14 July 2011

Nigeria: Hunt for Boko Haram is no Licence to Kill

There is no question the deteriorating security situation in Maiduguri, the Borno state, capital calls for urgent and decisive action on the part of the Federal government.

But from reports that soldiers deployed there for internal security operation have been breaking into houses, and shooting adult males at random, this is not the kind of action that would bring the situation under control. There are also credible reports of soldiers setting fire to buildings and vehicles in the name of the hunt for suspected Boko Haram members blamed for the spate of deadly explosions in the city. The objective of the operation is not helped when the same reports suggest that the Joint Task Force (JTF) members went on what looked like a retaliatory mission to avenge the killing of a soldier and wounding of others when a devise exploded near an army roadblock a few days earlier. The spokesman of the JTF, Colonel Victor Ebhaleme denied that the army engaged in any untoward activity, asserting instead that explosive devices placed by the Boko Haram members had caused the fires in the buildings.

The authorities must be sensitive to the delicate handling that the situation requires. Soldiers, in spite of their orientation and training in putting down internal threats to security, should be cautioned not to tar every resident, no matter how suspicious they believe the people might look, with the same brush. The harassment that residents feel with the incessant security checks that have caused hardship to the civilian population is tilting towards some resentment as well. That is why it is very vital that the populace be educated about the temporary inconvenience they may be going through and why it is important for the long-term security for their lives and property. People who definitely are not the sect members being hunted must be told why they have to endure roadblocks, and walking with raised arms whenever they approached a checkpoint, in addition to evening curfew and the ban on commercial motorcycles. To reassure residents and the nation in general, the JTF operations should be subject to oversight and review; every case of abuse should be investigated.

It is obvious that these restrictive physical measures are not what the situation demands. The Federal government must task the intelligence community to come up effective strategies that could lead to a breakthrough in the current challenges. There has been no coherent explanation why the police, the army and Nigeria's entire intelligence apparatus have not been able to pinpoint where the threats are coming from, and positively identify those behind it, be they Boko Haram, or others. It is high-time that emphasis is laid more on gathering information about the sect than on stabbing in the dark, and drawing the blood of law-abiding residents. The massive exodus of residents reported after the recent security crackdown only underscore deteriorating situation, a far cry from the stabilisation that the operation was meant to bring about. It shows a lack of confidence in the modus operandi of the soldiers and police task forces. Brute force and indiscriminate use of military power on civilians should be replaced with intelligence gathering, which would now form the foundation for a clear strategy in dealing with the threats.

There should also be concerted effort to stop the Boko Haram hysteria from taking hold in other parts of the country. The unprecedented traffic bottlenecks in Abuja recently that caused considerable hardships to commuters were as a result of stringent checks by soldiers with briefs to look out for Boko Haram members. These were uncalled for. While reasonable measures are needed to curb this kind of security threat, these should be results of painstaking deliberations so that they do not end up causing more harm than good.

If the authorities have been able to determine that it is indeed the Boko Haram are behind these security scares, then the task is made much easier if measures to tackle the challenge flow from a clear understanding of the problem. But it bears stressing that the current blanket and heavy-handed approach of the army in 'looking' for Boko Haram will only lead to more problems than it would solve. At the moment the measure risk losing the hearts and minds of the very people whose co-operation is key to resolving the problem.

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