Sharing my thoughts and putting my message accross
Nigerian readers will need no recap to understand what Boko Haram stands for. It is a phenomenon that trails the daily lives of individuals like a psychological shadow stretching over the entire country from Maiduguri. Yet for the sake of non-Nigerians it will suffice to explain that Boko Haram is a northern Nigerian group of jihadist militants whose violent campaign with heavy assault weapons came to public attention on July 26, 2009 with a raging attack on a police station in Bauchi, northern Nigeria. The violence which spread one day later, to other northern cities namely Maiduguri, Potiskum and Wudil with attacks on police stations and destruction of public properties culminated in the arrest of the group’s leader. He was eventually killed in police custody under extremely questionable extra-judicial circumstances resulting in the interim reinstatement of law and order. It all happened in 2009.
Further trouble brewed however in the wake of the power tussle that followed the incapacitation and eventual demise of Nigeria’s President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2010. The ethnic and regional balance of power that political forces sought to foster on the nation by advocating the formula of the cyclical rotation of the Presidency suffered a huge blow with the death of the president. The contentious issue of the northern domination of political leadership since the attainment of independence in 1960 had long been a thorn in the flesh of southern politicians who felt marginalized by the northern domination of the military and political institutions that held the scepter of power.
The solution seemed found on June 12, 1993 when a western Nigerian Moshood Abiola of controversial political antecedents was presumed duly elected as President in a presumed free and fair election. The controversial background of this ticking political time bomb made the victor an unacceptable thorn in the flesh of powerful northern elites who ensured the annulment of that election without much ado. A complicated political chess game that ensued in the aftermath of the annulled election culminated in the questionable death of prominent political figures including a dictator and Moshood Abiola himself. Attempts to calm frail nerves saw the engineered re-emergence of the former military Head of State General Olusegun Obasanjo as President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007 because Gnereal Obasanjo belonged to the same ethnic group as Moshood Abiola’s. Obasanjo’s largely successful efforts to re-organize and overhaul the entire system with a view to breaking the logjam of dominance of the military and political leadership by the northern elites stands in fact, at the heart of all disputes between the North and the rest of Nigeria today.
Sharp-tongued critics suspect that General Obasanjo who rebelled against his northern sponsors and sidelined them in active manipulations, had deliberately hand-picked a terminally ill successor to feign the transfer of power back to the north even though he knew that the Southern Vice President would automatically take the reins of power if the terminally ill northern President died mid-term. And so it happened.
The bitterness that trailed this feeling of perceived treachery and dirty tricks was poised against a feeling of “serves them right” by southern agitators who saw nothing wrong in short-changing the northern interest even if it meant a breach of moral commitments made within the ruling party. A choice had to be made between moral commitment and constitutional guaranties. While the rest of Nigeria stuck with the provisions of the constitution that guarantied succession by a Vice President (no matter his region of origin) when a President dies, leading Northerners sought to short-change the constitution in favor of intra-party arrangements to advance the morally agreed principle of rotation.
An acrimonious war of attrition ensued with opponents entrenched in overtly irreconcilable camps. Vitriolic charges began to thunder loud. Accusations and counter-accusations made the round. Several voices from the north threatened Sodom and Gomorra if the North failed to get its way. The language of violence was a matter of course. The paraphrase “He who makes peaceful change impossible renders violent change inevitable” symbolically summarized the prevailing northern anger and sentiments.
When the southern agitators finally prevailed in the aftermath of all the wrangling and manipulations, the sudden resurgence of Boko Haram that was presumed curtailed in 2009 with the killing of its leader fitted perfectly well into the picture of threats made in the run-up to the Battle Royale.
There was no question in the south as to who was behind the bloodshed that befell arbitrary targets and almost sought to spark a civil war. Defenseless citizens were killed and maimed in arbitrary attacks on bars, pubs, schools, churches and seldom mosques within the confines of northern Nigeria. This gave rise to the suspicion of aspirations to establish an Islamic state. Most often however, police stations and military installations were attacked, the highlight being the successful daring attack on the police headquarters in which the national police boss escaped death by the whiskers. It took an international dimension when the office of the United Nations also got bombed. It bore the hallmark of organized terrorism with mounting sophistication as time passed by. It became clear latest at this point that the work of the group was driven by a well organized network of insiders and widespread support of highly placed and ordinary people.
The helplessness of the institutions of state to contain the situation was highlighted when the President finally cried out asking citizens to pray for the nation. He observed that the network of the terror group spreads through all segments of society – the paramilitary forces, the army, the legislature, the judiciary and even his own cabinet. Of course when the President talked, it was assumed that he had credible intelligence report at his disposal. He seemed to have feared that he too would soon become a target of the assailants. Not long after however, the same President declared confidently that the institutions of the state had worked out a master plan to contain the menace and even specified a deadline for the eradication of the lethal movement.
Soon after, a legislator was identified as a collaborator and subjected to prosecution. Till the present moment however, the President’s new-found courage in declaring the impending end of Boko Haram did not materialize in the identification of the cabinet members that the President knew to be members of the deadly jihadist sect.
In other words, the picture that meets the eye as time passes by, seems less clear-cut. The battle line now seems getting blurred and invisible. The more you look is the less you see.
My interaction with ordinary northerners who themselves resent Boko Haram and have very little in common with fanatical Islamism has now forced me to ask for answers to countless mind-boggling questions.
Is Boko Haram today still the Boko Haram of 2011 that sought to make Nigeria ungovernable for a Southern President? Have the institutions of state being badly compromised to shift goalposts in desperate midnight diplomacies? Many weird developments through the months now seem to signal a clandestine metamorphosis into a paradigm shift. The political atmosphere today is one, in which a Northern Bamakur Tukur has become the advocate-in-chief of a second presidential term for a Southern President Jonathan who only in 2011 was a factor that unified all northern foes to fight a common battle against the south.
The Joint Task Force (JTF) comprising combat-ready soldiers and law enforcement agents that was formed to address the combat end of the confrontation now seems to have transformed into the Boko Haram movement itself. I was forced to swallow my words in a recent intellectual exchange with a group of Northerners from Maiduguri who I accused of being too sentimental for blaming the JTF for high-handedness. After all, the ordinary folks will not provide information on suspicious activities of terrorists in their neighborhood. The answer I got shocked me. These friends painted a picture of ordinary folks coerced into sympathizing with Boko Haram. They reported widespread rejection of the terror group after so much bloodshed. They intimated me with stories of families that have been eliminated shortly after they passed on information to JTF of Boko Haram activities in their neighborhood. Someone was reportedly shot after he had informed the JTF of a terror kingpin in his vicinity. This did not surprise me as a Southerner since we in the south also witness similar situations when the police is offered information on the whereabouts of robbers and kidnappers. At the end of the day, more ordinary folks are driven into the waiting hands of Boko Haram for safety and security since the JTF cannot be trusted.
What I found disturbing however is that no single information of this sort has ever found its way into popular Nigerian news outlets. Many consumers of information are largely unaware of this development. Indeed the wanton elimination and destruction of entire neighborhoods after a Boko Haram attack has been launched from a single spot often lead people to question the motives of the JTF. While this can yet be attributed to the presence of bad eggs within the JTF, the next example proves to be even more mind-boggling.
The name Kabiru Sokoto is today, no longer a mystery to Nigerians. It is the name of an alleged Boko Haram unit leader who was arrested and reportedly escaped police custody in dubious circumstances. Investigations further revealed that a Police Commissioner named Zakari Biu played a major role in facilitating his escape on January 18, 2012. He was eventually recaptured on February 10, 2012 and remanded in custody. Today more than one year after his re-arrest, no single information is available on the progress of prosecution or his whereabouts. Grapevine gossips that we are unable to verify now contend however that Kabiru Sokoto has long been secretly airlifted out of Nigeria and now enjoys a peaceful life either in Dubai or Malaysia. While the rumoring of a serious information of this sort cannot be guarantied to be true or false, it is the direct impact of the actions of a government that refuses to provide information to its people and clad itself in dubious secrecy.
Commissioner of Police Zakari Biu was arrested in the course of investigations and released 9 months later in November 2012, according to sources “on the orders of President Jonathan”. In an intricate web of political intrigues, the media implicated the then Police Boss Hafiz Ringim in the exposure of Zakari Biu for career convenience. Till the present moment, no further information was released on Zakari Biu and the extent of his involvement in Boko Haram. The investigation report on which basis President Jonathan ordered his release was never made public. It therefore beats the imagination, what the President knows, how much he has tolerated or is tolerating or indeed if the President is under some quiet coercion or promoting a different agenda altogether. Why was the release of a terror suspect ordered by a President and not by a judge?
In fact, one of my northern friends in this informal exchange took it one step further and opines that the political Boko Haram that sought to make Nigeria ungovernable for President Jonathan shortly after the presidential election of 2011 may have long fizzled out. In his belief, what we have today is most likely to be a stage-managed Boko Haram exploited by the government for undisclosed political reasons.
To support his point, he drew my attention to the case of the Boko Haram’s self-styled spiritual leader Abubakar Shekau who was reportedly shot in crossfire during a routine checkpoint interception. While some members of his entourage were killed, he was said to have escaped with two other persons after sustaining gunshot wounds. My friend raises questions on the feasibility of a successful escape to Mali from such a hotspot given the countless number of JTF checkpoints on this route. In fact, he does not rule out the fact that Shekau may have been deliberately airlifted to safety. I had no answer to his question on how the Nigerian government suddenly discovered the whereabouts of Shekau in Mali and did not know where the man had been in Nigeria all the preceding months.
In the absence of a clear positioning of government with defined and easily comprehensible policies on matters of national importance, rumors and insinuations of this sort will continue to shape the beliefs and convictions of local folks. It is yet a mystery today, what strategy the government of President Jonathan is pursuing in combating Boko Haram with such mysterious shielding of several identified and hinted perpetrators. Above all else, the nation is never offered progress reports to address the fears and apprehensions of the citizens. In its stead, the President’s spokesmen concentrate resources almost exclusively on the abuse, denigration, disparaging and discrediting of anyone who dares to criticize the administration.
Where will this lead the government in the public desire to know the real game being played behind the Boko Haram label?