Kudos to the Nigerian military for getting back its groove. For too long we have wondered what went wrong, thrown our hands up in despair at its seeming incompetence and confusion, at the way it allowed Boko Haram to keep it on its back foot, or even often with its back turned in frantic escape. Much has been said about how this was not the military that did Nigeria proud in Liberia and Sierra Leone. There were a couple of particularly depressing episodes that made the news; like the mutiny last year in which soldiers fired at their commanding officer in Maiduguri, and then the court martials in which tens of soldiers were found guilty of cowardice.
Now that narrative has turned (for which we are much relieved), it is tempting to start making exaggerated or prematurely triumphant claims, as many are now already doing. I’m referring to government officials and supporters of President Jonathan, overly eager to portray him as a miracle worker, as though he hasn’t been C-in-C since 2010. It was the same thing that happened with Ebola. The Federal Government has now grown comfortable with monopolize the credit for its defeat, whitewashing out of the narrative the roles played by several other factors (including the unobtrusive but omnipresent Luck). With Boko Haram, as with Ebola, there is a complicated interplay of varying forces at work behind the recent turning of the tide. And what fervent supporters of the president fail to realize is that any attempt to singlehandedly credit him with the turnaround will throw up the deeply embarrassing – and unanswerable – question: Mr President, why now?
In my opinion, credit for the success should go to all of the following: the Nigerian military for waking up to its responsibilities, the opposition All Progressives Congress and activist groups like the Bring Back Our Girls Movement for consistently putting pressure on the president and his government, President Jonathan for finally realizing that he has a critical role to play as President in inspiring the troops and providing leadership (we saw him pay his first, long overdue, visit to the trouble region in 22 months, in January; someday, perhaps, in his memoir, he will be able to explain why he stayed away for so long), and the neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroon for finally realizing the need to directly collaborate with the Nigerian government. And we must of course not forget to thank the forthcoming general elections, it played an important role as well in jolting the Commander-in-Chief responsibilities into taking his C-in-C responsibilities seriously. There must be many Nigerians today, especially in those troubled areas, who must now be wishing that presidential elections happen every other month in Nigeria. Then they would get to see their President often, and enjoy the relief of knowing that Boko Haram can and will be restrained and even punished.
The role of the three countries that share a northeastern border with Nigeria deserves further assessment. For some reason, until January this year, all three mostly stayed away, offering very little in the way of direct help and support to their Nigerian counterparts. Cameroon was the worst offender, staying out of the Baga-based Multinational Joint Task Force, preferring instead to operate solitarily, even though its territory offered, in much of 2013 and 2014, refuge to Boko Haram fighters in between their attacks on Nigeria, and even though its territory was also occasionally suffering attacks from the sect. Finally, in January 2015, all three countries banded together with Nigeria to present the formidable offensive that has significantly rolled back Boko Haram’s bloody footprints. (Since that collaboration started Boko Haram has turned its sights to Niger and Chad as well, as Shekau promised in a January video – the first reported attacks on the two countries happened in the first half of February 2015).
The discerning will of course not fail to note the irony symbolized by the operations of Chadian forces on Nigerian soil. Three decades after Nigeria asserted its authority by pursuing Chadian insurgents out of Borno State, deep into Chad, the roles have reversed themselves. We have come a long way from the Babangida years, when ‘the Chadian question’ loomed large on our foreign policy menu, and when we hosted, in Abuja, talks aimed at finding a permanent solution to the Chadian civil war. It is now the turn of Chad to chart out a plan of action for ‘the Nigerian question.’
But this is hardly the time for giving in to nostalgia. This particular end – the crushing of Boko Haram – will justify whatever means are deployed to bring it about, even if those means require the constant pricking of Nigerian pride. And now that Nigeria and its coalition partners are winning, all the countries involved need to do everything they can to ensure that defeat is not snatched from the jaws of victory.
Which leads us to the most important question: that of what next – what will follow after we have managed to push Boko Haram out of the lands and lives of Nigerian citizens in the north. A victory over Boko Haram will be, not an end, but a beginning. We will need to rebuild the schools and hospitals and prisons and villages and towns that the insurgency has destroyed. It is a task that will cost billions of dollars, and take years to accomplish. And that brick-and-mortar work will merely be the easy part. How do we rebuild the faith of citizens in a government that abandoned them to their fate for years? How do we heal the trauma of the tens of thousands who have lost family and loved ones? How do we teach people to build their lives back from nothing, in the same villages and towns in which those lives swiftly and dramatically fell apart? And, very importantly, what are we going to do with the thousands of armed civilian joint task force (CJTF) members, after the hostilities have quietened? Will there be an equivalent of a Niger Delta Amnesty programme, to ensure that we do not have on our hands large numbers of armed, jobless youths living on the edge of frustration? Will they be co-opted into some sort of statutory civilian defence squad, the beginnings of state police? If they are demobilised, what sort of jobs will be available to them, in a region experiencing several layers of blight?
The last time we were faced with a task of national reconciliation as grand as this one, was more than forty years ago, when the civil war ended. The circumstances, of course, were very different from today’s – Biafra was not a terrorist insurgency by a band of psychopaths seeking to assert their authority in the most brutal, bloody manner possible.
But the reconciliation that will be required will need to be just as ambitious as Gowon’s post-war programme (and the jury is still out as to how much Gowon succeeded). Already the Federal Government has established the Presidential Initiative for the North East (PINE), to implement a Marshall Plan of sorts for the troubled region. There will be lessons to learn from the Niger Delta, where recent big government post-conflict. interventions – the Ministry of the Niger Delta and the Niger Delta Development Commission – have largely failed to make the sort of impact one would expect in bringing prosperity and development to the area, and have only succeeded in mastering means of diverting benefits meant for the many into the pockets of a few.
The foregoing of course assumes that the momentum against Boko Haram will be sustained in the coming weeks and months, and that things don’t somehow spiral out of control and put us back where we were in 2014, arguably the most humiliating year in the history of Nigeria’s military.