Daily Trust (Abuja)

20 May 2014

Nigeria: Choosing Your Ailment, Selecting Sweeter Pills to Swallow

column

Unlike most of my compatriots, I really empathize with Presi-dent Goodluck Jonathan; it was better that he dodged the planned trip to Chibok. Going there had all the hallmarks of a political booby-trap. If he had gone there and some Boko Haram element had managed to evade detection and thrown even one grenade anywhere along his route, it would have been a propaganda coup for the group. However, even that could have been contained. The bigger issue was cultural. Let me explain.

As Africans, we are used to visiting to empathize with individuals or groups that had suffered some tragedy or loss. Since such sad events are often unexpected, we rush there; and after all the protocols, we commiserate with them ending our speeches by extending the regards of our spouses and our entire family. When for whatever reason we could not go within the first week or two, we then have to be fully prepared, and arrive "in full", with personal staff, security details and the media. And of course we must carry the wife along. It is easier to imagine the anger of Patience if she were to be told "No, Madam, na only Oga go waka go." But that would be even more imaginable than the "kata-kata" that would follow her lashing out at the mothers of the abducted Chibok girls, who she would blame for causing her husband many sleepless nights. It was safer to head for France.

From all indications, the president must be happy with the outcome of his Paris trip. Not only did the countries in attendance promise to "share intelligence and coordinate their actions" to fight the Boko haram insurgents terrorising Nigeria and their north eastern neighbours, but the Summit offered him and his handlers a better narrative than the dominant one fast approaching its "sell-by" date. Now he can sleep more peaceably, knowing that the Boko Haram scourge was not something local for which his critics have been holding him responsible for badly tackling.

Now the tune can change to "war against global Al-Qaida." In this, even the French, the Cameroonians, the Chadians and the Nigeriens are coming onboard. We must now all prepare to fight what they dubbed a "total war." Even if he fails in this, nobody should blame him or his party, the PDP. After all, with all its massive arsenal of the most sophisticated modern arms, gadgets, and gizmos, and almost inexhaustible finances, the US had not been able to get rid of Al-Qaeda, despite trying for over two decades. "Why did we not think of such a simple excuse all this time?", he must be asking himself. Now governors Kashim Shettima of Borno, Murtala Nyako of Adamawa and Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe states; the irritating All Progressives Congress spokesman Lai Mohammed; Senator Zanna, Amnesty International and all the other critics, would finally shut up, and allow him to sleep with his two eyes closed. Thank God for his many mercies.

Even the Americans he just invited had apparently been able to annoy him with their irritating references to "massive corruption", "extrajudicial killings", "badly motivated and poorly equipped soldiers" and all those unpalatable remarks. Clearly they had been listening to Shettima and Nyako, and all those Aljazeera, BBC and CNN noisy busybodies.

The trouble with these new-found excuses and "total war" approach is that they really won't sell and won't work. Boko Haram was home-grown and has local roots. It was so badly handled at the initial and subsequent stages, which is why we ended up in the situation we are now in. Blame the Salafists, the CIA, and the Osama Bin Ladins if we must, but concrete local conditions were present for matters to get this bad. For if we put an egg and a coconut in an incubator only the former will hatch. Without the poverty, the chronic unemployment and near total hopelessness prevalent in these areas, no amount of propaganda, financial incentives or psycho-active drugs can get these young men to commit such mindless atrocities, killings and even suicide bombings. So we must look inwards to find the root causes of our problems. Secondly, if everything that is due to our soldiers is given to them, they would not go to the extent of shooting their GOC, and attempting to mutiny, as we saw recently in Maiduguri. After all, they usually perform commendably when on UN peace- keeping missions. Thirdly, as Senator Zanna has been pointing out, if even a quarter of the trillions we have been voting has been properly utilised to purchase appropriate weaponry for them, we would not be hearing them complaining of being out-gunned by Boko Haram.

The concept of "total war" is even more problematic. In military terms, it refers to the complete mobilization of every available resource (material and human) for the war effort. Usually it makes little or no differentiation between combatants and non-combatants and it really has been with mankind for time immemorial. It is not even clear if such a war is currently even legal under the Geneva Conventions.

And it has never been shown to work against local insurgencies. The Americans should be our best teachers in this matter. After their misadventure in Vietnam and other places, they still felt they could win in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Fuelled by anger, greed and official lies regarding weapons of mass destruction, and who actually attacked them on 9/11, they started the global War on Terror. They are still debating whether it was won. A recent study by Brown University's Watson Institute for international Studies puts the casualty figures conservatively at 225,000 dead, and 365,000 wounded. Some 6,000 US troops and 2,300 contractors also lost their lives. Financially, this "Cost of War" study group estimated the bill on US tax payers at $3.7 to $4.4 trillion. And they are still counting. The Americans, the Afghanis, the Iraqis and the Pakistanis are all talking to the Taliban, trying to find some other way to end the mess.

Genuine grievances or not, it is necessary to find other ways to fight this madness call Boko Haram, and to deny it recruits, funds or hiding places. Satellite imagery, drones and other sophisticated gadgets and methods would help but ending corruption, poverty, joblessness, political impunity and marginalisation are all central to the fight. So is boosting the morale of our fighting forces. Let's find local solutions to the problems we helped to create, and not allow politics and greed to becloud our judgements. Community involvements such as the Civilian JTFs, religious enlightenments and caring for the widows and orphans are also important. Our local approaches, despite the lapses, need to be fine-tuned.

We should welcome all assistance, local or foreign, but let us be absolutely clear who the enemy really is. We can't even focus on Boko Haram and now we want to wage total war against Al-Qaeda? Let us seriously start by cleaning our own mess first. Insurgencies thrive in local spaces, within local minds and based on local grievances, mistakes and injustices.

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