Not accepting to negotiate with Boko Haram could hurt Buhari, By Garba Shehu

I am not at all surprised that controversy continues to trail the decision of Boko Haram to nominate former Military Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari, as one of their representatives in talks with the Nigerian government, and his not so surprising decision to spurn the invitation. I respect General Buhari’s decision not to represent Boko Haram. That however does not make it the right decision on the matter. I don’t read crystal balls. But this unwise decision will return to hurt Buhari as leader and politician as did an earlier mistake he made in reaction to a false and malicious news report.

In that report in question, a ThisDay reporter in Sokoto, Ahmed Oyerinde, now late, wrote a story wrongly translating the General’s speech delivered in Hausa. Oyerinde’s ThisDay report had quoted Buhari as saying Muslims must not vote for Christians in the elections in the then approaching 2003 elections. Ahmed Oyerinde was a reckless reporter. May Allah forgive his soul. I had always believed that he was influenced by money to write his stories.

In 1990, the Nigerian Press Council, of which I was council member, assigned me to go to Sokoto to investigate a complaint by the then Military Administrator, Colonel Yakubu Mu’azu that Ahmed Oyerinde’s reports were often false and mischievous.

The Sokoto state government at the time was concerned that those reports, if they continued that way, could breach public peace. My report to the commission was more or less a confirmation of those fears. For Ahmed, I left an important message: that journalism is already a dangerous profession, perhaps as dangerous as any minefield, but that it is made even more dangerous by malicious reporting. I was convinced, as I left him that day, that he listened and would heed my counsel. I thus did not hear much of him until the Buhari’s “don’t-vote-for-Christians” story.

When I read that story, my instinct told me that Buhari could not have said that but that even if he did, it was a mistake. I thought at that time, that he needed to clarify or disown the statement. I reached a former Buhari aide who was in the United Kingdom, U.K. at the time of his boss’s monumental gaffe. I told him that if this was left uncorrected, the statement would in future hurt Buhari. He agreed and met his boss the following weekend. The General’s reaction was more or less like, “Why bother? You know the media. Let them write whatever they want.”

At the time of this incident, General Buhari had no plans to join politics or aspire to be President. At least, this was not to public knowledge even if he harboured any such aspiration. Looking at all that has happened from the time he chose to dive into the murky waters of politics to his repeated contest for the Presidency, terrible misrepresentation of his speech continues to be the single most important threat to Buhari’s bid for the Presidency of this country.

The Boko Haram negotiation is a dirty job. I agree with his political associates in his party, the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, that the invitation to their leader was suspicious. One, it may have had the hand of government behind it. This government can at times be very unscrupulous and mischievous. They can use this as a ploy to make a mockery of, and decapitate Buhari, politically speaking but the entire political leadership of Northern Nigeria. President Jonathan’s political associates, particularly their tribal leadership under Chief Edwin Clark have always seemed desperate to malign Northern political leaders. To add credence to these suspicion, their Facebook and Twitter handles have since gone haywire accusing Buhari of being a member of Boko Haram. Some said with an air of false relief that Buhari had been exposed and the “mask has fallen off the face of the masquerade”.

The second assumption I make of this invitation to Buhari is that the politicians (this does not exclude the government) opposing him wanted him to be tested, and to possibly fail walking the tight rope. As negotiator for one of the two sides, Buhari must proceed very cautiously to avoid either of two equally bad situations.

Personally, I don’t think the challenge of maintaining this balance should pose a problem that would make him reject the invitation to negotiate on behalf of one of the parties. Buhari should have thought of the people, not the opposition PDP. Of course, I lack the competence to question the patriotism of someone whose record is impeccable in that regard. Buhari joined the army to die for the nation. In addition, he participated in coups believing he and his colleagues could save the country. His leadership of the military government was underlined by sheer patriotism since Buhari is not known to covet personal wealth.

Based on this, the former military leader should have answered the call of patriotism and accepted this invitation. My reason for saying this is simple. If, as he said, he can’t represent the Boko Haram because he didn’t know them; he didn’t believe in their cause and struggle and he did not know any member of the sect, how does our situation get better by his rejecting their overture? When faceless kidnappers take away a dear one as they commonly do, the police and security services always see an opportunity when they make demands. Many syndicates have been smashed as kidnappers come forward to take ransom money. Couldn’t Buhari have given them a bait or laid in ambush so that at least, the state can have the benefit of knowing who really is behind the vicious atrocities being carried out daily against innocent Nigerians?

These daily attacks on security personnel, government officials, churches and even mosques aren’t attacks against the government of Goodluck Jonathan, which Buhari swore he would not serve. Jonathan lives in a fortified mansion, the Aso Rock where the sounds of bomb blasts do not reach. Rather, the loss is all ours. In particular, the losses so far are more for the Northern population – Christian, Muslim and their economy – who together with the rest of the country are big time losers.

Opposition to views such as those represented by Buhari will continue to be negative and irresponsible. The Jonathan government will not stop associating him and other Northern leaders with violence, even now that he has declined to represent Boko Haram. On television on Wednesday night, I watched an assistant to the President, Dr. Doyin Okupe, saying Buhari cannot escape criticism for the Boko Haram insurgency because he (and others he didn’t mention) preached violence in our politics. The question the Buhari camp ought to ask Okupe is this: assuming Buhari preached violence and the government Okupe works for is being accused by its officials and foreign observers of killing its own people, which one is worse?

The dazzling new Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Professor Chidi Odinkalu who is a foremost human rights advocate on the continent (not just in Nigeria), said to the government that the police were killing thousands of Nigerians extra-judicially. For this reason, the board Odinkalu leads has been left comatose (after its members were clearance by the Senate) because neither the Secretary to the Federal Government nor the Attorney-General of the Federation was willing to inaugurate it. But the most serious indictment was made by the Amnesty International, which in its latest report, indicted both the Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram of the same crimes.

In terms of responsibility, where does Okupe and his government think this will end? Do they think the responsibility for these killings lays with police DPOs and Army field commanders, and no implications for the Commander-in-Chief?

Tell me who is worse among the two: the one who preaches violence or the government that goes on killing its own people? Buhari should accept to serve. It is not late to change his position at this time. I’m no prophet, but I see this one coming back to haunt him as did his other actions that were not properly thought through.

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