Comrade Shehu Sani, Kaduna-based author and activist, tells FEMI ADI how the Boko Haram menace could be ended.
What is your understanding of Boko Haram’s lethal campaign?
Since the Boko Haram insurgency began, people in the country and outside have expressed different views. While some say Boko Haram is a western design to destroy Nigeria, others say the group emerged as a result of poverty and prolonged years of underdevelopment in the northern part of the country. And there are those who say Boko Haram is a product of the northern political establishment, which set it up to fight President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian. Yet, others say Boko Haram started as a tool of the political establishment in the North-east that was later abandoned. Certain people prefer a spiritual explanation, describing the group as the manifestation of an evil spirit. A strand of the analyses holds up Boko Haram as a continuation of the bigotry, extremism and religious intolerance that is common in the North and link the group to al-Qaeda. There are those who believe that Boko Haram’s anger was sparked by the extra-judicial killing of its members in 2009. In the last three years, almost every Nigerian has become a commentator or expert on Boko Haram. But we need to separate the myth from reality. A typical northerner’s understanding of Boko Haram is different from that of a southerner. What many don’t know is that there are many Islamic sects in the northern part of the country. Boko Haram is not even a major sect. But for the fact that it has picked up arms to fight the state, it is better known nationally and internationally. We have the Quadriyya, Tijaniyya, Shi’a, Sunni, Ahmadiyya, Izala and many other sects. I believe that if the same treatment meted out to the Boko Haram leaders had been meted to them, they would have responded in a worse way. For now, it’s good for us to separate the reality from the myth. I have always believed those from the South don’t know the religious and political dynamics of the people of the North and that is why it is easy, if you live in Lagos or Port-Harcourt or in the Diaspora, after you have sipped a hot cup of coffee or orange juice, you conclude your analysis by suggesting that Boko Haram should be crushed by all means. For a Nigerian in Kano, Maiduguri or other northern states, which has witnessed Boko Haram’s terror, the view may be different. And this not because he’s in support of Boko Haram or sympathetic to the sect. It’s different in the sense that the Nigerian security forces have proved incapable of protecting the lives of Nigerians and have also proved incapable of fighting the sect. This confusion is not only limited to the ordinary people, but also to the people in the position of power. Boko Haram started as a non-violent Islamic group and has been campaigning for an Islamic state and proper implementation of Sharia, which they preach and propagate in their mosques and schools. There are hundreds of sects in the North that also engage in such, but the difference is that Boko Haram has picked up arms against the state.
Most people do not understand what the demands of the group are.
Going by their statements, we know that they have been asking for the release of their members from detention. They have also been raising issues about the percieved injustice meted to them in 2009 and nobody did anything about it. There is also the contentious issue of Islamisation of the country. As an insurgent group, it should be obvious to them that not all their demands are achievable no matter the number of people bombed. One thing that is very clear, an Islamised Nigeria cannot happen even if they bomb as many people as they want. But some of their demands can be brought to the table if there is genuine peace parley like the one to which I took former President Obasanjo last September and the one between the federal government and Dr. Datti Ahmed. You could see the emphasis on the release of their wives, children and members who have been in police cells and prisons for a long time. As for me, all I will need is a commitment from the government, with a guarantee from the group that if such demands are met, they will stop what they are doing. But right from the start, there was no effort by anyone to ensure that the demand for release of their members are met.
Is the bombing of innocent people the appropriate way of pressing home their demands?
No. But if a country is faced with these kind of terror attacks, there are measures you can adopt. The first option is the use of force to crush the group before it gets out of hand. If that was working, I would have been the first to support it. But I am living in the North and you are interviewing me here in the North. When I see our security men only protecting their houses, homes and children, when I see security forces sometimes running away after a bomb blast and hiding, I do not think that I can put my trust in them to end terror. If you’re in a city like Kano or Kaduna, you’ll see heavy presence of security men at police stations, commissioners’ homes, military barracks or in areas where top government functionaries are or reside. If these are the people being protected by security agencies, how can an ordinary man who is vulnerable to Boko Haram attack advocate that the use of force is the solution? As I said, if you don’t live within the firing zone, you could air views that do not reflect what is on ground. We can use force if it will end it. But the force used over years has not ended the insurgence. The strategy used by security agents is such that if a bomb goes off in a certain district, everybody living there is punished for it. Is that the kind of force that we should advocate? A guerilla insurgency of this kind comes with a very heavy price. To get at one Boko Haram member, you may end up bringing down more than twenty innocent lives. Killings and violence are not things we can easily swallow as a country.
What do you have to say about the recent attacks on the media?
The simultaneous attacks on ThisDay in Abuja and Kaduna are a condemnable and repressive act. It is an affront to freedom of speech. It is also one act that is most detrimental to whatever cause the group has been fighting because no group fights the media and succeeds. However, I will also make it very clear that the group has a policy of issuing warnings. And if it issued warnings, it behoves on the government to protect such institutions. But it didn’t happen. There were more than twenty of such threats to the media before the attacks. They had said if the media remains subjective, they would hit them. I expect a responsible government to have taken it seriously and provided protection for the media houses before the unfortunate attacks. But the people they are protecting are the members of their families. The government can protect police stations, government agencies, but not media houses. And I believe that it is the government that has the responsibility to maintain law and order, keep peace and protect people from terror attacks. It is annoying that the only thing you hear after any bomb attack is condemnation. The Senate, House of Representatives and Presidency will condemn it, but nothing will be done until another person is attacked. Condemnation is good, but I believe in a proactive engagement with the group in the interest of peace. When you have a dysfunctional government, we are not secure as a people. One thing that the Boko Haram has been able to expose is the inability of government to provide security for its citizens. It has also exposed the long years of weakness, corruption and neglect of the Nigerian state. What matters most to those in government is political power and acquisition of wealth.
What solution would you suggest, given the potency of Boko Haram’s threat to the progress of the North and corporate existence of the country?
Three things. The first is to reach out to Dr. Datti Ahmed for talks since members of the group trust him as one who could mediate between the sect and federal government. Religious and political leaders should also reach out to him for rounds of talks in order to get a lasting ceasefire. The second thing we should do is to look for the leaders of different Islamic sects in the North to come together and directly reach out to Boko Haram as a group. All should come together and offer guarantees and reach out directly to Boko Haram. The third option is the use of force. But, as I said, it comes with a lot of consequences. Most of the meetings over the insecurity in the North are held far away from the action spot. I want to make my mark and contribute to finding a solution to the problem of Boko Haram.
Why did talks between the government and Dr. Datti break down?
Two reasons. The first one was that the talks were meant to be confidential and the outcome made to public later, but government betrayed the agreement for secrecy. Secondly, the talks were supposed to be productive in terms of ensuring that both sides hold on to the commitments. But right from the beginning, some elements within the Jonathan administration made sure that every detail of the discussion was leaked to the public. Also, there seems to be a sense of unwillingness on side of government to give in to the demands of the sect for release of its members and guarantee their security. If I was in government, I would divide Boko Haram detainees into three. The first would be the high profile targets,who are their leaders in prisons. The second would be the foot soldiers and the third category would be their wives and children and innocent people arrested on the streets in the name of Boko Haram. As a responsible government you can, as a kind gesture, release the lowest category and see what the group will do. But when nothing is done, it becomes a serious problem. All that is done now is to wait for a bomb and condemn the act. This is quite unfortunate and retrogressive.