5 February 2013

Nigeria: Counter-Terrorism or Militarism?


For the past 5 years or thereabout, the government's attitude to terrorist attacks has been annoyingly predictable.

Every time there is a new terrorist attack, the government reacts by increasing the numbers of soldiers on the streets, set-up new road -blocks and cordons, purchase more siren cars and trucks, harass innocent civilians, increase the intensity of its fruitless stop and search exercise with the consequences of tail-back of gruelling traffic, impose more curfew and senseless road diversions, impose a blanket ban on major means of transportation if necessary etc.

Every time there is a new terrorist attack, the government strangulates the system and punishes the innocent masses as though they are to blame for the attacks. These measures are not only sterile and counter-productive; they are more of an impulsive reaction than an effective response to terror. In the end, they cede the advantage to the terrorists.

By and large, President Jonathan's counter-terrorism operations just like his predecessor's have been a colossal failure. A review of the last 3 years of his administration's counter-terrorism approach reveals a noticeable structural and systemic lapse. His approach has been more militaristic than strategic, more defensive than engaging.

Jonathan has not taken the battle to the terrorists. The war on terrorism is a war fought on intelligence, a soft war. The enemy is largely invisible and operates under the radar; hence the government too must engage them under the radar.

As an indication of this administration's avowed commitment to fight terrorism, it established the office of the national co-coordinator for counter-terrorism to co-ordinate and direct counter-terrorism efforts in the country. This office which is subsumed under the office of the National Security Adviser has become a head without limbs or hands. And just like most offices and agencies of the government, it has become a symbolic abstraction; a caricature of the ideal meant to give the masses a delusional comfort that the government is functioning.

Indeed, the results on ground clearly belie the government's claim that it's defeating the terrorist. Hardly a week passes by without a report of a major attack or attempted assassination of a high profile target. What this government takes for granted however is that; with each successful attack, the terrorists become more emboldened.

Perhaps this administration is less to blame for the ongoing security debacle in the country since it inherited a "structureless" government from its predecessors. A government in spite of its vast resources that could not conduct an accurate population census on its peaceful population, it remains to be seen how such a government or any other built on its legacy can locate highly trained terrorists within its borders.

These days, nearly everyone except the government officials and the members of the ruling class has become a potential suspect in this amorphous war against phantom terrorists. Both the government officials and members of the ruling class now spend stupendous fortune to import bullet-proof cars and armoured vehicles.

Scared to death of their own shadows, they have turned their offices and homes into fortresses, with armed government guards standing sentry day and night. Ironically, it's not the terrorists but the government officials who cannot move freely. The current counter-terrorism policy of the government is patently aimed at selective protection.

There is no silver bullet that will extinguish the scourge of terrorism with one shut. There is no wishing this problem away. If the government is serious about defeating terrorism not just fighting it, it must do its home-work properly.

The government must take cue from countries like US and the UK with a history of successful counter-terrorism record. Terrorism cannot be fought in a vacuum. It must be fought in the context of socio-economic reality.

As a compliment to its counter-insurgency operations, the government must seek to promote good governance, propriety, probity, democracy and economic prosperity through necessary assistance programs. It must work out measures aimed at reducing radicalization and recruitment of terrorist, aimed to reduce the vulnerability of target attacks through a rigorous information gathering system and not just by posting soldiers and law enforcement agents around in anticipation of attacks.

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