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The rise and fall of Boko Haram

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HOW do you fight an enemy who is not an enemy but a fellow-citizen? How do you fight someone who is fighting you but you don’t know exactly why? How do you fight a mad man? That precisely is the challenge we face in Nigeria with regard to the Boko Haram. That challenge reached a new chapter with the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls.

Al-Qaeda in Nigeria

The United States specialises in belittling anything and everything not from America and by America. The late American senator, John McCain, boasted that if he had been U.S. president, he would have sent American troops to rescue the kidnapped girls without waiting for the permission of “some guy called Goodluck Jonathan.”

Guards Brigade Dinner 1: President Buhari receiving Captured Boko Haram terrorist from Camp Zero in Sambisa Forest by the Nigerian Army from Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai while attending Guards Brigade Regimental Dinner Night at the Guards Brigade Scorpion Mess Abuja on 30th Dec 2016. File photo

But then the government of somebody called George Bush, with all its sophisticated gear and gadgets, looked for a certain man called Osama Bin Ladin for 10 years. When it finally found him, the whole world discovered that the almighty U.S. of A. had been conned for years by the Pakistanis.

The Pakistani military kept Bin Ladin secure from American eyes in Abbottabad, less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy. While doing this, Pakistan collected over $20 billion in military and economic aid from the United States in the name of fighting America’s terrorist enemies. The battle is always so much easier when the boot is on someone else’s foot.

Nigeria has neither friends nor godfathers in the international system. Nevertheless, we deserved the understanding of the international community as we moved to contain the insurgency. Efforts of the Nigerian government in countering insurgency need to be acknowledged and supported in light of how intractable similar problems have proved to be in several countries where international resources have been mobilised to greater degree.

The Boko Haram were funded by Muammar Gaddafi, who insisted that Nigeria should be broken into a Christian South and a Muslim North. Nevertheless, the insurgents were a ragtag team of local nuisances, until the Americans decided it was time to overthrow Gaddafi, ostensibly in order to export American democracy to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

The U.S. and its Western allies not only succeeded in getting Gaddafi killed, they also succeeded in unleashing radical Islamic terrorist groups in North Africa, including the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now armed with Gaddafi’s cache of sophisticated weapons. These groups moved down the Sahel from Libya through Algeria into Mali and Nigeria, where they found kindred spirits in Nigeria’s inchoate Boko Haram.

As a result, the Boko Haram quickly came of age. They soon operated with armoured personnel carriers and advanced weaponry that matched those with the Nigerian military. Furthermore, they built up an arsenal of weapons and a fleet of trucks stolen from police-stations and military-barracks in the North-east. Indeed, according to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the Boko Haram quickly became the most violent and deadly terrorist group in the world, responsible for far more deaths than any other terrorist group.

Terrorists or insurgents?

How exactly do you fight them? Are they a terrorist group or are they an insurgency group and what exactly is the difference? Someone said: “they are an insurgency group that uses terroristic methods.” I have a better definition: they are people who delight in killing people.

The U.S. wanted to label them as a terrorist group in 2012, when Hilary Clinton was U.S. Secretary of State, but the Nigerian government pleaded against it. We did not want to heighten unnecessarily the profile of a gang of local misfits. We also did not want Nigeria to be officially classified as a country that harbours terrorists. That would have had a deleterious effect on the economy and hindered our ability to encourage foreign investment. We came up with a compromise. Just three of the Boko Haram head-honchos were classified as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.”

But by the time they graduated to kidnapping scores of innocent school-children, it was considered overdue to classify them as terrorists. But even terrorists have recognisable objectives. Not so the Boko Haram. Even the king-pin of all terrorist organisations, the Al Qaeda, raised objections when the Boko Haram enlarged their terroristic theatre of war to the burning of an elementary school filled with young boys.

Edward Heath, a capitalist British Prime-Minister, said: “There is an unacceptable face of capitalism.” Well, it seems there is also an unacceptable face of terrorism, even to terrorists like the Al-Qaeda

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What do the Boko Haram want? Don’t ask me; ask them. Are they implacably opposed to Western education? Yes! But then how come they are enamoured of Western weaponry and bomb-making techniques? Are they determined to drive Southern Christians out of the North in order to prosecute some kind of jihad? Yes! But then why do they equally kill Northern Muslims?

Are they revolutionaries opposed to the social inequalities in Northern Nigeria? I don’t think so. The Boko Haram have not been killing rich Northerners. They have been killing the poor. Men of timber and caliber don’t go to Nyanya market, which they bombed some years back. The rich and the powerful don’t put their children in Chibok secondary school.

As the Boko Haram became more lethal, so did they become even more illogical and nonsensical. Their objectives are completely muddled. At the moment, they are reduced to causing havoc and mayhem at any and every opportunity. If some people in the United States are inclined to shoot passers-by for the most psychotic of reasons, there is nothing the United States government can do to prevent this. If the Boko Haram just want to bomb anybody anywhere at any time, there is little the Nigerian government can do about this.

Diminished armed forces

When the Boko Haram became better equipped, the Nigerian military went from bad to worse. Gone are the glory days when we were at the forefront of international peace-keeping efforts, only surpassed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. The C.V. of Nigeria single-handedly initiating the ECOMOG (ECOWAS Monitoring Group) and orchestrating peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone is now in a dismal state of disrepair.

When you have a military that specialises in overthrowing civilian governments, you don’t empower it after civilians finally manage to come back to power after 16 years. It is not surprising therefore that the Nigerian military was intentionally starved of funds and diminished since the advent of civilian rule in 1999. As a result, it became a shell of its much-vaunted past. From the height of a 350,000-man army during the 1967-70 Civil War, the Nigerian military now has only about 80,000 men.

The earlier plaudits of the Nigerian army were in fighting conventional wars. But counter-insurgency is something new, requiring new sets of skills, tactics and equipment. Lacking this, the Jonathan administration declared a classical state of emergency in three North-eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, and then embarked on a scorched earth approach. This not only failed to shake an enemy skilled in hide and seek; it went a long way to alienate the local population from the Nigerian army.

Heavy-handed tactics

The Nigerian military has fought against Boko Haram the Nigerian way. Attacks on the innocent; illegal searches and torture; extra-judicial killings; wrongful and indefinite detention of suspects without trial; random burning of homes and farms; and revenge attacks on the innocent. This was a blueprint for losing the war.

As a result, the military alienated the local population it was sworn to protect, making it all the more difficult to fight the insurgency. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International criticised the military for these heavy-handedness and human-rights abuses.

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Western governments would not sell counter-insurgency weapons to Nigeria given the dismal human rights record of the Nigerian army. Indeed, the sale of lethal weapons to Nigeria was specifically prohibited by law in the United Kingdom because of such concerns. A 1997 law also prohibited American forces from working with foreign military units that have been accused of chronic human rights violations.

There was also a problem with sharing highly-sensitive intelligence information with Nigeria because it was widely understood that the Nigerian military included a fifth column of local Boko Haram sympathisers. That meant it could not be trusted to safeguard sensitive information from falling into the hands of the insurgents.

On its part, the Nigerian military is fiercely jealous of its independence and is not very open to giving foreigners access to Nigerian bases. Thus, we rebuffed American requests to base AFRICOM on our soil.

Beginning of the end

Concerning the insurgency, President Jonathan was caught on the horns of a dilemma. He was a South-South president facing re-election in 2015. No Republican has even been elected president of the United States without winning Ohio. No Nigerian can be elected president of Nigeria without getting a substantial number of Northern votes.

This made the handling of the security situation in the North-east a delicate matter for him. Indeed, it put him in a Catch 22 situation. When he declared emergency rule and clamped down on the insurgents in the North, his Northern political opponents accused him of genocide. It did not help that his Chief of Army Staff was from the South-East. Some even threatened to take the matter to the ICJ. But when he soft-pedalled, he was accused of incompetence.

It did not help matters that the three states in the fore-front of the insurgency, Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, were controlled by the opposition APC party. In declaring emergency rule, Jonathan was careful to leave the three APC governors intact, as chief security officers of their states. However, they were still not inclined to cooperate with him and regarded the insurgency as a means to undermine his PDP government.

In as much as it is possible, the Boko Haram were winning the propaganda war against the Nigerian government until Abubakar Shekau had a brainwave in his determination to become the new Osama Bin Laden. “Let us kidnap 300 innocent school-girls in Chibok in one fell swoop and use them to embarrass the Nigerian government.” The kidnapping was the biggest blunder of the Boko Haram, and it marked the beginning of the end of the group.

As a result of the international outcry this has provoked, the Boko Haram were no longer just fighting against the Nigerian army. The whole world became ranged against them. The Americans, the British, the French, the Japanese, the Israelis, the Chinese; everyone lined up behind Nigeria, offering assistance for dealing with the insurgents. The earlier reticence of the Nigerian government to seek outside help, and the reticence of the West to offer assistance vanished.

Undoubtedly, the days of Boko Haram insurgency is now numbered.

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