Boko Haram: Hawks In Government Frustrate Peace Efforts – Sani

Boko Haram: Hawks In Government Frustrate Peace Efforts – Sani

Friday, May 16, 2014 1:10 pm

Comrade Shehu Sani, a civil rights campaigner, playwright, poet and author, is also the President, Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, CRCN, and Africa Freedom Foundation. In this interview with FEMI ADI, he speaks on why all efforts by federal government to end the Boko Haram insurgency have failed and what could be done to free the abducted schoolgirls.

You were part of the team that led former President Olusegun Obasanjo to Maiduguri to negotiate with members of the Boko Haram. After that meeting many Nigerians hoped the insurgency would subside but it rather became worse. What went wrong?

Comrade Shehu Sani

Comrade Shehu Sani

If we can all recall, the Boko Haram violence commenced in 2009, but the extra-judicial killing of their leader, Mohammed Yusu, triggered anger among the sect. For those who don’t know much about the sect, they should know that the insurgent group is pursuing a theocratic agenda based on 13th Century Turkish Sunni Islamic scholar, Sheik Al-Islam Ibn Tarmiya. He is the philosophical focus of Boko Haram group. The mosque which they constructed in Maiduguri was named after him. Boko was founded by two persons, Mohammed Ali and Mohammed Yusuf. Mohammed Yusuf started an armed insurrection on what was called the Yobe Taliban, and Mohammed Yusuf moved to Maiduguri and started his preachings, campaigns and recruitment drive. An incident occurred in 2009 with the police that led to the massive hunt of Boko Haram members, his capture by the military and execution by the police.

Now they went underground and picked up weapons against the state. In the beginning, the form of their violence was just to avenge for the killings of their members, who were summarily executed after the killing of Mohammed Yusuf. The group became more daring, going after members of the military, police, secret intelligence, traditional rulers, people they consider informants and any they consider critical of them or associated with the establishment. The beginning of their violence was more of a revolt; later it metamorphosed into a new drive to spread their annihilist agenda towards capturing state power and spreading their gospel through violence and unleashing a regime of fear.

As a citizen of Nigeria and a stakeholder of the Nigerian project, I found it necessary that I should go beyond the usual condemnation and lamentations against the insurgents and find means of resolving the crisis. So, I mooted the idea of bringing a personality that is close to the government who can sit down with the insurgent group and discuss with them. It was then I reached out to the group through their family members and sought their consent to bring a host and they asked me who he was. And I told them it was former president Olusegun Obasanjo. My choice of bringing Obasanjo was for a number of reasons. I could have brought Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Gen. Abdusalami Abubakar, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari or former President Shehu Shagari, all of who have access to.

But the choice of Obasanjo at that time was because, he was the Peoples Democratic Party’s Board of Trustees chairman and he was closer to President Jonathan. Secondly, a Christian from the South, he would not be allegedly complicit with what is happening in the north-eastern part of Nigeria. And I reached to Obasanjo and he agreed to go with me to the insurgents. A meeting date was agreed and we all sat down to come with their views and ideas on how the violence could come to an end. And clearly Obasanjo told them in black and white that he’s opposed to their act and Nigeria’s image is tarnished and northern Nigeria is suffering for the acts of violence. He also told them that if they were going to end the violence, he would forward their grievance to the government so that they could be addressed.

They gave him a set of pictures, papers and documents and names of their members that were killed by the Nigerian security apparatus. They forwarded papers of petitions which were dismissed by the late president, Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua. And then he extracted a commitment from them that he was going to forward the issue to President Jonathan. On that very day we left Maiduguri and he went to Abuja to submit the document and complaints.

These were later forwarded to the late General Owoye Azazi, then National Security Adviser, to handle and he refused to take action or dismissed it. From what I understood, they felt that Obasanjo was looking for cheap popularity or trying to overshadow the president or wanted to use it to raise his international profile and as such, they refused to work with that recommendation. The refusal by the presidency and sabotage by the late National Security Adviser were part of the issues that led to the deterioration of the relationship between Obasanjo and Jonathan.

The second aspect of the peace process was the one led by Dr. Datti Ahmed. His peace process was facilitated by a freelance journalist, Ahmed Serkida, who went to the Boko Haram leadership and sought their consent to meet with government representatives. After a very tough channel, he got their consent to hold talks. I was part and parcel of that process and they agreed that Ahmed should represent them. He represented them, coming to Abuja consistently, sitting down with the government but at the end of the day, he was frustrated and sabotaged by those hawks within the side of the President who didn’t want a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

A third initiative urged the government to set up a committee acomprising nominees of government and the insurgents; agree to a one-year ceasefire when all issues regarding the grievances of the group could be addressed. That one too was sabotaged by hawks within the presidency. And from my understanding, there are security contractors and defence contractors who are profiting from the violence and there are people who benefit from the continuation of the crisis; and these are people whom the President has confidence in. And they continually sabotage all attempts at resolving the violence through negotiation and peaceful means.

Critics have alleged that northern elders are responsible for failure to stop the sect from the attacks that today have turned senseless…

There are areas where you will hold the northern political elite responsible and there are places where you can simply say they are not responsible. Let’s take the first side of it. The political elite need to play a more active role in the crisis by reaching out to all those that matter and considering this an immediate problem for the very fact that the violence has destroyed the lives of people within the region. No doubt, it has destabilised and demonised the northern part of Nigeria. It has given northern Nigeria a very bad name. It has led to capital flight. It has created a regime of fear and no one is suffering this more the northerners themselves. So they ought to have taken the issue very seriously.

Particularly the political elite – and when I say political elite, I am talking about northerners that are in the government of President Jonathan and also those out of government considered as elites – are not doing much as expected of them. If this violence is affecting our immediate environment, then we should consider it very seriously with a focus. Most of them are simply interested in politics. That is why you can blame them for it. For the simple reason that the political elite in the north which include the northern bourgeois, traditional rulers, spiritual arm of the political establishment and those that are serving in government are considered targets by the insurgents. As long as they are beneficiaries of socio-economic inequities, they are seen by the insurgents to be part and parcel of the problem and you can see it clearly. They have killed traditional rulers, they have killed religious leaders, they have killed businessmen and killed people who were critical of them in the northern part of Nigeria.

You can also hold them responsible in the sense that they have been in power for a very long time and they ought to have used the opportunity to educate the people, industrialise the region, raise the social standard of the people and make the North habitable. It is a fact that poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and under development in the North-East is not an immediate trigger, but it has created an atmosphere for desperation, for hopelessness, for young people to get attracted to joining the insurgency. I say there are areas where the northern elite are culpable.
Federal Government did set up a peace and dialogue committee to identify and discuss with members of sect. It has completed its work, yet no solution; in fact, the situation is getting worse by the day.

I was one of those who initiated the idea of dialogue. It wasn’t simply an idea; I also followed it through by setting on course the process. Secondly, we have tried on three occasions. And if you are going to start a process of dialogue, you will take the risk of making contact with insurgents, talking to people, getting to the point of risking one’s life and that of one’s family. We have known that many mediators were killed in Borno and Yobe. And we have seen how people who wanted to be agents of peace were killed. What I know very well is that government has disappointed us three times. And on all those three occasions not just me, but responsible Nigerians, who went seeking the consent of the insurgents to start a dialogue process were also frustrated out of it.

And for government to have frustrated us and refused to work with our proposal and them to come with a 26-man panel, I don’t want to be associated with failure; that was the reason I simply had to decline. And when my name was mentioned, what I first of all did was to reach out to the insurgents through their links and ask them whether I would be of use and whether they were prepared to accept the idea of amnesty or the committee that was set up by the federal government headed by a serving Minister. And they said, No. They were not going to be part of it and would not cooperate with it. And when I understood that, I had no reason to deceive myself. I received a lot of attacks on my facebook page and newspapers.

[But] the leadership of the committee ended up deceiving Nigerians with false talk of ceasefire and dialogue with the Boko Haram group. And each and every statement by that committee was dismissed by the insurgents themselves. And we heard stories of talks going on in Saudi Arabia, which was denied by the sect. We also heard that some persons were sponsored to go to the media and claim they are members of the sect and have declared ceasefire, which the main group dismissed. Boko Haram is engaged in acts of violence that are threatening our freedom, democracy and corporate existence.

It is a violence that should be condemned and rejected but we are in a certain kind of situation whereby the application of force has been unable to address the issue; as such the carrot and stick approach was mooted. The dialogue committee has misinformed Nigerians. Today, what they ended up doing is to give government a report to be implemented, which has amounted to nothing. I knew that the committee would fail right from inception and I shouldn’t have chosen to sit on the committee simply for the allowance and free private jet given to move around with.

In course of talking you mentioned having links with the sect. Is it not possible you use the same links to appeal for a ceasefire?

I don’t have links with them. What I have is an idea of how we can resolve the crisis. I devised means of reaching out to them through all means that are possible. We can’t resolve the crisis without communication and contacts. They must hear us, they must read us and they must receive a message from us. And this can be through all kinds of channels. We are in a certain state that requires tact, strategy and useful intervention. Terrorism is not peculiar to Nigeria. What we are facing is not different from what is happening in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Africa and other areas that faced with our kind of situation. What is happening is part of our history? It is as a result of what we did wrongly in the past or things we refused to do. This is the challenge of our time and era.

How we stand up to find the solution to the problem will define our future. What is happening is so new in our history. Our security forces have not been used to fighting such kind of insurgency on our soil .So we are faced with guerrillas attacking and disappearing into the bush. And the use of force would lead to unwanted consequences.

Now that the dialogue process by federal government has failed, what is the next step to take?

We have a lot of views. But the way to go about the problem from my point of view is simple. We have those that will tell you how force could be apply and how intelligence gathering is necessary. I am an advocate of peace. I believe the insurgency should end now. I want to propose that government set up two kinds of committees. The first committee should be called a Contact committee and it should comprise of those who facilitated Dr. Datti Ahmed’s peace talks. The government should also be willing to release some of the top insurgents, who are in prison, to be part of the process. The government should be able to bring in some leaders in Maiduguri and Yobe into the fold and also some journalists based in Maiduguri area, who are very adept with what is going on. I believe whoever is on this committee has something to contribute other than his reputation, worth and personality. The term of reference should simply be to open a channel of communication and reach out to the insurgents. And then start a process of ceasefire.

The second that I will propose is Dialogue committee comprising of Islamic sect leaders, since Boko Haram is considered a sect. In northern part of Nigeria, we have the Ahmadiyya sect, Tijjania sect, Shia sect, Sunni sect, Khadiriyya sect and others and all of these sects have their leaders. These sects have their followers in millions but they have never been involved in any peace process. If the Boko Haram has been using Islam and theocracy to pursue their jihadist idea, I think the use of these Islamic leaders to engage Boko Haram from Islamic point of view and what Islam says about jihad, killings and picking up arms against the state would clearly be addressed from an Islamic intellectual point of view.

But we have so much relied on umbrella bodies of Islamic organisations, the Sultan and big names and at the end of the day, we are going nowhere. If the Islamic dialogue committee is set up their own is to engage the Boko Haram members and bring them to the negotiating table and discuss why they are doing what they are doping, the implications of their actions and how they can be educated with how a resolution can be put together for the insurgency to come to end. I can you tell that out of all the sects in northern Nigeria, the Boko Haram is the smallest. I believe that if the suggestions are taken, there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

What have you gathered could be the reason for abducting the school girls in Borno State?

If we can go back to what had happened in the last two to three years, you will see that Chibok is not the first time the insurgents have been abducting children. They burnt schools on several occasions, they have killed teachers, they have abducted and killed students in many places. [This one was just] a large scale operation. If an insurgent group can raid a school and abduct over 200 girls, not chickens, load them in a trailer and disappear with them, it talks more about ourselves as a nation not the insurgents. It also raises more questions about ourselves rather than the insurgents.

The abducted girls is one of the most painful chapters of the insurgency. We live in a country where the future of the young ones has been destroyed by corruption and now they are bearing the brunt of our inaction, docility and consequences of what they didn’t cause. These girls deserve to be free and must be freed. The abduction of the girls is more of an agenda of hostage taking by the insurgents. Their idea is to take these girls as hostage to bring the government to consider them as a serious force. I believe that with a very serious contact, we can get the girls out of the hands of their captors. To free the girls, there are two ways it can be done. The first one is to apply force to free them and the second is to send a team of negotiators to talk to the insurgents and get them freed.

The first one is the application of force. You can only apply force when you know where these girls are and are convinced the consequences will not lead to tragic loss of lives of the girls. And it is technically impossible to move to the location where they are and free them without them becoming victims of the attack. We have seen how in 2004, some armed Chechen rebels raided a school in Russia and took hostages of children. The attempt by the military of Russia to free these children resulted to death of so many of them.

I will suggest that we need a small team that comprises people who have link and can reach out to the sect and negotiate the release of these girls. If we do that, at least we would get them alive. But prayers and something proactive can help.

The girls are said to have been married out. If it’s true, what action should be taken should after efforts put into freeing eventually work?

I can’t confirm or deny the allegation of the girls have been married off but with my little knowledge, I think the security forces are handicapped because they do not have necessary equipment to rescue that kind of large crowd of girls loaded into a trailer and taken through the bush. A trailer can’t go through the bush. You can’t take 200 people out of Nigeria except through routes that are clearly manned by Nigerian security forces. I don’t believe the story of marriage and I also don’t believe the story that they are out of Nigeria. But what I know about each day spent is that it is not only the integrity of the government that is at stake but also our moral status and image. The buck stops at the table of President Jonathan.

In times of crisis a leader is required to offer leadership, give confidence to the populace, assure them, raise their hopes and get to action. Leadership is not only about good times, it is also about bad times and tough times. The time spent talking about this issue should be used taking decisive actions. Right now the military don’t know where these girls are in order to take any action. And there is no team set up to reach out to the insurgents. It is still possible for an independent citizens’ action. I thought of the idea of setting up a non-governmental action, but I am handicapped by the law in place that criminalises any form of contact and communication with the insurgents.

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