Perhaps, the reason why we are yet to defeat Boko Haram is that we, as a nation, have not approached the war on terror as a nation at war.
When a nation goes to war, its leadership, through the president, mobilises the populace to come on board. Wars are not for soldiers alone to fight. In fact, without the people fully supporting the troops, a mighty army cannot defeat even a ragtag enemy.
Many reasons can be adduced for our chaotic approach to Boko Haram. The threat by some Northern leaders that if former President Goodluck Jonathan did not cede power to their region they would make the country ungovernable for him made many Nigerians to see the Boko Haram terror campaign as part of a Northern agenda to unseat Jonathan and grab power by force.
This assumption has proved simplistic (even if tangentially true) because five months after the North was helped by Asiwaju Bola Tinubu to push out Jonathan and return to power, Boko Haram has killed more people through suicide bombings than at any other five-month stretch since it took up arms in 2012.
This, added to the hide-and-seek games Northern leaders were playing (such as seeming to be protective of the terrorists and secretly applauding their “feats” when they hit churches and government institutions and even blaming the Jonathan Federal Government for “declaring war on the North”) heightened suspicions along Christian/Muslim, North/South lines. Matters were further made worse by the many instances of open sabotage of the Army by Muslim soldiers who reportedly orchestrated conspiratorial desertions, defections or even handover of arms and ammunition to the terrorists. These emboldened them to occupy territories and plant their evil, dirty flags.
In the midst of this chaos, confusion, mistrust and fear, there was no easy way of telling the difference between the truth and lies. On February 17, 2014, Governor Kassim Shettima of Borno State, the eye of the Boko Haram storm, stormed Aso Villa to brief President Jonathan after the terrorists attacked a village called Izge and killed 106 people. When he came out of the meeting and was surrounded by reporters, he was too emotionally drained to consider diplomatese.
“Honestly,” he said, “Boko Haram are better armed and motivated than our own troops. And, believe me, I am an eternal optimist as I have always said, but I am also a realist. Given the present state of affairs, it is absolutely impossible for us to defeat Boko Haram”.
Many of us, including this writer, were disappointed. I could not imagine how a group of untrained Islamic militants banking on the support of some underground financiers and gunrunners could be said to be “better equipped” than a Nigerian army that kept Nigeria one by force and established its dominance of the West African sub-region in the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, Darfur and Mali military campaigns. How could such a group be “motivated” knowing that there could only be one possible outcome of their quixotic bravura: annihilation.
Our experience has since shown us that the typical terrorist, as they say, sees the barrel of a gun pointed at him or the improvised explosive device strapped around his or her body as the free ticket to “paradise”. We later on started seeing what Shettima had been seeing: troops fleeing from the insurgents, troops refusing to fight, families of troops blocking the gates of barracks to prevent their breadwinners from being sent to fight Boko Haram, all due to poor equipment.
When the former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, was retired in July 2015, he confessed to a shocked nation that his troops were poorly equipped to fight the insurgents. Shettima was right, after all! This was why our new President, Muhammadu Buhari, decided to recall soldiers dismissed by the Courts-martial that the same Badeh had authorised.
Now, with two months to the new deadline set by Buhari for the defeat of Boko Haram, another controversy has erupted between Governor Shettima and the military authorities.
When a delegation of the Presidency led by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr David Babachir Lawal, visited him in Maiduguri recently, Shettima gave an update of the situation. He said Boko Haram were still occupying two local governments – Abadam, Mobbar and part of Marte, adding that at a point, Boko Haram were controlling 20 out of 27 local government areas.
In a swift response, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Tukur Buratai, who is personally leading the troops in the final onslaught against the terrorists, hotly denied this, saying that the insurgents no longer occupy “an inch” of Nigerian soil.
This difference in opinions on the same subject by these two obviously well-meaning leaders is bound to sow the seeds of confusion. I want to believe Buratai because he is out there in the war front, not in Abuja. However, he has to be upbeat for the morale of the troops and the nation at large.
As a military commander, he is not expected to give any credit to the enemy. But I have chosen to believe Shettima because he has been frank with us before, and as Governor, he would not have the slightest reason to downplay the achievements of the military.
If anything, Kassim has been jumping, rather prematurely in my view, to start rebuilding schools and communities ravaged by Boko Haram. I say it is premature in that any attempt to start rebuilding before the conclusive conquest of Boko Haram will expose the people to danger again in their villages and render monies spent in rebuilding a waste. In his haste to start rebuilding, surely, Shettima should be the one telling us Boko Haram no longer holds any ground if that is so indeed.
Since the insurgents are still killing, destroying and infiltrating the Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, camps with a view to staging suicide bombings, they must be seen as a wounded snake, not a dead one. Let us err on the side of caution and give the troops enough time to finish the good work.
Let’s make haste slowly.