Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1150, 29 May - 5 June 2013
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1150, 29 May - 5 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

Outing the Islamists

Gamal Nkrumah notes that at last Nigerian government forces appear to have the upper hand in their fight with militant Islamists — but is this the answer to Africa’s most populous nation when the social implications of military action are dead serious?

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Al-Ahram Weekly

NIGERIA’S KNEE JERKS: Not much has gone right recently for Nigeria. For more than a decade, the Nigerian government seemed to be stuck in a gridlock as far as the country’s militant Islamists are concerned. After years of slow progress in bringing the militant Islamist Boko Haram militias to book, the Nigerian military this week launched its offensive in three northeastern Nigerian, predominantly Muslim states — Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.

Cudgels and compassion have both a place in the current Nigerian political and ideological crisis. Behind the Nigerian military assault on militant Islamists lies another, age-old tussle — that between those for whom social problems, including Islamist militancy, are invariably a byproduct of poverty and inequality and those who blame the spread of fanatical religious militancy inspired by international militant Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda. All this in Nigeria is knotted up. While many in Nigeria and abroad believe that retribution is justified, others note that the Nigerian government forces assault on militant Islamist strongholds is going too far.

“In Nigeria, too few have too much; too many have too little,” the internationally respected African-American civil rights leader and Baptist minister, Reverend Jesse Jackson, a two-time US presidential candidate, was quoted as saying during a visit to Nigeria this week. He urged his Nigerian hosts to learn from the American experience of dealing with social unrest and social injustice. Whether the American example is one to emulate is questionable.

Speaking in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State on Friday, Jackson warned that Nigeria “is divided, not so much by religion, region and tribe but by greed”. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three north-eastern states last week to quell the insurgency by the Boko Haram group. An estimated 2,000 elite troops were deployed in Nigeria’s restive and impoverished northeast region last week, in the biggest campaign to date against the Islamist militants. Jackson, who was a guest speaker at a lecture organised by the state government as part of activities marking the 2013 edition of Isaac Boro memorial anniversary, explained that if properly handled, the amnesty programme would tackle insecurity in the country. Jackson applauded the decision by Nigeria’s President Jonathan to offer amnesty to members of the militant Islamist sect Boko Haram. “The amnesty must involve economic restitution, jobs and training. Within the United States, when there was civil unrest, there was a kind of state of emergency,” Jackson told his Nigerian hosts.

Honesty, as the cliché goes, is the best policy. Jackson stressed that the use of force and unfair collective punishment is untenable. “I hope the country will soon get back away from the battlefield and get to the negotiation table. In the end, it will be the bargaining table, not the battlefield, that wins victory. You cannot battle forever,” he argued.

“You can bargain and resolve the conflict in the North. That is why l believe so much in non-violence. Non-violence does not mean fear, but courage and thinking, and it means the ability to figure it out and fight it out. You must have the ability to resolve conflict, and not fight aggressively. It must not resort into killing and being killed.”

Some of Jackson’s listeners in the audience take with a pinch of salt the amnesty offer. Many Nigerians, both Christian and Muslim disapprove of the excessive violence.

“The whole amnesty idea to many observers bordered on the line of insanity and inanity,” postulated Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian visual artist, photographer and writer whose poignant commentaries have appeared in The New York Times and Washington Post. “A previously proposed panacea to the madness was the proffering of amnesty to Boko Haram members by the federal government, which it has so far refused,” Ehikhamenor said.

 

TIME TO STOP KICKING THE CAN: Support for Boko Haram often came from the most unexpected quarters. The chairman of Abia State Chapter of the influential Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the presiding Bishop of Glorious Life Gospel Centre in the southern Nigerian metropolis of Aba, Reverend Goddy Okafor, on Sunday called on the Boko Haram sect to take legal action against Nigeria to redress whatever their grievances are against the country rather than resorting to violence.

According to Punch, Nigeria’s most widely read daily senior special assistant to the president on public affairs, Doyin Okupe, relayed President Jonathan’s statement on Sunday in which he expressed gratitude to the Nigerian nation for standing by his side in this most defining of moments for Nigeria. “President Goodluck Jonathan has expressed gratitude to all Nigerians for the overwhelming support they have given to the declaration of state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. The president also thanked the leadership of the National Assembly and many of its members who have through calls and personal visitations, given solidarity and support for this extraordinary step taken by the president in order to halt the mindless killings, bombings and general insecurity that had prevailed in that part of the country,” the Nigerian presidential statement read.

“The president also notes with gratification the positive disposition and understanding of the governors of the federation, especially the Northern Governors Forum, Leaders and Elders in the North, traditional rulers, religious leaders, cultural and political groups nationwide, including opposition political parties, civil society organisations and the media. The president also notes that the efforts of the Armed Forces have already started yielding positive results, as available information confirm that the insurgents have been dislodged from their previous safe havens and camps, while many have been apprehended, and their activities in the affected states have been brought to a total halt,” Okupe declared.

Meanwhile, according to another influential Nigerian daily The Guardian, citing improvement in the security situation in Nigeria’s northeastern region, Governor Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe State — one of the most troubled states where militant Islamists are particularly assertive — on Monday relaxed the curfew imposed in the state, one of Nigeria’s poorest, by two hours daily. There was an alternative to violence, the paper reasoned. In similar fashion, The Guardian reported that the Nigeria military on Monday began a three-day meeting in Abuja with representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), media and paramilitary services towards achieving a common course in national security operations.

A rising chorus of international and domestic Nigerian human rights activists is increasingly sympathetic to the Boko Haram perspective. That does not mean, however, that they are taking the Boko Haram line. Amnesty International in its recently released report on the escalating violence in Nigeria, accused the country’s security forces of carrying out widespread abuses in their campaign against Boko Haram, including “extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture”.

The brewing storm in Nigeria’s predominantly northern states reflects the gritty realities of the region. The stakes are extremely high. “In the name of ending Boko Haram’s threat to Nigeria’s citizens, government security forces have responded with a heavy hand. In 2012, security agents killed hundreds of suspected members of the group or residents of communities where attacks occurred. Nigerian authorities also arrested hundreds of people during raids across the north. Many of those detained were held incommunicado without charge or trial, in some cases in inhuman conditions. Some were physically abused — others disappeared or died in detention. These abuses in turn helped further fuel the group’s campaign of violence,” the 2013 Human Rights Watch report extrapolated.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch was as candid as ever. The organisation’s report ended on an ominous and sombre note. “The failure of Nigeria’s government to address the widespread poverty, corruption, police abuse, and longstanding impunity for a range of crimes has created a fertile ground for violent militancy. Since the end of military rule in 1999, more than 18,000 people have died in inter-communal, political and sectarian violence.”

The London-based Amnesty International has been equally scathing of the Nigerian authorities handling of the crisis. In a report released last November and notoriously entitled “Nigeria: Trapped in the cycle of violence”, Amnesty highlighted grave human rights violations perpetuated by Boko Haram.

“The cycle of attack and counter-attack has been marked by unlawful violence on both sides, with devastating consequences for the human rights of those trapped in the middle,” disclosed Secretary-General of Amnesty International Salil Shetty. “People are living in a climate of fear and insecurity, vulnerable to attack from Boko Haram and facing human rights violations at the hands of the very state security forces which should be protecting them.”

 

RAINY SEASON’S RESPITE: The season of torrential rains in northern Nigeria has barely begun. This is partly why political spectators see the timing of the Nigerian government forces’ incursions into northern Nigeria to contain the militant Islamist threat are crucial. Thousands of residents of Baga in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, remain displaced for fear of further clashes breaking out between Boko Haram and troops from the Nigeria-Niger-Chad Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF). An estimated 2,275 homes were destroyed in fires, and a further 125 severely damaged, according to satellite images released by Human Rights Watch.

The Sahelian region surrounding Lake Chad and that includes northeastern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, southwestern Chad and eastern Niger is a flashpoint of militant Islamist insurgency. And, that was precisely why MNJTF was created. According to IRIN, the United Nations’ humanitarian news and analysis service of the global organisation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, heavy fighting broke out in Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad, between MNJTF and Boko Haram on 16 April, causing fire to break out and sweep through the neighbourhoods of Pampon Gaja-Gaja, Fulatari and Budumari. The Nigerian Red Cross estimated 187 people died in the fire and fighting, but the military dispute these figures, insisting only 37 people, including 30 Islamists, six civilians and a soldier, were killed. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is investigating the matter.

“Special Forces troops have continued the advance and attack on identified terrorist camps in the northern part of the country,” military spokesman Brigadier General Christopher Olukolade said in a statement on Monday.

Even so, there has been no independent confirmation of what the army has said. The military has also recaptured five areas from the militants, Olukolade added. The Nigerian army has revealed that it is also sending an extra 1,000 troops to Adamawa state, bordering Cameroon. And, there are fears that the Boko Haram insurgency will spill over into neighbouring states as the Nigerian authorities step up their pursuit of the militant Islamists in Nigeria itself.

Officials in Nigeria have disclosed that some 2,000 people have fled to neighbouring Niger, while more have crossed into Cameroon and Chad, since the Nigerian military launched its offensive in the states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe last week.

Militants fleeing towards neighbouring Chad and Niger are being “contained”, Olukolade noted.

“Advancing troops also observed a few shallow graves believed to be those of hurriedly buried members of the terrorist groups,” he added. “Patrols are also ongoing to secure towns and villages from infiltration, while curfews on identified flash points are being enforced,” Olukolade expounded.

Brigadier General Olukolade said the 120 militants who were arrested were being interrogated, bringing to more than 200 the number of Islamists the army says it has arrested since last week. The militants were seized as they were preparing for the funeral of a commander killed in a battle with government troops, Olukolade added.

Nigeria’s Commissioner of Police Chris Olakpe concurred, stating that the police were not leaving anything to chance in the bid to ensure that terrorists fleeing from Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states, did not find a safe haven in Plateau. “We are beefing up security and all the security agencies in Plateau are cooperating to ensure that the state is kept safe. You know that a state of emergency was declared in three states and Plateau escaped because intelligence report had indicated that the state was relatively safe,” Olakpe extrapolated.

Yet, Boko Haram appears relentless in its pursuit of establishing an Islamic Emirate in northern Nigeria. The sect has carried out a wave of bombings and assassinations since 2009, saying it wants to establish an Islamic state across Nigeria. The ICC has indicated that both Boko Haram and the Nigerian authorities were to blame for the escalating conflict.

IRIN, the award-winning humanitarian news and analysis service has consistently linked the violence with desertification and the resultant lack of food security in the region. “Academics and government, military and civil society representatives gathered for a conference in the Senegalese capital this week to assess the interplay between development and violent extremism in West Africa, with some participants suggesting that underdevelopment, marginalisation and weak governance create a breeding ground for militancy,” a recent IRIN report suggested.

Militant Islamists insurgency and contagion is, therefore, clearly linked to rapidly deteriorating environmental factors. Governments in West Africa such as Mali and Nigeria are behaving according to the philosophy of fear of fear itself. They are not seriously tackling development concerns on the pretext that they lack resources — both financial and in terms of logistics and technical expertise. Meanwhile, militant Islamist militias are mushrooming across huge swathes of the Sahelian belt straddling the southern reaches of the Sahara Desert. A second Islamist group, Ansaru, joined the insurgency in 2012, taking foreigners hostage. It is not clear, however, how closely coordinated Ansaru is with Boko Haram.

 

INTERNATIONAL INPUT: The hazardous course charted by West African governments, and especially Mali’s and Nigeria’s are causing acute discomfort in Western capitals, Washington not excluded. US Secretary of State John Kerry has urged the Nigerian army to show restraint and not violate human rights as it pursues the militants. Yet Kerry’s kill-or-cure tactics do not go down particularly well with West African leaders.

Profoundly enough, Kerry declared that there were “credible allegations” of “gross human rights violations” by the Nigerian military. The Nigerian government is fairly immune to such criticisms. It understands that 20 per cent of America now comes from African nations, such as Nigeria itself. So are sects like Boko Haram bogeymen?

US President Barack Obama, in his planned second visit to Africa, is scheduled to travel to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania from 26 June to 3 July, the White House disclosed this week. Nigeria does not feature on his itinerary. So far Obama has only been to one sub-Saharan African country since becoming president — Ghana, Nigeria’s much smaller neighbour, in July 2009. Obama has stressed on several occasions that Nigeria could easily become the world’s next economic success story, but only if it masters the art of good government.

Obama described Nigeria as a strategic centre of gravity, stressing that the country’s success will as well be Africa’s success if the US can help Nigeria chart a secured, prosperous and democratic course. Ironically, Obama made the statements at the ongoing US-Nigeria Trade and Investment Forum, organised by the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation currently taking place in Washington DC. Yet, curiously he did not show up in person. He was represented instead by Ambassador Eunice Reddick, a top official of the US Department.

Yet, another snub to Nigeria? Not quite. Obama did have words of encouragement for the country. “Some key outcomes of the Binational Commission so far have been successful integration of civil society into the electoral process prior to the 2011 elections, sustained and elevated dialogue with energy sector officials on energy policy, reforms to increase investment, and agreement to support the development of a civil affairs training centre in the coming year,” Obama was quoted as saying.

In a related development, the Police and Special Task Force in Plateau have put their operatives in Jos, the state capital, on high alert following reports that members of Boko Haram, fleeing from military onslaught in Borno State have been sighted in Bauchi and other neighbouring states. The conflict in northern Nigeria is contagious, indeed. There was high presence of riot policemen as well as increased security checkpoints in Jos and Bukuru metropolis throughout the week. The Nigerian military has disclosed that its soldiers had come across a large number of heavily “armed terrorists” since Saturday.

There are fears that Nigeria’s innocent bystanders, including Christians in the northern reaches of the country, will be drawn in a war not of their making. Already thousands of Christians had been caught in the crossfire between Boko Haram, Ansaru and Nigerian government forces. More than 2,000 people have died in violence in Nigeria since 2010, most of which is blamed on Boko Haram. The irony is that the inhabitants of resource-rich oil producers have more often than not, a much diminished status. That is why they have been at each others’ throats. Northern Nigeria is not particularly well-endowed with Nature’s bounty. The Nigerian politicians’ smugness over the plight of their people exacerbates matters.

“Some powerful nations on earth decided to themselves that an Islamised Nigeria, in her position, mumbled, will be difficult to manage and therefore they think it will be best for the country to break up into pieces,” former federal permanent secretary, governor of Anambra State, and presidential adviser, Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife was quoted as saying in the Nigerian daily Vanguard. “And we don’t want risking the radicalisation of western [Nigeria’s] Muslims who are the best examples of how to live with different religions,” he stressed. “My view is that Nigeria must remain a permanent Nigeria. But there are things that must be done to make it permanent,” Ezeife pontificated alluding to the unity and territorial integrity of Nigeria in its present multi-ethnic, multi-religious diversity. “Any thing geo-religious is dangerous for us,” Chief Ezeife aptly summed up.

To prove his detractors wrong, Nigerian President Jonathan must demonstrate that he is capable of the more pragmatic approach needed for the messy business of weeding out extremism. With a bit more bravery he could transform not just northern Nigeria’s deplorable security situation, but that of the entire country.

 

ANOTHER NIGERIAN: Years ago, 25 December 2009 to be precise, a young Nigerian man by the name of Omar Farouk Abdul-Muttaleb concealed plastic explosives in his underwear in an attempt to explode Northwest Airlines Flight 253 that left from Amsterdam Schipol Airport, the Netherlands, on its way to Detriot, the United States. The so-called “Christmas Day bomber” failed to detonate the explosives and no one aboard was killed. Sadly, this was not the case with yet another Nigerian, Michael Adebolajo, succeeded in hacking to death and beheading a British soldier Lee Rigby near the Royal Artillery Barracks in the London district of Woolwich. “Muslims are dying daily,” Adebolajo exonerated himself.

The unfortunate incident is a wake-up call for decision-makers in Nigeria and Britain. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Adebolajo was quoted as saying. He, like Abdul-Muttaled, was influenced by militant Islamist preachers with known links to Al-Qaeda. So why is there this predilection by disgruntled Nigerian youth who espouse terrorism in the name of Islam?

There are two motives at work. The first is to wind back time to before Nigerians started to participate in terrorist activities in their own country and abroad. There are no magic solutions for combating terrorism. The weird reality about the Woolwich incident is that Adebolajo was born to devout Christian parents and converted to Islam and became so to speak more Catholic than the Pope. The British and Kenyan authorities confirmed that he visited Kenya in because he wanted to volunteer as a jihadist fighter with the militant Islamist militia Al-Shabab.

Indeed, Britain is reviewing its entire terrorism policy in light of the latest developments. The young Muslim recruits to militant Islamist groups are to come under intense scrutiny. The gruesome murder of a British soldier sparked soul-searching on Nigerian militant Islam. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by ignoring Nigeria. Seriously, who is stoking trouble?

 

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