With the capture of Ground Zero, the elegant name given to a part of the previously impenetrable Sambisa forest where Boko Haram was bivouacked, President Muhammadu Buhari has fittingly congratulated Nigerians and the military for the defeat of the sect. The death toll, not to talk of the displacement of north-easterners, was excessive and almost unbearable. The economic wastage the insurgency induced was also telling. In all ramifications, including the huge sacrifice made by troops who fought the militants, the insurgency was a tragedy of excessive proportions. With the almost mystical and even forbidden Sambisa forest breached and Ground Zero scorched, it was at last time for considerable backslapping among government officials and shouting of loud hoorays among troops. Even then, the celebration may be premature.
It took former president Goodluck Jonathan an inordinate amount of time to convince himself of the nature of the revolt in the Northeast, and the kind of resolve needed to tackle it. He initially mistook the Boko Haram menace for a political tool by the opposition to embarrass and hobble his government. This was why when he finally mustered the will to visit Maiduguri, the political epicentre of the revolt, he talked down on the elite whom he accused of engineering the catastrophe, and imperiously warned that his government would exact a terrible price for one more soldier killed. By the time he understood what was happening and began to assemble the military hardware needed to fight the rebellion, it was too late to salvage his crumbling political capital.
President Buhari, therefore, deserves commendation for making the defeat of Boko Haram a part of his campaign promises, and fulfilling the promise less than two years after he took office. The missing Chibok schoolgirls have, however, still not been found. The military, which fled from virtually every skirmish with Boko Haram in the heat of the rebellion, has also largely redeemed its battered image, an image that was denuded by both cowardice and extrajudicial killings. While these commendations are not misplaced, and it is proper that many top Nigerians across party lines are celebrating the decimation of the sect, it is also clear that the revolt is not truly ended. Boko Haram is no longer a fighting force, and does not hold any territory, but it is still capable of doing a lot of damage, a lot indeed. The military may have vanquished the sect, but it is now time for the intelligence services to step in vigorously to finally deal the sect a demoralising and extirpative blow.
However, overall, the celebration and the backslapping have so far not taken cognisance of the right lessons from the withering and bloody seven-year insurgency. Without the right lessons, the country may be doomed to repeat the crisis in one form or the other, and in one other place or another. There is nothing indeed to indicate that the government is even interested in learning the right lessons, lessons that should include the socio-economic reasons for the revolt and the political and religious factors that gave it fillip. First, the Northeast itself. For many decades, the political leaders of the region recklessly abused the trust reposed in them as they emptied their states’ treasuries and subjected their people to harrowing deprivations. Poverty naturally breeds large-scale disenchantment and provides a ready army of foot soldiers and cannon fodders for revolt. In addition, the Northeast elite, like other elites in the country, lacked the discipline and common sense to embrace and enforce the secularism guaranteed by the constitution. They misguidedly flirted with theocracy, oppressed and discriminated against religious and ethnic minorities, and dangerously whetted the appetites of messianic adventurers who became naturally and ravenously insatiable. The consequent explosion was inevitable.
A second lesson concerns the government’s incompetent response to crises. Boko Haram had its beginnings in 2002. Between that time and 2009 when an all-out war seemed to have broken out, the law enforcement and intelligence communities were either inured to their responsibilities or they treated the burgeoning crisis with disdain and absolute lack of foresight. And when in 2009, the matter came to a head, the security establishment was even found more wanting. First they quelled the disturbance with heavy firepower and arrested the leader of the sect, Mohammed Yusuf. But no sooner soldiers handed him over to the police than he was extrajudicially murdered in July 2009 on the supposition that he and those murdered with him attempted to escape.
It took a huge outcry from the public and protesting Boko Haram elements for the government to stir itself to arrest the extrajudicial killers in March, 2010. It then took more than one year before the suspects were charged in court in June 2011. But it turned out that investigators were reluctant to do anything about the police suspects for the simple reason that the government itself is at bottom not opposed to self-help or subverting the rule of law. That same atrocious behaviour has continued to this day. Following clumsy investigations and deliberately botched prosecution, the five suspects — ACP John Abang, ACP M. A. Akeera, CSP Mohammed Ahmadu, ASP Madu Buba, and Sergeant Adamu Gado — were discharged by Justice Evoh Chukwu in December 2015. The six prosecution witnesses, said the judge, gave worthless evidence, and even the Investigating Police Officer (IPO) did not visit the scene of crime.
It was not difficult to understand why the investigations came up short. The sentiment among police officers at the time was decidedly against prosecuting the five suspects. According to the officers, the Boko Haram attack on police barracks in Maiduguri in 2009 cost the lives of 29 officers and 37 family members, some of whom were slaughtered like rams. They also alleged that in 2007 when police first arrested the sect leader, Uztaz Yusuf, in 2007, the National Security Adviser (NSA) at the time was said to have requested for him to be surrendered to his office for a repeat investigation. Thereafter, he was released. By extrajudicially murdering him, the policemen seemed to suggest that whoever his backers were would be unable to prise him loose from detention a second time. Amnesty International considers this sentiment to be rife among Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies.
The Buhari presidency has talked of rebuilding the Northeast and stamping out corruption that engenders socio-economic revolts in the first instance. On their own, these measures are sensible. But they do not address the flawed disposition of this government, as well as others before it, to treating symptoms of crises rather than their root causes. As Kaduna State is demonstrating in Southern Kaduna and against Shiites, the attitude of many state governments, and indeed the federal government itself, to dissent and favoured lawbreakers is selective, indulgent and disruptive. For the hundreds of people murdered by religious zealots during the many Maitatsine riots in the North in the 1980s, how many rioters were prosecuted and found guilty of capital crimes? The government’s attitude to secularism is abysmal, sectional and deeply provocative. Until this attitude is rectified — and there is nothing to show that it will be rectified soon — periodic revolts would continue inexorably until a cataclysmic end is achieved.
Boko Haram may have been decimated, but the factors that predisposed the country to that ferocious insurgency continue to see the dangerously below the surface. Whether as it concerns the Buhari presidency or the governments before it, there is no sophistication in governance, no adequate or sensible concept of the principles of justice and how the criminal justice system should work, no equity or fairness as the vision of the leadership elite is distorted by favouritism and ethnic exceptionalism, no respect whatsoever for the secularism provided for by the constitution, and no brilliance in tackling developmental issues. Indeed, to worsen the matter, governments in these parts view national security as coterminous with private security, with officials eager to ingratiate themselves with presidents and governors and engage in degrading abnegation, both of their persons and their beliefs.
If the Buhari government and the governments of the Northeast can be persuaded to engage in deep soul-searching, they will recognise the need to examine the lessons the Boko Haram insurgency has afforded them. They are, however, unlikely to engage in such philosophical exercises. They are more preoccupied with mop up operations, and are eager to bask in the euphoria of defeating the sect, rebuilding cities and villages ravaged by war, and holding firmly to antiquated views of leadership and governance. Boko Haram crisis was not inevitable. The government’s incompetent response to the sect’s provocations made it inevitable. Many more crises, some more severe than Boko Haram, are waiting to manifest should the government continue to pursue divisive and prejudiced public policies. It is impossible not to imagine that the template (economic, political, judicial, legislative, ethnic and religious) in use at the moment will not predispose the country to far more convulsive challenges that will strike at the country’s existential roots.