Terror as pretext

The Goodluck Jonathan government postpones the elections, citing the Boko Haram insurgency as the reason, even as observers believe that his inability to defeat the terrorist outfit may cost the President his office.

Published : Feb 18, 2015 12:30 IST

Goodluck Jonathan, presidential candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party, at an election rally in Maiduguri on January 24.

Goodluck Jonathan, presidential candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party, at an election rally in Maiduguri on January 24.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT BY THE NIGERIAN Election Commission on February 7 that the presidential election scheduled for mid-February would be postponed to March 28 has come in for strong criticism. The state and gubernatorial elections are rescheduled for April 11. Attahiru Jega, the Election Commission Chairman, said the decision was taken on the written advice of the National Security Adviser (NSA), Colonel Sambo Dasuki (retd), that the security forces could not guarantee peaceful polling in areas affected by the Boko Haram insurgency. In his letter, Dasuki said Nigerian security forces were concentrating all their energies on rooting out the insurgency, which has been plaguing the country, particularly its north-eastern region. Jega said the NSA had conveyed that the military needed another six weeks to bring the insurgency under control.

Nigerian commentators were quick to point out that the government had been unable to control the growth of Boko Haram for the past six years. Very few military experts believe that the military will be able to subdue the Islamists within the specified time period despite a regional force being assembled to tackle them. The group has now started launching attacks in neighbouring Chad and Niger. There have been Boko Haram attacks in Cameroon in the past two years.

Civil society groups in Nigeria have issued a joint statement saying that the military’s inability to deploy for the elections amounted “to an abdication of its national duty”. The move to postpone the elections, the statement said, “appeared contrived to truncate the democratic process in Nigeria”. The United States was quick to criticise the change in the election dates, saying that it was “deeply disappointed” by the delay. Secretary of State John Kerry warned the Nigerian government “against using security concerns as a pretext for impeding democratic processes”. The NSA said in January that the authorities were finding it difficult to distribute voter ID cards in areas affected by the insurgency and suggested a postponement of the elections.

As things stand today, it will be difficult to conduct free and fair elections in States such as Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, where Boko Haram has shown that it has the capacity to strike at will. Boko Haram has a strong influence over an area that is the size of Tunisia.

The opposition All Progressive Congress (APC) was quick to cry foul. It said in a statement that the decision to postpone the elections was a “highly provocative move” and a “setback to democracy”. Muhammadu Buhari, the APC’s candidate for the presidency, gained political momentum in the wake of Goodluck Jonathan’s failure to curtail corruption and roll back the insurgency in the north of the country. The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has been weakened by factionalism, with some of its top guns crossing over to the opposition. Many observers believe that if elections were held on schedule, Buhari and the APC would be successful. Buhari, a former military ruler who had launched a “war against indiscipline and corruption”, promised to root out Boko Haram within “three months” if elected. Buhari, who hails from the Muslim-dominated north, lost to Jonathan in the last presidential election as he failed to make inroads into the mainly Christian south.

This time around, the former general has found a more receptive audience across the length and breadth of Nigeria. The latest corruption scandal, relating to the disappearance of billions of dollars of oil revenues, has not helped the cause of the beleaguered President.

Buhari and the opposition feel that the ruling PDP will use the rescheduling of the polling dates to its advantage. The ruling party will no doubt try and use its considerable financial clout to win some of the APC’s influential supporters over. In a fiercely fought election, the ruling party will view additional campaigning time as a bonus as it seeks to retrieve the situation for Jonathan.

Nigerians have lived with corruption for a long time, but it is the scourge of terrorism that threatens to tear the country apart. In the past five years, more than 12,000 Nigerians have been killed and 8,000 injured seriously. Tens of thousands of Nigerians have been displaced by the turmoil in the north-east. Half the deaths occurred last year. A series of massacres and bombings have rocked Maiduguri, the most important city in north-eastern Nigeria, and other towns since the beginning of the year.

Boko Haram launched an audacious attack in the third week of January to capture Maiduguri. The attack was foiled by the military, which used air power. However, the Army could not prevent Boko Haram from capturing a neighbouring town, Mongunu. In the first week of January, Boko Haram attacked the small town of Baga on the banks of Lake Chad. The insurgents ransacked the town and killed at least 200 residents, including women and children. The group staged terrorist attacks in the capital, Abuja, twice. A terror attack at a busy bus station in a working-class suburb of the capital killed at least 75 people three years ago. The first known suicide bombing by a Boko Haram operative was at the United Nations building in the capital.

Kidnapped schoolgirls

The kidnapping of schoolgirls in April 2014, aged between 15 and 18, from their hostel in the north-eastern State of Borno, where Boko Haram has strong support, grabbed world attention for a few months. But with no trace of the girls, whom, many believe, were forcibly married off to fighters, the international community seems to have given up on their cause.

The group has since gone on the rampage, killing and abducting people and destroying towns and villages across a wide swathe of the north-east. In August last year, the Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau declared his allegiance to the Islamic State. “We are an Islamic Caliphate. We have nothing to do with Nigeria. We don’t believe in this name,” Shekau said recently. Boko Haram has repeatedly emphasised that it will not recognise the “secular” constitution of Nigeria. It had earlier declared itself an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Nigeria, which boasts of having one of Africa’s most potent military forces, has so far failed to deal effectively with the Islamist insurgency. The Army was accused of using excessive force initially and of mistreating civilians. Captured Boko Haram fighters were executed most of the time. Rarely were prisoners taken. In the past two years, the Army has given the impression that it is reluctant to take on Boko Haram. Army units have speedily deserted their bases during Boko Haram attacks leaving behind not only their uniforms but also lethal weaponry, including tanks. Many military and counter-insurgency experts are of the view that the Army does not have the expertise or the equipment necessary to take on a highly mobile force such as Boko Haram. The government had, in fact, announced a peace deal with Boko Haram last year with much fanfare. Boko Haram fighters were promised amnesty if they returned the abducted schoolgirls and sat down for negotiations. Boko Haram reacted by escalating its attacks. The government made a peace offer in 2013, but Boko Haram rebuffed it.

As Boko Haram attacks spread to neighbouring countries, there is a need for greater coordination among the armies of the region. The region, as things stand today, is awash with arms. Chad has gone through decades of civil war. Weapons from Libya reached the region after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. The African Union has mandated a joint regional force to combat the Boko Haram menace. The force endorsed by the U.N. Security Council would be 3,000-strong. Chad has sent its soldiers to help Niger and Cameroon tackle the terrorist group. The Chadian Army is reputed to have expertise in anti-insurgency operations.

The latest developments have brought the spotlight back on Jonathan. The President has repeatedly assured his countrymen that terrorism is on the verge of being eliminated. The government’s seeming inability to deal with the situation could cost him the presidency. Most Nigerians seem to be veering towards the view that if Buhari is given the top job once again, he will galvanise both public opinion and the Army to put up a decisive fight against Boko Haram.

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