The War of Words in Borno, By Garba Shehu

Mallam Garba Shehu
Garba Shehu

The President’s long-promised visit to the Boko Haram – ravaged North-East at last took place in the penultimate week. As expected by many, the President went to both Yobe and Borno States and thank God, came out safely. What many did not envisage however, was the political storm that he stirred, ravaging the landscape ever since. Beyond its symbolism, it is difficult to pin-point any success achieved by this two-day visit. Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan as President is not known for mincing his own words. Many would rather credit him with an enormous capacity for mincing his opponents. Little wonder therefore, that the visit did not do anything to soothe the pains and trauma of fellow citizens living with the daily fear of bomb and gun attacks. Instead, Jonathan who clearly made the choice of asserting himself as one hell of a tough leader fouled the sentiments of his hosts. Borno elders have complained that what they got was an affront and a heap of insults.

Professor Nur Alkali was the leader who spoke for his people. After him, the Chairman of Borno Elder Committee declined his speaking opportunity, saying Alkali had spoken their minds.

In that impactful speech, Professor Alkali announced to the President that “this town is full of orphans, fathers and mothers who lost children. Many youths are in detention while some have been incapacitated.

“There is hardly anyone in this meeting,” he continued, “who has not lost a close relation, family member or close friend”.

In presenting their demand for amnesty for the Boko Haram, Professor Alkali said “even if it is one person who came forward to call for peace, he should be received with open arms and reintegrated into the wider society”.

Upon hearing this, reports said the President got angry. He accused the Borno elders of playing to the gallery and thundered thus: “if you elders will not condemn (Boko Haram activities) you will continue to suffer under the terror of Boko Haram” (The Nation on Sunday, Pg.2).

I think the tone of this tough – sounding rhetoric was set against the backdrop of synchronized calls just a day before his trip by the Sultan of Sokoto, Dr. Sa’ad Abubakar and the Northern States Governors Forum with both of them calling for amnesty for the insurgents.

Jonathan’s reply to the Sultan who I must add spoke responsibly by calling for amnesty, was something as polarizing as his own Presidency. Speaking at a town-hall meeting in Yobe State, Dr. Jonathan said: “You cannot declare amnesty for ghosts. Boko Haram still operates like ghosts. So you can’t talk about amnesty for Boko Haram now until you see the people you are discussing with.” Hardly had he finished speaking than did the Bishop of Sokoto, Monsignor Mathew Hassan Kukah and the Muslim Rights Concern, MURIC jumped on the President by asking him to reconsider his tough stance. For them, this insurgency or any other one can be defeated either by force or arms or dialogue. Violence by way of an eye for an eye has shown its severe limitations. But the option of dialogue, as offered by Kukah calls for will, capacity and competence and unless the administration is telling the citizens that it is lacking in these, it cannot claim that dialogue had become impossible because the insurgents are ghostly. Indeed as the youthful Governor of Borno would thoughtfully say thereafter, it is for the authorities to fish-out these ghosts and talk to them.

All over the world, there are methods for dealing with these kinds of situations including this gorilla or urban warfare we are faced with.

In Iraq and now Afghanistan, the United States of America faced insurgency. They fought it hard but after sometimes they engaged in dialogue. Today we are at a point where the U.S. feels they are in a good stead to remove all their troops from Afghanistan by 2014. In Spain, the vicious campaign of insurgency by ETA was brought to a near-end following the search and identification of those to dialogue with. In Northern Ireland, it was the same story. In all these cases, first of all there was the will to end the insurgency. They then evolved capacity to engage and overcome through dialogue. If the will is not present on the part of the administration, the President can only continue to make motion without movement.

President Obasanjo didn’t make any pretenses to finding a peaceful solution to the Niger Delta insurgency. He saw war as the only option and intensified it. President Yar’Adua on the other hand saw the need for dialogue and embarked upon his highly celebrated amnesty programme.

Unless he is clearly uninterested, the President cannot dismiss Boko Haram as mere ghosts. They have leaders who issue statements and even address wired press conferences. A sizeable chunk of the group led by one Abdul-Aziz say they are ready to lay down their arms to negotiate. With all of these, it is amazing to say the least, for the President to say there is no rope to hold onto. Even if the Boko Haram were ghosts as he claims, doesn’t he, as Christian believe in exorcism?

The distinction the President tried to make between the Boko Haram and the Niger Delta militants was to me an inanity. Both of these are insurgencies against the state and they both call for an equal and appropriate response.

In response to the question on his tardiness in visiting Borno and Yobe States, the President made the unbelievable assertion that he had no time.

Some say the President has problems with his erudition and should be forgiven these gaffes. He deserves a benefit of the doubt. My reading of the reaction from Borno and much of the North is that this was a bad, sad, joke on the embattled North and a yet another blot on his Presidency. It is clear by now that this attempt as with many in which the President tries to assert himself in front of victims of violence has backfired. Whenever he spoke like this, it is as if he is asking Nigerians to question why they voted him into office. This was the feeling that greeted his speech in defence of Niger Delta militants in the aftermath of the October 10, 2010 Abuja bombing and the references to Boko Haram terrorists in the government that he runs. He exposes some unwanted street-side ethos. The wicked and the non-challant will say “allow him to self-destruct. When his own political party is not reining him in, who else would do that”? Well, I won’t say that and no patriotic should citizen should say a thing like that. It is the country, not the leader that will pay the price of these at the end of the day.


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