In the light of the fear by Western critics that Nigeria’s Boko Haram militant sect can become a new link in the wider al-Qaeda chain, Abiodun Awolaja looks at what the dialogue option portends for the country in view of current events.
THE bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja by members of the outlawed Boko Haram sect on Friday, August 26, has, once again, raised concerns on the Federal Government’s handling of the insurgent group. Critics who feel that a much less confrontational approach might turn out to be the beginning of the hitherto elusive solution to the menace posed by the group have been quite categorical in their criticism of what is thought to be the Federal Government’s hard line posture against the group, which has insisted that it will not submit to secular authority, while giving options which are clearly at variance with government’s expectations.
Sequel to the UN House bombing, the Department of State Security Services (SSS) arrested two of the alleged Boko Haram kingpins, Babagana Mali and Babagana Kwaljima, while declaring another suspect, Mohammed Nur, wanted in connection with the crime. Further, President Goodluck Jonathan, speaking at the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) headquarters in Abuja last week, vowed to crush terror groups, saying that the new automated driver’s licence launched by the commission would assist the Federal Government in the fight against terrorism, since suicide bombers were increasingly established to have founds cars attractive in carrying out their attacks. The import of the president’s statement was that an enhanced and updated driver’s databank would help the government in tracking down terrorists, since the vehicles used by the suicide bombers would be used to trace them.
Again, following the Presidency’s establishment of intelligence failure as being responsible for last Friday’s attack, which is coming on the heels of the recent bombing on the Nigeria Police Force Headquarters, Abuja, the police came up with an excuse as to why the latest suicide bomber was not shot before detonating the bomb that left about 23 people dead and many seriously injured.
The Federal Capital Territory (FCT) police commissioner, Mike Zuokumor, while briefing journalists after a joint security meeting chaired by the FCT Minsiter, Senator Bala Mohammed, last Monday, said that the police did not shoot at the suicide bomber simply because the use of firearms was prohibited in diplomatic zones. Zuokumor, who observed that security had subsequently been tightened at all the foreign missions in the FCT, the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport and other places considered as flashpoints, noted that the police headquarters had begun retraining of its personnel to meet the new challenge posed by the bombing of a diplomatic community.
“What happened at the UN building is the action of a terrorist, a suicide bomber, and that is why the FCT decided to partner with the police to make sure that we provide all the infrastructure in the FCT. Most of the embassies are being guarded by security personnel, and the airport is being strengthened with security personnel,’’ he said. Naturally, neither the FCT administration nor the police headquarters was thinking in the line of a ‘’peaceful’’ approach to the terrorist group.
In the same vein, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Hafiz Ringim, said, last Monday, that some suspects had been arrested in connection with the UN building bombing. While declining to give further details in an apparent effort to guard against jeopardising investigations and fuelling public scrutiny, Ringim assured that the president would make a pronouncement on the arrest in due course.
In “Al-Qaeda franchise: The Nigerian case,’’ an analyst, Professor Paul Rogers of the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, provided a context for Western fears about the activities of the Boko Haram sect, which is said to have a link with the infamous al-Qaeda group. In his words: “Boko Haram frequently resorts to brutal tactics. But the actions of the Nigerian security forces, especially the Army, arguably fuels its operations. Amnesty International estimates that more than 140 people have been killed since January 2011, many of them in operations that amount to a ‘shoot first, ask questions afterwards’ policy.
“ Violence has escalated in the past month, with thousands of people fleeing to try and avoid the conflict. The army’s actions have included burning a market and shooting dead a woman, the sort of low-level but destructive incidents that (as in this case) often provoke vigorous public protest.’’
Thus, in Rogers’considered view, Nigeria’s tough and uncompromising official policy can be seen as contributing to, rather than curbing, Boko Haram’s growth, since many Western security officials are concerned that it will become a regional phenomenon, and a new link in the wider al-Qaeda chain.
“That may be overplayed, but what the arc of Boko Haram does show is that radical Islamist paramilitary groups can develop unexpectedly and rapidly. This is one more argument that al-Qaeda, as a decentred network, rather than a centralised movement, still has much life in it.’’
Indeed, within the Nigerian polity itself, recriminations have trailed the handling of the Boko Haram group by the police. As noted by an analyst, Oladipupo Oluwole, if the Nigerian judicial system of arbitration had been allowed to take its normal course, after Yusuf Mohammed, Boko Haram’s late ruler, was arrested in 2009, the Nigerian populace might have been availed the opportunity of listening to the other side.
According to him, “In 2009, the Nigerian security agencies made a great mistake, the consequences of which we are witnessing today, when an extrajudicial means was allegedly employed to kill the leader of the Boko Haram group, after he had been arrested by the Nigerian military and handed over to the police. A similar fate, according to information, befell members of his immediate and extended families, close associates and members of his group. And despite the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s assurances of bringing the culprits of the dastardly act to book, nothing was heard of the matter again. But maybe something will be done soon.
“In essence, then, for every single innocent blood shed, there will always be a resounding cry for justice, no matter how long it takes.’’
However, exploring the peace/dialogue option presents its own stretch of paradoxes. For one, analysts on the other side of the equation contend that it would be foolhardy of the Federal Government to engage in dialogue with a faceless group. Among others, the following questions might prove disturbing: What issues is the sect agitating for, particularly as, in the case of the Niger Delta militants, the issues (environmental degradation, exploitation, official neglect, etc) were clearly spelt out? How can the Federal Government be certain that it is negotiating with the right people, if it agrees to negotiate with members of the Boko Haram sect? If dialogue options are muted or even proclaimed as the government’s panacea to the menace, can fraudsters with strong connections to the country’s high towers not take advantage of the Federal Government’s gesture and collect whatever settlement (in monetary terms) it is willing to offer, while the business of Boko Haram criminality goes on unfettered?
It is argued that if the sect is willing to shift ground, then the Federal Government might profitaby dialogue with it. To this school of thought, members of the Boko Haram sect and/or their leaders need to come out in the open and demonstrate the extent to which they are willing to strike a compromise with the government, which would determine whether a deal can be struck, and precisely in what terms. This is especially in the context of the fact that apologies by the incumbent Borno State governor, Kashim Shettima, or his predecessor, Modu Ali Sheriff, only served to further incense members of the sect and to fuel unrealistic demands.
In the final analysis, then, this is perhaps the appropriate time for the Federal Government to demonstrate that it, too, can strike, and rout the group. If the government delivers the sect a very huge blow like it did the Niger Delta militants shortly before they finally agreed to a ceasefire, then progress could thereafter be made in dialogue terms. Until then, Western al-Qaeda fears notwithstanding, an uncritical dialogue option might prove disastrous for the country.