of Nigerian tradition and Boko Haram has not corroborated the claim either.  

Killing innocent civilians under any circumstance is a massacre. It is a war crime punishable under the Geneva Convention. One really wonders what our military officers learn at their staff colleges. They refuse to learn from the methods of their contemporaries. Americans and other NATO forces are losing lives daily in Afghanistan. But they have not gone about killing innocent civilians. They take their time to patiently locate and target their enemy with a precision that would ensure a minimum collateral damage. And they are quick to apologize where a missile hits a civilian population due to a technical or human error. We have also seen the masterly skill they employed in waiting for ten years before reaching their main target, Osama Bin Laden. When they finally got him, not a single person in the neighbourhood was killed or arrested for harbouring the most wanted person in the world. It is this degree of professionalism that we expect from our soldiers. Indiscriminate killing of Nigerians, destroying their property and raping their women leaves us with little doubt that textbooks on the primitive methods of Royal Niger Company and Nigerian Civil War remain the predominant reference materials in Jaji and War College.  

If America is too distant, our military officers would have learnt from the consequences of the brute force used to subdue the same Boko Haram militants in 2009. They were shot at sight in Maiduguri, Bauchi, Borno, Yobe and Kano States. The army then prided itself with the evidence that it handed over the leader of the group alive to the police. The police did not spare him in his cell, just as they executed Mohammed Foi in public glare. The direct consequence of those murders was the metamorphosis of the group into an underground movement and a revision of their methodology from open confrontation to urban guerilla warfare. By the time they resurfaced, the world was quick to acknowledge the sophistication of their means and the fatality of their devices. The political class took their threats seriously: Three governors knelt before them, seeking their pardon. Immediately after the Inspector General of Police escaped from their suicide bomb by a whisker, the scared President rushed to reopen the hitherto forgotten murder case of their leader and ordered the prosecution of the culprits. The IGP learnt the hard way how to keep his mouth shut and the President soon abandoned the reflection that Boko Haram should be left to decimate the North to his political advantage. With the attack on the police headquarters, the President realized that he is within the range of its bombs.  

With these abundant lessons, I wonder how the military thinks that terrorizing civilian populations will help it in anyway to extinguish the fire of Boko Haram. Its indiscretion is already producing a boomerang, attracting the civilian animosity that was hitherto directed at Boko Haram. The hate now is for the military that goes about mass killings and other human rights violations against civilians, not the Boko Haram whose bomb could unintentionally kill only few people when it successfully detonates. Youths in Jajere ward, as reported by one of my readers have vowed to join Boko Haram after the public execution of one of them who was a footballer. It is clear who is winning the battle for the souls of Nigerians between the military and Boko Haram.,The military has started with one enemy, now it has many: Boko Haram and civilians. Boko Haram, on their part, started with many enemies, now it has just one: the JTF.  

Before concluding this piece, it will not be out of place to suggest three things. First, it the President must calm down and understand that Boko Haram is a philosophical organization, with demands that ultimately borders on the national question. Others since Sultan Attahiru have made similar demands during the last hundred years. Even in contemporary Nigeria, there are organizations from various regions asking for a revision of our colonial burden. May be Nigerians of various origins are tired of this impractical Lugardian marriage. After a hundred years, many are ready to end it without walking the extra fifty years of Southern Sudan. Therefore, it will not be out of place if Jonathan, from the oil rich Niger Delta, considers becoming Africa's Gorbachev. He would definitely be supported by the oil rich but disgruntled and underdeveloped South-south, the enterprising but impeded Southeast, the 'racially' superior Southwest and, finally, the complacent and 'backward' North. A promise of that alone, better than bullets and rapes, may be the dialogue that will end the Boko Haram revolt instantly. The international community will also be relieved of the failure that threatens its economic interest in the Niger Delta.  

Secondly, there is the need for the President to immediately review the military operations in Maiduguri. Sending a Mladic there is not in the best interest of the administration and the nation in general. It will lead to unnecessary escalation and earn Boko Haram more foot soldiers and sympathizers. The Kanuri are people with sufficient measure of pride. One cannot but envisage a more volatile situation if the current spate of human abuses is not ended. A general who is ready to respect the rights of Nigerians living there, taking into consideration their cultural sensitivities, is urgently needed to replace the present one. By the way, where is Maj. General Maina? This was the fine officer that led the JTF in Jos without a single complaint of murder or rape against his soldiers. So much was done on the Plateau to frustrate and provoke this gentleman, including an ex-general calling him 'idiot' over the radio, but he did not waver. He should be deployed to Maiduguri or, if retired, someone of no lesser professional mien should be sent.  

Thirdly, in addition to investigations that the Federal Government should conduct as a statutory obligation, civil society groups should assist in taking an inventory of human right abuses presently going on in Maiduguri. Victims and their relations must be forthcoming in this. They should index them and submit them to the government as quick as possible. If it fails to stop the abuses or bring the culprits to book, then the groups can avail themselves of the appropriate organs of redress under the United Nations. I am glad that Civil Rights Congress under Comrade Shehu Sani is already working on this. He has my blessings. FOMWAN, MSO, NACOMYO, CAN, JNI and all the churches and mosques in Maiduguri must also come on board. Citizens with modern communication hardware should also gather evidence and post them on the Internet. That was what irrefutably attested to the extrajudicial killings in 2009. Few hours after posting this article, a video was posted Youtube depicting once more the manhandling of suspects by police. We need many of such conclusive evidence on abuses by the military.  

Finally, I would like to appeal to 'Boko Haram' leaders to reiframe their arguments and project them as a demand for restructuring this country, just as other groups are doing. This is what their opinion against the constitution and demand for full implementation of Shariah logically culminate in, given the demographic composition of the country. Baked in this more palatable language, their demand would be understood better and accommodated fully within the wider spectrum of the national question. If they adopt this strategy, they will definitely be amazed at the millions of supporters they will gain overnight. This is a demand that negotiations in a conference room can meet. This is the only way to end the ongoing dialogue of bombs and bullets that is claiming the lives of innocent Nigerians.

  Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde