While decorating the new service chiefs on Thursday, President Muhammadu Buhari charged the nation’s armed forces to bring the Boko Haram menace to an end in three months. Militarily speaking, and given the rearmament begun under the Goodluck Jonathan presidency but now intensified, coupled with the coalition the president has deftly built with Nigeria’s neighbours to take the fight to the insurgents, both the task of defeating the sect and meeting the November deadline should be achievable. Under Dr Jonathan, many such optimistic deadlines were routinely given by the government and scornfully defied and broken by the insurgents. Notwithstanding this poor record, which shattered the credibility of the armed forces, particularly the army and the air force, it does appear that resolving the corruption conundrum in the anti-terror war and reorganising and motivating the military should knock Boko Haram into a cocked hat.
But there is nothing the president has said thus far that gives the impression his understanding of the Boko Haram menace is much better than his predecessor’s. He of course recognises the socio-economic dimension of the problem, and has spoken blithely in support of recognising and tackling poverty, a causative agent of the revolt. He has also indicated the value of forming and inspiring a coalition to give muscle to the war effort. In addition, he appears sensibly to understand the place of education in the equation, and how wiping out ignorance among the populace could deny terror merchants the support base they have so casually and complacently relied on. Undoubtedly too, as the president has indicated, and in response to external pressures, he will intensify efforts to fight a clean and just war, as well as deliver justice to victims of the war, including members and leaders of the sect extra-judicially murdered by the police.
President Buhari will do many things different from his lethargic predecessor, Dr Jonathan. He will approach the war honestly, diligently and with all the integrity he can muster. Reassuringly too, he will handle the counterinsurgency exercise with all the methodicalness at his disposal. Indeed, the country will not be irrationally optimistic to expect that soon, all will be quiet on the war front, not excluding the bombing cauldrons. But irrespective of all the salutary changes he will bring to the war effort, and going by his statement when he decorated the new service chiefs, his understanding of Boko Haram has only gone a tad above that of his predecessor’s. He appears to perceive the problem as an existential issue, one of crime and punishment to ensure the survival of the country, and one in which he speaks effusively of misguided individuals as the bane of the country’s many headaches. The president seems painfully at odds with the historical significance of the Boko Haram insurgency.
If effective and comprehensive strategies are to be developed to fight Boko Haram terror, the Buhari government must go beyond the usual explanations. The government is admittedly not wrong to identify economic, social and even political injustice as some of the factors that predisposed the Northeast to revolt. They are in fact right to single out religious fanaticism, poverty, ignorance, corruption in government and in the military, and general misrule. These factors, and many more, are important in understanding Boko Haram. And these factors may in fact explain why Dr Jonathan put too much premium on crushing and defeating the insurgency militarily. These factors may also be why President Buhari, having taken care to approach the problem methodically, also believes that he now possesses the military antitoxin to neutralise the sect in three months.
Both President Buhari and Dr Jonathan, however, exaggerate their understanding of Boko Haram’s causative factors, and put misplaced confidence in what should be done to defeat the menace. Boko Haram’s foot soldiers may be poor, harassed, uneducated and exploited; yet, its leaders have a fair understanding of what they think of Nigeria and what must be done to tackle the problems that hobble it. It does not matter how contemptuously the rest of Nigeria and the outside world view the Boko Haram leaders’ worldview, all they care about is their vision of the revolutionary changes they seek to impose on a country they visualise as diseased and untenable. Without a deep understanding of the dynamics shaping, influencing and inspiring Boko Haram, whatever solutions are conceived may, therefore, be temporary and probably ineffective.
A sizable number of the social and religious revolts that have convulsed the country took place in the Northeast. The Northeast is regarded as the poorest part of Nigeria. But apart from poverty, and perhaps misrule, which is not exclusive to that blighted region, religion and empire building (caliphate) greatly fascinate the people. Borno State, the epicenter of the current revolt, not only hosted the great Kanem-Bornu Empire, it was the first part of what later became Nigeria to introduce Islam. To Boko Haram leaders, the ongoing revolt is little more than a political clash between a secular order and a theocratic order, a clash, in their view, between the unwanted old and the desired new. Terror is merely a tool to bring about the utopia of their dreams. Events in other parts of the world, such as the fearsome exploits of al-Qaeda, and now ISIS, simply give fillip to the Boko Haram project and help refine and sharpen their ideology.
President Buhari must bring into the Northeast equation an understanding of the historical dynamics that have shaped the world for centuries. Nigeria is not an island, and is thus not immune to these caliphal forces, whether they are cruel and brutal or gentle and modernising. Nothing however indicates that the Buhari government has a substantial understanding of these historical forces. If the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) is not guilty of exaggeration, its announcement that it barred nearly 5,000 Nigerians from travelling abroad between January and March this year probably to enlist in the bloody reign of terror masterminded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not just an indication of a passing fad, but a countervailing manifestation of powerful historical dynamics. Boko Haram, with its theocratic overtone, has become an ideology. It is unlikely to end until it is replaced in the esteem and fascination of the people of the Northeast by something bigger, better and more endearing.
Empire builders are an integral part of human society and history. There will always be movements, religions and ideologies attempting, sometimes successfully and at other times unsuccessfully, to reshape the world and redraw borders. In contemporary times, Russian borders have been redrawn twice, and are still being redrawn. There is no proof the exercise will end soon, as Ukraine and Georgia are showing. The Mongoloid Empire of Genghis Khan is regarded as the most brutal ever, leaving approximately 40 million people dead in its wake, and wiping out or transplanting whole nations from Asia to Europe. Historians describe him as “a great ruler who was equal parts military genius, political statesman and bloodthirsty terror.” Under Stalin’s Soviet Union, it is estimated that more than 15 million people were killed to nurture the Soviet communist system and ideology. Suleyman the Magnificent’s Ottoman Empire also authored fierce displacement and destruction of peoples and cultures, without undermining the laudatory view of his rule. Like ISIS, Boko Haram is bitten by the same ambition bug as these other historical greats.
The allure of ISIS will continue for some time to come, attracting fervent and adventurous youths from all parts of the world. ISIS can of course not be divorced from the terrible mistake committed by the United States when it overthrew Saddam Hussein’s Sunni/Baath rule, a mistake and regime change policy that has not only produced ISIS but also empowered and elevated Iran into a major regional power destined to shake and influence the Middle East and parts of Europe in the near future. Al-Qaeda in Iraq feasted on the disintegration of Iraq, then transformed into ISIS when the former’s ideology became constricting, and is now exploiting the Sunni-Shiite dichotomy to unleash a reign of terror on the region and carve out a contiguous, more or less Sunni, theocratic territory. Even if the US were to compound its mistake by putting boots on the ground sometime in the near future, it is difficult to see them extinguishing the ISIS flame.
If the Nigerian Immigration Service actually barred about 5,000 Nigerians from travelling to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, as it claims, then the question to ask is: how many others have successfully smuggled themselves into linking up with ISIS and al-Qaeda? Last week, two Kano youths were caught in India attempting to enter Pakistan from where they hoped to journey to Iraq. The fascination for ghoulish and grandiose adventures will not end even after Boko Haram has been militarily defeated. It is of course necessary to engage Boko Haram in the battlefield, but President Buhari must get his perspectives right. Military victory and economic empowerment will not be sufficient to end the fascination for Boko Haram ideology or similar extremist ideologies. The government must urgently seek to replace the passion for Boko Haram and other such ideologies with a unifying national essence or raison d’etre. This is the biggest challenge facing Nigeria today: how to instill a unifying and inspiring concept of Nigeria into the minds of Nigerians, how to infuse into them the powerful and overriding doctrine of Nigerian exceptionalism. But given the dynamics on the ground, it is hard to see President Buhari and the northern elite who are on the front lines of the terrible war embracing such radical measures.
To replace Boko Haram’s fervency and ideology in the hearts of Nigeria’s boisterous youths, and to supplant its irresistibly isolationist, exclusionist and parochial attractions, will involve subsuming the North’s main religions under a national ideology in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious pastiche. At the moment, the mind of the country is vacant, except for irritating cobwebs. If Boko Haram can’t fill that vacancy because of defeat, ethnic irredentists will try to; and if ethnic bigots fail, religious bigots will give it a shot. The Nigerian condition is so bad that except those who live in denial, everyone is apprehensive of the implications of Nigeria’s long-standing inability to shake off its label as a mere geographical expression.
Boko Haram has not been intelligently led. Were it to have brilliant leaders, Nigeria would be in far worse trouble than its puny intellect can manage. Just as the world’s tectonic plates are shifting, the world’s political and behavioural plates are also moving, sometimes very radically. Indeed they have never stopped shifting. North Africa and the Middle East have witnessed great shifts. Rashidun, Abbasid, Umayyad and Ottoman Caliphates, and other ‘successor’ entities within Nigeria’s borders such as the Sokoto Caliphate and Kanem-Bornu made vast regions restive and fertile for revolt and adventure. Rather than set a November deadline to defeat Boko Haram, President Buhari and his government should be drawing lessons from the factors that made great societies and empires endure for a long time. Those lessons will help Nigeria fashion a way out of its present cul-de-sac and make victory in the Boko Haram war certain and enduring.
If the right measures are not adopted, if the ‘nations’ in Nigeria’s South and the ‘nations’ in Nigeria’s North continue to hold on tightly to their prejudices and exclusionist ideologies, there is no amount of military power, local and international, that can defend the country when a powerful, intelligently-led movement comes along. Nigerian leaders have not been bright enough to learn from their country’s chequered history since independence. If the present political structure and behaviour are not reformed, the country would be sailing near the wind, courting disaster and disintegration. Boko Haram is the perfect example of why it is time to think outside the box.