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EDITORIAL: Combating Islamist Terrorism – The Hydra-Headed Monster

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What would make a man send his 13-year-old daughter to strap herself with a bomb and kill herself and others? A father is meant to protect his children, not send them to die. So what went wrong in this case?

What would make an adult strap a 10 year-old girl with a bomb and send her into a market where the bomb is detonated with a remote control?

These are just two examples that depict the complete irrationality of the Boko Haram insurgency. It is an insurgency that defies logic, an insurgency that is inexplicable. But it is an evil that has entered our country and we must find a solution to as quickly as possible.

Boko Haram is brutal in its bid to create an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria. The group has killed thousands, controls 20,000 square miles in the North of Nigeria, and has forced 1.7 million people out of their homes and communities.

Its abduction of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014 briefly made world headlines and ignited a social media campaign with the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls until a lack of swift resolution dampened the outrage. Many fear that now the group may be using some of those abducted girls as suicide bombers, either brainwashed into helping the cause or ignorant of the group’s intention.

The daily killings, abductions and arson – and the fact that great swathes of our population live in perpetual fear – are a source of concern to all Nigerians.

In his New Year message to the nation, President Jonathan made a promise:

“Terrorists have unleashed much pain and agony on our land. They have made widows of our mothers and sisters and orphans of our children. They have shut down businesses, desecrated places of worship… We will not forget; we will not look the other way. We will bring justice to the savage terrorists known as Boko Haram. They will be defeated.”

Good words to hear, but is it a promise he can keep or a pre-election sound bite? Main opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari would have us think the latter. The APC candidate told voters they should blame Jonathan’s administration for the failure to tackle Boko Haram, and not the armed forces. Of course, as a former military head of state, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Leading #BringBackOurGirls campaigner, Oby Ezekwesili, claims the failure to recover the Chibok girls is evidence of Jonathan’s failure and lack of willingness to tackle the problem.

So what has Jonathan done to tackle the biggest danger in our times?

There are the obvious things, of course, such as the deployment of troops with a mission to destroy Boko Haram, but there have been few high-profile successes so far.

Careful study of President Jonathan’s approach to winning this ugly war is that he is thinking longer-term. Counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency training for the military will surely pay off further down the line, as will the university training for police officers. Training in international humanitarian law and human rights should address criticism that the police and military were committing their own human rights violations as they attempted to track down Boko Haram members.

Even more promising is the $1 billion Jonathan borrowed to upgrade the military’s equipment and improve logistics, and the cross-border force with Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic. Not to forget the strengthening of links with Western nations, France, United Kingdom, the United States of America, among others.

In short, he has done what any leader of a democracy would do. He sought dialogue, even though a declared amnesty with the terrorists was rejected by the Boko Haram high command. A President primarily responsible for a successful amnesty with militants in the Niger Delta had to try. In addition, his forces on the ground are chipping away at Boko Haram’s stronghold. The re-taking of captured towns and villages is a much-needed morale booster.

Let’s compare Jonathan’s record with that of his opposition candidate, retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari.

Critics of Buhari warn that he is a step back to an ugly past. Indeed, given Buhari’s history, it is hard to believe he is a fan of democracy at all. This is the man who overthrew democratically-elected civilian president, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, via a military coup in the 80s. His regime was marked by a brutal intolerance for dissent, tampering with the press and the introduction of Decree Number 4, and enactment of retrogressive laws. He too was ousted by a military coup in 1985 with the public rejoicing at his overthrow. Today, he claims to be a democrat at heart. Can a military dictator and a man with a thirst for absolute power really have changed so much?

Buhari has been on the campaign trail, on his fourth attempt to win a presidential election, pledging to fight corruption and insecurity but is sadly lacking in specifics. Does he have a plan to do that? Who knows, because he hasn’t deemed it fit to share it with Nigerians. His overconfident claim to eradicate insurgency in a matter of months has some Nigerians wondering if he has previously unknown links to Boko Haram that make him think he has the magic wand against the terror group.

On June 3, 2013, The Punch newspaper ran an article with the headline: “Buhari faults crackdown on Boko Haram.” Thisday’s version had the headline: “Buhari: Military Offensive against Boko Haram, Anti-North.” In the news story, Buhari said that an attack on Boko Haram was an attack on the North. He noted that the Boko Haram members were being killed and their houses demolished unlike the “special treatment” that was given to the Niger Delta militants by the Federal Government.

Such statements helped to discourage the Nigerian soldiers and encourage the Boko Haram terrorists into more violence, because they believed that they had a big fish on their side. For Buhari to promise to solve the problem of Boko Haram is like someone asking to be voted to solve a problem he helped to promote.

Lining up the two men, it’s clear that Jonathan has done the most to empower Nigeria’s military. The main problem he faces, of course, is that any such grassroots change will take time, something that many Nigerians are not eager to hear. Nigerians are suffering now; it’s understandable that they want action straightaway.

Boko Haram may have intensified their actions since Jonathan won the presidential poll in 2010, but they were around long before his rise to power.

Guerrilla warfare is never easy to fight. For example, in spite of the military records and war records of President Olusegun Obasanjo, he battled the Niger Delta militants more than half of his eight-year presidency without success. The more he fought them, the more they sabotaged Nigeria’s oil production, bringing it down by more than half. When President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took over in 2007, he continued with the battle. But by 2009 he realized that it was futile fighting, the militants had almost shut down Nigeria’s oil production and the country was ‘broke’. Yar’Adua, went on to proposed amnesty to the Niger Delta militants and a special federal government attention to the Niger Delta. The Niger Delta elders and politicians, led by the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan convinced the militants to surrender their weapons and embrace the amnesty. That led to the end of that insurgency.

The Boko Haram’s insurgency is even much worse than the Niger Delta insurgency because Boko Haram is based on religious extremism which has political, social and economic flavour. Boko Haram uses suicide bombing. Boko Haram does not draw a line between the civilians and government bodies. It goes for soft targets like schools, churches, mosques, shopping malls, etc.

That is why the government has been adopting the carrot-and-stick strategy. By this, the government still continues to ask the Boko Haram sect to lay down their arms and embrace amnesty. At the same time, because Boko Haram continues to kill and destroy, the government continues to fight against them.

Unfortunately, the efforts of the soldiers have not been made easy by the allegations that there are soldiers who have sympathies for Boko Haram and therefore sabotage the efforts of the military. There have been allegations that the movement of the military was revealed to Boko Haram, leading to troops being ambushed and killed.

The President has promised to pay special attention to the training, equipping, and boosting of morale of the military, so that they can up their game in this fight and win it as soon as possible.

None of that happens overnight. Voting for those whose words or actions had encouraged Boko Haram is unjust. Religious extremism is a monster that is difficult to end. One can see what religious extremists are doing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and other countries. Anybody who promises to end Boko Haram in a flash needs to explain to us what he knows that we don’t know.

Northern elders must also take the initiative like the Niger Delta elders to mobilize and reason with Boko Haram members. Boko Haram members are people’s brothers, sons, husbands and fathers.

Jonathan is squaring up to the Boko Haram threat. Clearly, this is a war that he will win. It is just a matter of time.

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