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Are we fighting the wrong war against Boko Haram? (I)

Doyin Okupe insists that the comments were “unfair and misplaced,” while Labaran Maku, who seems to have learnt some restraints to his usually combative, even…

Doyin Okupe insists that the comments were “unfair and misplaced,” while Labaran Maku, who seems to have learnt some restraints to his usually combative, even abusive retorts, accused Shettima of a “misfortune of indiscretion,” adding that the progress being made against the insurgents “is not something we will talk (of) on the pages of newspapers”.
He was not the first to come under attack for raising his voice. Even those that dared to say we must go beyond the military approach and start addressing the root causes of the problem did not fare too well. President Jonathan’s first National Security Adviser, late Andrew Azazi, actually queried the recently suspended Governor of the Central Bank, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, in 2012, for granting an interview with the Financial Times of London, criticizing the administration’s handling of the Boko Haram insurgency, especially for saying that the success of Boko haram in recruiting member could be linked to widespread poverty in the North East. Azazi insisted that the interview did not only lack any “basis in fact” but was “divisive, inflammatory, inciting and inappropriate of a senior officer of the Federal Government whose responsibility includes national stability and state continuity”.
Borno elders and other observers (both local and foreign) had said similar things and they were not spared. The usual response is to accuse people of being either sympathizers of Boko Haram or, which is worse, active members or financiers. And don’t even waste your time going to the so called “social media” where the usual abusive rats that dominate liberally label every northern Muslim as Boko Haram.
However, the issue of fighting and defeating Boko Haram is of public interests, and how well (or how badly) it is being conducted must matter to all of us, and we cannot just leave it to President Jonathan and his Generals. Last year we spent over a trillion on security and in this year’s Budget another trillion has been earmarked. Given the manner we perceive and consequently approach the fight it is unlikely that we can successfully tackle this phenomenon by simply throwing more money at it.
The logical place to start is to ask ourselves; are we fighting the right war?
In his book appropriately titled Vom Kriege (On War), the German general widely acknowledged as the most important of classical western strategic theorist said:
“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive”.
The issue needs to be raised because both the civilian political leadership and the military high command seem confused about it. Indeed President Jonathan started with the assumption that it was the northern political class, including even some in his office, who are waging terror against him. He wanted to believe he was fighting someone else. Gradually he came to concede that the terror was affecting almost everyone and even those he was blaming had no control over it. This is where we still are, and even those opposed to his handling of the fight are still apparently no wiser to this day, except for a few, notably Governor Shettima and, from their recent comments, Generals T Y Danjuma and Mohammed Buhari.
We seem to be fighting a war against “terrorism” instead of one against “an insurgency” that is employing terror. Terror is a tactic that is carried out with the intent of making a statement, and perhaps influencing outcomes. Insurgency is always a political action which often, but not always, involves terror. We must not confuse these terms as being the same. The U.S. military, for example, defines “terrorism” as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents,” while an “insurgency” is an “organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict.”
While we all generally refer to them as by the Hausa term Boko Haram (meaning “Western education is sinful”) they call themselves Jamāʻat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-daʻwa wal-Jihād meaning: “The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad”. Thus, while they are using terror as a tactic, they see their mission as one of conversion to their ways, and creating a more “just” state by force. As a result, the group has waged war against the Nigerian state and its agents and institutions.
It has attacked police stations, prisons, churches, mosques, markets, schools and even whole villages. It is not just against Western education but against all things western and modern, including democracy. It seeks to overthrow the Nigerian state as it exists today and replace it with one based on their perception of Islam, and to convert people by force. They have killed more Muslims than any other group because of the location of their “theatre of operation” but also because they regard anyone who is not with them as at best a representative of the state, and at worst an apostate. They use terror deliberately but ultimately they seek political power and legitimacy.
People often ask how killing school children and their teachers, polio vaccination assistant, or innocent villagers and travellers can be called a political act. The truth is that the intent is political, though the tactic may be barbaric, ungodly and totally reprehensible. Terrorism, someone pointed out, is “propaganda by the deed; it is a form of armed political communication engaged in by using violence to attack the innocent”. As indiscriminate violence, terror aims to make people feel that no one is safe. They know it may provoke an excessively harsh and indiscriminate government response but that too might work in their favour by alienating people and providing them with more potential recruits. Indeed, Boko Haram seems to recognize that it cannot gain much popular support even among Muslims and has, therefore, decided to fall back on instilling sufficient fear such that people will lose faith in the government’s ability to protect. They seek to wear out the government and frighten the citizenry into submission.
If we continue to see this group as simply a bunch of terrorists, or a group being used by our political opponents, and seek to merely eliminate them militarily we will fail to get at the root of the problem. It is an insurgency that challenges all of us. We may even succeed militarily, but at very great costs, and for only this time around. Governor Shettima is saying he needs help in not only getting more and better equipped troops but in helping to win the “hearts and minds” especially of the widows and the orphans, and creating jobs and opportunities to deny Boko Haram (or others that may emerge in the future) potential recruits. He is doing his best so far but he is facing a group that seeks to subvert the Nigerian state yet we are treating the matter as “politics as usual”.  Or is it “business as usual”?

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