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)

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