After the June 16 suicide bombing at the Nigerian police headquarters, it should be clear that we are facing a new species of violence; one that we must confront with the full weight of our public institutions. The attack was a statement of terrible symbolism. By striking at the first line of the security establishment, Boko Haram issued a message that not even the society’s professional protectors are safe. Coming just days after the police Inspector General had declared that the group’s days were numbered, it was a reply of murderous eloquence. The point of such violence is to sow fear into the public mind. It is to “terrorize” – which is what Boko Haram has been doing with diabolical aplomb in Borno State.
The “16/6” attack was merely a spectacular reprise of the group’s operations over the years in the northeast. In that time, police stations have been bombed and scores of police officers assassinated. The Leadership newspaper of July 28, 2009 reported police sources confirming a suicide bomb attack on a police station in Potiskum, Yobe State. Sect members wired with explosives had biked into the station and blown themselves up. Boko Haram has also targeted politicians, community leaders, clerics and generally anyone that opposes their aim of establishing an Islamic state. As with most emergencies outside Lagos and Abuja, their attacks did not elicit serious national interest. Niger Delta militants gained attention even in the creeks because they had the oil industry at their mercy. In contrast, the terror campaign on the nation’s impoverished northeastern fringes seemed remote even to the authorities despite the brazen slaughter of state operatives. Seeking more serious official recognition, Boko Haram struck in Abuja.
Our concerns for the future should be threefold. Boko Haram appears to have mapped our systemic strengths and weaknesses and emboldened by their successes so far, will attempt even more daring assaults. Terrorists crave horrific spectacles that promote their causes and attract media attention. Accordingly, Boko Haram will seek maximal yield targets with potentially high casualties; sensational bombings and high profile assassinations. Such targets would likely include airports, malls, passenger planes, trains, bridges and other physical infrastructure as well as sites of symbolic national value such as the National Assembly and other federal buildings.
Secondly, the more successful Boko Haram is, the greater the likelihood that copycat terrorist groups will emerge attempting even more spectacular horrors in order to burnish their reputations in the jihadi pantheon – a sort of street credibility for mass murderers.
Thirdly, this threat is unlikely to disappear quickly. Boko Haram’s extremist ideology and uncompromisingly homicidal methods place it beyond the range of reason and dialogue. People willing to blow themselves up generally do not bargain. Its demands are absolute, its terms, non-negotiable and its means, totalitarian. Their grievance has deeper roots than a quest for “resource control” and possesses the fiery certitude of unhinged zealotry. Unlike some Niger Delta militants, they will not be dissuaded by choice plots in Abuja or excursions to the presidential villa. Boko Haram will not be convinced of the error of its ways; it has to be confronted decisively.
It may be that receiving militants in Aso Rock as the previous two administrations did and generally treating them as “freedom fighters” set a precedent whereby groups can now use terrorism to pursue their goals. Obviously, where the state is perceived to be illegitimate, and conventional channels of representation are obstructed, violence will be cast as a veritable tool of negotiation. A combination of vote-rigging, democracy deficits and unaccountable government has dragged us into dark sophistic terrain where some may argue that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter or that the justice of a terrorist’s cause is in the eyes of the beholder. Perhaps the extrajudicial slaying of Boko Haram’s leader Mohammed Yusuf by police officers triggered the group’s vengeful killing spree. However, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children with random bombs places it in the category of bloodthirsty anarchists.
Confronting Boko Haram could be a long struggle. Over decades, Britain had to manage the Irish Republican Army’s insurgency and Germany had to deal with the Red Army Faction. Similarly, terror alerts and bombings could assume a terrifying new normalcy.
The odds of averting this scenario are currently unfavourable. Our security challenges expose a deeper institutional crisis. We can justifiably question whether strategic agencies whose staffing is often determined by twisted notions of affirmative action (“federal character”) rather than merit have the competence to handle the threats assailing us.
Our national security establishment is dysfunctional and like other branches of the Nigerian state is beset by a severe lack of institutional capacity. Our much maligned police force works under appalling conditions. As at 2008, Nigeria had 377,000 officers policing a population of about 150 million. One-third of the force is effectively a privatized security corps illegally guarding VIPs and corporate establishments. The police are generally underpaid, ill-equipped and ill-trained. The force has been further debased by its serial use by politicians either to suppress dissent or abet electoral heists. Our cops are unfairly expected to deliver results in very difficult circumstances.
Corruption which bleeds the state is also a critical factor. The Police Equipment Fund created to procure anti-crime gear was embezzled by some of its executives.
The security bureaucracy is still bound by military-era paradigms and operational assumptions better suited to catching coup-plotters than addressing the asymmetries of non-state violence. The one-dimensional approach of deploying the army to combat suburban terrorism has not worked as the July 2009 offensive against Boko Haram in Maiduguri showed. Such operations executed often with overwhelming and indiscriminate force yield great collateral damage. Nothing facilitates further radicalization of the general populace more than punishing the innocent with the guilty. Such methods tend to transform cowering neutrals or passive sympathizers into active combatants. We must now develop the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism competencies required to address extant security threats.
Our intelligence capabilities are decidedly poor. Bukar Shekau, the current head of Boko Haram was pronounced killed in the 2009 offensive. President Goodluck Jonathan appointed an anti-terrorism czar early this year but nothing has been heard from that office. There is little to indicate any significant changes in our security architecture since the October 1, 2010 bombings at Eagle Square. If anything, bombings have actually increased.
Security agencies must disrupt the arteries of finance and weaponry that sustain Boko Haram. The group’s scale of terrorism cannot be conducted pro bono and if the paper trail is found and followed, it is sure to reveal local and foreign benefactors. Our borders are notoriously porous and Boko Haram benefits from its proximity to erstwhile conflict spots in Chad and Niger Republic which can supply a steady flow of manpower and armaments. The group’s political protectors, the sympathizers in high places who obstruct investigations or refuse to act on actionable intelligence delivered by the security services, must be exposed. Its cells and safe houses have to be located, its hierarchies identified and its operatives neutralized. There also has to be a review of security protocols at public places, offices, federal buildings and likely targets. The public has to be vigilant.
Conceivably, the federal government could use counterinsurgency “sticks” against Boko Haram’s hawkish hard core of operatives while offering “carrots” to its more impressionable novice terrorists. This will work best when the group feels endangered enough to consider negotiation.
However, pursuing an aggressive policy alone will not conclusively end this threat. Think of extremism as a hydra-headed monster and Boko Haram as just one head among others. Cut off one head and two more may well grow in its place. More than anything, it is failed governance that fuels extremism. The cynical use of Sharia law by corrupt politicians to mask their sleaze surely encouraged extremists to pursue the violent establishment of a “more authentic” Sharia regime.
According to the recently released Nigeria Education Data Survey, 83 percent of children aged 5-16 in the northeast (Boko Haram territory) cannot read at all. “A typical child in the northeast sub region is about four times more likely to be illiterate than his or her mate in the southwest.” The region also accounts for the country’s highest level of innumeracy at 73 percent. This geography of illiteracy and innumeracy does not merely coincide with the geography of extremism; it fortifies it. It is a vast demographic ocean of potential recruits for terrorist groups.
Altering these statistics should be a key governmental priority. Boko Haram is not just a gathering of bucolic malcontents; it also has a fair number of educated youths disenchanted with their lack of prospects and with the corruption that has arrested their development. They have now chosen to redeem themselves by deforming their own souls in these acts of transcendent evil. Until the sordid material conditions that gestate violence are seriously addressed, there will be yet more homicidal zealots dominating the news headlines.