The news of the ceasefire declared by the "larger faction" of Boko Haram was accompanied by some calls for dialogue and eventual amnesty for members of the group.
This, of course, is not the first time the group would be reported as waving the olive branch and the voice of some northern leaders at this time might not be a mere coincidence. Curiosity is, at least, legitimate in the circumstance. Meanwhile, more killings continued in Borno state even at the eve of the ceasefire declaration.
The clear import of the foregoing and other serious developments is that the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan should take another look at its strategy (if any) for combating the crisis that has caused loss of thousands of lives and destruction of property. Perhaps it is time to rethink how to solve the Boko Haram problem. On this page yesterday, Dr. Chidi Amuta did a masterly job of interrogating the articulation of the problem and its solution by the President himself on a CNN programme. Amuta's well-argued position is the sort that should attract the attention of those strategists in government who are actually interested in problem-solving. The articulation of a presidential response is as important as the substance of the response itself. That is why a nation could turn to its leader in moments of crisis for the necessary inspiration.
For clarity, there are subjective issues the government should not ignore. And this is without prejudice to the physical action being taken by security forces on ground in parts of the north where enormous security challenge is posed by the murderous activities of Boko Haram in the last three years. The Joint Task Force (JTF) has been firmly on ground in the troubled areas. The State Security Service (SSS) has done a good job of bursting the network of the group. IT should be acknowledged that significant arrests have been made by the SSS. Not a few soldiers, policemen and SSS operatives have been killed in the course of ensuring security in states where Boko Haram has struck.
Despite the efforts of the security agencies, you only need to have a good conversation with a member of the elite from the northeastern zone, tragically affected by the Boko Haram activities, to know that a section of the country is feeling abandoned. The approach that is required to respond to such prevalent feelings is not the remit of the JTF. It requires a disposition to a political solution.
Nigerians from the areas where socio-economic life has been destroyed are crying loud; they feel that the rest of the country has left them to their fate. This sense of abandonment is so palpable in the political atmosphere that no sensitive leadership can afford to ignore it. Let us hope that their voices would soon be audible enough to be heard in Aso Rock. Yet, any one who is literate in Nigeria's post-colonial history would remember that it would be politically unwise to suggest that a crisis in one part of the country is the headache of the people in that section alone. Crisis in any portion of the country has a way of inexorably snowballing into a national disaster. So, the Boko Haram thing is not just a problem of northeast or even the north as whole; it is indeed a Nigerian problem. The reality of the nation's political economy makes this inevitable.
The fall of the First Republic is usually traced to the political crisis that rocked the western region from 1962 till the military take-over of government in 1966. Initially, when the agitation in the Niger Delta turned violent, many Nigerians treated it as "news from the creeks." That was before the October 1, 2010 bombing in Abuja on the day the nation marked the Golden Jubilee of its independence. This was in spite of the amnesty granted the militants almost a year earlier. In any case, with the oil export crippled by the activities of the militants the crisis was already taking an economic bite on the nation.
There are parts of the federal republic today where streets are reportedly deserted in daylight with all the negative implications on productive activities. The operations of the JTF have drawn criticisms from international human rights groups. The JTF has valiantly defended itself against human rights abuse. Already there are projections that it might take over 20 years to repair the damage done to the economy of these parts of Nigeria.
The destruction of the equipment of the telecom companies has made communication in the affected areas more difficult than in other parts of the country. Without any formal proclamation, movement into some parts of the country for legitimate business is restricted. If the Emir of Kano could be attacked and his guards killed, why should ordinary persons not feel frightened? If General Shuwa could be killed in a supposedly military zone in Maiduguri why would less secure persons not be afraid of moving freely on the streets? Hardly will any professional body make Maiduguri or any of the cities in the northeast venue of its national meeting these days.
Before the call for dialogue and amnesty by the Northern Development Focus Initiative (NDFI), the Bornu Elders Committee also called for dialogue with Boko Haram. According to them, there is the need isolate those who commit mass murders in the name of the group. There have been similar calls from different quarters in the last two years. To be fair to the federal government, dialogue has never been ruled out as an option. The issue has been how to structure such a dialogue. As some commentators are wont to ask: "dialogue with whom and about what?" The government should, however, be wary of making a mechanical choice between dialogue and force. The strategy should take into consideration the complex nature of the problem. The problem has economic roots and security consequences. According to the NDFI, more than 70% of children of school age is out of school.
Does that grotesque situation alone not provide a recruitment pool for Boko Haram? Regardless of the analysis made by the President on CNN, poverty is a primary factor that should be tackled for any enduring solution to the problem. There are certainly political and religious undertones. There are also international angles to the problem. For instance, there are already talks of the possibility of charges of crimes against humanity against Boko Haram. It is assumed that all these dimensions would be incorporated into any strategy aimed at solving the problems.
The expression of abandonment is also evident the NDFI's statement. Like some other groups and individuals in the north, the NDFI has been quick to draw a parallel of amnesty programme in the Niger Delta in suggesting the way out of the Boko Haram debacle. For instance, after a two-day meeting in Kano, the group said among other things in a communiqué: "Federal government should set up a Northern Nigeria Restoration, Reformation and Rehabilitation Programme to absorb repentant Boko Haram insurgents unconditionally and a special committee of respected northern leaders should immediately embark on a sympathy and solidarity tour of all states affected by insecurity in the North".
Now, it is instructive that the NDFI, apparently weary of expecting the President of federal government officials to visit the affected areas, is turning to northern leaders. That is not healthy for nation building. Northern leaders should doubtless undertake the solidarity tour. The president should also visit Maiduguri and other affected areas in the north. The symbolism of his presence of the President and Commander-in-Chief would be of immense effect on the psychology of those who feel abandoned. The people in the affected areas deserve such a show of solidarity.
Beyond the symbolism, however, the federal government should consider the calls political solution coming especially from those affected. In a broad strategy the political solution is not necessarily incompatible with steps being taken by the government to ensure security. Such a strategy should be well articulated so as to win the support of the people and their leaders.