The tragic Christmas Day terrorist attacks portend a long drawn-out conflict that could rapidly degenerate into a sectarian cycle of destruction and retribution. The slaughter of worshippers in a church, a choreographed act of murderous sacrilege clearly intended to ignite conflict between Muslims and Christians, calls for a revision of our conceptual and strategic responses to Boko Haram.
The militant sect formerly led by the slain cleric Mohammed Yusuf, strengthened by the assistance of foreign terrorists, has coalesced with the large pool of bandits retained by local politicians as thugs during elections but cut loose afterward. It is likely that what we call “Boko Haram” no longer describes a single organization but a culture of nihilistic violence and anarchic rebellion with aims and demands so diffuse and nebulous as to be practically unattainable, but which will nonetheless continue its campaign of terror, spreading destruction, hate and fear. In a very real sense, Boko Haram and similar groups are agents of chaos who swell their ranks by feeding on the profound alienation and discontent in the society.
The scale and spread of the devastation we are witnessing does not suggest an organization with a centralized command and control structure but a program of destruction that has taken on a life and a momentum of its own. “Boko Haram” has become an umbrella term that covers everything from suicide bombings and bloody bank heists to targeted killings of police and military personnel. It is highly unlikely that any politician or cleric can now control this phenomenon. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle and can only be put back in by a reasoned application of moral and martial force; a synthesis of soft and hard power.
The continued reference to Boko Haram as “Islamic fundamentalists” or “Islamists” is a major flaw of the government’s counterterrorism strategy. These arguable definitions should matter for sociological analysis only. People who shoot and blow up citizens should be properly defined as criminals, specifically, murderers. Describing them as “Islamic” militants legitimizes them by linking their goals to the millions of Nigerian Muslims who do not share their aspirations. Their claim to Islamic orientation is irrelevant. Throughout history, terrorists of all shades have festooned their crimes with high-sounding causes. Boko Haram should not have been allowed to define itself and the terms of the conflict.
There are also geostrategic considerations involved. There are more than twice as many Muslims in Nigeria as in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace. By reason of demographics, Nigeria could play a very significant role in shaping the complexion of Islam in Africa. It is not in our national interest to allow an ultraviolent anarchist group become the face of the faith on our shores.
There seems to be this idea that bandits cease to be criminals and evolve into political activists once they can explain their crimes with ethnic or religious motivations. We have seen this approach before with Niger Delta militant groups and the Odua People’s Congress. These species of terrorism were apparently legitimized by their actions purportedly on behalf of their ethnic communities. Terrorism is a description of means not ends. Seeking greater resource control or a wider application of Sharia Law does not make one a terrorist; Murder and undermining public safety to achieve these goals does. The intelligent government’s response is to address the legitimate grievances proclaimed by the terrorists and also to stridently punish them for their methods.
Sadly, the Nigerian state in its dealings with various armed groups over the years has acted as though religious or ethnic sensibilities can sanctify violence. The result has been a disastrous consecration of violence as a tool of political negotiation. It should be immaterial whether a mass-murderer claims to be a Muslim or a Christian. What should matter is the crime itself and implementing swift unequivocal justice to honour the memory of the dead and give meaning to our citizenship.
Unfortunately, the Jonathan administration has continuously acted as though the terrorists are more important than their victims. Its willingness to negotiate with Boko Haram – even when the group had repeatedly expressed its non-recognition of the federal government and the non-negotiability of its demands – not only reflected weakness; it fostered the dangerous impression that terrorism is a passport to political relevance. The government by opting to negotiate with the killers over the dead bodies of their victims demonstrated an utter lack of value for the lives of Nigerian citizens.
We must cease the practice of inviting religious clerics to take center stage after each terrorist outrage. It fortifies the ill-informed myth that Nigeria is composed of hermetically sealed off blocs of Northern Muslims and Southern Christians and validates Boko Haram’s propagandistic self-definition as an armed wing of the Muslim community. Urging Muslim leaders to condemn Boko Haram as if it is exclusively “their” problem is beside the point. We all should be condemning Boko Haram. The fact that the group claims Islamic justification for its crimes may place an onus on Muslims to denounce them but then what? Boko Haram kills Muslims as well as Christians and has killed several Islamic clerics.
No amount of condemnation will dissuade a bloodthirsty band of nihilists from their anarchic agenda. We should not allow the government to shirk its responsibility of securing the citizenry by suggesting that the terrorists would stop if only clerics issue obligatory rebukes after every attack.
For the past two years, rural communities on the outskirts of Jos have suffered repeated nocturnal attacks with great loss of life by marauding bands of Fulani herdsmen. Yet, one wonders about the reportage of these incidents. Often the identity of the murderers as Fulani herdsmen is trumpeted in such a way as to render it synonymous with “Muslim” and to create a portrait of generic sectarian violence affecting the entire Plateau area. In fact, there is no evidence that the violence in these rural communities has anything to do with the chronic clashes in the Jos metropolis.
But should the ethnic identity of these marauders make any difference at all in apprehending them as criminals? Is it not enough that families have been slaughtered and communities terrorized? Should we not be thinking of them simply as murderous bandits and deal with them as such, rather than calling them Fulani Herdsmen, both to see that justice is truly blind and also to avoid the unfortunate slander of an entire ethnic group by association?
In what other instance would it be necessary to refer to the perpetrators of a crime by their faith or ethnicity? How often do the media ask us to think in terms of “Igbo” drug dealers or “Yoruba” kidnappers or “Christian” fraudsters? In the eyes of justice, crime is what we do rather than whom and what we are or what we believe.
We must now change the terms of discussing conflict. What we call “ethno-religious violence” should be distilled, for the sake of moral clarity, into crimes – arson, terrorism, rape, mass-murder, etc. Terms like “ethno-religious violence” are useful for socio-scientific purposes but their popular usage can deodourize their true meaning and desensitize us to them.
To address recurrent violence, we must identify it as crime rather than as politics. The application of religious and ethnic labels to conflict is a pretext for politicizing terrorism, with the implicit and at times explicit proposition that there is nothing wrong with violence so long as it is done in the name of God or kin; and that it is equally agreeable to murder people for the crime of being “infidels” or “non-indigenes.” Sectarian violence recurs without its perpetrators being punished because we have come to accept such violence as a necessary aspect of our politics rather than a breach of law and a crime against our collective humanity and citizenship.
By characterizing conflicts as religious or ethnic even when they are patently about resources and power, terrorists are encouraged to escalate their violence by claiming heavenly or historical motivations for their profane agendas. From being susceptible to solutions rooted in good governance, justice and social security, the hostilities mutate into intractable generational cycles of strife and vengeance. Because the combatants perceive not only their lives but their souls and identities to be at stake, conflict becomes an existential continuum, impelling communities to seek their salvation by destroying others. We must “secularize” these conflicts by stripping them of their ethno-religious labels. This will delegitimize warlords who rely on myths of sacred identities to foment conflict.
Nigeria’s war against terror will be arduous. It must be fought intelligently.