Sunday, May 25, 2014

State of Denial

With each terrorist outrage, opposing partisans volley conspiracy theories back and forth, accusing either the federal government or the opposition of masterminding the attacks. Confronted by an unprecedented threat and unable to respond effectively, we have resorted to conspiracy theorizing. We seem to be in denial that a terrorist insurgency is upon us.
This denial stems from a typically Nigerian hubris. During the 1970s and the 1980s, Nigerians believed that their country was too sophisticated to produce an Idi Amin or Mobutu and were blind to that possibility right until General Sani Abacha seized power and plumbed hitherto uncharted depths of savagery. Similarly, we have long believed that terrorism and suicide bombings are exotic lunacies confined to foreign lands even though our social indices and derelict governance all pointed towards the eventual emergence of an organized insurrection as we have since witnessed in the Niger Delta and the Northeast. 

In fact, Nigeria was institutionally unprepared to deal with a terrorist insurgency. There is more than a hint of cognitive dissonance in our evaluation of the situation. Nigerians generally agree that the state is fundamentally inept, incapable of providing basic social services, crippled by endemic corruption, patronage politics and perverse affirmative action gestures. But they inexplicably expect the same state to readily “deal with” a highly adaptive, protean threat like the current insurgency. Officials admit that Nigeria’s borders are unguarded but express amazement at the proliferation of weapons. Nigerians are attributing to malice, several things that are sufficiently explained by incompetence.  

When ineptitude, mediocrity and graft attain epidemic proportions, their manifestations seem like a conspiracy to the unwary eye. But it is really years of institutional decay, inept governance and official kleptomania finally catching up with us. The results are brave but poorly-resourced, ill-motivated troops put in harm’s way, security lapses, failures of intelligence and martial resolve, and mutinous rumblings at the front lines. Insurgencies are fiendishly difficult to fight but corruption, incompetence and incapacity have also ambushed us. It is impossible to swiftly shift gears from institutionalized dysfunction to five-star efficiency in a national emergency. The real “conspiracy” is the pervasive belief that we could continue business as usual in the face of an unusual threat and not run aground. 

Nigeria’s law enforcement and security institutions are weak. The five year old insurgency has consumed over 4,000 lives and multibillion naira security budgets but there is no coherent national security doctrine that synergizes our security agencies. Both the national security adviser and the president have bemoaned the lack of interagency cooperation. Even the government’s response to Boko Haram’s demand for the release of its members in exchange for its release of the girls it abducted a month ago was met with contradictory responses from various functionaries, reflecting the administration’s strategic incoherence.  

Our institutional vulnerabilities are compounded by ineptitude. President Goodluck Jonathan’s defenders insist that he is the victim of a conspiracy aimed at aborting his second term ambitions. Even if such a scheme is afoot, his failure to act decisively against his “enemies” and protect Nigerians does him no credit. 

The nationalist Adegoke Adelabu once wrote, “At the supreme crisis in the history of every nation, there emerges spontaneously from the ranks of the common people, a leader and a saviour to pilot the ship of the state.” National crises often transfigure political leaders, endowing them with steely purpose. Jonathan has not been so endowed. Nigerians, regardless of their partisan, ethnic or religious allegiances, would be rallying round the president if he was providing strong leadership. As St. Paul wrote, “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to battle?” We are at war but Jonathan’s leadership has been uncertain and uninspiring.  

Boko Haram’s indiscriminate blood thirst makes it an enemy against which a more competent politician would have galvanized the whole country. Instead, the administration has opted variously to play the victim, to milk terror acts for political advantage and to libel political opponents with unsubstantiated allegations of treason. It is true that the chain of negligence for many outrages extends beyond the presidency; a host of federal agents and state authorities are also culpable. However, the lack of penalties for official delinquency is telling; as is Jonathan’s preference for raising redundant committees instead of demanding results from his team and firing inept functionaries. 

This indulgence is worlds apart from the stone-cold realities of the front lines where the cost of failure is immediate and unforgiving. A mediocre officialdom has failed even to weave the successes and heroic sacrifices of the military and security services into an inspirational narrative and persisted with its victimhood. 

We are facing challenges that require bold leadership and strong institutions. We need fresh systemic thinking on how to police a population of 170 million people when our men and women under arms number less than 1 million. We need new strategies for urban planning and the protection of critical infrastructure and soft targets. We need to move away from analog security management protocols (roadblocks and checkpoints) and utilize human and electronic intelligence. The insurgency has displaced half a million people who have been abandoned but need to be placed in protected camps.

Boko Haram is eminently beatable but we must overcome our denial and face the reality of rebuilding our institutions, enhancing our crisis management capacities, redefining our leadership selection processes and entrenching meritocracy in public service. Without profound conceptual and practical changes in our approach to governance, our enemies will continue to find joy in fomenting anarchy.  

(Thisday, Sunday May 25, 2014)
(All images are sourced online)

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Meaning of Chibok

Whether the abduction of over 200 girls from Chibok is a tipping point remains to be seen. It took the self-immolation of a Tunisian street trader to spark off the Arab Spring. The Chibok debacle may yet unleash seismic repercussions. There have, of course, been other abductions by Boko Haram and over the years, several soul-destroying abominations across the land that have gone unremarked. The case of the Chibok girls is remarkable because of the impunity of its perpetrators, the scale of the crime, the number of victims and the mindboggling ineptitude of those in authority.

At first, the government responded with typical indifference. Scenes of President Goodluck Jonathan cavorting at a political rally a day after the April 14, Abuja bombing and the abduction of the girls incensed many. However, there was a deeper institutional psychology at work. The dreary inescapable truth is that defending the sanctity of human life is not a core value of the Nigerian state. The state is an entity that elites compete to capture and privatize for personal gain rather than for public interest. It is government of some people, by some people and for some people.

Consequently, politicians tend to emphasize the chasm between the state and the society. Witness the semiotic violence of officialdom. Reckless motorcades piloted by snarling speed demons and whip-wielding goons are known to run citizens off the road. The unmistakable message is that the powerful are a different breed from “the masses”. This medieval model of governance renders it both alien and alienating. Most Nigerians do not actually expect the government to serve their interests. This is why state governors are serenaded for their rare provision of basic amenities which is seen as the beneficence rather than the obligation, of elected officials. The tribulations of the powerless are hardly the priority of the powerful.

In the three weeks it took Jonathan to speak on the missing girls, foreign leaders had pronounced on the issue with the sort of resolve that Nigerian officialdom is incapable of mustering when Nigerian lives are at stake. Leadership is not only about providing those basics which Nigerian politicians like to preen and brag about. It is about defining the ethical boundaries that separate us from the animal kingdom. Like previous outrages, this debacle was another spurned opportunity for leaders to make emotionally-intelligent and unequivocal moral statements. These silences betray an empathy deficit and belie our claim to belong in the precincts of modern civilization.   

The World Economic Forum (WEF) was supposed to be the administration’s triumphal exhibition on global primetime. Instead it was rightly overshadowed by the missing girls. Having rebased Nigeria’s GDP, we must now revalue Nigerian life. Assuredly, were it not for the rising protests, international pressure and the increasingly global ubiquity of the #bringbackourgirls# campaign, the administration would have ignored the missing girls and steamed ahead.

Yet, it is instructive that the official interventions on the matter have been characterized by defensiveness, dissembling and evasiveness. The subtext of the first lady’s cringe-worthy melodramatic intervention was the accusation that the Chibok community was to blame for the abduction of its daughters. The administration and its sympathizers have shamelessly sought to portray the abductions and the ensuing protests as a plot to embarrass the president. Some promoted a sterile debate about whether the abductions actually happened. It has always been demonstrably difficult for officialdom to empathize with “lesser” compatriots.

This low valuation of life is why the criminally negligent Interior Minister remains in office despite overseeing a fraudulent recruitment exercise in which several young Nigerians died. It is why on May 1, the police was more exercised about dispersing protesters in Lagos than pre-empting the deadly bombing that later shook Abuja’s outskirts; and why communities like Chibok can only dream of seeing the sort of resources expended to fortify Abuja during the WEF. Undoubtedly, if Boko Haram was targeting VIPs, the official response would have possessed more urgency and intensity. Ordinary Nigerians, the denizens of Chibok, Nyanya and other such places, are only marginally less expendable to politicians than they are to terrorists. Politicians, at least, require their votes.

Government functionaries have displayed a puzzled irritation verging on a persecution complex at the scrutiny provoked by the Chibok girls’ inconvenient disappearance. But the real problem is that Nigerians are starting to demand more from their government and that the world is taking keen interest in a heinous atrocity that would have been let slide.

Chibok, a remote nondescript community, represents the sort of plebeian anonymity that is easily forgotten but the travails of its daughters have captured local and international attention. It has survived our weekly news cycle’s payload of body counts. Even in their harrowing captivity, the stolen girls have refused to go away. Their ordeal has rekindled a protest movement that can only deepen our democracy. It has also thrust their captors into international infamy. The video of a gloating and evidently drug-addled Abu Shekau threatening to sell the girls raised hackles worldwide and may have sealed the fate of his anarchist enterprise. Boko Haram will be terminally damned by the girls it has stolen.  

Beyond bringing back our girls, our challenge is to humanize and domesticate the state and convert it to the service of the common good. It is to instill a culture of accountability and responsiveness to public opinion and make officialdom more accessible to the people. It is to affirm the sanctity of life above all other considerations.

(All images are sourced online) 
Thisday, May 11, 2014

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Warriors without Borders

On hindsight, if anywhere in Nigeria was going to breed a neo-Islamist insurgency, it was perhaps always going to be its long neglected northeastern frontier, a region historically prone to cross-border banditry and a gateway to the strife-afflicted and drought-stricken Sahel. The Sahelo-Saharan zone is a borderless dark economy of organized crime, drug, human, weapons and diamond traffickers, and rebel groups.  Boko Haram exemplifies a geopolitical phenomenon featuring transnational non-state actors with scant regard for national boundaries. Its insurgency has been enhanced by Nigeria’s porous borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon and is unlikely to be defeated without significant international collaboration.

The group’s increasing methodological sophistication since 2009 (from motorcycle-borne ride-by shootings to using improvised explosive devices) and the evolution of its demands from previously locally-centered grievances against state and federal authorities to a more nebulous neo-Islamist anti-state agenda, indicate contact with foreign insurgent groups. If globalization is characterized by borderless transactions and the free flow of capital, information and culture, it is also defined by the transnationalization of strife. Domestic conflicts in sovereignty-deficient states tend to escalate into transnational security emergencies. The internet enables the transmission of insurrectionary tactics, theologies and technologies across far-flung locales. An aspirant Nigerian mass-murderer can access the preachments or bomb-making expertise of a Yemeni extremist online. The net has also aided the formulation of a grand Jihadi narrative in which Jihadists, whether in Nigeria, Indonesia or Somalia, see themselves as comrades in a global revolt against secular sovereigns.

The transnationalization of conflict cuts across religions. Consider the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the spearhead of an insurgency that was launched in Uganda in 1986 and which aims to establish a society based on the Ten Commandments. The LRA’s rebellion is originally rooted in the discontent of the Acholi of Northern Uganda but has long since become synonymous with mass murder, rape and abductions in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Congo. Indeed, Boko Haram’s serial abduction of young girls for forced marriage and sexual slavery mirrors the LRA’s fiendish tactics.

In 1994, when the Nterahamwe, the Hutu extremist paramilitary that carried out the Rwandan genocide was dislodged by Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, it fled deep into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 1994 and 1997, the Nterahamwe waged a deadly insurgency against Rwanda from the DRC while another rebel group, the Allied Democratic Front also launched a campaign from there to oust Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. To this day, Rwanda and Uganda continue to face anti-state actors based in the DRC.

The LRA, the Nterahamwe and al Shabab in Somalia mutated from local insurrectionists into transnational anarchists. None of these groups can be defeated without international partnership. Should Somalia utterly fall to al Shabab, for example, it would become a hub for international terrorists in the Horn of Africa and would undoubtedly destabilize Somalia’s neighbours. Kenya, Eritrea and Ethiopia cannot contend successfully with al Shabab without taking an active interest in Somalia’s stability.

Ever since Afghanistan served as a nursery for al Qaeda in the early 1990s, international terror groups have sought ungoverned spaces and weak states where to sink their roots. However, they are not content to stay confined in such enclaves; they see them as bases from which to export terror. Thus, al Shabab is not just an enemy of Somalia; it is ultimately an enemy of the East African Community. Likewise, the DRC’s weak central government and its perennial chaos have made it a haven for transnational anarchists and a destabilizing vortex in the Great Lakes region. If Boko Haram is not liquidated in Nigeria, it is likely to further evolve into an al Qaeda in the Sahel and could plant a subversive foothold in Chad, Niger and Cameroon.

The transnationalization of conflict is not about a clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic world as famously posited by Samuel Huntington. It is a clash between the formal sovereign authority of nation-states and non-state actors in regions populated by sovereignty-deficient states. In many places, this clash also ties into the tension between colonial cartography and resurgent micronationalism. Colonially-imposed borders are being tested by transnational actors. The Tuareg rebellion in Mali in 2012 was only the latest iteration of a decades-long campaign to create Azawad – a Tuareg homeland that will span a number of Sahelian countries. The 2012 edition was sparked off by the return of over 2,000 Tuareg mercenaries that had previously been retained by Muammar Gaddafi. They left Libya after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime with an impressive arsenal and grand ambitions.

Parts of Africa today are not unlike 19th century North America – a resource-laden frontier with weak governments, where the lines between banditry and subversive dissidence are dangerously blurred. In these parts, post-colonial state formation has either stalled or is proceeding slowly. The Oxford scholar Paul Collier once predicted that future civil wars would pit governments against private extralegal military groupings that will variously be called rebels, terrorists, freedom fighters or gangsters. These wars, he said, will be a throwback to the time before nation-states cohered. Perhaps that future is now upon us. 

Transnational anarchists have been bolstered by the decreasing legitimacy of nation-states, especially those in which national solidarity remains aspirational, and which suffer from weak institutions, a democracy deficit, severe poverty and inequality. African states have to forge regional security strategies but these groups cannot be destroyed solely by military means. Political leaders have to strengthen inclusive national institutions, deliver developmental dividends and starve such groups of the oxygen of deprivation which helps foster their depravity. 

(Published in Thisday, May 5, 2014)
(All images sourced online)             

Thursday, April 24, 2014

State of War

Nigerian authorities have been reluctant to describe the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign against Boko Haram in the northeast as a war. This reluctance is by no means unprecedented. Right up till the moment federal forces invaded Biafra, the federal government was still describing its mobilization against the secessionist regime as a “police action.” The tendency to understate security challenges is the state’s way of projecting an unflappable comportment; to reassure the public that “there is no cause for alarm” and that “the situation is under control.”

In this instance, the critical data defies understatement. Conservative estimates place the number of lives claimed by the insurgency at over 4, 000 since 2009. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the fighting has internally displaced 470, 000 people in Nigeria with another 60, 000 forced to seek refuge in Cameroon, Niger and Chad since 2013. More than fifty percent of the refugees are women and children. The closure of federal government colleges in the region has affected over 10, 000 students – a number that increases exponentially when the closure of other schools is factored in. The “talibanization” of the northeast is in progress as evinced by Boko Haram’s targeting of schools and preying upon girls.   

Since 2011, Boko Haram has struck the national police headquarters, army and air force bases in the northeast and the State Security Service headquarters in Abuja where inmates attempted a jailbreak last month. It has also attacked public schools including federal government colleges where young Nigerians of diverse faiths and ethnicities are educated. Its hatred for pluralism as embodied in the Nigerian state is unalloyed. Having moved from seeking virgins in paradise to snatching young girls for sexual slavery, the group’s ideological bankruptcy has been exposed. All that it has left is nihilistic sadism as evidenced by its murderous focus on soft targets. This makes it all the more dangerous.

President Goodluck Jonathan has not been able to rally the country against this threat; nor has he articulated a theory of the case that explains our current national security challenges and a grand ideological and strategic response to non-state actors. Instead, his administration has shown itself willing to use the conflict for political ends notably as a means of smearing political opponents. For its own part, the opposition is incapable of nuanced critiques of terrorism and sees an opportunity to promise miracles if elected. We are in a time of national crisis and statesmanship is in short supply.

The administration suffers from a massive credibility deficit. Jonathan’s serial broken promises to end the insurgency have been damaging. Continuing attacks on soft and hard targets such as military bases have undermined public confidence in the armed forces and security services. This is a shame because the military and the security agencies have worked hard to degrade Boko Haram. They have perhaps been undone by a predilection for “truth-bending.” Propaganda is a customary element of warfare but it has to be properly executed. Public impatience is understandable, more so, in the light of a political class that is largely considered insensitive to the plight of the poor – the insurgents’ victims of choice.

The administration has also failed to provide a coherent narrative timeline that explains the origin and evolution of Boko Haram. In January, Aliyu Mohammed Gusau was appointed minister of defence ostensibly to coordinate a new approach to the counter-insurgency. Gusau was National Security Adviser (NSA) from 1999 to 2006. Having been appointed again to that position by Jonathan in 2010, Gusau has been NSA longer than anyone else since 1999. An inquest into the origin and evolution of Boko Haram must surely ask questions of what he knew and did about the current threat when it was still at an embryonic stage in the early to mid 2000s. Gusau’s appearance before the senate for his confirmation hearing provided the opportunity to pose such questions. The senate instead afforded him the luxury of exemption from questioning. The fact that the senate failed to question a nominee penciled down to head the defence ministry in a time of war aptly demonstrates its dereliction of duty. 

The failure to produce an official biography of Boko Haram has been a boon to conspiracy theorists who tap into popular but false narratives to explain the insurgency. Some of the most colourful theories posit nebulous conspiracies starring either the president or his political opponents. However, in this instance, Nigerians are attributing to malice what is largely a consequence of incompetence. When a system long crippled by corruption, mediocrity and dysfunction is confronted by a protean, highly adaptive and asymmetrical threat, it is asking too much to expect an immediate nimble and strategically efficient response. These conspiracy theories continue to cloud the public mind at a time when national consensus is required.

Some of the measures that need to be taken – mass relocation of tens of thousands students to safer places for schooling or the establishment of protected camps for half a million refugees require competent leadership and a  strong state but the Nigerian state is weak and political actors are unwilling to lead.     

The military has scored moderate successes in its campaign at great human cost. Its casualty figures, while closely guarded by the defence establishment, are significant enough to warrant a national memorial and greater effort to commemorate the supreme sacrifices being made by the troops. However, the military is hamstrung by a deficit of numbers with which to adequately cover a theatre of operations which due to the nature of the enemy is highly fluid; a limited intelligence support structure and arguably, a resource deficit that adversely affects its ability to effectively hold ground. These deficits have to be surmounted.

But the military also suffers from being the only instrument in the toolkit favoured by politicians; it is, by definition, a broad sword when, in many instances, what is required is a scalpel. A purely military approach that is apparently devoid of preemptive policing, adequate intelligence gathering and psychological warfare components is bound to have limitations. For instance, the failure to protect moderate clerics that have been targeted by Boko Haram and to deploy them as a first line of defence against extremist ideologies in the communities is a tactical error. The army is also overstretched by its deployment across the federation putting out fires that are really within the purview of the police. The risk of mission fatigue is high.  

The National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, recently unveiled a broader strategy that incorporates non-military options in the counter-insurgency toolkit including greater efforts to win hearts and minds and to address the socio-economic conditions of the northeast. This will require time to work. The administration has also outlined the Federal Initiative for the North East (FINE), a raft of economic, infrastructural and agro-allied rehabilitation measures. Given the region’s scale of ecological, socioeconomic and infrastructural degradation, federal intervention is necessary. But until a suitably hefty security and military footprint is established and order is restored, rehabilitation and reconstruction will be impossible.

From all indications, this will not end soon. Counter-insurgency campaigns are notoriously long drawn-out affairs. This administration has been burned badly in the past by an imprudent eagerness to declare the imminence of victory. However, the nature of the enemy and the nature of its terrain which includes vast ungoverned spaces straddling borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, call for a reassessment of what ‘victory’ means. Both the public and the troops on the frontlines will be ill-served by premature triumphalism. Conversely, an open-ended military commitment with no timelines or performance indicators is untenable and carries its own risks. Prolonged militarization with ample occasion for human rights violations and scorched earth tactics will surely radicalize occupied communities and boost Boko Haram’s recruitment drive in the area. This dynamic, at least partly, accounts for Boko Haram’s resilience.  

Boko Haram lost the first phase of the war in 2011 when its attacks on churches failed to elicit widespread reprisals that could have ignited a broader sectarian war in which it would then have postured as an Islamist defence vanguard. Much of the conflict is now contained in the northeast but if the northeast is “abandoned” or “forgotten”, either by reason of paucity of resolve or resources, it would rapidly become a base for the insurgents to regroup and eventually launch attacks on other parts of the federation. The northeast frontier is usually on the fringes of the national consciousness but as the gateway to the Sahel and the Maghreb, it is an area of vital importance where the insurgents must be denied refuge or breathing space. We cannot afford for this to become a forgotten war. At this point, international assistance is necessary to augment the joint military operations by Nigeria and her neighbours. National pride should not stop Nigeria from seeking external help even as it continues build capacity.

In an age of attacks on soft targets, there also needs to be fresh thinking on how to secure public spaces – parks, bus stations, markets and schools. Strategies for this must involve the cooperation between security agencies and the citizenry. Terror is tragically the new normal and we must adopt a permanent posture of vigilance.

Given the foul opportunism of politicians in a pre-election year, it can be easy to forget who the real enemy is. The indiscriminately ecumenical range of Boko Haram’s victims on April 14 in Nyanya, Abuja should serve as a reminder. 

(All Images Sourced online)