ABUJA, Nigeria – Regardless of what President Goodluck Jonathan’s government would have us believe, Nigeria is losing the war against Boko Haram.
Days after the chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, took over in January 2014, he vowed to end the Boko Haram onslaught by April. He had barely finished speaking when gunmen struck, killing more than 70 people in separate attacks in the northeastern states of Borno and Adamawa – two of the three states that have become the hotbed of recent violence. The defense chief ate the humble pie and promptly disavowed setting any deadline to end the killings.
Since then, Boko Haram has carried out a slew of other attacks, including two high-profile ones in the country’s capital, Abuja. The most outrageous attack yet, however, was the mass abduction of 276 schoolgirls who were taking their final high school exams in Chibok, Borno state, on April 14, hours after a bus station was attacked in Abuja, killing 75 people. At least 200 of those girls are still missing, and eight more were abducted in the same town on May 6. A day after that, Boko Haram insurgents attacked another Borno town, killing hundreds and displacing even more. Full-scale war doesn’t get much worse.
It’s no use asking what Jonathan is doing about it. It took him three weeks simply to speak up about the abducted girls. Jonathan has blamed everyone and everything for the escalating violence in the northeast, except his own government. At a political rally in one of the northeastern states in March, he said governors in the region who were investing poorly in education were feeding the monster. His aides have accused influential northern politicians of stoking the violence to get even with Jonathan for betraying “a gentleman’s agreement” that would have permitted him only one term in office after the sudden 2010 death of Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, the immediate past president from the north.
But it’s nonsense to suggest that these politicians, whoever they are, would kill their kith and kin – and abduct their daughters on a mass scale – to prevent Jonathan from returning to power. The country has yet to recover from the shock that, while a distraught public was still trying to figure out the whereabouts of the abducted girls, the president was on the hustings, crowing for a second term.
However you slice it, the truth is that Boko Haram and its franchises have exploited the president’s failure to lead, turning what started as a skirmish into raging warfare.
Boko Haram predates Jonathan, but, in his four years of being in charge, the insurgency has escalated, defying two perfunctory purges of the military high command after a series of high-profile bombings – including an August 2011 attack on the U.N. building in Abuja and another on a church on the outskirts of the capital on Christmas Day of that year, claiming dozens of lives. In the aftermath, many government buildings in the capital, including the police headquarters were barricaded and checkpoints mushroomed.
If the capital had any respite, it is unclear whether it was because of these measures. What is clear, however, is that the northeastern states, which make up roughly one-sixth of the country, have been in a virtual state of unrelenting war.
The federal government declared a six-month state of emergency in three states last April, and renewed it later in the year when conditions did not improve. It created a joint military task force and encouraged civilians in the area to form vigilante groups. These steps appeared promising. But turf war within the ranks of the task force, coupled with charges of extra-judicial killings by residents soon damaged confidence in the counterinsurgency measures at the federal and local levels.
Jonathan has not helped matters. He has been anything but a commander-in-chief, creating the impression that as long as Abuja is relatively secure, the rest of the country could burn. And any illusions about the security of Abuja have been shattered by the two recent deadly attacks at a bus station only 15 minutes from the presidential residence. The attacks raised fresh questions about the closed-circuit television cameras installed in Abuja two years ago to fight crime. If the cameras, installed by the government at a reported cost of $470 million to help secure the capital, have been vandalized and left unattended, it’s easy to understand why so much of the country is vulnerable.
The escalating terror attacks have also raised questions about police funding and the capacity of other state institutions, including the judiciary, to deal with what is obviously a new monstrosity. Despite protests by Inspector General of Police Mohammed Abubakar that the force may be unable to pay salaries, Jonathan went ahead and slashed the police budget for 2014, further expanding the room for endemic corruption, and surely damaging the capacity of the police to deal with even basic crimes.
Jonathan has often said Boko Haram did not begin on his watch. He is right. Yet, had his administration confronted the demon head-on – instead of appeasing or ignoring it – things might have been very different today. Only a few of the dozens of Boko Haram suspects paraded by the security agencies have been prosecuted, emboldening their sponsors. Meanwhile, Boko Haram has transformed significantly from the small, angry mob of machete-wielding youths assembled by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002 with the aim of Islamizing Nigeria. Yusuf’s extrajudicial killing in 2009 radicalized the group under Abubakar Shekau, forcing it underground. By the time it reemerged a few years later, it had mutated into a murderous group with an agenda beyond creed or religion.
The most dramatic turning point, however, was the ousting of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. His downfall left the entire Sahel region awash with deadly arms, helping createwhat is clearly the most dangerous Boko Haram franchise along Nigeria’s border towns in the northeast. And it is across Nigeria’s porous border that many now worry the abducted girls may have been trafficked. What is entirely clear, however, is that these borders have for years seen the trafficking of radicals and their weapons from regions far removed from the reach of government.
In a moment of exasperation two years ago, Jonathan said he suspected that his government might have been infiltrated by Boko Haram. Whether the country has been brought to its knees by the enemies within, or whether corruption and poor leadership have enfeebled the government’s response, it is frighteningly clear that this is now a war for the country’s very life.
Azubuike Ishiekwene is the managing director of Leadership Newspapers Group in Abuja, Nigeria. He is on the editorial board of the World Policy Journal.