Former US President Theodore Roosevelt once famously said that one should “talk softly and carry a big stick”. In dealing with Boko Haram, the Nigerian government has so far chosen to talk softly OR carry a big stick, but has declined to do both simultaneously. The federal government has made conflicting noises, unsure of whether to listen to calls from southern Christians to unleash a military onslaught to crush Boko Haram, or to listen to northerners who urge a cessation or easing of military attacks on Boko Haram, and negotiations with it instead.
Many southerners have called for the government to use a military iron fist to “destroy” Boko Haram. They do not realise that Boko Haram cannot be stopped by force alone (or by talking alone for that matter).
The misadventures of America and Israel in recent times have demonstrated that military force alone cannot end terrorism. Over ten years after America declared “war on terror”, there is now more terrorism than before America’s war. This despite America’s use of drone assassinations, air force bombs, missile attacks, invasion of two countries, intimidation and torture of terrorist suspects. Yet the terror continues. For 45 years the Israelis have tried to batter the Palestinians into submission using the same forceful tactics. Yet that has not removed suicide bombs and drive by machine gun attacks on Israelis by Palestinians.
CASH FOR GUNS ECONOMY
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has already called for dialogue with Boko Haram. He cannot be faulted for doing so, but his timing could have been better. He called for talks before extracting any concessions from Boko Haram. He could for example have demanded a truce or suspension of Boko Haram attacks as a precondition to talks.
The British government and Israel both demanded a cessation of terrorist attacks before they agreed to negotiate with the IRA and Palestine Liberation Organization respectively. By offering talks to an organisation that has bombed police headquarters, a United Nations buildings and killed police officers, soldiers and thousands of people, he has appeared weak and too indecisive to some.
It has also sent a message that violence pays, and that there is no consequence for people that take up arms against their government and murder their fellow citizens. Since Niger Delta militants were granted amnesty and cash stipends, Boko Haram might demand the same treatment. This would create a “money for guns” economy in Nigeria and encourage armed groups to kill in expectation of amnesty and cash rewards. Murder and suicide bombing must not be allowed to become a new money making sector in Nigeria’s economy.
WHAT SHOULD WE TALK ABOUT?
Southern Christians stereotype Boko Haram as a bunch of sadistic, savage uneducated killers. However there is evidence that Boko Haram’s ranks also include an articulate and educated cadre that can negotiate with the government. Those who met Boko Haram’s leaders have claimed that some of Boko Haram’s leadership speak English and have university degrees (including their female members).
Although Boko Haram has succeeded in demonstrating its ability to attack and kill with impunity, no one is sure what it wants. Boko Haram draws its ideological inspiration from the 12th century Turkish Islamic scholar named Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah, who died in 1328, while imprisoned in Damascus in Syria.
Insightful analyses of Boko Haram’s demands range from a desire to stop teaching Western education and turn Nigerian into an Islamic state, or simply a demand to release their members held by the government and compensation for members killed by the government’s security forces. If their goal is to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state, even Boko Haram members must realise that they do not have the power to achieve that goal.
Both Boko Haram AND the federal government must understand that violence is the means, not the end. If Boko Haram relies on violence alone, they will provoke the federal government into a massive military crackdown with huge civilian casualties. If the government tries to curb Boko Haram using bullets and bombs alone, it will have a guerilla war and suicide bombers on its hands for the next decade.
IRON FIST IN A VELVET GLOVE
The government must put Boko Haram under intense pressure by arresting or eliminating its members, and disincentivising people from joining it by making Boko Haram an employer with low job security and short life expectancy.
After dissuading Boko Haram recruitment, it must then demonstrate to Boko Haram that life would be better for them if they gave up violence and turned to peaceful pursuits.
The government must address the root issues of Boko Haram style violence. The government has not learned lessons from the Maitatsine uprising of the early 1980s. The government appointed Justice Aniagolu commission that investigated the Maitatsine violence concluded that:
“Because of the very wide gap between the rich and the poor in our society…they were more than prepared to rise against the society at the slightest opportunity. After all, they did not have much to lose…This regrettable social situation in our society ought to be remedied immediately else it will continue to provide the required recruitment potential for disenchanted men like Marwa to rebel against the society.”
In other words, the federal government has not learned any lessons from, or implemented the recommendations of a report that it commissioned 30 years ago. 30 years ago its own commission predicted a repeat of the religious violence, yet the government failed to address its root causes. The failure to learn from the Maitatsine experience is all the more shocking when one analyses the similarities between the Maitatsine and Boko Haram sects. Boko Haram is virtually the second coming of Maitatsine.
Maitatsine’s recorded teachings included that any Muslim who reads any book beside the Koran is a pagan, and the rejection of affluence, western materialism and western technology.
Both the Maitatsine and Boko Haram movements were assisted by the Almajiri wardship system, whereby northern Muslim parents often entrust their young sons to the tutelage of an Islamic teacher, who frequently takes them far from their homes. Such young boys are akin to blank pieces of paper on which positive or destructive instructions may be written.
Many Maitatsine and Boko Haram members were ‘graduates’ of the Almajiri system. Both groups also recruited members from neighbouring countries such as Niger and Chad. The other uniting factor between their memberships is that most of them were poor, unemployed youths. This mobile cadre of poor, idle, illiterate, disenchanted northern youths have always been a readily available violent mob during the various Sharia riots of the last 12 years, during electoral crises and religious and ethnic clashes.
Now they have graduated into mass casualty terrorism. Membership of a terrorist organisation and murder is not difficult for uneducated and impoverished young men with no jobs, prosperity or future prospects, and with nothing to lose.
The government should also address the elephant in the room: the north is suffering the consequences of not taking to Western as seriously as southerners. Each southern state produces more university graduates and school leavers every year than all 12 northern Sharia states combined. While female literacy in southern states is above 90%, it is below 5% in the north.
This educational polarisation in childhood has translated into economic polarisation in adulthood. The south is becoming increasingly prosperous, developed and developed, while the north heads in the opposite direction and is becoming mired in poverty, disease, religious extremism, unemployment and violence.
The north needs a symbolic development project that young northern men can point to as a sign of a potentially better future. The government should give northern youths something to lose: jobs and homes. Young men are less inclined to kill themselves and lots of others if they have stable jobs, nice houses and families that they will miss.