Last week was a particularly dispiriting time for forlorn Nigerians who continue to look to their government to deliver them from their woes. One of the reasons Nigerians dumped former President Goodluck Jonathan and hired Muhammadu Buhari was the expectation that the latter would have a firmer handle on how best to respond to the plague of violence sweeping through Nigeria’s northeast states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.
In fact, in a last-ditch effort to snatch the issue from Buhari, former President Jonathan had mobilized the Nigerian military to launch an offensive that took the fight to Boko Haram insurgents. In a five or so week span, we saw Nigerian troops recapture town after town that the insurgents had seized over the past year. We saw soldiers advancing into the once dreaded Sambisa forest, one of the fortresses of the dreaded sect. There were videotapes of routed insurgents fleeing higgledy-piggledy. With their swagger back, Nigerian troops rescued hundreds of women who had been held captive, sometimes for more than a year.
For many Nigerians, the impressive military feat came just too late. In some ways, in fact, it magnified the Jonathan administration’s delinquency. Why did it take so long before the government acted? Why, after the misery of hundreds of abducted girls, after the avoidable death of thousands of victims, after insurgents had torched entire towns and rendered hundreds of thousands homeless, did the government—facing certain electoral defeat—finally see fit to take on Boko Haram?
The conventional wisdom was that President Buhari had the incentive, motivation and wherewithal to do a much better job than his predecessor. One presumed incentive was the political price Buhari had paid in being mentioned by malicious partisan whisperers as a sponsor of Boko Haram. A populist figure among Northern masses, Buhari was expected to bring a renewed impetus to the campaign to rid the northeast of its most virulent crisis ever. Besides, Buhari’s pride and training as a military officer were seen as conferring him with strategic advantage.
Paradoxically, the election of Buhari has (so far) failed to strike fear into the hearts of Boko Haram insurgents. Almost from the day of the new president’s inauguration, the insurgents have carried out daring, deadly assaults in various parts of the northeast. In his inaugural speech, the president had stated, “The most immediate is Boko Haram’s insurgency. Progress has been made in recent weeks by our security forces but victory cannot be achieved by basing the Command and Control Center in Abuja. The command center will be relocated to Maiduguri and remain until Boko Haram is completely subdued.”
That buoyant announcement has all but fizzled into insignificance, considering the bloody facts. Last week, Boko Haram fighters massacred more than 200 Nigerians in coordinated attacks on worshipers inside mosques. They also invaded several communities where they carried out their trademark orgy of killing and burning.
In short, the members of the Islamist group appear to have seized back the initiative in the war against everybody else. It’s either that they have not received a memo that there was a new sheriff in town, or they are in a haste to register their disdain for the new commander-in-chief.
It’s remarkable that Boko Haram has launched more attacks in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, since President Buhari announced the relocation of the military’s tactical command to that city. It’s as if the insurgents were saying to the president and the armed forces, “Bring it on!”
Unless the Buhari administration meets that challenge head on, it runs the risk of dispiriting Nigerians and demoralizing the soldiers.
To begin with, the government ought to explain to Nigerians what, exactly, is going on. How, why has the military suddenly lost the mojo it displayed in February and March when it put Boko Haram on the run? What accounts for the resurgence of insurgent assaults? What has emboldened Boko Haram to escalate its offensive, when—going by Buhari’s military credentials—the group should be on the retreat?
Not only has the government failed to inspire confidence that it has answers, last week it gave conflicting signals about its strategy in the anti-terror war. In an interview, Buhari’s spokesman, Femi Adesina, told the BBC that the administration was open to negotiations with Boko Haram. That policy position drew flak from many Nigerian social media commentators. To some, it sounded like a mild form of capitulation. Many had expected that Buhari to start out with a muscular military offensive.
Adesina soon issued a written statement aimed less at providing solid answers to Nigerians’ anxious questions than controlling the damage of the BBC interview. The full statement bears reproduction here: “Most wars, however furious or vicious, often end around the negotiation table. So, if Boko Haram opts for negotiation, the government will not be averse to it. Government will, however, not be negotiating from a position of weakness, but that of strength. The machinery put in place, and which will be set in motion soon, can only devastate and decapitate insurgency. It is multinational in nature, and relief is on the way for Nigeria and her neighbors. President Muhammadu Buhari is resolute. He has battled and won insurgency before, he is poised to win again. It is a promise he made to Nigerians, and he is a promise keeper.
“But I say again, if the insurgents want to negotiate, no decent government will be averse to such. Didn’t the Taliban and Americans also negotiate in Afghanistan?”
It was far from a reassuring statement. In fact, its passive tone seemed calculated to underscore a government taken unawares, unsure of how to respond to a terrorist group’s stepped up detonations. “So, if Boko Haram opts for negotiation, the government will not be averse to it.”
What are the odds that a bully that’s currently having its way with its prey, and a bully animated by a sanctimonious, terror-justifying theology, would push the pause button in the heat of its killing mission and say, “May we please talk over our differences?”
Adesina’s statement claimed that the government was putting some “machinery” in place, and that this “will be set in motion soon” to “devastate and decapitate insurgency.” It described this machinery as “multinational in nature,” assuring that “relief is on the way for Nigeria and her neighbors.” Such verbal platitudes are hardly a substitute for action.
Boko Haram did not issue a pedantic statement before proceeding to inflict horror on Nigerians resident in the northeast. Day after day, the group wreaks havoc on their hapless victims. Buhari must rise to the occasion by taking action, instead of releasing statements that urge Nigerians to remain patient while he cobbles together a “multinational” strategy.
There’s an immediate, urgent challenge before Buhari and Nigerians. The president owes it to Nigerians to exhibit leadership on the spread of terrorism. That duty of governance is owed today, not tomorrow. Boko Haram is not in a waiting mode. Nor should our government.