By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
It was a Nigerian wit who once said: “Those who do not seek knowledge when it is not needed will not have it when they must have it.” I have been thinking about the whole security issue in Nigeria and the ever-increasing capacity of criminals—it really doesn’t matter what they are called—to commit crimes, get rewarded spectacularly, and never have to worry about being caught. Yes, the ones that dominate our media and make it literally impossible to travel by road, rail, and even air, are the bandits and kidnappers, now labelled terrorists.
I have followed with a mixture of alarm and anger the shallow discourse on different platforms by our elected leaders and the denizens of our commentariat. Here’s a sample. First, there is an almost zombie repetition of the need to rebuild, change, reinvent, etc. our “security architecture”. If my memory serves me correctly, the phrase gained currency almost at the inception of the Buhari administration and it saw the usual musical chairs of shuffling military chiefs. As is often the case in Nigeria, either there’s not been any reinventing or if there’s been any, it has failed or been ineffective or it is ongoing and the results would take a while yet, and so on. But this has not deterred our functionaries, our analysts, and even ordinary people in random surveys from going on about “security architecture”.
When talk is not about security architecture, the preoccupation used to be with the refusal of the American government under Barack Obama to sell us weapons that, according to official and commentariat wisdom, had we had them, the war against terrorism would have been over quite a while back. Again, the shallowness of this thinking was demonstrated when, first the Donald J. Trump and now, the Joseph Biden administrations okayed the sale of military hardware to our troops. The insecurity has spread to even more parts of the country and the variety of terror that haunts citizens and makes a hell of their quotidian lives has only expanded exponentially.
To be sure, I have zero credentials when it comes to security and related matters. It is not my ken to tell those in charge of security how to do their jobs. But, as both a citizen and a keen observer of our social and political lives, certain things don’t add up in the security picture as I see it.
I would like to suggest that maybe the reason our security forces seem to fall short often enough and the problem of lack of security continues to fester is because we are repeatedly misdiagnosing the problem. Put simply, in my opinion, we have a knowledge not a security problem. And the roots of the problem are traceable to our spectacular failure to seek knowledge when we didn’t need it. What stands out clearly is that now that we need to have it, we cannot move fast enough, assuming that we are moving at all, to obtain it.
The reason is very simple. Bandits or terrorists, whatever name you call them matters little, have bases from which they operate, to which they return or, in other cases, communities into which they melt, after each operation. Why is this important? From the commencement of their insurgence through their many splits and transformations, two words have remained constant: Sambisa Forest. We may now add to Sambisa other forests across the length and breadth of Nigeria, and we have the key to my contention that we have a knowledge problem. If these forests are not in the category of D.O. Fágúwà’s “Forest of a Thousand Daemons” which, to the hero questors of his classic novel, was terra incognita, then it stands to reason that our forests fall under the category of the knowable.
Do we know our forests? This is not a trivial question. Knowing in this sense is certainly much more than knowing that they are there and are forests. Do we have scholars who have studied these forests? If we do, where are the results of their studies? Is it that we have no access to those results which will indicate a different set of problems? If we have access to them, what use are putting them to in the ongoing struggle against terrorists and bandits? Do we have Forest Rangers? Back in the day, before military ruler locusts laid waste to some of the best knowledge infrastructure in the continent, they were graduates of our various Schools of Forestry and civil servants charged with patrolling the forests, keeping an eye out for illegal logging and other outlaw activities, equipped with knowledge of the flora and fauna of their domains as well as the human settlements that were to be found therein. Again, where is the accumulated knowledge of these previous investments in our forests?
Do we have photogrammetric surveys of our forests—again, those who used to do them were part of the civil service structure in the past—with a view to delineating their boundaries? Where are our geographers who can supply the forests’ coordinates, what pathways, including roads, run through them, what bodies of water irrigate them and what is the state of their navigability, what caves they encompass, what hills and valleys dot their landscapes, what soil types predominate in which regions, and so on?
Either we have these data, or we don’t. If we do, then one is right to ask why, suddenly, our forests have become terra incognita, maybe mythical legends, to our security forces, government agents, if not all and sundry. Indeed, if we have the knowledge, why is it not aiding our forces in locating the terrorists and liquidating or arrest them? Or is it that there is a gap between these databases and our functionaries which will indicate that something is profoundly wrong with how we are being governed?
I contend that we are lacking this all-important knowledge that covers the various headings that I identified above. Here is the rub, though. While our functionaries lack knowledge and, therefore, depend on the occult—what else are prayers?—for succour and deliverance, those who have the knowledge have a free run of the forests in pursuit of their incredibly profitable nefarious enterprises.
Think of it. Between us and the terrorists, we have prayers and a whole lot of meaningless speeches and empty orders from the Commander-in-Chief to exterminate the terrorists while the terrorists, the terrorists, have knowledge and can draw circles around our functionaries almost at will.
How else do we explain their capacity, when it comes to planning, logistics, coordination, reconnaissance, to execute their plans, including evacuating their injured comrades? Their strength is not in their superior firepower. Most of their victims are not armed. But they can ride into town with, on occasion, 300 motorcycles, a feat that requires fuelling, mechanical maintenance, riding expertise, geographical knowledge of the terrain, enemy locations, food supplies, medical attention, and suchlike. They know, and we don’t!
For those who are still not persuaded by my line of reasoning, every time someone in the government or the commentariat says “we need better intelligence”, it is a pompous way of saying “we don’t know”. There is no mystery to intelligence. The terrorists have it from those who supply them food and other necessities, to those who report on military movement to them, to those who educate them on the lay of the territory in which they locate their operational bases.
Might things have been different if we had made our forests the object of investigation, sought to garner knowledge of their contents, their coordinates, just for the sake of knowing, long before they became operations headquarters for terrorists? Had we had available points-persons to go to on all aspects of those forests just as part of extending our control over nature in our territory, would we now be rubbing our hands and praying for the special grace of the Almighty, by whatever name called, for deliverance in this hour of dire need?
Because we did not seek knowledge when we did not need it, we lack it now when we must have it to stem the tide of rampant insecurity. This is why I argue that our problem right now is not one of security; it is a problem of knowledge or, more succinctly, a lack of knowledge. There is a lesson there for other areas of our lives.
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.