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Nigeria’s confrontation with terror has thrown up many contradictions. Boko Haram has taken territory, killed people, burnt whole villages and in the process exposed the soft underbelly of the Nigerian behemoth. In a desperate re-assertion of Nigeria’s will, an undeclared but massive counter insurgency war is in progress. No more need for a fancy declaration of state of emergency. The emergency has declared itself and come to stay. Territory has been lost and reclaimed. Orphans and widows have been created on an industrial scale. Many have fled homes and familiar places they may never again behold. Many, far too numerous to name, have been killed, sometimes for no other reason than that they cannot speak English to say at the point of execution that they are not ‘terrorists’. Every dead innocent in the theatre of this conflict is conveniently branded: another terrorist dead! In the process, our human rights deficit balloons.
But amidst all this, one dubious victory has been won. Abubakar Shekau has lost the licence to record videos and posture to the world. In Shekau, Nigeria has earned the curious distinction of producing the first citizen (a bloody villain of course) to die ever so often and resurrect severally only to quickly make a video, taunting his purported killers. When Osama Bin Laden and his friend, Ayman al-Zawahiri, lost the ability to freely record and courier videos to be broadcast to the world, Al-Qaeda’s days as a global menace were numbered.
But that was not the end of the bloody tale. By their nature, terror groups do not disappear because they have been militarily incapacitated or degraded. True to type, terrorist groups die-hard. They readily resurrect, transform and mutate because their foundations lie in the intangible zone of beliefs. So each reversal at the level of physical violence is seen as a divine reaffirmation of their original contention and an assault on their informing theological inspiration. So Al Qaeda gives birth to ISIS, AQIS, Boko Haram and the myriad zealot militias ravaging the Arab world.
Here lies the real problematic of the Nigerian experience with fundamentalist terror. What will the defeat of Boko Haram produce? I fear that mere battlefield military victory against Boko Haram will not bring us the order and respite we all so desperately desire. I want the terrorists to be defeated tomorrow if possible. I want normalcy to return to the North-east and to the whole of Nigeria. I know we are at war on a scale that has not been sufficiently orchestrated by the authorities. The war is not only affecting those who live in the direct theatre of this conflict. We are all affected. Our collective humanity is on fire. We are reduced each time a young girl blows herself up for what she does not understand. Each time a fighting service man dies on active service, we all die a bit. Each time a market is turned into an abattoir of human sacrifice, each time a trip to the motor park to take a bus home is turned into an eternal farewell to loved ones, the frontier of our freedom shrinks. Yes, every village that is incinerated and sacked, each school that is destroyed and the children taken into avoidable slavery is a retreat from the march of our civilization.
But before our very eyes, the anti-terror war has mutated. It is now a full-blown counter insurgency. More disturbing, it is now a war against something we cannot touch which is lodged in our collective soul. There are now two distinct wars. There is the shooting war against isolated episodes of terror that were allowed to fester and dangerously arm into a mindless insurgency. And there is now the more difficult war against suicide bombers and sundry mobile free agents of terror. The latter are persons and cells armed with a toxic theology and dangerous weapons, determined to take the bloody message of terror to the abode of the innocent. The former is easier to defeat with the new weapons, which President Muhammadu Buhari and his agents are shopping around the world for.
I hope that amidst his last visit to Washington, President Buhari found time to ask his American hosts vital questions about war and peace in a time of fanatical terror: how come that after a trillion dollars in military hardware and human loss, they are yet to win the shooting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya let alone winning the hearts and minds of those people. How come the boom of America’s mighty guns did not silence the grievances of sections of these countries? Why is Taliban still a significant force that the Americans are ready to dialogue with it? How has the simple chase after suspected Al Queda terror camps produced ISIS and hundreds of uncontrollable militias that now pose a threat to most parts of the world?
We can already see it coming. The over concentration on the military aspect of the war against Boko Haram has created a second more frightening sphere of this war. The CNN footage on the storming of the evil Sambisa Forest foretells the present stage of the scourge. The satellite footage showed droves of terrorists fleeing, some on motorbikes, others on pickup trucks and some even running on foot. No one is sure that the herds of human traffic dispersed from Sambisa were all combatant insurgents. They were headed in no particular direction, having been routed by the Nigerian military, mostly from the air. Post operation reports spoke mostly of civilian captives- women and children – released, not actual combatants captured.
The military recovered hundreds of women and children from the evil forest. Others, possibly young girls and mere kids indoctrinated into the theology of madness, flowed freely back into the population centres of the embattled areas. The collateral outcome is the recent wave of suicide bombings mostly by under-aged persons. Enter the new war against terror with a hidden face. The veil that was meant to protect the innocence of young womanhood now conceals the face of evil. The new enemy captures no territory, takes no hostages, demands no ransom, kills indiscriminately and wears the face of the young boy or girl next door.
There is no weapon more lethal than hate etched in the mind of youth. To disarm this enemy is to go after a virus in the impressionable minds of youth. No one knows how widely this virus has spread. To physically seek the destruction of suicide bombers is to aim guns meant for real enemies at the poisoned minds of our own children. But alas no gun can kill a mindset that sees senseless martyrdom as preferable to life in a state that guarantees certain death by poverty and deprivation. Instead of saying to armed agents of the state: ‘kill me quick’, the young suicide bombers retort: ‘I die now because there is no hope in the horizon’.
In the places that we have managed to chase away Boko Haram, we have been slow in replacing the ashes of ruin with the architecture of hope to reassure the hopeless and re-direct the misguided. Where are the new schools, the hospitals, and the health centres for the many lives mangled by this conflict? Where are the thousands of small low cost houses to replace the wretched huts that drove people into desperation and subscription to terrorism? Where are the feeding centres, the small business credit bureaux, the counselling and interfaith agencies? Where, in short, is the face of the new Nigeria that can convince these people that paradise is attainable here on earth instead of dying violently to go to a heaven that no one has been to and back?
If we must win both wars totally, it is time to match coercion with compassion and humanism. Our men and women in uniform must be armed with more than big expensive guns. We must arm them with that fellow feeling that insists that they will be judged not by the number of enemy militants they kill but by the number of misguided insurgents they discourage from the path of terror. The villains of terror are first and foremost our compatriots. The fighting units must have army engineers rebuilding roads, homes and bridges. The military medical corps must be on hand providing healing for injured minds and bodies. The army education corps must lead the charge in the rehabilitation of school environments in the theatre of conflict.
But by far the overwhelming task belongs to governments. Terror is evil. But those who breed the alienation that makes gruesome terrorism attractive to the misguided must bear the brunt. Time has come to nationalise the war against terror by making it a pan-Nigerian undertaking. It is not just a North-east problem. The lesson of Nigeria at 100 is that we have become a national community. What afflicts one hurts all. It is therefore time to mobilise the nation against terrorists of all hues. Only when we make life here on earth livable for all our citizens can we make all doctrines that define salvation through violence unattractive. The big picture for the Buhari presidency then is to re-establish and guarantee a Pax Nigeriana through a delicate balance of force and compassion.
*Dr. Amuta, a member of Thisday Editorial Board, is Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd., Lagos