These days, whether you are in London, New York, Berlin or Johannesburg, the debates and discussions on Nigeria are most certainly centered on the rapacious corruption that has eaten deep into the fabric of the nation as well as bad leadership which has turned the country into one rudderless ship unable to navigate its way on the mighty ocean of life. At least these two factors have dominated discussions on Nigeria for a long time until terrorism increased the tally. Now, with a combination of these three afflictions, the country seems to be headed for Golgotha.
Presently, more than 230 school children (their total number is shrouded in controversy) are marooned in an evil forest called Sambisa in Borno State, northeast of Nigeria. The schoolgirls were writing their final year examination, more than a month ago, when terrorists of the Boko Haram terror gang swooped on them in their dormitory at the Government Girls’ College, Chibok, near Maiduguri, capital of Borno State, abducted them and disappeared into thin air. The issue has since become internationalised with people across the globe calling for their release. Not only this. Following the lacklustre performance of the country’s security forces that have, so far, been unable to record a breakthrough in their efforts to free the abducted girls, a good number of countries have offered military assistance to the country to help in freeing the girls.
Even with the presence of military assistance to the country, it thus appears that there is no let-up in the spate of terrorists’ attacks. The attacks have not only been brazen, exposing many chinks in security for which heads should roll, but also, we have witnessed some of the worst attacks in recent times. In the wake of the international outcry that greeted the Chibok abductions, the government finally got down from its perch and took a position. But the current inflow of foreign security assistance and the so-much-mouthed government’s determination to go the whole hog to rescue the abducted girls as well as defeat terrorism is seen not as a comprehensive strategy to combat Boko Haram, but more of a reaction to a situation. It is not something pro-active and well-thought out.
Now that the government has indicated its willingness to act more decisively, it is relying on the security forces especially the military, to make and execute operational plans. That is the job for the military, of course, but the problem with the whole approach is that there is hardly anyone on the civilian side to understand such plans, much less analyse them critically. An operational plan is not just about acting out a script; it is also about assessing how the adversary will react. We must have a fair idea about their reaction. The Boko Haram’s asymmetric advantage is urban terrorism. Its affiliated groups in the northern parts of the country have enormous social penetration. There is no shortage of funds and motivation and they have sympathisers seriously embedded in the population. Besides, operating in the northern part of the country is somewhat easy. Against a determined, superior force, the terrorists will not hold ground. They don’t need to. An operation will also disrupt their lives for a short while, resulting in a reduction of their attacks. But it will be a brief reprieve.
Just like the military, the terrorists also have contingency arrangements. The question is: does the government, including the military, have any plans to disrupt their contingency plans? The application of strategy is like a game of chess. The successful commander is the one who stays ahead of his opponent’s likely moves. Let me be more specific. Once the terrorists are smoked out of the forests of the North, they are likely to react by moving to the major cities. Does the government have the wherewithal to deal with that? It is quite unfortunate that military operations in the last one year have not succeeded in breaking the backbone of the Boko Haram terrorists. This is an important point that needs some clarification.
Military operations have cleared and physically dominated the major cities in the Northeast, thereby pushing the terrorists to the fringes – the border areas. That, in itself, is a success. But it is not the entire story. In the strategic triangle, physical dominance is only one end of the triangle. Any operational success hinges on securing at least two ends of the strategic triangle. In this case, the other ends, socio-psychological and fiscal-economic, have largely remained unoccupied by the government. Add to this the fact that the reprisals have come in the urban centres, including Abuja and last Sunday, in Kano, we then have a situation in which it looks as if the military operations have ended up doing nothing.
It is as if the government has been reading the intentions and the ideology of the enemy wrongly, and many presume that these terrorists are merely reacting to a situation. While it is correct to say that the situation has given them a fillip, their motives and motivations are selfish and stupid. That is very clear from their statements, videos, and other materials available for anyone interested in constructing their narrative. Even so, in making one point, they are right, notwithstanding whether the point is made crudely or unwittingly. Thus far, we have been looking at the problem like the blind men figuring out an elephant. Fighting terrorism (or regular and irregular wars) is not a function of military operations alone. It requires the employment of the full resources of a country.
What does this mean? It means many things. Most of all, it has to do with dealing with the whole rather than just the parts. Take urban terrorism, the preferred operational space of the enemy. The threat has to be handled through efficient counterterrorism strategies. That presupposes an effective police force and a transparent and functional criminal justice system. As for the police and its counterterrorism function, it is sad to note that the government has no plan to improve its capacity. There are other important aspects of counterterrorism, which, funnily enough, are about the enforcement of everyday laws rather than any James Bond activity. The country needs an effective security policy. Improving the capacity of the police must go beyond a narrow definition of security and, by implication, a counterterrorism strategy. The point is that counterterrorism is not an isolated activity. It is woven in the warp and woof of a country’s laws, and presumes that a country can effectively enforce those laws at all levels. Effective enforcement presupposes that state functionaries are aware of the threat of keeping any activity under the radar. This includes those who do not have any direct affiliation with a uniformed force.
Dealing with our internal threat is not about kneejerk reactions. It requires a policy and a sustained effort. How? First, there must be a clear understanding and acceptance of the fact that we face a threat. If that requires a declaration, let there be one. Let the country say that Boko Haram and its affiliated groups, regardless of where they might be located, are enemies of Nigeria, and the country will not rest easy until it has rid itself of this threat. This would mean knowing that we are now in a state of internal emergency. Doing so would mean subjecting the political visage of these groups under laws relating to terrorism. Such an emergency will give the country the authority to track communication. Furthermore, government officials found involved in any activity that helps keep anyone below the radar must be dealt with as accomplices.
Nigeria’s problem is not just terrorism. In fact, terrorism is the byproduct of an extremist mindset which has seeped into some sections of the population. If the country wants to fight and win, it does not just have to deal with the terrorists but also with a mindset. In that, our existential threat is very different from that facing other countries. We sowed the wind; we now have to either reap the whirlwind or do something about it. Simplicita!
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