Some days ago, President Mohammadu Buhari gave the Nigerian military an ultimatum of three months to put a final end to the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-Eastern part of the country. The president’s directive has received mixed reactions from close security watchers and casual observers of developments in the country’s ongoing anti-terror campaign. While some viewed the Presidential directive from an optimistic binoculars, a skeptical fraction felt it was ill-advised. This column belongs to the later school of thought.
The steps so far taken in the anti-terror war by PMB since his swearing-in on the 29th of May, 2015 have received pass marks from far and near. His junkets around the sub-region to mobilize a regional front against the insurgents, trip to the United States of America to solicit for diplomatic and military aid, rearranging the military top command, relocation of the Army Headquarters to Maiduguri – the traditional birthplace of the insurgency – coupled with other commendable diplomatic and military initiatives that are all aimed at building up enough capacity to end the insurgency, the President has seemingly left no stones unturned in his drive to see off the marauding phantom of violence called Boko Haram.
However, the President risks making a complete mess of all the good work that have been expended in the ongoing efforts at expelling the insurgents from the remaining swathes of territory they still control, if his recent comments are anything to go by. History has shown that you don’t give time frames or deadlines – at least not publicly – for ending wars, especially unconventional ones like the one in the North-East. Not only is the President’s directive strategically pointless, it is also ill-timed; a development that might have ricochet effects that might rub off negatively on all the painstaking efforts and gains so far made on the military and diplomatic fronts.
The fact remains that terrorism is not a phenomenon that can be easily obviated by military force alone. This is one critical fact Mr. President and his top military advisers are obviously oblivious of. Not even countries with the most sophisticated militaries can boast of ending terrorism within stipulated time frames. The U.S, the mightiest military superpower the world has ever seen, has been fighting A-Qaeda since 9/11, and lately, ISIS, with no seeming end in sight, despite all the billions of dollars in military hardware and other human and material resources that have been committed to these campaigns; Zionist Israel, the only military nuclear power in the Middle-East, with one of the world’s most efficient fighting forces has been contending with Hamas and other extremist groups in the Middle-East agitating for Palestinian Independence for decades; Russia, America’s nemesis in the global power Chess game, has not been able to completely annihilate pro-Chechen and other violent separatist groups opposed to its hegemony over them, despite all the fiery salvos it has been throwing at them; China has not fared better in its war against Uyghur Muslim Ethnic Separatism in Xinjiang. All these nations, despite possessing the best trained, equipped and battletested military forces in the world, have not been able to prevent terrorist threats, not to talk of eliminating them completely. Agreed that the capacity and capability of a terrorist group to act with impunity can be diminished over time, the phenomenon itself cannot just be eradicated overnight. “Like it or not, terrorism will continue to be a problem for the United States, its allies, and the rest of the international community, according to Daniel. R. Depetris in the preamble to his article published in the National Interest Magazine (November 16, 2014) titled, “The 5 Deadliest Terrorist Groups on the Planet”
Nigeria does not currently possess the capacity to successfully prosecute a sustained war on terrorism, despite what the government would have Nigerians believe. Not only is the country’s military sub-standard in the quality of personnel and equipment at its disposal, it does not have the requisite experience to fight guerilla warfare – a strategy that has been the key strength of the sect. Although these shortfalls are being gradually corrected consequent to ongoing strategic exchange training programs between the country’s military and those of its allies, immediate results should not be expected. No false hopes, please!
Boko Haram has always found a way of reinventing itself – strategically et al – especially whenever its defeat looks imminent. On several occasions when the group was at the brink of defeat, it came back with fiercer force. From conducting sneak attacks on hard and soft targets, suicide bombings of crowded public places – including military facilities – to conventional engagements with the security forces, coupled with its highly effective propaganda strategies, Boko Haram continues to rise from the ashes of defeat. Considering its fluid leadership structure, strategic suaveness and constantly evolving image, its rumoured affiliation to extremist groups such as ISIS et al, the group has the capacity to survive the ongoing onslaught against it for a very long time. It is like a stubborn virus that keeps mutating.
As has always been the tradition, this column is advising that in concord with ongoing military efforts by Nigeria and her allies, other non-adversarial strategies should be incorporated into any comprehensive peace plan for the North-East. The ongoing crisis has deep-rooted structural/ background factors – poverty, illiteracy, marginalization, underdevelopment and other forms of structural violence – that must be interrogated and transformed for unfettered peace to return to that part of the country. These underlying factors, which are usually not amenable to casual observation, constitute the chief historical causes of the conflict. A military approach will constitute nothing but just a temporal fix of the problem; a more eclectic, inclusive and intensive peace strategy that will involve a parley among all stakeholder groups will suffice as the only iron cast solution to this crisis. The Amnesty gambit, negotiation, in conjunction with other peacemaking options should be explored, while the military efforts – which should be aimed at restoring some degrees of tranquility to the affected areas, prelude to a more transformative peace deal – should continue.
PMB should avoid the temptation of unnecessarily sounding out his preferred strategies for ousting Boko Haram in public. It is better to keep your enemy off balance by keeping your battle plans to yourself until the last minute when you are ready to strike; revealing your plans, removes the element surprise – a crucial psychological weapon of warfare. Again, threatening your enemy with annihilation can produce the unintended consequence of emboldening that foe. This was one of the strategic blunders that defined the previous administration’s approach to the crisis – one that ultimately resulted in the worst-case scenario that the security establishment is still grappling with today. Boko Haram ups the ante when it is publicly threatened with obliteration. A review of the crisis will reveal that the scale of suicide bombings, shootings and other violent attacks increased whenever the group was threatened with extinction by a politician or top brass of the military. Both former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and Retired Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Alexander Sabundu Badeh were guilty of this gross oversight – one that resulted in the preventable loss of lives and properties in the affected parts of the North-East. Nigerians just don’t learn from history!
Again, setting a time frame for ending the insurgency might put the new Service Chiefs – the arrowheads of the ongoing military efforts – under unnecessary pressure, forcing them into making some tactical errors that might not bode well for the country at the end of the day. The recent removal of the former service chiefs and their replacements with the current ones have already put a large amount of pressure on them as they would want to justify their appointments by impressing their boss. While this is obviously a healthy development, it might also produce negative outcomes if not properly managed.
Agreed that propaganda constitutes a standard strategy of war, it should be intelligently applied. Winning a war goes beyond dishing out mere commands. Winning a war, especially in the present age, involves careful planning and disciplined execution. President Mohammadu Buhari currently enjoys a lot of good will at home and abroad. For the very first time in recent memory, a sitting Nigerian Chief Executive is being backed by the whole world to pull through one of the most crisis-ridden periods of the country’s checkered history. He should not misuse this golden opportunity to etch his name in gold. God save Nigeria!