Experts conclude that to successfully tackle the security threat posed by Boko Haram, there is an urgent need to overhaul the nation’s security system in addition to reviewing the political structure
Pandemonium was let loose last Tuesday at the Murtala Mohammed (International) Airport as an unclaimed luggage belonging to one Salami Atolagbe-Aro, a 75-year-old retired teacher created panic at the airport. The baggage was mistaken for a bomb planted to bring the airport down. The fears were understandable, coming a few days after a supposed threat from the Boko Haram Islamic sect to bomb Lagos. Anti-bomb experts struggled to determine the content of the bag. But it later turned out that for inexplicable reasons the old man, who was returning from overseas where he had gone for eye surgery, forgot the luggage at the arrival hall of the airport. The man later turned up on Thursday to claim his bag.
Scenarios like this have become a common feature all over the country as the fear of Boko Haram spreads. Last week’s incident was the second of such false alarm in two weeks at the airport. In major cities, particularly in the northern part of the country, people are now afraid to attend public gatherings for fear of becoming victims of Boko Haram attacks. Thus, the fear, outrage and confusion that have gripped Nigerians since suicide bombing and gun attacks have become a reality in the country and have refused to go away; if anything the insurgence has intensified as the terrorists became more daring.
Early last month, they threatened to overthrow President Goodluck Jonathan’s government following the latter’s assurance that the murderous Islamic sect would be routed by the end of June. “You Jonathan cannot stop us; instead we will devour you in the three months like you are boasting,” Abubakar Shekau, the sect leader, was quoted as saying in the video entitled: Message to Goodluck Jonathan. He was, in the video, flanked by four masked men holding rifles as he spoke.
“We are proud soldiers of Allah; we will never give up as we fight the infidels. We will emerge as winners… we will finish you and end your government,” Shekau said in Arabic and Hausa languages.
True to his words, the sect struck several times, killing and maiming more people in Abuja and Kaduna where they attacked media houses including THISDay newspapers, Borno, Yobe and Bayero University in Kano. The fear now is that the attacks may spread to the southern parts of the country more so when the sect has named other media houses as part of its targets. To many Nigerians, it does appear that the security forces that had before the recent attacks given the impression that they might soon rout the insurgents, or reduce their potency, were losing the fight.
But why are the security agencies apparently unable to deal with the situation? Gabriel Ajayi, a colonel retired infantry officer, Nigeria Army, explained that in insurgency worldwide, there is presumption of acquiescence on the part of the populace and that Nigeria cannot be different in this regard. Ajayi’s argument is that members of the sect might be holding their local community hostage with threats and intimidation or they might be enjoying the tacit approval of the people who would be unwilling to give information to security agencies. Abubakar Tsav, a retired commissioner of police and social critic, agrees. “I think it is because people are afraid because of the suspicion that our security agencies have been infiltrated by the group. If you give information about them, the police or other security agencies would tell them who brought the information and the person would end up dead,” Tsav said last Wednesday.
A retired commodore in the Nigerian Navy who does not want to be mentioned also argued that once the local populace has sympathy for what they are propagating, they would not cooperate in terms of sharing information or exposing the insurgents. His words: “The cultural element is what has made the fight against Boko Haram particularly herculean. The North is not only bound together by language (Hausa), but also by the Islamic religion. With the twin evil of poverty and ignorance having a feast on the people, it is so easy to push ideologies down the throats of a vast majority of the people.”
According to him, a few wealthy ones are the people giving support to the insurgents because terrorism requires a lot of funding. “They have places where they go back to after each attack, they are within the community, the community knows them, their leaders know them, they are silent because they (terrorists) are serving their purpose,” he alleged. Similarly, a retired police chief, who wished to remain anonymous, told the magazine that he was not in doubt that the sect is being financed by high net worth people with billions of naira in their kitty. “I tell you, billions are involved in the bombings. Who is providing the funding? These people are not radicals; they look simple yet they have been able to cause serious damage because they are better armed. Who is supplying the money and why?” he asked rhetorically.
President Jonathan admitted recently that efforts to stamp out terrorism in the country were being hampered by politics. Being the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he may be right. The magazine learnt that the war on terror has been so politicised that security operatives find precious little support from the locals in the Boko Haram strongholds, while prominent northerners continue to insist on dialogue with the faceless group. The retired commodore said, for instance, when the late Umaru Yar’Adua initiated dialogue with Niger Delta militants, he reached out to stakeholders in the region and they facilitated it. “But in this case, northern leaders are insisting that they cannot identify members of the sect,” he noted. Ajayi, who wrote a book cataloguing the cause of the disharmony among the regions that make up the country, alleged that Sani Yerima, former governor of Zamfara State, inadvertently created a backdrop for the problem the country is witnessing today by spearheading the declaration of Sharia law in his state.
Security experts say the dearth of intelligence, due to people’s unwillingness to give information to security agencies, is compounded by lack of previous experience in counter-insurgency, lack of sophisticated equipment needed to aid the operations of security agencies as well as the political factor. For instance, a security source told the magazine last Wednesday that one of the frustrations of fighting Boko Haram is that the group is a moving target. This makes the surveillance cameras installed in strategic areas in Abuja reactive rather than pre-emptive. “For example, the THIS Day bombing could not be stopped even though the bomber passed through the surveillance cameras, because the cameras as used in Nigeria only come into use after the crime has been committed,” he noted. The security source said the cameras captured the bomber as he drove to his fatal mission. His words: “He had a second person in the car who [alighted] close to the target, leaving only the driver to drive into the premises. It is highly suspected that there was at least one more collaborator with a video camera who filmed the action. Initially, it was thought that it was an amateur who used a mobile telephone camera to do the footage. But the footage posted on YouTube suggested a more sophisticated camera and a professional handling.”
Thus, despite the information picked by surveillance cameras, security agencies have been unable to locate the second person that alighted from the bomb-laden vehicle. According some sources, some level of technical competence is still missing to make the infrastructure work. Ibrahim Abubakar, an internationally certified security expert who proposed an efficient and appropriate security design for Abuja, which was reportedly ignored by the authority, corroborated this. Abubakar told TELL last week that with what is in place now, the government cannot stop Boko Haram because it lacks the appropriate knowledge and security infrastructure to do so. According to him, if government does the right thing, it is very easy to stop Boko Haram.
To Sagir Mohammed, a retired military intelligence officer, security agencies in the country have not been adequately prepared to tackle the scourge. “Our intelligence personnel have not been trained to tackle such human tragedy. That is why you find that anytime Boko Haram strikes, the security agencies would start finding ways to contain it. Don’t forget also that as the security agencies are changing their tactics, so is the sect changing their modus operandi. So you cannot blame the security agencies per se; you have to blame the system.” On his part, Tsav thinks the security agencies have been overwhelmed by the whole situation. “They have been caught hands down. They have not fared well at all. For instance, in the case of Kano, there was gross lack of intelligence, which allowed the sect to come out and successfully bomb several locations almost at the same time.” The retired police commissioner may be unaware of reports that there were security reports to the effect that the sect members were planning series of attacks on the city. It was also reported then that some police officers might have taken precautions for personal safety. What that suggests is that the intelligence reports received by the security forces may not have been put to good use. Tsav confirmed this when he claimed that the police went into hiding because members of the sect were chasing them everywhere. “Up till now they still trail the police to their houses to kill them,” he announced. He wanted to know if that was not a sign of weakness on the part of a section of the security system rather than a total absence of intelligence. He nevertheless conceded that terrorists are always ahead of security agencies even in Europe and America, which are relatively more experienced in such matters. “But we can learn from some of the measures taken in those countries,” he advised.
In the political arena, Jonathan’s undeclared, but lingering second term ambition, is also said to be one of the things fuelling the sect’s attacks in recent times. A retired police chief, who wished to remain anonymous for security reason, said that the situation is being compounded by the suspicion that the President may be seeking a second term in office, although the latter has not made any declaration to this effect. “Some people in the North don’t want the President to remain in office (beyond 2015) and they are doing everything possible to stop him,” he said, warning that if care is not taken things might get worse.
Even then, some of the security experts who spoke to the magazine are in agreement that there is no quick fix to counter-insurgency, and that Nigerians are largely ignorant of the issues involved. According to Ajayi, the impatience of Nigerians over government’s inability to find lasting solution to the security challenge is justified. “But they should realise that all over the world, where this evil has been encountered, no country has succeeded in handling the matter with a magic wand.” Ajayi’s argument is that the security agencies are just beginning to learn the real lessons, and that with a combination of carrot and stick the federal government’s campaign against the terrorists may eventually triumph.
Ajayi should know, for that is his terrain. Perhaps that explains why the authorities do not see the development from the same angle that the people see it. Indeed, there are indications that the security agencies are beginning to get a grip on the situation. Sources within the security circle express confidence that they will flush out the cells of terrorism in the country in no distant time. They dismiss as untrue allegations of unhealthy rivalry among security agencies, insisting that if there was unhealthy rivalry it would have been impossible for the security system to have made the kind of successes recorded in the war on terrorism. He said terrorism could not be fought by one agency alone. According to him, the breakthrough that has been recorded so far has been achieved through the cooperation among the security agencies.
Furthermore, it is believed that the renewed confidence of the security agencies is not unconnected with the ongoing effort to set up and strengthen a national security structure in line with the evolving National Security Policy. Under that initiative, a national counter-terrorism strategy, which provides the template for an organised response to relevant security challenge, is already taking shape. In this regard, the government is said to be putting a special force in place in collaboration with the United States, US. That must be what Oluseyi Petinrin, an air chief marshal and chief of defence staff, alluded to recently when he said that a special intelligence unit has been created and been given special training. But he did not say under whose command the unit would fall.
However, beyond the immediate problem of containing the onslaught of Boko Haram, there are sufficient grounds to believe that a bigger challenge facing Nigeria is to address once and for all the lingering question over the political future of the country. The belief is that the phenomenon known as Boko Haram today is predicated on perceived injustice and social ills that have been associated with the Nigerian federation for sometime now. As Ajayi puts it, the country is sitting on a keg of gunpowder because there is so much distortion in the Nigerian system. He said the problem is political, but the perpetrators of Boko Haram are hiding under religion. He added that it is very glaring that those in high places are very deceitful, and therefore there is no justification for people to believe in Nigeria anymore.
Don Idada-Ikponmwen, retired general and former provost marshal of the Nigerian Army, agrees. He said the whole concept of Nigeria was based on the idea of making all ethnic nationalities secure within a union where they could retain their individual identities and peculiarities. “One of the obvious problems we have today is the marked departure from that original idea and that departure is very evident,” he told the magazine. He explained that rather than a federal state where there is autonomy and land is owned by communities in line with customary and international law, “what we have in place today is a unitary system,” which is being exploited by the ruling class.
Attempts to paper over the cracks that have opened up within the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, over the Boko Haram issue, others insist, were fingered as what led to the recent outburst by Andrew Azazi, retired general and national security adviser, during the South-south Economic Summit in Asaba, Delta State. Azazi had blamed the Boko Haram menace on the zoning policy of the PDP. “The PDP got it wrong from the beginning by saying Mr. A can rule, Mr. B cannot rule, according to the PDP convention rules and regulations and not according to the constitution. That created the climate of what is happening and manifesting in the country today,” Azazi had observed. His comment struck a cord in some quarters as it underlined the fact that some politicians in the North might be fighting a political battle through the Boko Haram insurgency, a point Ajayi raised.
It would be recalled that in the wake of the PDP presidential primaries, some of the party members had threatened to make the country ungovernable if a northerner did not emerge as president in 2011. Specifically, Lawal Kaita, a close ally of Atiku Abubakar, former vice president, had said on October 15, 2010 “the North is determined, if that happens, to make the country ungovernable for President Jonathan or any other southerner who finds his way to the seat of power on the platform of the PDP against the party’s zoning principle.” And the former vice president had followed this with another threat on December 10, 2010, where he said, “let me once again send a message to the political leadership of the country that those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.”
There is no evidence yet that the politicians named above have anything to do with Boko Haram, but such statements, it is said, cannot be simply ignored. But Azazi’s outburst is blamed on the frustration he was experiencing from political quarters. Sources told the magazine that the President and some leaders of the ruling PDP often resist the interrogation and arrest of some suspected party leaders and some people in the corridors of power, members said to have been linked with some criminal group or the other. Some of the heads of the security agencies are said to be uncomfortable with the stand of the President and party leaders over this.
Could the NSA have done that to force the hand of the President and the party leaders? The source did not rule out the possibility that the NSA may have done it to call attention of Nigerians, particularly his critics, to the fact that the crisis was not assuming the tempo it has assumed because of the ineffectiveness of the security agencies. He said he might have done so to let the world know that the security system is often hampered in its operations by undue political interference. A security source insisted that Azazi wanted to call the attention of the people to the meddlesomeness of the political class in the job of the national security team and free himself of allegations of incompetence.
Even then, some observers say the current insecurity in the country has exposed the weakness of the Nigeria police. A high-ranking government official told the magazine in confidence that the Presidency is exasperated by the growing realisation that the police are not standing up to fight in crucial moments, but disappear when they get wind that armed robbers or Boko Haram members are about to strike. “They would vamoose from the scene or quickly replace their uniform with mufti to disguise their identity. It is only the soldiers that would stand and wait for the eventuality,” he added.
This is why Ajayi suggested a reorientation of the Nigeria police, to make them develop self-respect. He said there is an urgent need for political education to be carried out among the men in uniform. In addition, he said unless there are proper training and adequate logistic backing, one cannot expect the police to perform. According to him, “A government that cannot provide meals for policemen in training, that cannot kit them properly and give them provisions and basic necessities that should be ordinarily expected, should not expect the best from them.” Frank Odita, a former police commissioner and security consultant, believes that policemen need a spiritual rebirth and a comprehensive overhaul. He however gives kudos to Abubakar Mohammed, the acting inspector-general of police, for being proactive. Odita says security agencies need to find out the brains behind the attacks and why they are doing what they are doing.
Besides overhauling the police force, many of the respondents, like Idada-Ikponmwen, say the convocation of a national conference has become necessary to evolve a genuine federal system where there would be autonomy for the federating units. “Take policing for example, how can we effectively police a nation as big as Nigeria when the entire police are centralised and under the control of the inspector-general of police who is in turn under the control of the President?” he asked, adding that this state of affairs contradicts the clause in the constitution that says the governors should be the chief security officers in their own states. Besides, they queried the justification for a situation where the national constitution is talking about a secular state, but some states have declared Sharia law.
Observers say that to get out of this menace, northern leaders would be required to do more. The retired commodore specifically carpeted northern leaders for behaving like Nero while Rome goes up in flames. According to him, the seed of terror was sown in the country a long time ago, but successive governments chose to deny its existence or, at best, ignore it. For instance, some terrorist suspects having links with al-Qaeda were arrested and charged to court as far back as 2005. Three of them were reportedly charged with undergoing training in Algeria with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, SGPC, between 2005 and August 2007. But the late president Yar’Adua released the suspected terrorists allegedly at the instance of some prominent northern leaders who insisted that their trial was nothing but religious persecution.
What this means is that a combination of good security system and political networking is needed to combat the Boko Haram menace. Thus Nigerians may have to be patient to allow the security methodically tackle the bloody mess.
Additional reports by WOLA ADEYEMO, ADEKUNBI ERO, DIPO ONABANJO, ANAYOCHUKWU AGBO, TAJUDEEN SULEIMAN, STELLA SAWYERR and LUCAS AJANAKU