By Carl Unegbu
Nigeria is in crisis again. This time the problem is Boko Haram, a shadowy Islamist terrorist group, whose increasingly bloody attacks in Nigeria since 2009 have, by conservative estimates, killed more than 2,000. Recently its attacks have grown larger and more complex—highlighted by its August bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja, the nation’s capital. The group, which views all things Western as evil, has the stated objective of turning the entire country into an Islamic state. The group’s ideology highlights the deep religious divide within Nigeria, a country evenly split between the largely Christian South and the Muslim-dominated North.
Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has described this particular national security crisis as the country’s worst since its civil war, a bloody 30-month episode that ended in 1970 and killed over a million. Indeed, there is widespread fear that the current violence could lead the country into another domestic conflict. Nigeria, a country with a history of crises, must not follow the pattern of indecision that has plagued the country and its government in the past—the Jonathan government must act swiftly and decisively in order to defeat Boko Haram and to restore peace to the country.
Recently, Jonathan made a statement confirming the worst suspicions of many Nigerians: that Boko Haram has sympathizers in all branches of the national government, including his own cabinet and the security forces. Jonathan’s striking admission seems to be true. Not long after his statement, the country’s police chief was fired after the presumed mastermind of the deadly Christmas Day bombing at a Catholic Church in Madalla, which killed scores of people, escaped from police custody under very questionable circumstances. Further down the chain of command, the local police boss closer to the zone of action, Zakari Biu, was relieved of his duties and reportedly arrested for suspected complicity in that same affair. (The suspect, Kabiru Sokoto, was re-arrested in early February.) Further, Mohamed Ali Ndume, a Northern Muslim and an influential senator from the ruling party, was put on trial for tacitly supporting Boko Haram.
Despite the fact that these individuals are all Northern Muslims, Jonathan’s government has taken pains to avoid classifying the problem as a Muslim-Christian schism. Yet most Nigerians, especially those from the South, perceive the crisis precisely in that light. And the prevailing sentiment in Nigeria is that the election of Jonathan, a Southern Christian, as the president in 2010 was an event that provoked a groundswell of resentment and feelings of disenfranchisement in the North.
Recently, the government caught an unexpected break in the crisis. In early February, the country’s security forces captured Abul Qaqa, the formerly elusive and highly influential spokesman of Boko Haram, in his home in the northern city of Kaduna. The arrest has given Jonathan’s government a huge opportunity to conduct a very thorough investigation into the locus of control of the group and to gather valuable intelligence that helped identify and punish its behind-the-scenes collaborators, especially those in government.
Yet almost immediately after the capture, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), the umbrella group of the Northern political elite, came out and offered to broker a negotiated solution between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government. The ACF called on the government to guarantee the safety and freedom of the terrorists as a precondition for the negotiation. Their proposal amounts to asking Nigeria to negotiate on equal terms with murderous terrorists at a moment when the government has scored a huge battlefield victory and is in position to deal a serious blow to the terror group and its network of collaborators. Simply put, a brokered negotiation premised on amnesty for Boko Haram is an inappropriate course of action—one that puts the rights of the terrorists above the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens.
It is revealing that the ACF has said nothing about the need for an investigation that could unmask the backers of the terrorist organization and help the government shut down the network. From a public relations standpoint, the ACF has done itself no favors at all, especially when most Southerners and Christians around the country already seem to believe that Northern Muslims, led by their political elite, either founded or tacitly support Boko Haram.
For all its seeming counter-intuitiveness, the ACF approach represents a rather familiar path in Nigeria’s history of crisis management. It amounts to the same old “let peace be” approach, predicated on the notion that to ask tough questions in a crisis, or to take harsh measures in the prosecution of lawbreakers, would somehow involve stepping on sensitive toes and thereby vastly inflame the situation. As a matter of judgment, this entire approach amounts to no more than a craven appeasement of the forces of impunity in the country.
A case in point here is the decade-old Christian-Muslim clashes in the city of Jos in central Nigeria, which has cost thousands of lives. Here, the government quite simply glossed over the recommendations of inquiry panels that investigated the clashes, and simply moved on, as it does with each crisis involving the breakdown of law and order.
Yet the staggering failure of this approach to national crises is that acts of violence and lawlessness are often repeated in the future because neither the underlying causes of the problems nor the known and knowable perpetrators are ever effectively dealt with. In the prevailing climate of recurring crises, the much-touted objectives of peace, national unity, and stability inevitably prove elusive, resulting in the loss of many lives. The Nigerian government has never learned its lessons and has never taken effective deterrent action. Most shamefully, Nigerian authorities wind up doing the same thing each time, expecting a different result—the very definition of insanity.
Now, the Jonathan government has a golden opportunity to act decisively, as any effective government should, if for no other reason than the rather grave national implications of the matter. Having admitted that the Boko Haram crisis is the worst since the country’s deadly civil war, it is obvious that this is not an issue the Nigerian government can afford to ignore—again.
Carl Unegbu is a Nigerian-born American lawyer and journalist. He is co-president and managing editor at ComedyBeat.com.
[Photo courtesy of the United Nations Development Program]