My Neighbor, The Terrorist

by Okey Ndibe

Last week, President Goodluck Jonathan finally made his most direct response thus far to Boko Haram’s plague of violence. The president’s declaration of a state of emergency in designated local government areas in four states – Borno, Yobe, Plateau, and Niger – has earned a spectrum of reactions running from guarded praise to derision.

Mr. Jonathan should be given his due. The man has done, for now, his best. But the situation is so dire that his best is clearly far from enough.

Before our very eyes, parts of Nigeria have been transformed into mini-Baghdads and Kabuls. If you stand in a crowd in many a town in the northern part of Nigeria, chances are that the man or woman standing next to you is, quite literally, a ticking explosive. In traffic, the car in front of you or behind you, or to your right or left, may well be a vehicular bomb seconds away from detonating.

In such a situation, life is nasty, brutish and (potentially) short. Worse, circumstances of such extreme volatility and unpredictability mean that fear – a crippling brand of fear – is a constant companion to life. The psychological cost to citizens compelled to live in a constant state of fear is incalculable. If people perceive themselves to be under a death sentence, or believe that death lurks round the corner, then hyper-fear is bound to emerge as society’s condition and most significant emotion.

I got an illustration last week during a telephone conversation with a friend who resides in Abuja. Asked how he and his family were coping in the aftermath of the horrific bombing of a church on Christmas, this friend said they were holed up at home. “I don’t think any of us will go to a crowded place any time soon,” he said.

Those who trade in the tools of terror relish such responses. They win when their would-be victims cower in the (merely relative) refuge of their homes.

When the terrorists of September 11 flew hijacked planes like missiles into New York’s Twin Towers, then President George W. Bush appealed to Americans to be vigilant, but to go about their normal business. He made the point that the terrorists would have won only if Americans radically altered their routines in reaction to the terror attacks.

For the most part, Americans heeded their president. It is, we must admit, a different matter when the Nigerian president – or some other government official – implores citizens to be at ease. The US responded to September 11 by instituting a series of counter-terrorism measures within and outside their border. The country is technologically equipped and boasts some of the world’s most knowledgeable anti-terrorism experts. It was able to identify, and cut off, some of the sources of cash for their nemeses. Last year, America’s special forces tracked down Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani hideout and killed him.

No such luck, flair or resources for Nigeria. Last Thursday, Mr. Jonathan held an emergency meeting with his top security team. Emerging from the meeting, Inspector-General of Police Hafiz Ringim waxed with sobering truth. “Well, we are all worried,” reported him as stating. “Terrorism is not an easy matter at all…as you are aware, it is a very new phenomenon here.” Mr. Ringim continued: “We have not had this kind of thing before and we are just having it now, so we are all scrambling to find our feet and face it squarely, that is what we are doing.”

That’s a confession that Nigeria’s security agencies lag behind the Boko Haram aggressors. It would be unfair to blame Mr. Jonathan or the current inspector-general for Nigeria’s state of unpreparedness. Nigeria is paying the price for years of negligence. We should have modernized our police years ago. We ought to have instituted high standards of equipment, personnel and training for our main law enforcement agency. Instead, we permitted the Nigeria police to develop into a caricature, its officers adept only at disrupting traffic with their ubiquitous roadblocks and haranguing road users to “drop” compulsory tithes of N20 and above.

Nigeria is a heedless country, its leaders and citizens impervious to the lessons of their own troubled history. We fought a war that claimed more than a million lives, but continue to behave as if we didn’t. Nigeria has had a long history of bloody sectarian flare-ups, but neither the police nor the other arms of the security services took the time to develop an effective manual for tackling the scourge.

Here we are, then, on the cusp of what could trigger another chilling war – and we are bewildered, perplexed, clueless. Mr. Jonathan’s selective declaration of a state of emergency is as unlikely to contain the Boko Haram threat as a man who uses his spittle can stop a raging fire. Yet, that may well be the best that the president can do – for now.

234Next reported Mr. Ringim’s assurance that the police “had made a lot of gains in combating the [Boko Haram] menace.” In the police honcho’s words, “We are prepared more than ever before and I want to assure you on this.” To underscore his confidence, the IG stated: “If we had not done what we did in Yobe, if we had not done what we did in Kaduna, indeed if the Nigerian Police Force had not done what we did in Kano…the story would have been a different one.” And then this: “l assure members of the public that the Nigerian Police Force and indeed all other security agencies are now ready more than ever before to face the challenges.”

I doubt that many Nigerians are tempted to take the IG’s assurance to the bank.

It being a New Year, there’s a sentimental part of me that so desperately wants to hope that the tag team of the police and the other security agencies will figure out the Boko Haram puzzle. But there’s hope, and there’s delusion. If it is true that Al Qaeda has linked up with Boko Haram, given that many young men recruited by the group are more than happy to martyr themselves for the prize of seventy-two virgins, and given the penchant of Nigerian officials for issuing assurances that can’t be backed with action – one must remain skeptical.

It’s comforting that Mr. Jonathan spoke about unspecified forthcoming measures. It’s true that evil exists in the world, including the evil of those who kill in God’s name. Yet, we should not altogether dismiss the notion that Boko Haram is, in part, a monster birthed by a country where a gluttonous few have driven the majority to a state of animalized degradation.

As Jonathan weighs how to proceed, he would do well to confess that he’s overwhelmed by the scale and character of the incubating disaster. He should then become a voice championing that long-deferred national conversation to discuss whether Nigeria means enough to sustain the faith, loyalty and commitment of its constituent groups.

I wish all my readers a dream-fulfilling New Year.

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