Friday, May 16, 2014 8:35 am
After a clear failure by President Goodluck Jonathan and his service chiefs to do their duty and rescue the abducted Nigerian girls, a bewildered, scandalised world comes to the help of Nigeria, raising question marks about the Nigerian state, its military and combat readiness
No doubt, the Federal Government of Nigeria would have preferred the world to focus on the glitz and glamour of its hosting 13 heads of government and thousands of other high net worth delegates at the N6 billion World Economic Forum on Africa.
But even as President Goodluck Jonathan and his lieutenants were busy holding meetings with heads of governments and business leaders for the three days the event lasted, global focus was on the fate of the over 200 girls abducted by members of insurgent group Boko Haram from their school in Chibok, Borno State, on 14 April.
Significantly, most of the speakers at the WEF began their speeches with affirmation of the need to “bring the girls back”. President Jonathan had earlier dampened hopes on the imminent rescue of the girls when he told Nigerians in his presidential media chat on Sunday, 4 May, that government had no clue on where the abductors of the students were keeping them. “None; there is none,” the President told the interviewers who asked if there was any information on where the girls were. He also said searches by security operatives based on information indicating the likely location of the girls had thus far yielded nothing. He also denied a foreign television report that government was negotiating with the kidnappers.
The girls, if they have not been rescued by the time you are reading this story, will be spending their fourth week in captivity of the bloodthirsty terrorists, to the anguish of their mostly poor, helpless parents. And a report last week that two of the abducted girls had died from snakebite while 20 others were seriously sick from malaria attack had no doubt deepened their misery. The global community was early last week spurred into action on the need for urgent rescue of the girls when a video, in which Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, not only claimed responsibility for the abduction of the girls, but also told the world what he was going to do with them, went viral. “I am the one who captured all those girls and will sell all of them. I have a market where I sell human beings because it is God that says I should sell human beings. Yes, I will sell women, because I sell women,” Shekau said in the almost one-hour video in Hausa.
While the world shared the anguish and pains of the parents of the abducted students, they also feel scandalised, not just by the large scale abduction of teenagers by a blood thirsty terrorist group but also by the seeming lack of concrete action on the part of the Jonathan government and Nigeria’s military to rescue them.
The demand for urgent action to free the girls was expressed in the past week through street protests in Nigeria and around the world with the social media push of #BringBackOurGirls campaign on twitter. Last Tuesday in Abuja, prominent individuals, led by Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, a former minister, took their now-daily protest march to the Nigerian Defence Headquarters, where they met with Air Chief Alex Badeh, the Chief of Defense Staff. The protesters expressed their disappointments over the failure of the security agencies to rescue the girls more than three weeks after their abduction. Tsambdo Hosea Abana, the president of Chibok Development Union, recalled to the military chiefs how some of the affected parents had on their own tried to go into Sambisa forest where the students are allegedly being kept, but had to turn back after they were warned that their mission could be suicidal.
There were similar protest marches calling on government to bring back the girls across the country last week. The twitter hash-tag, ‘#BringBackOurGirls’, is trending globally, with prominent world leaders, and celebrities including Michelle Obama, the First Lady of United States, joining the campaign as at last week. “If we remain silent, then this will happen more and more,” 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who in 2012 survived shooting by the Taliban, the Pakistani equivalent of Boko Haram, over her campaign for education of the girl-child, said of the need for the world to speak out against the abduction. Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, of Cairo-based Al-Azhar, one of Sunni Islam’s most prestigious institutions, said the abductions “completely contradict Islam and its principles of tolerance”.
President Jonathan’s Failure To Seize The Moment
Many would readily agree that the offers of advanced tracking technology and military expertise to Nigeria are necessary because the country lacks the resources. But many analysts also contend that the rash of offers were also indicative of the failure of President Jonathan to seize the moment when the story of the abduction of the girls broke. The girls were abducted on 14 April, the same day a bomb attack by Boko Haram claimed over 75 lives in Nyanya, a suburb of Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The President visited the scene of the blast and the injured victims in the hospitals and made the usual promise of his resolve to bring the terrorists to book.
The next day, the President was off to Kano, where he was shown on national television dancing at a political rally, to the dismay of many Nigerians. His attitude to the abduction was even more cavalier. It took the President nearly two weeks to make an official statement on the abduction and initiate action to rescue the girls. As one newspaper put it, “Only after international condemnation and street demonstrations poured in did President Jonathan tell his nation that he would take all necessary actions to return the young women to their parents and schools, while also acknowledging that the whereabouts of the abductees remained unknown.”
This, as some sources told this magazine last week, may have been due to s deep-seated belief among officials of the presidency that the Borno State government was merely playing politics with the abduction story. There were various inferences that the Borno State government may have set up the girls for abduction or was even behind the abduction in statements attributed to officials of the presidency.
However, when he was eventually pushed to act, penultimate weekend, the President, instead of living up to his oath of office as the Commander-in-Chief the Nigerian Armed Forces, chose to play politics by attempting to dump blame for the abduction of the girls. After an all-night meeting on 3 May attended by Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno, Vice-President Namadi Sambo, Senate President David Mark, the Secretary to the Government, Service Chiefs, Borno State Commissioner for Education, the principal of the school of the abducted girls and some other individuals, the President was said to have directed the Borno State government to find the girls.
The offer of help from the United States came on the same day Jonathan inaugurated the Presidential Committee on the abducted Chibok students, during which he insisted that the schoolgirls abducted must be rescued and reunited with their parents. Last Tuesday, the President inaugurated a committee on the rescue of the students chaired by Brig-Gen. Ibrahim Sabo (retd). While noting that the abduction of the girls has been generating outrage globally, Jonathan assured the nation that government will do everything in conjunction with the international community to “get our girls back”.
The committee, according to the President, is neither a judicial committee, an administrative panel nor a replacement for the rescue mission being carried out by security agencies. Then, what is the committee for?
The committee’s terms of reference, according to Anyim Pius Anyim, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, include: to liaise with the Borno State Government and establish the circumstances leading to the school remaining open for boarding students when other schools were closed; to liaise with relevant authorities and the parents of the missing girls to establish the actual number and identities of the girls abducted; and to interface with the Security Services and Borno State Government to ascertain how many of the missing girls have returned. Also, the committee is mandated to mobilise the surrounding communities and the general public on citizen support for a rescue strategy and operation; to articulate a framework for a multi-stakeholder action for the rescue of the missing girls; and to advise the Federal Government on any matter incidental to the terms of reference. Analysts who faulted the setting up of the committee described it as another ladder in shifting-the-blame strategy of the federal government, going by its terms of reference.
A source queried why the committee was mandated into inquire why the school remained open when other schools had been closed for instance, when the Borno State government had repeatedly explained that the Chibok community pressured government into reopening the school to enable their children write the school leaving examination. The aim, according to a source, is to put the blame on the Borno State government for allowing the school to remain open when others had been closed as a result of Boko Haram insurgency. There is also the argument that information on the number of missing girls, those that have returned and so on, are matters that the Police investigative team should have been allowed to handle.
No Sting From The President
Writing on the abduction of the girls last week, Professor Mobolaji Aluko, Vice-Chancellor of Federal University, Otuoke, lamented that instead of the event representing a “tipping point for all people of conscience”, without regard for the “political, social, revolutionary or religious credentials or antecedents of the Boko Haram ” over what he described as a “criminal enterprise without reprieve” which affected women and children, the two most vulnerable groups in any society, what the government is engaging in is a blame game.
This has led to a situation which, he said, quoting Shehu Sani, a North-based activist: Nigerians want the Federal Security Chief, President Jonathan to rescue the Chibok girls while Jonathan (Goodluck and Patience ) want a state Security Chief, Borno Governor Shettima, to find the Chibok girls and Shettima in turn wants Security Rank-and-File to get back the Chibok girls while the security chiefs want frightened and hapless Nigerians to ‘help in finding the Chibok girls.’
Yet, Professor Wole Soyinka said, such denial on the part of the presidency is what has allowed the Boko Haram insurgency to fester in the past four years. According to him, the President had operated with the mindset that the insurgency would simply fade away thereby neglecting to do what could have been done to nip the problem in the bud at its infancy.
But, he added, such period of denial was over. “I think anyone at all with a humane trait in his or her makeup has got to take this government to task on any level because there are many things which could have been done and I’ve stressed this over and over again. Abduction, terrorism, suicide bombings…these are very difficult situations to deal with but they are not unique and it’s easy to anticipate especially if you’re running a country and you have any sense of history,” the Nobel laureate told CNN.
Senate President David Mark as well as South-South leaders last week also advised the President that nothing but full scale military war will end the reign of Boko Haram in the country. The President, critics said, should copy the example of other nations which have successfully dealt with terrorism without trying to be politically correct.
Just as the world was anxious over the fate of the abducted children, members of Boko Haram continued with their atrocities with the kidnap of eight other girls and killing of over 100 persons in different parts of Borno State last week. This further reinforced the argument for the military option in tackling the problem of the insurgency.
Failed By Its Military
Even then, the ability of the Nigerian military to successfully engage the terrorists is now in serious doubt.
Since the abduction of the teenagers, the Nigerian military stumbled from one scandal to another. A day after the world knew about the abduction on 15 April, Nigeria’s defense headquarters issued a statement telling the world that all but eight of the girls had been rescued. It turned out that it was a specious claim by the country’s highest military command. The military authorities were scandalized by their false claim and recanted.
Worse scandal was that as the military claimed their men were in pursuit of the Boko Haram militants to retrieve the girls, residents of Chibok, who on their own had displayed better gallantry by pursuing the kidnappers, said Nigerian soldiers were no where in sight on the 100 km trail.
And they were no where also when the Boko Haram gunmen sacked Nigeria’s border town, Gamboru Ngala last week, killing over 100 people.
The interpretation of all this is that the military authorities have been fooling the nation and their commander-in-chief that they were dealing with the Boko Haram menace, when in truth, they were not near the theatre of war.
Indeed, the glee with which most Nigerians accepted the American offer of help is an indictment on the ability of the Nigerian military. The Nigerian military claims that it was winning the war against the insurgents had always been contradicted by even more ferocious attacks by the terrorist group soon after the claims were made. The terrorists had not only repeatedly razed villages and towns but engaged in daring, frontal attacks on military barracks after such statements of braggadocio by military top brass.
Some statistics indicated that over 2000 Nigerians have been killed in various attacks by Boko Haram insurgents in the first three months of 2014. Eyewitnesses of attacks by the insurgents have always claimed that soldiers failed to respond to their calls for help or abandoned their posts just before the arrival of the terrorists. The failure has been in spite of the increasing budget of the military in recent years.
Members of the civil society group which met with the military high command in the course of the campaign to free the Chibok girs said the Generals admitted that they did not have the equipment and weaponry to rescue the schoolgirls from the camp of the Boko Haram sect. Jibrim Ibrahim, head, Mobilisation Committee of the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ group, said the Generals confessed during their meeting last Tuesday that the military spent most of its budget on items like fueling operational vehicles, personnel allowances and other things.
Even then, troops fighting the insurgents have also been complaining about poor welfare and equipment.
To be sure, the Nigerian Army has a rich history of gallantry. The Army successfully prosecuted the 30-month civil war and was successful in helping to defeat rebels and quell internal conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s, for which the two countries are eternally grateful to Nigeria. Locally, the Nigerian Army in the 1980s was able to put down the Maitatsine insurrection, which is not different from the latter day Boko Haram.
And when Chadian forces were killing Nigerians around Lake Chad under the Shehu Shagari regime, still in the 1980s, it was the same Nigerian Army that was used to mercilessly defeat them. Audu Ogbeh, a former minister of Communication and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, said the failure of the Nigerian military to rise to the challenge of insecurity has made the nation a laughing stock in the comity of nations. Ogbeh, who noted that it is now common to hear that some criminals have killed 100 in Katsina, 215 in Birnin Kebbi, kill in Kaduna, Plateau, Benue, Nasarawa states without being challenged, lamented that Nigeria’s neighbours such as Cameroon, Niger and Chad no longer respect the country; and in fact fact treat her with contempt.
This, he said, is why the three countries are harbouring criminals and insurgents who come to operate in Nigeria. “I remember 1983 when some Chadian troublemakers invaded Nigeria and killed some soldiers. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari pursued them on the orders of President Shehu Shagari until the United States started panicking that we were implementing a Gaddafi agenda,” said Ogbeh. “So, when are we going to get tough? We are not a small country. And why should small neighbors do this to us or pretend not to know what is going on? When are we going to take tough measures? Well, maybe with the help of the Americans…”
Questions like this about Nigeria’s military capacity and combat readiness reverberated last week, such that the military high command had to issue a statement to claim that it truly has a capacity to take on Boko Haram.
Many Nigerians surely do not believe such claims any more, considering the impunity of Boko Haram attacks all these past months. The military authorities even further destroyed public confidence in their security set-up, when it turned out that the National Security Adviser, the service chiefs and the police inspector-general only visited Chibok on 8 May, about 25 days since the large scale abduction of our girls in the town by Boko Haram.
Said a Nigerian writer on a news website last week: “That’s unfair. What’s all the assurance from the government when the responsible authorities have not even visited the scene of the abduction”.