Managing Expectations in Nigeria’s War Against Terror, By ‘Tope Oriola

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Nigeria’s salvation from the hands of Boko Haram and miscellaneous cancers, such as corrupt public officials, can only come from Nigerians. I worry that we have put too much faith in the hands of entities that are at best largely indifferent to us.

President Muhammadu Buhari gave clear indication on “Amanpour”, a CNN programme, about the federal government’s willingness to negotiate with credible elements of Boko Haram in order to secure the release of the abducted Chibok girls. The debate over whether or not the government would or should negotiate with the terrorist organisation was therefore settled. I had written a piece prior to the president’s announcement on the options available to the government in light of suicide bombings by prepubescent girls. Military defeat, as I indicated, does not necessarily put an end to a terrorist organisation’s capacity to engage in suicide bombings. The president’s perspective reflected a pragmatic approach, although some criticised his stance as evidence that he had reneged on the promise to defeat Boko Haram.

One other area requiring the attention of the people and government of Nigeria is how to manage expectations. This is not about pacifying the public. It is becoming increasing clear that Nigeria’s war against terror was hampered until recently by the difficulty encountered by the Jonathan administration in its attempts to procure arms. President Buhari stated as much at the US Institute of Peace in July 2015. The Nigerian state relied on some of its allies to the detriment of the country. Expectations regarding the level and quality of support from Nigeria’s good-intentioned allies must be properly managed. Boko Haram does not fundamental challenge any other country’s security as it does Nigeria’s. Consequently, Boko Haram is primarily Nigeria’s problem. It has to be understood and treated as such. Simply put, we delude ourselves by presupposing that defeating Boko Haram is a priority for any country other than Nigeria.

Social problems breed all kinds of actors as well as something called “stakeholders”. Insurgencies and terrorism are particularly notorious for fabricating avenues for political theatre. I was a little intrigued by the visit of a US congressional delegation supposedly led by Darrel Issa. It was rather surprising that Darrel Issa was formally received by President Buhari only a few days after the latter met President Barack Obama. What could Issa offer that Obama could not? Issa had been a vocal critic of President Obama. He had consistently been borderline anti-Obama, therefore it was not necessarily good politics to have hosted him after meeting with Obama. The friend of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

I have no reason to question Darrel Issa’s intentions. I believe he means well for Nigeria. Nonetheless, with all due respect to the congressman, he is just not that important in the grand scheme of things vis-à-vis Nigeria’s war against terrorism. Darrel Issa is one of hundreds of members of the US Congress (currently capped at 435 persons, as its website states). Therefore, Issa could easily get lost in the Congress’ crowd without anyone noticing. Issa chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee between 2011 and January 2015. That committee is one of 26 committees in the US Congress. Therefore, Issa is neither 1st nor 20th among equals. His position, political gravitas and entire life oeuvre did not add up to qualify him for a meeting with the service chiefs and President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on the matter of defeating Boko Haram.

The point is that somebody somewhere oversold Darrel Issa to President Buhari. Of course, Issa could have been privately received by the president as a routine guest. What I find rather embarrassing is the idea of summoning the service chiefs of a sovereign state like ours to meet with a relatively unknown congressman. It was a waste of the President’s and service chiefs’ time. Whom would we summon to meet with the US Defence Secretary if he chose to visit? The president’s time could have been better spent meeting civil society groups such as students’ associations and representatives of the Market Women Association of Nigeria.

Of course, the meeting must have been a boon for Issa. Elections for seats in the US House of Representatives are held every two years. The optics of the visit to Nigeria would not harm Issa’s reelection chances. But what have we gained from that visit? The lesson is that not everyone who carries an American passport has political clout in the US. And that includes many elected representatives.

We have to play smart politics and stop being used for agendas that are not Nigeria’s. It was ludicrous to find Issa being somehow presented in sections of the Nigerian media as a human rights advocate. The man did not present himself as such but somehow became portrayed as a human rights warrior. Issa is a neo-conservative and must have found the coverage of his visit in the Nigerian media really entertaining. Darrel Issa’s public discursive spat with Elijah Cummings, a ranking Democrat on the House Oversight committee presents a 3D outlook of his worldview. These are matters of public record.

I worry that it is the same mentality that made a Nigerian policeman — in a widely shared photograph — to hold an umbrella over the head of a Chinese man who was making a phone call. The Chinese man might well be a technician on assignment in Nigeria. We should be nice to our guests but be wary of overstating their importance. We must choose our heroes carefully.

This is not an appeal for isolationism. Nigeria should accept assistance when and where it is offered with minimal political theatrics and without ridiculous conditionalities. However, we must be realistic about what is at stake and what can be genuinely offered by institutional and non-institutional actors. Nigeria’s salvation from the hands of Boko Haram and miscellaneous cancers, such as corrupt public officials, can only come from Nigerians. I worry that we have put too much faith in the hands of entities that are at best largely indifferent to us.

The President and his team have been taking several positive actions. The President’s directive to the service chiefs to defeat Boko Haram in three months lays down a strong marker. The president’s meeting with Oby Ezekwesili and members of the #Bringbackourgirlsmovement signaled a departure from the antagonism of the government towards the group in the recent past. Activists from this group are increasingly becoming the conscience of Nigeria. They are ensuring that we do not forget the abducted girls. I also observed during my three-month Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship in Nigeria that Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu were engaging Nigerian media organisations. This is a commendable step. Our primary responsibility is to the Nigerian people through media platforms that are accessible to them.

Finally, questions need to be asked about the performance of the Victims’ Support Fund and NGOs who have received funding to help alleviate the suffering of those affected by Boko Haram’s atrocities.

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