Opinion: The ‘defeat’ of Boko Haram – By SONALA OLUMHENSE
Last Monday, Nigeria’s highest authorities declared Boko Haram, the militant group which has caused tremendous violence and agony for nearly 10 years, finally contained.
Speaking during a Town Hall gathering in Maiduguri, the ground zero of the menace, Abdulrahman Dambazzau, the Minister of the Interior, described the group as “completely decimated.” He added that the group’s structure was degraded and its leadership, dismantled.
Minister of Information Lai Mohammed cited the “resumption of flights, bubbling nightlife, and football matches in Maiduguri” as signs normalcy has returned to the Borno State capital.
It is interesting to note that the report of the event was filed by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), and nobody explained why the national and international media in the area appeared unable to find the venue.
As part of the back-slapping, Defence Minister Mansur Dan Ali announced that at least 30,000 hostages kidnapped by the insurgents were freed by the troops.
Two days earlier, also in Maiduguri, Rogers Ibe Nicholas, the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, also declared Boko Haram “completely defeated.” Speaking at the inauguration of the Nigeria-Cameroun Military Joint Mission, he explained that only the previous day, his troops had overrun Boko Haram’s “Camp Zero,” dislodging the militants and occupying the area.
“We have broken the heart and soul of Shekau’s group, taking over the camp and its environs,” Nicholas said. “They are on the run and we are pursuing them to wherever they go. This time around there is no place for escape anywhere.”
The news comes some six weeks after President Muhammadu Buhari first made the announcement of the militants’ fate. In a statement on the eve of Christmas 2017, he declared “the long-awaited and most gratifying news of the final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists in their last enclave in Sambisa Forest.”
That was followed on January 7 by another affirmation by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Yusuf Buratai, that his troops have won the war against Boko Haram.
The declarations come exactly three years after President Buhari said Nigeria had “technically” won the war. But the militants had then mounted more attacks against troops and populations.
All of this comes six months after Mr. Buratai gave the soldiers 40 days to capture Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the terrorist group, “dead or alive.” He ordered the then Operation Lafiya Dole chief, Ibrahim Attahiru, to spare no trick in his wine-skin bag “to smoke out Shekau wherever he is hiding in Nigeria.”
Given Shekau’s habit of re-appearing each time the army claims he has been killed or wounded, there was little surprise that after 40 days, the army could present to Buratai neither the militant nor his head.
On the contrary, there followed a new wave of Boko Haram attacks upon Nigerians, and an embarrassed military early in December went on a face-saving mission. Major General Attahiru was summarily removed and shoved to a desk assignment described as “policy and planning.”
While it would be incorrect to attribute the latest developments to the military wizardry of Nicholas, what he has achieved in such a short time is highly impressive. Despite that, using such language as “totally defeated,” or “crushed,” or “completely decimated” seems overblown, particularly with Shekau still in play.
And he didn’t take too long last week to announce himself. On Wednesday, he published a new video in which he declared Nigeria’s version of recent events to be false, affirming that he is in, and still controls Sambisa forest.
Obviously, until the challenge of finding Shekau is answered and his means and methods decapitated, the claim the insurgency has been defeated will continue to sound hollow. Among other questions is: where are the remaining Chibok High School girls? Where are the members of an oil exploration team the militants snatched in July last year which included policemen, NNPC researchers and University of Maiduguri professors? It is notable that Shekau brags about this point in his latest video, which he autographs as “the one that is an invincible enemy that you are fighting.”
These evident elements of doubt may explain why only NAN directly reported the government’s landmark celebrations last week. But the declarations of victory raise a key question about the $1bn the government announced in December it wanted to take from the Excess Crude Account allegedly to fight the insurgents.
Where do we go next? Despite the giant strides the Nigerian military has made in the combating Boko Haram, Buhari lack of both vision and patriotic ambition as a leader have become apparent in the past three years, and one of those areas is in sadly mistaking propaganda for action.
To that end, how does the government intend to handle the huge rebuilding and restoring challenge in the northeast, given how much officials such as the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation Babachir Lawal have taken advantage of Buhari’s weaknesses to exploit the poor and dispossessed.
In November 2016, the United Nations said in Abuja that Nigeria faced a massive humanitarian crisis arising from the insurgency, and that 26 million people would be affected by the crisis into 2017. At the time, it also warned that about 75,000 children could die from hunger within just two months.
On March 30, 2017, the New York Times reported that over 130,000 people fleeing Boko Haram had amassed in Niger’s Diffa region, along National Route 1 in the southeast of the country, with nowhere to go. In May, Medicins San Frontieres, quoting the authorities, said that number had almost doubled, to 240,000. Nigeria has never responded to their presence.
Only last week, UN-OCHA announced that over 8.5 million persons need life-saving support due to the humanitarian crisis arising from the insurgency; in 2017, it had targeted 6.9 million displaced persons.
This is a good time for the government to come up with a massive plan not only to help victims of the insurgency, including those outside our borders, but to address the national problems that facilitated the rise of Boko Haram in the first place. Sadly, those problems exist all over the country, and we have seen how they drive Nigerians into desperation, and sometimes out of the country into slavery and death.
The question is whether Buhari, given his alarming and disappointing record in the past three years, and confronted over the next with trying to remain in power in 2019, can summon the inspiration and strength he has lacked in three years, to tackle these problems.
The truth is that in view of Nigeria’s burgeoning population, business as usual is no longer an option. The tens of millions who have barely survived Boko Haram, in addition to the tens of millions all over the country who continue to be neglected while officials connive and help themselves to a lifestyle of opulence and privilege in the face of a weak anti-corruption preachment, is a tinderbox waiting to consume the unwary.
The poverty of purposefulness in high places must end now. Hopefully, it is clear to all that the days of hoodwinking the populace—like the days of coup-plotting and election-rigging—are over.
Boko Haram is not defeated until Nigeria is not just a political playpen.Punch