The decision of the federal government to dialogue with Boko Haram has to be situated against a collage of tragedy – two thousand dead; men, women and children; Christians and Muslims; foreigners and locals; civilians and military and paramilitary personnel; innocent bystanders and agents of the state – all sacrificed on the pyre of nihilistic violence. There is something fundamentally immoral about negotiating with a band of murderers. It is the final violation of the memory of those whose lives they so brazenly cut short. What does it say to serving police officers, soldiers and intelligence agents that the lives of their fallen comrades have been bartered for the political legitimization of a terrorist group? It suggests dangerously that political outcomes can be determined by access to bombs and guns and is an open invitation to diverse assortments of criminals to seek political relevance by demonstrating a willingness to engage in mass murder.
Advocates of dialogue have argued that the federal government should negotiate with Boko Haram, understand its grouse and then offer what sops it can to end the carnage. There is one word for this –“appeasement” – and the spectacle of a government cajoling criminals to the table for “peace talks” raises questions about assumptions of a social contract, state capacity or national sovereignty. It suggests that for all the vainglorious pomp that attends governance in Nigeria, the public realm is a lawless frontier where citizens would be well advised to devise their own means of self defence. The word for describing this state of affairs is “anarchy.” Negotiating with terrorists is a bottomless abyss. Where does the state draw the line? How should it respond to the next band of terrorist gangsters that assault our way of life? Why, after negotiating with Boko Haram, should it suddenly refuse to do so with the next gang of murderers who demand a seat at the table? A state that so easily succumbs to the whims and caprices of every group that takes up arms against it is participating in the demise of its statehood and enthroning the rule of gangs in its stead.
To be fair, this crisis did not begin with Boko Haram. It is permissible to argue that the Nigerian state has a policy of negotiating with terrorists. We can look back at the Obasanjo administration’s handling of the Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC) and the Odua Liberation Movement (OLM) which in the early 2000s attacked police stations and police officers in the southwest. We can also cite the Yar’Adua administration’s handling of militant gangs in the Niger Delta which included a sweeping amnesty program for militants and under President Goodluck Jonathan, significant influence for erstwhile militant chieftains, including the scandalous outsourcing of maritime security functions to a company owned by Government Ekpumopolo a.k.a. Tompolo, a key figure in the Niger Delta insurgency.
Several pundits have insisted that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is not a terrorist group like Boko Haram. They have through semantic contortions tried to place MEND on a higher moral plane where it enjoys a greater legitimacy than other insurgent groups. This effort is demonstrated by the readiness to label Boko Haram as “terrorists,” while describing their peers in the Niger Delta and elsewhere, somewhat ambiguously as “militants.” MEND, they say, fought for resource control while Boko Haram’s goals are either indeterminate or non-negotiable, for example, the “Islamization” of a section of the country. This summation is rather spurious. It derives from the selective discernment of pundits who only observe evils that emanate from cultures other than their own. They fail to see moral equivalence in the fact that violence as a means of extracting political and economic concessions did not begin with Boko Haram.
To begin with, terrorism is a description of means, not ends. Wanting Sharia or resource control does not make one a terrorist; taking up arms and violently threatening public safety to attain those goals is terrorism. Boko Haram, MEND, OLM, to the extent to which they deploy violence in fulfilling their objectives, are terrorist groups. MEND militants killed soldiers, police officers and attacked government bases and oil company installations. Its methods were remorselessly violent. Recall that the first terrorist attack on Abuja in the Jonathan era, the 2010 Independence Day bombing at Eagle Square, was carried out by MEND. On that occasion, President Jonathan committed the faux pas of publicly absolving MEND, contradicting available evidence before any investigation had been initiated. He fired Kayode Are as national security adviser and replaced him with General Andrew Owoye Azazi. In a July 2006 interview with Tell magazine, Azazi, then Chief of Army Staff had argued that the Niger Delta conflict is a political crisis that requires a political solution rather than a military one. It is easy to see why some polemicists would insist on applying the same standards of judgment to Boko Haram.
There is no better argument against appeasing terrorists than the evidence of recent history. The amnesty program has not ended violence in the Niger Delta. Arguably, it has incentivized gangsterism. By the end of 2012, the program would have gulped over N200 billion since its inception in 2009. Unemployed youths who want in on the bonanza have formed their own gangs to press their claims to the largesse. Piracy has surged since 2008 making Nigerian waters dangerously similar to those of Somalia. The fundamental issue in the Niger Delta is not federal largesse but good governance which politicians have been loath to deliver.
Even if the federal government did negotiate with Boko Haram, there is no reason to expect an end to violence in the North. The expanding footprint of gangsterism across the region which includes bank heists, cross-border banditry and violent religious extremists are not all the work of one organization as is popularly imagined. Boko Haram itself has splintered and its factions may not be easily accommodated by one accord. It is unlikely that gangs that have indulged so wantonly in sating their bloodlust can relinquish their murderous instincts and suddenly abandon the addictive ‘thrill of the kill.’ It is more likely that insurgency and crime will coalesce in a region already flush with guns and the technologies of violence. As in the Niger Delta, the failure of governance rather than the paucity of federal funds is the real problem.
To compound matters, the Nigerian state all too often acts like a terrorist entity. According to a 2011 report by the Centre for Victims of Extra-judicial Killings and Torture (CVEKT), Nigeria recorded a total of 7,198 extra-judicial killings by the police between 2007 and 2011. Police officers are notoriously trigger-happy and their conduct often invites comparison with men of the underworld. Recall that the extra-judicial slaughter of Mohammed Yusuf and scores of the group’s members by the police in 2009 was to form an important justificatory narrative in Boko Haram’s campaign. The state’s legitimacy is anchored to its methods and the relationship between its means and ends in its quest to establish justice.
Thus, it can also be argued that anti-state violence has emerged as a dialectical necessity to counter the official terrorism of the state. We usually define chronic violence as extremism, terrorism and militancy but risk missing the larger context that makes them inevitable and symptomatic. That context is a colonially-oriented state piloted by a kleptocratic political class whose outsized privileges are guaranteed by their control of the instruments of official violence. The Nigerian state must change its ways and its politics must be rescued from the abyss of feral aggression. A greater regard for human rights and human life should inform its security operations.
To resolve chronic violence, we must move away from the idea that murderers can justify their crimes by claiming that they committed them in the name of their ethnicity or religion. The right to life must remain sacred and be promoted as such by the state in word and deed. To this end, the federal government should consider the establishment of an anti-terrorism tribunal to adjudicate a wide range of matters under the rubric of terrorism including, the use of private militias by politicians during elections, hate speech and hate crimes. It is impossible to separate the plague of terrorism from the supervening culture of political violence. The thoughts and words that make it permissible to kill people in the name of creed or tribe, whether propounded by religious clerics, politicians or journalists, must themselves be stridently punished. The Jonathan administration must show greater resolve in apprehending the political sponsors of violence. And it must speedily develop the capacity to confront anti-state violence – something that it has been distressingly slow to do, even with the billions of naira voted for security.
It is, of course, conceivable that terrorists can have worthy ends and deploy terroristic means. The intelligent government must address the ends, the legitimate grievances that feed extremism; but it must punish the means of violence used to achieve them, lest we promote terrorism as a brand of politics. If not, it would be paving the surest path to a state of anomie.
All images sourced online