14 February 2013

Nigeria: The Presidency's Overdue Gesture to North-East


The visit of Vice President Mohammed Namadi Sambo to Maiduguri a fortnight ago broke almost three years of embarrassing silence on why President Goodluck Jonathan has not deigned to personally meet and empathise with the governments and people of large parts of the North East that have borne the brunt of the Boko Haram mayhem.

Although the vice president's engagement was taken up largely by commissioning projects executed by the Borno State government, his visit was significant. It marked the resumption of social engagement by the top leadership of the administration with the North East since 2010. From that period, that part of the country was treated as a "no-go" area, excepting the government's deployment of the Joint Task Force (JTF) to put down the insurgency.

Much as Sambo's itinerary to Maiduguri was at best salutary, it should have occurred much earlier. It was a strategic error on the part of federal government not to have seized the initiative at the onset of the insurgency to assuage the anger of the sectarian group over the extrajudicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram's leader, by the police. As the insurgency took root and became violent with widespread destruction and mounting loss of lives, there was a sense that the federal government, having deployed the JTF, had turned its back to the crisis. A visit by President Jonathan would have sent a symbolic but powerful signal, first to the insurgents that the federal government was prepared to tackle them and second, to the governments in the region that they had the confidence and support of the federal government.

It was left to former President Olusegun Obasanjo to fill the obvious void created by the non-involvement of the federal government. He embarked on a private mission to engage with those he believed had some influence over the leaders of the group; it took a tragic turn when his host was murdered shortly afterwards.

Still, had a visit been undertaken early on, it would have won for government huge moral capital and understanding, even as it unleashed the military as part of measures to deal with the insurrection. Indeed, even while the insurgency approached its peak, the president could still have visited the region, both to buoy up the morale of the men and women in uniform deployed there, and as a means of expressing the government's sympathy with citizens caught up in the vortex of the upheaval, compelled to live under draconian rules.

As the JTF's campaign led to alarming rise in the number of civilian casualties, and prolonged disruptions to social and economic life, many began to see the government as being nonchalant to the plight of Nigerian people in Borno and Yobe states, the hardest hit. It was as if there is a policy to punish everyone living in the conflict areas for the crime of Boko Haram.

Now with the apparent lull in hostilities that everyone hopes may result in a permanent cessation, it would be advisable for government to redress the unsavoury image it has cut for itself in the campaign against Boko Haram. This would include, but not be limited to, measures to reassure citizens residing in the North East that the federal government has the will and the capacity to protect the lives and property of all those that are law abiding.

Sambo's visit showed that safety of highly placed people can be maintained. The excuse he gave for Jonathan not being able to visit the region, namely that he was occupied with matters of state, does not hold water. To argue that the precarious security situation was a factor belittles the president's other position as Commander in Chief.

By not seizing the initiative, much damage has already been done; but it is not too late to try to recover. President Goodluck Jonathan should consider paying his own visit as a matter of priority, to pay homage to the fortitude of the people and to demonstrate that he meant well for them. The Federal government should also consider some financial support to the beleagured states of Borno and Yobe which have been forced to spend a huge chunk of their monthly allocation on addressing the security challenges they face instead of spending to create more jobs and opportunities for their people.

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