Nigeria: Has Boko Haram won the upper hand?

2014-06-03 09:40
Goodluck Jonathan (File: AP)

Goodluck Jonathan (File: AP)

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Cape Town - Nobody is safe in northern Nigeria. Every few days, a different village in a different region is targeted. Islamist extremist sect Boko Haram has positioned insurgents across the entire north - ruthless, heavily armed and seemingly undefeatable.

 More than 1 000 people have been killed by the militants this year alone. With every week, the death toll rises. The latest attacks, this weekend, saw 102 people killed in Borno and Adamawa, two northern states that have been under state of emergency for over a year.

President Goodluck Jonathan insists he has a strategy to fight the radical sect. For security reasons he won't disclose how. Instead he gets entangled in contradictory messages that leave Nigerians hopeless and angry.

 In the span of five days, Jonathan announced his government was negotiating with Boko Haram, then denied "back-door talks", followed by a promise of amnesty for insurgents who lay down their weapons, only to declare "total war" against the sect.

 Meanwhile, the only success the army can show up until now are isolated arrests. "The Jonathan administration is seen globally as incompetent, clueless and rudderless largely because of its inept handling of the Boko Haram insurgency," opposition party All Progressives Congress said in a statement.

Heavy reliance on military strategies

Human rights activist Mike Ozekhome believes government's wavering was "demeaning to our humanity" because it puts Nigerians lives continually at risk. Political analysts have warned that the government's strategy to fight Boko Haram has been counter-productive.

 "Heavy reliance on military strategies have had short-term successes and long-term unintended consequences, including fuelling a vicious cycle of violence," said Martin Ewi, researcher at South Africa-based think tank Institute for Security Studies.

 Ewi also cautioned that "the proposed amnesty for Boko Haram, which has divided Nigerians, may send the wrong signal that Nigeria is becoming a haven for impunity." Government spokesperson Reuben Abati tried to do serious damage control this weekend.

The president "never offered amnesty", he told journalists, even though various ministers have been repeating Jonathan's amnesty proposition.

 "No responsible government will fold its arms and allow any group supported by [terrorist group] al-Qaeda to overrun the country," Abati told local newspaper Vanguard. But a few sentences later, Abati was once again ambiguous: "At the same time, government has a soft approach under which it offers those who are willing to renounce terrorism to lay down their arms and return to the fold as citizens.

"Perilous" and "petrifying"

"Nigerians are increasingly frustrated as millions of dollars ploughed into military offensives against Boko Haram since the sect started its terror in 2009 show no result.

 Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sinful", is growing increasingly militant. Even though the attacks of the past months have mainly targeted government security agents, most victims have been civilians.

 Kashim Shettima, the governor of northern Borno State, the province hardest hit by attacks, explained how travelling in the region had become "perilous" and "petrifying." Dozens of small towns and villages had been razed and lay deserted after repeated attacks.

 What irks Nigerians most is that government still has no leads for the whereabouts of more than 200 school girls abducted by Boko Haram from their dormitory in Chibok, Borno State, seven weeks ago. Again, official messages were confusing.

"Lethargic response"

For almost three weeks after the 14 April kidnapping, the government did not react at all. Only after Boko Haram took responsibility for the abduction and threatened to "sell" the girls as sex slaves - followed by international outrage, a global Twitter campaign to #BringBackOurGirls and offers of diplomatic and intelligence support from the United States and various other nations - did Jonathan finally spring into action.

 By then, it was almost impossible to trace the girls. The girls were lost because of Jonathan's "lethargic response", lamented former president Olusegun Obasanjo.

"If the president got the information within 12 hours of the act and he reacted immediately, I believe those girls would have been rescued within 24 hours, maximum 48 hours," Obasanjo said in a television interview.

As the abduction saga continues, Jonathan is losing more and more credibility. His recent claims the army located the teenagers have been publicly questioned by the US, which is helping the search with surveillance planes. Nigerians say they understand the fight against Boko Haram may take time.

 What they do not accept is the lack of transparency. The least the government could do was give "progress reports on a daily basis", well-known entrepreneur Etim Eyo told national broadcaster Channels TV.

Read more on:    boko haram  |  goodluck jonathan  |  olusegun obasanjo  |  nigeria  |  nigeria kidnappings  |  abductions  |  west africa

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